Bear’s Den began as a threesome. Now, eight years after their debut album ‘Islands’, the band’s core is now a very well-established duo, Andrew Davie and Kevin Jones. Lee Campbell spoke with Andrew about their upcoming fourth studio album, ‘Blue Hours’, newfound fatherhood, the mystery of the disappearing banjo and touring with the legendary Neil Young.
Congratulations on your new album ‘Blue Hours’, out on May 13th. Did the songwriting come together relatively quickly on this album? Typically, what is the creative process between you and Kevin (Jones)?
Andrew: The pandemic made things tricky. To some extent, the process has always been, I’ll get the ball rolling with an idea, some words and some chords. Then, depending on how developed that feels, we either completely obliterate that and start again, or it won’t be far away. It really changes from song to song. For example, on the song ‘Crow’, the demo to the final version wasn’t very different. Then other songs like ‘Auld Wives was an acoustic guitar & a vocal, and then it became like a very frantic bass with loads of synths. The pandemic forced us to work on our laptops, away from each other, rather than together. And for what Bear’s Den is about, that’s pretty abstract but interesting also. On one level, it’s not the same or as fun, but on another level, you can try a few different things at once, whereas when you’re in a room together, I’m playing an acoustic guitar, and Kev is playing one other instrument. If you’re doing it on software (like ‘Logic’), you can throw five or six different ideas down, so there’s something cool about that.
Do you share the songwriting duties?
Andrew: The lyrics are my realm, really, but how those things develop becomes very collaborative. There was one song called ‘Star of Bethnal Green’ which we did. That started as a little piano idea that Kev had. Occasionally it comes out of a jam or a random moment, but I loved that riff that Kev had written on the piano. It felt like it took me 20 minutes to write that whole song because his part was so cool and easy to latch onto. It’s an evolving thing.
I enjoyed that ‘Only Son’ EP, especially the ‘The Star of Bethnal Green.’ What was the inspiration or story behind this song in terms of the location?
Andrew: We were working in a recording studio in East London, and Kev was playing a piano idea and recorded it on his phone. When you record voice notes on an iPhone now, it puts down a location. This studio was about a mile away from this pub – The Star of Bethnal Green. His memo got saved as ‘The Star of Bethnal Green’. He then sends it to me, and firstly I said, “that’s a really cool title, and secondly, I really like the piano.” Then I thought, what if ‘the star’ wasn’t a pub, it was a person. I liked the idea of someone walking into a pub and hearing someone singing, being completely revelatory to you. It came from quite a silly place, though (laughing).
The way the album sounds, it sounds a little bit isolated in some way. Were you able to get the full band together in the studio for some of the material?
Andrew: It was just a real amalgamation of different things. There were definitely some ideas that were recorded here at home, and we’d keep them. We would find one or two things from those sessions that were really interesting, and then we’d build on top of that. We would then get the session musicians that play live with us to come into the studio and build it up like that, whether it’s an arpeggio or drum loop. We would normally have got into a recording studio and spent weeks and weeks rehearsing. We just weren’t able to do that with this one, so it became a different record in that sense. Within that, though, also comes some happy accidents.
Certainly compared with the rockier ‘Red Earth’ album, this LP seems much softer and more subtle. There was already an element of experimental electronica on the previous LP (‘So That You Might Hear Me’). Is this album a further progression down that road?
Andrew: It’s a funny one. Maybe one day, I’ll be able to zoom out from the records and see. You make these albums, but you only really figure them out when you talk about them afterwards. It’s definitely my favourite album we’ve done, and for Kev too, I think there’s really something about it that we didn’t lean too heavily on anything we’d done before.
Why no banjo on this record? I am missing the banjo, Andrew!
Andrew: You’re missing the banjo (laughing). I actually was just talking to Christof (van der Ven), who plays the banjo for us. I have a banjo at home, and sometimes he needs it when we’re touring as a backup, just in case he breaks a string, which happens. I really like the way Sufjan Stevens uses the banjo, for example. He somehow finds a way of making acoustic instruments emotive in a way that traditionally, those instruments aren’t. I definitely don’t think you’ve heard the last of it. One thing we messed about with on this record was how you can put a rubber bridge on an acoustic guitar; it suddenly makes the guitar sound really pizzicato-y, kind of like a banjo; you pluck it. There’s not really like a normal acoustic guitar on any song (on the album). It makes the guitar sound like a 1940s recording; it’s really bizarre. On this album, it just felt like the banjo would stand out on its own too much. But Lee, I’m a fan too; ok, I’m not retiring it (both laughing).
The lyrics in the song ‘Gratitude’ – “Out of sight, out of mind we could be outside of time if you just give me the sign.” “Outside of Time”, what does that refer to?
