Boy & Bear: ‘We’re not just a folk band’

If you don’t know it yet, Boy & Bear is one of my favourite bands in the entire galactic world. I missed them when they came in Paris during their Harlequin Dream tour (wrong schedule, wrong city… boo me!), so I could NOT have missed them for their first show in Paris since the release of their third album Limit of Love. I got to meet and interview the really kind Jon Hart (keyboard) in a corner of the Pop-Up du Label restaurant, with his camera and a bottle of Pinot noir, a few hours before their gig.

Rocknfool: Would you say that your third album Limit of Love is different because of: the production – because you have live recording in it -, because of the writing scheme, or just because the years go by and your tastes are evolving?

Jon: It’s definitely all three of those. I think that the fact that we have done a lot of shows last year meant that we were able to record in a more live environment: which led to certain things in the way the sound sounded and the energy in the album. But the process of writing was also slightly different and that’s partly because we spend so much time together as well. The collaborative song writing process, I guess, has changed somewhat; not that much, but it’s more that not every song started on the acoustic guitar whereas previously it tended to be acoustic guitar that started the song. All those elements played their role in the record, I think sounded different to what we previously had done.

What has changed for you this time, as far as collaboration on writing lyrics is concerned? [some of the songs lyrics have been written by the whole band, which wasn’t the case before]

I think it was a necessity because Dave, who’s tended to write the lyrics was running out of time and wasn’t happy with all of them, and Tim who plays the drums has also a solo project as a folk artist, he’s got quite a natural thing with lyrics. So they tended to work together in a way that hadn’t happened before. The results were interesting, because they could both do things together that they wouldn’t choose to do individually. It almost gave a sense of freedom, and they felt a little bit more brave doing it together. It was very fascinating to see that take place.

READ MORE >> Album review: « Limit of Love » – Boy & Bear (in French)

You’ve worked with well-known producers since your first album [they worked with Ethan Johns for Limit of Love]. Were you able to give him your point of view or did you trust the man 100% on everything he’s doing?

Ideally you trust the producer 100%. When we made our first album [Moonfire] we didn’t realise that’s how you sort of did it. We thought that we just worked with somebody who would suggest ideas and we would say if we like that or if we did not like that. And that caused some frictions, that caused personality clash between us and the first producer [Joe Chiccarelli] because I think he was used to be given 100% freedom to decide and we were not used to give in 100% freedom to somebody else. So ideally the producer and you, trust each other, or you work together for something, but you probably need to have someone who is a good creative match for you, someone who chooses some things that make sense for you, and for the songs as well, because you have to like it; it’s your songs! You can get some tensions but we didn’t get some tensions on this latest album, we had a lot of respect for Ethan, we knew a lot of records he’s made before, and he was a nice guy. You bring those three things together! He was a very good multi instrumentalist, so he could play everything but he didn’t have to, he’d just be lying on the couch sometimes with his hands over his eyes, listening and saying if something was working or wasn’t. It was a good match this time! So that meant that we did trust what he was saying, something were maybe a bit different to our instinct.

(c) Emma Shindo
Man & Bear (c) Emma Shindo

And how did you meet him? Did you choose him yourself?

We did as we do when starting to talk about making an album: we did research, we looked upon the albums that we liked and we talked about names. We had a list of names and eventually we got down to, I think it was 3 names. Then we tried to meet with either of these 3 peoples, because in the past one of the issues we had is maybe not having met the person before. You might like the sounds of what they make on records, and you meet them but you don’t get along very well. So we got to meet Ethan in London last year after we finished our tour in Paris, just the night before. We met him and flew back home. It was us who decided, our labels don’t sort of get involved in that stuff really, we get to do those things ourselves, it’s nice.

So it was just circumstances?

Yes, I think so! In a good way! I think that Tim probably would have wanted to do it but Dave tended to do it, but then when Dave needed help and Tim helped they liked the results more in some ways. There was definitely things before but it wasn’t as much as « let’s just sit down and do it together now ».

« Walk the Wire » your first single talks about a man who’s not brave enough to talk to a woman. Do you think that pain, women, and personal questionings are, and will forever be, the greatest topics to write about?

Probably (smiles). Relationships are generally what most people relate to, we spend a lot of time as individuals thinking about it. It’s happened for a lot of years before yeah… I think it’s what everyone is writing about, we all related to it somehow.

About your artwork, that I really like, I was wondering if you did it yourself?

