Since they burst onto the Australian music scene with their breakthrough LP Moonfire back in 2011, Sydney folk-rock five-piece Boy & Bear have been successfully finding their feet.
Their first release spawned a handful of radio hits and won five ARIA awards, but it wasn’t until the release of their second studio album Harlequin Dream that the band became prominent on the global scene.
2013 and 2014 were big years for the band, and saw them undertake a vigorous international touring schedule. Laid-back drummer Tim Hart rubs his eyes as a recalls the lengthy world tour, laughing that now, with the benefit of hindsight, it was “slightly too many shows”. However, hard work usually does pay off, and on the back of the exhaustion a new and exciting project was in the works.
“We had some basic sketches that we were working on just at soundcheck,” Tim explains. “We went away a few times to do some intensive writing trips and we went straight into the studio after that.” Normally an arduous process, this time around, the writing and recording of the forthcoming third album, Limit of Love, was swift and organic. “We did 6-7 weeks in the UK and it was amazing and then the record was done. It was a pretty cool feeling, because the last record we did over 8 months and this one was done over 6 weeks – it was just the polar opposite, but I think we found how we like doing records this time.”
What they found, in fact, was an old-fashioned style of recording – live to tape. There was no room for error, and although many would find it daunting, for Boy & Bear, the whole experience was a natural fit. “Yeah, it’s funny,” Tim starts, leaning forward. “We had a band meeting up in Glasgow, on tour, and we talked about wanting to get the live sound of the band. So I guess, we wanted to be doing live takes, to the extent of recording live takes to tape without the ability to change anything or go over anything and with Dave (Hosking) singing live vocals.”
Guitarist Killian Gavin felt it was important to keep up the momentum of the recent tour, and that going straight into the studio was the best way to ensure everyone was still on a roll. “Because we were on the back of doing nearly 180 shows, I felt we were in a good spot already,” he says, enthusiastic and eloquent, but husky, most likely due to an entire day of back-to-back interviews and press. “We felt like it’s a big task doing everything live and everyone having to be on their game, but it sort of made sense, that this was the right time for us to go and do it.” He pauses. “I think we’re playing better than we have previously as a band.”
At the producing helm of the new record was Ethan Johns, the iconic British producer responsible for working with the likes of Kings of Leon, Ryan Adams and the Kaiser Chiefs. The relationship, Killian tells me, came about through Boy & Bear’s tours with English folk darling Laura Marling, who recommended the band should meet up with Johns. “We went around and met a handful of producers from America and Europe and Australia, but it felt like it made sense when we met Ethan.”
Another component that made sense was the choice of studio. “I don’t think we’d ever recorded in a studio we were totally in love with,” Killian says of Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studio.“You live on site, you eat on site, you hang around and exercise and record on site,” Killian explains. “You walk into the studio and you’re so familiar with the space and everyone else who works in the building, so you can just relax into it – it feels like there’s less pressure.”
A first taste of this match made in heaven is the new single, ‘Walk The Wire’, which boasts a full band sound. “Ironically, there’s less in it!” Tim laughs. “I mean, if you take a song off the last record like ‘Southern Sun’, we recorded like 120 tracks of audio, and parts layered on top of each other. And that’s what you call excess,” he adds, dead serious. “But the thing that Ethan was teaching us about sound is that when everything’s crowded together, things can end up sounding smaller.” I suggest, perhaps the old process was actually counterproductive in terms of sound? “Yes, absolutely,” Killian interjects. “Everything sounds smaller because you’re adding something and they compete for the same space of audio, so yeah I agree, I think it sounds bigger.” Tim nods. “It’s just so counterintuitive to how you’d imagine, it was definitely a big lesson.”
Another new discovery for the band was the little nuggets that naturally arose from recording in almost one-take. On ‘Walk The Wire’, Tim tells me, a wonderful thing happened. “Killian plays this thing and he was like “oh, I’ve gotta recreate my stuff up”, and I was like “was that a stuff up? I love that part!” You get those moments that you can’t recreate and you’re forced to keep them or make a call on them and it makes cool moments.”
Boy & Bear had to wean themselves off editing and correcting and allow the record to just be. It’s uncommon for albums to be released almost original in the current climate of digital aids, but it’s a process that harks back to the 60s and the classic records of the time. “I guess when you listen to classic records, you listen to the old Stones and Beatles records, and The Doors, you hear those moments,” Tim ponders. “You might hear the drum beats slightly late or there’s an out of tune vocal or a bad chord, and you kind of end up waiting for those parts in the songs. As an artist these days, it takes a bit to let go.”
Another new thing for Boy & Bear was making the songwriting more collaborative, instead of being driven by lead singer Dave Hosking, as per the usual way. “We’ve tried it before, plenty of times, but I don’t think ever that successfully,” Killian admits. “I feel like we had ideas that we’re good but never quite got off the ground, but historically Dave would bring in an idea”. ‘Walk The Wire’ is an notable example of a group effort this time around. “The four of us just had a bit of a noodle and someone heard something and added to it and people started throwing things at it and then two days later that song was pretty much done.”
I query the method then, in keeping the songs consistent if there were multiple writers. “Well, we work well together to be honest, and I don’t mean that in an arrogant way, it’s just that we’ve spent so much time together over 6 years,” Tim explain passionately. “If someone has an idea, everyone else wants to listen to it and there’s a real safe space for sharing. It’s about respect and working with each other and I think we’ve just got a little bit better at it – as five weird blokes.”
From an outsider perspective, Limit of Love – with its demanding back-to-basics process – sounds like a labour of love, but for the boys in the band, it couldn’t have been a better experience. “We found a little bit of clean air and we were really enjoying the process at the time of making the record,” Tim shrugs. “We got to the end of it and said, that was the most fun I’ve had in my life!” Killian couldn’t agree more. “Literally, yeah. It’s unfortunate it’s taken three records to get there, but that’s cool, that’s all part of the learning curve.”
What they have now is a winning formula, the “bear” essentials if you’ll indulge me. The raw, stripped-back band energy that captured our imaginations back in 2011 is back in a big way, and Boy & Bear are proving that less really is more. “That’s why I feel in some regards this (record) was easier,” Killian adds. “It felt more natural, but in terms of the investment, it’s the same every time, you know, you’re giving all you can.”
Limit of Love is out Friday October 9th through Universal Music Australia.
For fans, Boy & Bear will be giving all they can live too, and very soon, with a national tour kicking off in January next year.
BOY & BEAR ‘LIMIT OF LOVE’ AUSTRALIAN TOUR DATES:
Friday 22 January
Odeon Theatre, Hobart TAS
Saturday 23 January
Festival Hall, Melbourne VIC
Friday 29 January
Thebarton Theatre, Adelaide SA
Saturday 30 January
Red Hill Auditorium, Perth WA
Friday 12 February
Hordern Pavilion, Sydney NSW
Saturday 13 February
Riverstage, Brisbane QLD
For more information, head to www.boyandbear.com.