Andrew: In my head, that song is really about having a memory of someone really great, and you are desperately trying to cling onto that memory of them, whilst at the same time, the experience of life with that person makes it hard to remember the good memories. It’s a relationship that involves this person appearing; there’s another lyric in it – “I’m trying to find a memory of you that stays kind.” How can I hold onto a memory of someone that doesn’t become contorted and bruised? How can it stay as pure and as good as it once was? So ‘“outside of time,” says let’s not be bound to the rules of how this works, and memories can just stay positive. That song, lyrically for me, even now, is a weird one. I’m still working through it. I’m really proud of it; it’s possibly my favourite song on the record.
“Bear’s Den” is referenced in the song – correct?
Andrew: That’s true (laughing), yes. So Bear’s Den is a town next to where my grandparents had a farm, where my Mum grew up, just north of Glasgow. There’s a cave and a little waterfall there. That whole song was talking about memory, my relationship with my Mum. How can you cling to good memories when life makes it difficult? Memory becomes a bit of a thing on the album because my Mum has Alzheimer’s. ‘Selective Memories’ is another song that deals with that. It wasn’t something I actively sat down to talk or write about, but it was clearly something that was on my mind.
The first Bear’s Den song I ever heard was ‘Agape’ in 2015. I immediately connected with it. It touched a nerve, and your music has continued to move me ever since. There is honesty about the darker sides of relationships in your music. It comes through strongly. Is that a fair comment?
Andrew: That’s definitely the mission statement of what we’re trying to do, trying to talk about things we find difficult to express. Unfortunately, I only want to write songs when I’m finding things quite difficult. In my happier moments, I just want to go to the pub (both laughing). I think for the band, we’ve found if we talk really honestly about something or that’s difficult, you can really connect with people in a meaningful way. In that format live, it can be a really cathartic thing. We stumbled into finding that out. I remember first playing things like ‘Agape’ and ‘Pompeii’ and thinking, ‘whoa!’ it doesn’t feel like we’re just playing songs anymore.
There’s also an ‘old soul’ or ancient feeling that is very strong within the music. Almost magical & mysterious, I would say. Difficult to describe. Yet there is always something very relatable about the band and your music in terms of everyday relationships with your partner, sister, brother, father or mother—that mix of being ancient and yet contemporary.
Andrew: It means a lot to hear you say that. I guess I really learnt how to write songs from folk songwriters. Even though evolving away from that musically with the band, I think Kev and I are keen not to be a folk-thing sonically but lyrically; at the root of everything, we are trying to tell good stories and that they mean something to you. I think that’s everyone’s aim in songwriting, to be fair. I don’t think we’re unique in that.
You kick off the tour in Oslo, Norway, on the 23rd of April. What are you most looking forward to getting on the road again? Is it going to be tough being away from loved ones again for long periods?
Andrew: The big news in both Kev and mine’s lives is that we have both become Dads during the pandemic. That’s going to bring a whole new dynamic to touring. In truth, we’re both so excited to be touring. We start rehearsals on Friday. I’m so excited to get in a room with everyone. That’s what we’ve been missing. Definitely going to miss the team at home, but at the same time, I’ve probably earned a bit of time on the road, being very around. It’s been amazing to have had this time. We are a live band, first and foremost. We were touring before we had recorded anything, weirdly. We went on the Austin to Boston tour without any songs, but we’d been with other bands, and people seemed to think it was worth a punt.
Did any of the new fatherhood feelings find their way onto the album?
Andrew: Yeah. That song ‘Selective Memory’, on one side it’s about memories, but on the other, it’s about becoming a Dad and being a son & that relationship. I definitely felt an overwhelming sense of, Oh my God, this is what parents go through (laughing). I really took a lot of parenting for granted. It’s a real journey that you go on as a Dad. I have a newfound respect for parents everywhere and anywhere.
How was the experience of supporting Neil Young in Germany? Any memorable Neil stories to share?
Andrew: It’s amazing how he’s still so bad-ass! We didn’t get to hang out much with Neil because he’s much too cool for us, but we did meet Neil, and it was really funny because we all lined up like we were meeting the Queen (both laughing). It was a real moment for us to be on his radar. It was magical. His set wasn’t the same ever. Every night was different. He just had so much confidence and charisma. It was really inspiring because he just didn’t give a shit about anything. As a young band comparatively, newer bands think about things a lot more. There’s a lot more technology kicking around. His are just really great amplifiers being played by really great guitarists.
I saw you play Belfast at the Limelight in 2019. You play Dublin on 21st May. There’s definitely a Celtic feel to some of your songs. Do you feel that connection strongly or different energy in the live gigs at the likes of Dublin, Belfast and Scotland?
Andrew: There is. I think there’s the rootsier side of us that we can really let go a bit in those places. We’ve really always had fantastic shows in Belfast, Dublin and Glasgow. There’s something going on in those cities. Especially when we started out, it was the banjo, acoustic guitar, pretty simple drums and lots of harmonies. It was amazing. Some of our best memories are in those places. We do songs ‘off-mic’ quite often, and we know that there’s a tradition of that ‘corner of the pub’ playing. It’s going to land, and people are going to respect it.
