First published in The Collective, February 2016.
Boy & Bear talk ditching hierarchies and piping down every now and then to listen.
The route to modern rock ’n’ roll stardom is known for its paint-by-numbers uniformity. Yet these days, the ability to banter with your fans on YouTube and withstand a gruelling touring schedule without collapsing can shape your trajectory as much as your talent for writing songs that become the soundtrack to people’s lives.
Boy & Bear know that you can’t boil creative chemistry down to an industry formula. When the indie-folk five-piece retreated to the New South Wales South Coast to write material for their highly anticipated third album Limit of Love earlier this year, they discovered the ideas that come out of nowhere are those that can define how far you’ve come as a band.
“When creative ideas pop up, they just pop up,” laughs guitarist Killian Gavin, whose bandmates are David Hosking as lead singer, David Symes on bass and brothers Tim and Jon Hart on drums and keys respectively. “We always have so much fun on these writing trips on the South Coast – we just rent a house, surf and drink red wine. It’s just us boys and it’s pretty special. One evening, a couple of us went out to get dinner for everyone and when we came back, someone was playing a record player really loud and it was drifting in and out of tune but it sounded amazing. Dave was on the keyboard and had this weird organ sound going and it ended up being a song on the new record, called ‘Showdown’. It almost took me back to my first experiences of writing music, which is a really special thing.”
“Boy & Bear started a long time ago as my solo project, but when writing this album I realised that there’s been a natural progression towards being really collaborative,” grins lead singer Dave Hosking, who uploaded the track that first garnered the band airplay, ‘The Storm’, back in 2009. “Usually, I write most of our material but for the first time there were songs that we wrote together, completely from scratch. The song now drives the process rather than any other hierarchy. We seem to be working together instinctively more and more.”
Sitting with Boy & Bear around a rectangular table at Universal Music’s Sydney headquarters feels like witnessing a secret language – in the most inclusive possible way. They trade jokey asides, finish each other’s sentences and riff on each other’s responses. It’s as if their on-stage camaraderie is simply magnified in real life. As Tim puts it, “When you travel and tour as much as us, it becomes like the relationship you have with family. The guys are always going to be there, so you might as well get used to it.”
The fact that Boy & Bear share the kind of kinship that’s a hallmark of every group who once riffed together in university makes it easy to forget that they’ve achieved stratospheric levels of success. In 2011, their debut album Moonfire went platinum and won five ARIA Awards. But it was Harlequin Dream, the 2013 follow-up that channels ’70s-era Fleetwood Mac and Bruce Springsteen, that would set the stage for their international career and showcase their range.
Although the record debuted at number one on the Australian ARIA album chart and saw the band play 170 shows across the US, Canada and Europe – including the Italian Riviera and the 10,000-seat amphitheater at Red Rocks, Colorado – it also had its setbacks.
“We were signed to a big label overseas who threw a lot of money at us and then dropped us,” says Dave Hosking. “We’re not the first band that’s happened to and we’re not the last. But the truth was, we never wanted to be signed and the regret was maybe getting ourselves into a position that saw us make a decision we didn’t want to make.
“When you become successful, you do have to partner up with record companies and management and sometimes they have an agenda that runs parallel to your interest and sometimes they don’t. You make smart decisions about working with people who value the core of what you do. Now, we’re at the point [where] we don’t compromise on fundamental things.”
Limit of Love, which was shaped by legendary producer Ethan Johns, who has worked with Ryan Adams and Kings of Leon, is proof that this refusal to compromise underpins the band’s next steps, with the boys skipping digital wizardry to record a take straight to tape. The process meant they had to rehearse relentlessly and draw heavily on the group bond.
“A lot of bands will record all the drums first, then the guitars, then the vocals, but when we were recording this, Dave sung everything live – it’s the first time I’ve been able to listen to our music and say it sounds like we do on stage and that’s really exciting,” enthuses Dave Syme. “But there are times during the recording process when you feel like you’re [doing] something really good or believe in something passionately but the other person disagrees. Tim and Killian sometimes believe in things that are at the different end of the spectrum. But we tend to work it out because the best thing just seems to win in the end.”
For Tim, who says he gives his brother Jon space in the band, working so closely with your best friends and sibling means pausing your creative ego and listening to their point of view.
“I play the drums but if someone suggests I try something different I’m open to that. We have a healthy respect for each other, even when we have different ideas,” he explains. “When you’re in a band with people who know you so well, they will remind you when you get things wrong if you’re always trying to be brash and get your own way. You realise how much you get it wrong but luckily these guys are forgiving.”
Killian, who says that playing the new material during the band’s headline Australian tour in January is going to feel like “trying on a new jacket,” believes that the crew together is greater than the sum of its parts.
“You realise that when it’s just you, your music might not be as interesting,” he says, flashing his bandmates a conspiratorial grin. “If you’re in a band, you need to know how to listen – not just to music but to other people.”