Polvo’s Dave Brylawski Talks the State of UNC Sports (Plus, Premiere of Polvo’s New Song!)

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Polvo is a band from Chapel Hill that formed in 1990. After its debut LP, Cor-Crane Secret, it went on to release Today’s Active Lifestyles (on Merge) and Exploded Drawing (on Chicago’s Touch & Go). These were progressive and challenging albums that defined an exploratory, melodically complex variant of artful indie rock defined by unorthodox rhythms, alternately tuned guitars, surrealist langauge, and Middle Eastern drone. It took on a couple of names the band has disavowed — “math rock” or “post rock” among them. After an amicable split, Polvo went on hiatus for 12 years before returning with In Prism in 2009. On October 1, Merge Records will release Siberia, the band’s sixth LP.

Singer/guitarist Dave Brylawski is an institution in and of himself, having spent his “entire childhood and half my adult life” in Chapel Hill and reigning as what is unquestionably the most knowledgeable Tar Heels fan inside indie rock and within the 99th percentile outside of it. I imagine it’ll be tough for Brylawski to juggle the demands of an album cycle with the bounty that the fall brings — the Tar Heels will be in the midst of Larry Fedora’s second season and the first with postseason prospects; despite winning the Coastal Divison last season, they were ineligible for the ACC Championship. Likewise, the UNC basketball team will be eager to avenge a disappointing season in a newly stocked ACC.

But for someone with Brylawski’s deep-set Chapel Hill roots, the tumult of the past few years has been more felt outside of the Dean Dome and Kenan Memorial Stadium. Holden Thorp, John Blake, P.J. Hairston, Marvin Austin, and many other UNC figures have stayed in the headlines for reasons that have little to do with on-field exploits, as one of the nation’s most prestigious public universities has been mired in a number of academic and athletic scandals. When speaking about the future of the Tar Heels athletic program and how its wrongdoings have affected the community, Brylawski’s answers are long, detailed, and intelligently crafted — like a Polvo song that just so happens to be about Bryn Renner or the offseason weight gain of Marcus Paige.

You can check out the interview with Brylawski below. In addition, Grantland is happy to premier a new song off of Siberia — listen to “Total Immersion” while you read.

Schools of UNC’s academic caliber rarely face NCAA sanctions. How have the revelations of academic violations affected the UNC fan base, as well as the community’s opinion of the university?

First, I should start by saying that unlike Duke and Durham — which is less integrated than Chapel Hill and UNC — the community is the fan base and vice versa. It is hard to shake the vestiges of Carolina exceptionalism and mystique. The sky is Carolina Blue, etc. It’s a vainglorious but ultimately harmless construct (unlike American exceptionalism). And I can feel the collective eye rolls as well as the historical invective of Sam Cassell, but I think it is a less haughty and elitist stance than Duke’s or an Ivy. Carolina’s mystique is more inclusive because it is a state school; a combination of gentility and progressivism. I didn’t see many Harvard caps when I lived in New York City, but I saw a lot of Tar Heel gear.

Certainly athletics is a main element of this, personified by the singular and saintly Dean Smith, but probably more linked to the greatest basketball player [Michael Jordan], and probably the greatest defensive football player [Lawrence Taylor], playing back-to-back. And if the kids’ reach doesn’t go that far back, I assume they remember Vince [Carter], Stack [Jerry Stackhouse], and Rasheed [Wallace]. But it’s our nature to keep pride in check, so I understand that any dents and dings will bring on the gleeful schadenfreude that only a NC State fan could supply. But I get it. I certainly will feel the same way when something similar eventually happens to Kentucky.

So what happens when transgressions and valid criticisms threaten the sanctity of your memories? You have to remind yourself there is more there, there. It is M.J., L.T., and Mia Hamm, but it is also Walker Percy, Thomas Wolfe, the Southern Folklife Collection, friendly people, a uniquely beautiful campus, the oldest state university. I hear that there is a decent music scene.

At the same time, I am also a pragmatic and cynical sports fan. I won’t say that high levels of academic and athletic excellence are mutually exclusive, but there certainly are conflicting demands. Why would Carolina be immune? The alumni who are Rams Club–level sports fans aren’t content with Carolina being known as a basketball school. They want BCS success and basketball-level swagger in football. They spent $50 million on state-of-the-art football facilities and mixed in those awful metallic helmets. As a college football fan who is tired of the SEC dominating the conversation and fed up being in the second tier of a second-tier football conference, I would welcome it too. I remember the Mack Brown era, and it was nice to be in the mix in both major sports. But football is a more unwieldy operation than basketball and harder to police, so outlying violations are inevitable.

I am not going to pearl-clutch about Marvin Austin hitting a South Beach club with an agent. But making up classes wholesale, forging signatures, and changing grades is different, worse, and sadly banal. My mother and father both worked in academia at UNC. My father taught math and used to have many athletes in his classes. My mom tutored for the football team under Bill Dooley and Dick Crum and developed a friendship with Amos Lawrence, who was my first sports hero. Dean Smith graduated over 95 percent of his players. I remember Vince catching shit for going to his graduation during the playoffs after going back to get his degree three years after going pro. “Student-athlete” didn’t register like a commoditized oxymoron. I did have a childhood investment that the Carolina Way was different. But as an adult who accepts our sports-lust as deep play, where it is not important but extremely important, it’s not really a burst bubble as much as somewhere between disconcerting and a shrug. Of course it could happen here.

