'We asked: what are we frightened of doing? And why are we frightened of doing that?'
Andrew Belt
16:10 11th May 2022

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Some bands are born to perform live. Others struggle to replicate their excellent records in shows. Bear’s Den are one band who sit firmly in the former camp. The two-piece band — loosely defined as folk-rock — comprising frontman and guitarist, Andrew Davie, and vocalist/drummer/bass player/guitarist, Kevin Jones, revel in the communion achieved through their live performances.

Any sceptics of the band’s music, which has ranged from Mumford and Sons-style banjo-folk to indie to rock and latterly, as will be seen with Friday’s release of fourth album, Blue Hours, piano-heavy ballads, are strongly advised to see the pair, bolstered by four touring musicians, live. Live, the beauty of Davie’s Celtic-tinged vocals is realised, with the frontman joined by his bandmates in glorious harmonies and the subtle musicianship amped up into something greater than perhaps is conveyed on record.

For a band which thrives on playing live, the past two Covid-affected years brought a temporary stop to the spectacle so, with Davie, a disarmingly positive interviewee in contrast to the anxiousness conveyed through much of Bear’s Den’s music, speaking to Gigwise from Amsterdam in the midst of their European tour, how does it feel to be back? “It’s been really nice,” he shares, beaming. “I'm still getting used to the world seeming so normal, like nothing's happened over the last couple of years. It's really, really nice. Even wherever we're at with the whole pandemic — no one really knows, I guess — but it's pretty nice walking around and not seeing everyone wearing a mask and people being out and about. It’s pretty great. 

“We were so nervous and so excited for it. It's just been incredible. Like, yeah, just playing to anyone is really nice, like. Being in a room full of people — we’ve really missed it. I think, maybe more than your average band, for us, live performances are everything we're about.”

Since releasing their critically-acclaimed debut album Islands as a three piece (banjo player/guitarist/vocalist Joey Haynes left in 2016) in 2014, Bear’s Den have sold half a million albums, been streamed 500 million times and been nominated for an Ivor Novello Award. Two further warmly received albums have followed with the band’s burgeoning ambition and musical experimentation reflected in its six-strong live composition. Joining Davie and Jones on the road are Haynes’s replacement, Christof van der Ven (“a brilliant singer-songwriter who is just a hilarious dude and an incredible musician as well,” according to Davie), Harry Mundy on electric guitar (“a really amazing brain, plays soundscapes and is brilliant”), Julian Owen, who plays drums and horns and Marcus Hamblett, who plays synth and horns.

“It's not really like the traditional band rhombus of singer, guitar, bass, drums,” Davie explains. “It’s really interchangeable with this band, which is part of the reason we all like it so much.” He jokes: “Whoever roughly knows what they're doing on an instrument, they play it.”

The most talked-about aspect of a Bear’s Den show is when the band go out into the crowd leaving behind their amps and sing acoustically for a few songs. It’s something I’ve certainly not experienced at the many other gigs I’ve been to and is a truly captivating part of their live appeal. The silence required from the audience to pull this off is unique, with the band showcasing their wonderful voices to magnificent effect.

Sadly, however, Covid protocols mean their forays into the crowd on their eight-date UK and Ireland tour, which begins next week, are out of the question. But this integral part of the Bear’s Den live experience will live on, albeit a little differently. “We're unplugging for two songs in the show [on stage],” Davie reveals. “And it's a really helpful moment for us as well, because weirdly, it seems more impressive when we're doing that but actually, when all the wires are plugged in, that's when all the complicated things can go wrong. Actually, when you pull all the shit away and it's just a couple acoustic guitars and three voices, or one acoustic guitar, three voices, there's not a lot that can go wrong if you’ve been playing the songs for five years. You know roughly what's gonna go on. 

“I think it's a shame that we can't fully do it but, at the same time, I hope people know that we are desperate to but, at the moment, it’s just not possible.”

So, how did this tradition all start? “We were touring for a while and we kind of noticed a pattern emerging when we're performing that…” Davie trails off. “It sounds really weird, but I think when you first start touring and audiences are talking all over you, it’s just a massive bummer. It really sucks. So there's two approaches really: you either play over the noise or you play under it and hopefully people quieten down. And throughout our time of being a band, because we had to learn how to get people to stop talking to build a career, we learned that the most effective way of doing that was more often to quieten down.

“It's almost like you're showing the audience more respect by doing that and giving them more trust. It’s like you’re saying: ‘look, our show is gonna fall apart unless you help us’ and we noticed that audiences actually responded really well to that favour, I guess. And with our set, we really enjoyed playing with the dynamics. Obviously, we use microphones and everything but you don't need to use microphones all the time. So we played with singing on mic and then pulling away from the microphone and then not using the microphone at all. And using acoustic guitars. And sometimes not having everyone plugged in just playing.

“There's a lot of dynamic stuff you can do musically with that. And we just really enjoyed playing with that. And then an extension of that was just like: ‘what if we didn't use anything at all?’ And actually, we tried that on stage. It's terrifying at first, because all it takes is one person in the audience to think that’s not a good idea and it can really ruin it. Weirdly, I think it's just a credit of having faith in humanity. It works out pretty much every time that we've ever done it and it's always been the moment in the show that people talk about the most.”

While the pandemic could never be described as a good thing, the timing of it was convenient for the band as Davie and Jones had already decided to take a break. “I'd say, before the pandemic, I was fairly burnt out from touring,” Davie confides. “Before the pandemic, we decided to take a year off touring, and the pandemic hit a month later. So, it was very lucky that we'd already factored in a bit of a breather because I think both of us were wanting to spend a bit more time with family and perhaps take a little break. 

