Interview: Bear’s Den

[Originally published in TIDAL]

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Bear’s Den didn’t make it easy for themselves.

In a wilderness of sensitive bearded men with acoustic instruments and animal-themed names, it’s a fight just to get noticed; and bands with even more determination have been forever lost out in the cacophony of banjo, mandolin and falsetto harmonies.

Despite ostensibly fitting into this category (beards included), the London-based trio – composed of Andrew Davie, Joey Haynes and Kevin Jones – give off the sense of a band confident in the strength of their sound and on the verge of something great.

After putting out two excellent EPs in 2013, and taking on an ambitious touring schedule, Bear’s Den are releasing their first full-length debut album. Gathering gorgeous new tracks (“Elysium,” “Above the Clouds of Pompeii”) with new cuts of previously released gems (“Agape,” “Isaac”), Islands makes for a sharp and daring proper debut for a band poised to stand out in the crowd by simply being the most sincere about what they do.

We sat down with the Bear’s Den to talk about the album, the error of calling their sound old, and the (debatably) universal appeal of R. Kelly and Bryan Adams.

You played music in various incarnations before officially forming Bear’s Den in 2012. How did you come to properly join forces?

Andrew Davie: Kev and I were in a band together a while ago, and Joey was studying music in Liverpool and playing with a lot of different bands, including The Staves, a really amazing band from the U.K. It was through The Staves that we got to know one another. There’s lots of bands in London and Liverpool that were making music that wasn’t a million miles apart, and everyone was just inspired by each other. That’s how we formed – through other bands.

Along with new material, Islands – your first full-length album – gathers re-recorded songs from EPs. In putting together Islands, how did you approach the album compared to the EPs? As your first proper LP, what does this record represent for you as band?

AD: I guess it was a mixture of wanting to share some of the songs from the EPs we’d recorded in a very early stage in our career. Some of the songs have grown up from performing them live so many times, so we wanted to re-record those. Also, just because songs appear on an EP, doesn’t mean people are going to listen to it. It felt right to do justice to those songs and make sure they get heard. The newer tracks were just some of our favorites that seemed to suit the album’s vibe as it became clearer.

Joey Haynes: It’s a bit like the EPs were like an exploratory project – more like, let’s see where we go with this – whereas maybe the album should represent us in our truest form. It felt like we should try to give an accurate representation on who we are. It’s the essence of who we are.

Kevin Jones: It’s the culmination of what we’ve been working on the past three years.

You’ve said your material is some of your “most personal” and “sonically ambitious yet.” Can you elaborate on your development as songwriters and musicians?

AD: I think every time we do something new has that the aim – to progress. “Sonically ambitious” is definitely true in some regards, and then in other ways, compared to the exploratory nature of the EPs, it’s a very honest bunch of songs.

KJ: It depends on what you mean by ambitious. Perhaps it ambitious to make this enormous sound with three acoustic instruments, but I don’t know if being ambitious was our specific intent.

Your single “Elysium” is a deeply moving song in its own right, made even more so by the video, which follows students from Seattle Pacific University around the shooting that occurred this past June. Can you talk about how the song itself, and then how the video came about?

AD: The song is one we’ve had for a very long time. We always wanted to perform it, but we always knew we wanted trumpets, and things like that – but none of us play those instruments. That song needed those extra parts to sound good.

– The music video is by a really good friend of ours called Marcus Haney – who’s an amazing young filmmaker, who has actually just released a documentary (No Cameras Allowed) where he shows himself breaking into music festivals all around the world. He listened to the lyrics of the song and felt like he wanted to do something with his brother, who is on of the people in the video. It’s an unbelievable, tragic story, but Marcus is an incredibly talented guy and it was a real journey for everyone involved.

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Between your gorgeous harmonies and your sharp musicianship, your music has a distinctively rich sound. As artists, what does sound quality mean to you? What difference does it make how your music is being heard?

AD: I think it makes a really big difference. Sound quality is really important to us and it’s a massive shame most people don’t get to experience the music the way you do when you make it. You make music on these incredible speaker systems, you listen to them in lossless audio, and you get to see all the depth of the track. Then you hear it as an mp3 and you lose sight of everything you did. It sounds like three or four things going on in the song, when it was actually four- or five-hundred things.

JH: The alternative is to make stuff for a low quality sound format, where you make music in a different way. You end up with something flatter, tailored to make the most of what is there, rather than being unencumbered by possibility.

Your music taps into a trend in music that attracts terms such as folk, roots, nostalgia – yet your sound is unmistakably of today. What attracts you such a sound? And how do you mediate antique influences in a modern context?

KJ: That’s a really interesting question. I guess I don’t hear it as something you’re going into the past and referencing. It’s more about using what’s available. In 2014 you’ve got a bigger-than-ever spectrum of sounds to tap into. Just because something was used in the past doesn’t mean you’re looking backwards by using it today. Just because Neil Young was playing an acoustic guitar in the ‘70s, doesn’t mean we’re trying to imitate him if we use the same tools.

AD: It’s unfair to call something antiquated because it’s been done before. People have always made music with the best things available to them. Times have changed, things have evolved and there are so many different ways to make music.

– We use instruments that have been around a while because they sound good, but we’ve also incorporated synths and other elements into our music. You can take cheap, plastic instruments and make it sound rich and beautiful, and you can take something more organic and get just the opposite. It’s really about what’s at your hands and how you use it.

KJ: Using an old instrument doesn’t necessarily make the sound old. When I listen to the way Joey uses the banjo, it doesn’t sound antiquated to me.
JH: I think it’s safe to say I’ve reinvented the banjo. [laughs]
KJ: The Beatles used a harpsichord, but it didn’t sound antiquated. It sounded like a bloody cool harpsichord.
JH: You do whatever it takes to make it sound bloody cool. Whether you’re using lutes or lasers.

You recently covered Drake’s “Hold On, We’re Going Home.” What music do you guys bond over, which may or may not have bearing on your own music?

AD: R. Kelly
KJ: R. Kelly
JH: R. Kelly

JH: I really like Tupac.
KJ: We all love hip-hop.
AD: We’ve considered adding beatboxers to the band. [laughs]

KJ: And then there’s that Guns ‘N’ Roses kind of music – hair metal. And Bryan Adams!
JH: Anyone who says they don’t like Bryan Adams is lying.
AD: That’s a huge statement!
KJ: It’s true! I know you both love Bryan Adams.
AD: I know it’s true. I just think it’s a big thing to say in an interview that everyone loves Bryan Adams when there are people who really hate Bryan Adams.
KJ: They’re idiots. They obviously haven’t heard Bryan Adams in high enough quality.
AD: True. The thing is, if you listen to “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You”…
KJ: The album version, mind you.
AD: Yes, on the album version, you think the song is over for about 30 seconds, and then it starts again! And it’s bigger, and better, and bolder!
JH: It starts out kind of slow with this piano and laid back guitar, and then come the biggest drums you’ve ever heard. It smacks you in the face so hard, you get flashbacks to when your grandmother used to smack you around.
[All laughing]
JH: It’s a powerful moment in pop music history, I think that’s safe to say.



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