Animator Mawrgan Shaw created the animation for the ‘Spiders & Shadows’ video (two songs from the new album combined into one video). How did that connection come about?
Andrew: We always thought that animation would be a really interesting direction to go down with that album. It was something we hadn’t done, and it felt unique. Especially with Mawrgan’s stuff, she shows you her workings, and you really get the effort that goes into what she’s done. That just really resonated with us. She’s a really good storyteller and took our songs to a whole new level. Let’s try and tell a story with ‘Spiders’ and ‘Shadows’. We talked loosely about what it could be, and Mawrgan absolutely made it something much more interesting and cooler than we ever could.
‘All that you are’ – another excellent track. What are some of the themes explored here?
Andrew: That’s a really old song of ours that we had tried to put on an album way back in the day. It was in the ‘Austin to Boston’ set. We made an EP, and it wasn’t on the EP. That song has always been a song that I start playing on the stage at rehearsal before we play a gig, and we’ll all just jam out as a band. I was going through a break-up at the time, and whilst there’s a slight bitterness there on some level, there’s also, I hope, an idea that I may not be the person that can make you happy. I hope you find the person that can do that, and I hope I find that for myself. The fundamental thing that we all try to do is write songs that you have felt before but have not heard before. We played it to our producer (Ian), and he said that it’s definitely going to be on the album.
To me, in so many of your songs, it seems that you explore communication or lack of communication between two people and that inability to reach someone. I hear that a lot on this album and the previous album. Is that a reflection of your own personal experiences in recent years?
Andrew: It’s central to why I started doing it. I felt that I wasn’t very good at communicating how I was feeling with other people. Writing songs was a way of doing that so that I could be more easily understood. The inability to communicate is something I’ve struggled with in the past, and songwriting, for me, has been a way to help process my own thoughts. Have an understanding of your own story of what’s happened there, and putting it into words, you can begin to understand it, step away from it and then gain perspective on it.
If you weren’t a musician, what would you be?
Andrew: Oh God, very, very lost (both laughing). I think I’d like to teach at some point in my life. I am not qualified to do this, but I would love to teach English. I look up to my old teachers, the ones that were really good, in a way that they are the highest of the high for me.
Last LP you listened to in full?
Andrew: It may have been the new ‘Big Thief’ album. I was given it on vinyl as a birthday present. To be honest, now having a kid, I’ve got ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ on heavy rotation in my head, ‘Jelly on a Plate’, ‘The Wheels on the Bus’, all the classics. (chuckling).
‘Blue Hours’ is released on 13th May. The group has also recently announced details of a full UK, Europe and North America 2022 tour, with tickets available to purchase now from https://www.bearsdenmusic.co.uk/live – including a newly added second date at Brussels Ancienne Belgique on May 10th.
The full list of dates are:
23rd April – Oslo – Parkteatret
24th April – Stockholm – Debaser
26th April – Copenhagen – Studie 2
28th April – Berlin – Astra
29th April – Hamburg – Fabrik
1st May – Amsterdam – Paradiso
2nd May – Amsterdam – Paradiso
5th May – Zurich – Kaufleuten
7th May – Cologne – Carlswerk Victoria
9th May – Brussels – Ancienne Belgique *Last tickets
10th May – Brussels – Ancienne Belgique **extra date
17th May – Bristol – O2 Academy
18th May – London – Eventim Apollo
21st May – Dublin – Olympia
22nd May – Manchester – Albert Hall
23rd May – Glasgow – O2 Academy
25th May – Newcastle – Newcastle University
26th May – Birmingham – O2 Institute
27th May – Leeds – Leeds University Stylus
8th Sept – Dallas, TX – The Studio at The Factory
9th Sept – Austin, TX – Emo’s
11th Sep – Nashville, TN – The Basement East
12th Sept – Atlanta, GA – Variety Playhouse
14th Sept – Ardmore, PA – Ardmore Music Hall
15th Sept – New York, NY – Webster Hall
16th Sept – Washington, DC – 9:30 Club
17th Sept – Boston, MA – Royale
20th Sept – Toronto, ON – Danforth Music Hall
21st Sept – Chicago, IL – Thalia Hall
23rd Sept – Minneapolis, MN – Varsity Theater
24th Sept – Iowa City, IA – The Englert Theatre
25th Sept – Kansas City, MO – Knuckleheads Saloon
27th Sep – Denver, CO – Bluebird Theater
28th Sept – Salt Lake City, UT – The CommonWealth Room
30th Sept – Seattle, WA – Neptune Theatre
1st Oct – Vancouver, BC – Vogue Theatre
3rd Oct – Portland, OR – Revolution Hall
5th Oct – Felton, CA – Felton Music Hall
6th Oct – San Francisco, CA – August Hall
8th Oct – West Hollywood, CA – Troubadour
The full album tracklist is:
All That You Are
On Your Side
All The Wrong Place