Personally, in terms of tarnished reputations, I am much more alarmed and disgusted by the federal investigation into the institutional culture of invalidation and intimidation regarding sexual assaults. That is truly shameful and is more perplexing and damaging than any of the other scandals.

How would you compare the severity of UNC’s wrongdoing to that of USC, Oregon, and Miami?

Well, Carolina’s might be worse, but Miami’s is sexier. Carolina doesn’t have a Nevin Shapiro or a Luther Campbell.

What are the expectations for the UNC football team this fall?

It’s going to be a rough start with South Carolina, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, and Miami in the first six games and most of those are road games. I just hope Bryn Renner survives Jadeveon Clowney in one piece. And will Renner be as successful without defenses having to contain Gio Bernard? If they start 3-3 or 2-4 and still have the Wolfpack and UVA on the schedule it could be a long year. That said, they were explosive on offense last year and have had a year to learn Fedora’s system, which in my limited understanding is fairly complex on both sides of the ball, so there’s that. They need to improve on defense.

Is Bryn Renner massively underrated or properly rated, seeing as how he’s a more prototypical QB compared to Tajh Boyd and Jameis Winston and Logan Thomas?

Properly rated. People think he will be a good to very good NFL QB. He was lights-out last year and there isn’t any reason he won’t break some records this year. Overall, the ACC is quietly stacked at QB this year. You have to also put Stephen Morris on this list. I’d probably put Renner ahead of Logan Thomas at this point from what I saw last year, although Thomas could bounce back this season. Winston is only potential at this point but he’s going to be great. Not a Clemson fan but I love Tajh Boyd and think he could win the Heisman if what’s-his-name sleeps through some more meetings. Steve Popson [Polvo bass player and NC State fan] is probably still having nightmares about his eight TDs last year. All those guys will be successful at the next level. I would love to see what Renner can do now that he has more mastery of the offensive schemes.

Which incoming freshman on the basketball team are you most excited about?

Isaiah Hicks.

How do you feel about the way UNC has handled the P.J. Hairston situation?

Everyone wants to play armchair sociologist when these things happen. Roy [Williams] is catching some flak, but I like the restraint so far. I’m sure Roy will suspend him for a couple games at least and if this moves P.J. from pre-contemplation, it wouldn’t be the worst thing for him. Charges were dropped, and I assume the DA office did their diligence and made a decision without doing P.J. any undue favors. I’m not condoning or being relative about what P.J. did or who he associates with, and the gun situation is much more serious than the weed. But we don’t know what exactly happened that night and you have to remember that he’s still young. And most of us make impulsive and reckless choices when we are young and even when we are not so young. I don’t know what is in his heart but I generally believe, as a longtime social worker, that it takes something like this to make people reassess their choices and create the potential for redemption and growth. Sometimes it takes external consequences to set the stage for intrinsic motivation. I love him as a player and will root for him on and off the court.

Did James Michael McAdoo make a wise decision to come back to UNC?

In terms of draft position, he probably could have left after his freshman year. Next year’s draft is loaded as we all know. I wonder if he was betting that [Andrew] Wiggins would come and the Heels would be a Final Four lock. Regardless, he’ll still be a high first-round pick, make the league, and make his money. He could have the impact of an Ed Davis, John Henson, or Brandan Wright and play for years having a traditional modern NBA midlevel career. How fulfilling that is besides financially, I don’t know. Maybe he could hope for a little more than that, like Marvin Williams in his first few seasons. But you never know, he could also surprise you — I would have never guessed what would happen to Danny Green. This close to a Finals MVP. He had a remarkable year, and to think that at one point his life highlight was probably posterizing Greg Paulus.

How do you expect the new additions to the ACC to affect UNC in terms of recruiting and performance? Do you think the Big East teams will continue to dominate?

Football will be interesting and maybe even fun. There could be a lot of parity. Basketball-wise, what’s going to happen to the finesse-vs.-brawn dialectic? It will be very strange to have to contend with Pitt and Syracuse every year at the top, and when Louisville gets here it could be a mess. I’m not sure the traditional ACC teams have what it takes to keep the agitators from coming in and immediately taking over. When I was growing up it seemed like the peak of the ACC and Big East supremacy battles, highlighted by the 1982 and 1983 championships. So all the regional restructuring feels like a bit of a loss and kind of pointless. I worry about UNC, and even Duke (shudder) losing primary status, but I’d worry more if I were middle-of-the-pack teams like Virginia, Georgia Tech, or Wake Forest getting even more marginalized.

UNC’s basketball team currently has the no. 1 recruiting class according to ESPN. Do you feel like the team had begun to slip behind Duke, Kansas, and Kentucky on that front?

I like what I have seen of Joel Berry on YouTube. But especially after the Wiggins thing and then to not being even considered by Tyus Jones and Jahlil Okafor, I don’t know if it is a blip or a slip. Carolina hasn’t been in the “elite of the elites” conversation the last couple of years. I worry, because look how long it took Indiana and Michigan to get back. I know it’s a Yankees-esque sentiment but I want the Heels in it every year. It is harder than ever because I don’t know that teams have figured out how to manage and balance the one-and-done guys with role players and veterans yet. I can’t bring myself to really look at recruiting boards anymore. I am known among some of my friends and family as a UNC doomsayer who uses pessimism as a defense mechanism to protect myself from annihilating disappointment, so I am always in touch with how bleak things look. When I was little I used to cry when Carolina lost. Today, I still get a tightness in my chest. 2009 already seems like a long time ago. But all it takes is one exceptional class and it’s back on track.

Filed Under: College Basketball, College Football