“We began playing to five people then 10 people, then 20 and 40 and this has been going on for a long time. And it's amazing. It's a huge honour and privilege. You definitely never want to get to the point where you feel like you could ever take it for granted and, not that we were, but I think there's a danger that you do and now there is no chance in hell that I'll ever take for granted again, because it’s incredible [touring].”

Elaborating on the burnout, Davie says: “I think it is very hard to say no. You want to do fun stuff, but that can mean that you end up saying yes to those things, and just running around all the time. I’m wary of [criticising] something I'm grateful for.

“It’s important to make sure that you're giving the best show to people and if you're exhausted and burnt out or have done it too much, you can start to feel it’s more like a job and you want it to not feel like that. 

“I think we both just needed a bit of a breather from constantly being on a tour bus, which I think is fair enough. And then I think over the pandemic, we got more than enough of a break.”

Which brings us on to Blue Hours, the band’s fourth album out this Friday. Moving away from the folky, guitar-led songs which have become part and parcel of Bear’s Den’s sound, Blue Hours sees the band branching out, using new instruments, most notably the piano which has a heavy influence on the album. The intimacy of the lyrics remain, though in less hushed tones as Davie embraces the difficult subjects he addresses, including his own mental health, his mother’s dementia and the scariness of the pandemic.

“It’s definitely an album that was made during a pandemic,” Davie says. “It was a really difficult album to write. And I think I was exploring the quite insular and quite solitary existence of the pandemic, I suppose. The normal outlets we have as a band with Kevin [Jones] and working with the other guys who play with us live as well all felt very distant and it was quite a bit more isolated for a long period of time.

“I think I was just exploring my own mental health quite a lot during the writing of this record. And that seemed to be a theme that was coming up, but it wasn't like I was actively looking to write about something. I was trying to write songs about lots of different things, but it kind of kept coming back to this [mental health]. Memory was a big theme. And then another theme was the sort of solipsism of everyone feeling a bit like their own little island for a couple of years.”

As for the name of the record, Davie explains: “The name of the album came from this hotel Kevin and I had stayed at on separate trips to Morocco. Kev recommended it to me. It was called Blue Hours and was a really cool hotel but I think the name Blue Hours just stayed with me for ages. It feels like a really nice phrase that sums up a lot of my feelings that I have late at night when I'm working on songs and I feel anxious or worried and I'm trying to figure stuff out. I feel like Blue Hours is the name for that headspace so I just really connected with it. And I was like: ‘cool, the album’s gonna be called Blue Hours’.”

Returning to the recording process, Davie continues: “I just really slowly chipped away writing the songs and found it really difficult to write anything that was any good. I was sending ideas to Kev and our label and everyone was really supportive but it just felt very difficult so I was just relieved when it finally became time to actually track the album. It was like it all came alive again. There was a bit more freedom and we were in a studio and, because we hadn't been able to collaborate much, we also collaborate with some new people which is really exciting.”

As well as the members of the touring band, Sally Herbert led on the string arrangement, Matt Douglas plays a number of saxophones and woodwind instruments and Paul Frith adds horns and extra strings. Davie also took it upon himself to unleash his piano prowess hence the chamber pop leanings on Blue Hours.

As for the approach towards the album, Davie outlines how he and Jones decided to be bold: “One of the things we were really actively trying to do on the record was something that we've always done, which is being very honest. Lyrically, we're not shying away from difficult stuff. I think I've always felt my niche interest in music came from songwriters who really have a lot of personality and let you into their lives.

“So, I think that's something that we really actively wanted to keep doing. In terms of the music, I think we were really wary of making a record that sounded overly sad and downbeat given what we've all been through, so we wanted it to come out and be like a celebration really. We’ve presented these songs bolder than we've ever done before. [The approach has been] let’s go for it.

“We asked: what are we frightened of doing? And why are we frightened of doing that? And let's do it. Let's just see what happens. Every time we thought like that, so I think this album is a really nice balance between the hope of the music and also the difficulties experienced and not shying away from that. Within that lies the stuff that brought people towards Bear’s Den before so hopefully will open doors to new people too. We just try our best to make records which feel exciting to us and then hopefully, they make sense for other people too.”

Davie and Jones became first-time fathers during the pandemic with the experience captured in ‘Selective Memories’, which also sees Davie reflecting on his mother’s dementia — new memories being created with his daughter while his mother’s memories fade. ‘Spiders’ confronts Davie’s move from London to Stroud and how, refreshing though the move has been, the anxiety he sought to escape still remains.

Summing up a period in which there has been a worldwide pandemic, he’s become a father and moved away from London, Davie offers understatedly: “It’s been an interesting couple of years.”

Bear’s Den remain masters of conveying their innermost thoughts and internal struggles rather than address the issues of the day. Davie concedes that, whilst appreciative of bands such as IDLES writing compelling statement music, he’s more naturally drawn to the personal. “I find I like artists being really open with their feelings so you know who they are,” he says. “I find that pretty appealing. I've heard it goes back to the idea of loneliness; the idea of listening to an artist and feeling less alone afterwards. Whether that's from the music or the fact that the drumming was really awesome or because you relate to a lyric. 

“If there's someone out there that gets it, that’s massive. That's why we do it. Because I found so much of my identity growing up listening to bands and me feeling those things. That's great, right?” Bear’s Den’s legion of fans would surely agree.

Blue Hours arrives 13 May via Communion Records.

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Photo: Bennie Curnow