On the latest album someone did it for us, but it was one of my photos. I just have a lot of photos and a friend of ours looked through all of them and thought « I think this could really work », brought it to us and we really liked it. He just listened to the music while looking to the photos and picked one that he thought was cool. I would never have thought to use that photo but it was nice: that shot was taken on tour, on a ferry between Vancouver and Victoria, I just got fascinated by the water! I’ve seen it a lot of times now because we had to sign 500 albums when the album came out, and so I looked at it 500 times, and still like it, so I thought it was a good sign!

I noticed that journalists and PRs don’t use the words « folk music » anymore in their mailing to talk about you. How do you explain this?

When somebody says to me « oh you play in a band, what sort of band are you? », I don’t know what to say anymore! Because I don’t think we’re quite a rock band, we’re not a folk band… We’re closer to a rock band like an oldschool kind of rock band, more like rock pop classic sort of seventies sounding, there are some bigger guitars in it but it’s pop sound structure, but not pop like on the radio now either so… We just sort of say folk-rock-thing. It’s almost like you say just go, if you listen to it then you can give me a word to describe it to other people! That’s always hard to categorise because there are maybe two or three folk songs on the album still, but we’re not just a folk band.

Have you ever considered making an acoustic album? Since you seem very at ease with acoustic instruments, mandoline, banjo etc. and the results are always really great!

We’ve talked about it at some point it would be interesting to do but… it’s not something we thought about doing now. Maybe at some point…

In ten years maybe, when you’ll realease a Boy & Bear best-of!

(laughs) We like doing those arrangements of songs, we do it quite a bit to come play to radio stations where you have to do small set-ups. It’s fun to take a song that’s been played as the whole band and take it into that… It would be interesting yes! Maybe someday… it’s certainly a possibility.

Do you think a band can stick to its sound, or its musical identity during its whole career or is it everyone’s doom to become like Coldplay and play radio pop songs in arenas?

You can do it. Some people do it, Nice Cave sort of does it. He doesn’t play stadiums songs but he plays stadiums still. I don’t know why Coldplay did it?! « Viva la Vida » was an amazing album, and they were big then. I don’t quite understand why they needed to do a bigger sound. Everything before that was good, and then after that… I’m not saying they’re bad  I did not listen to them after that… But it’s a bit sad when it happens. People may be saying U2 is the same but for me U2 is still different, their big album was The Joshua Tree and that was huge, but that was in the eighties. They’ve done stuff since and maybe some irrelevant things but they have just played stadium pop albums… but they’re so big… ACDC kept making the same album every time. So I think it’s hard to maintain as an identity every time. The longer you do it, the more you think of « we’ve done that before we’ll do something else, and maybe at some point the « something else » becomes a « let’s try to do a stadium sounding album because we’re playing stadiums now… You should ask Chris Martin! (smiles) See what he says to: « I like everything you did until Viva la Vida, WHY? ».

Next time I will if I can! I was actually also thinking about Mumford and Sons’ [Boy & Bear has been supporting the British band during their Australian tour] third album, which I don’t like at all.

Funny one, we were always wondering what was going to happen with them… We’ve done some shows with them, they’re nice people, I really like them. And I like their first album, I didn’t think it was groundbreaking but I enjoyed the songs on it. I really liked Marcus’ singing, as well as the banjo and the drums how they interacted together and all those things… Then the second album was kind of like the first, and I was like « what are they going to do, are they just keeping on making the same things, will they do something different? » I figured they could have done something less stadium sounding, but maybe once you’re big in America, it’s hard!

You’re big in America too.

Oh, not like them! We play reasonable shows but we’re not as big! We’re still a little band we may have not heard in America whereas they played in front of ten or thousands of people.

Isn’t it weird for you to be back to play tiny venues (like the Pop-Up du Label in Paris) when you play big venues in other countries, especially in Australia?

It’s sort of nice to keep remembering how we started as well! We started off playing venues like this in Australia, or smaller sometimes. There’s a different energy that happens. Last time we had played to maybe 800 people in Berlin but this time we played a little pub, a little bigger than the Pop-Up and that was amazing! Everyone is so close, everything is so close, you’re so sweaty, it’s kind of gross but then it’s cool as well. There’s something about it that you’ll never get that same feeling once the room gets 500 or 1000-2000 people or whatever, everything gets a bit further away and there’s more space. I enjoy it still, it’s nice to feel that no one really knows who we are here in Paris, so we gotta make sure that the show is good and that people will come along next time. And we all love coming back to Paris so we wanna keep doing it!

READ MORE >> Live-report: Boy & Bear @ Le Pop-Up du Label (in French)

You’ve been spending so much time on tour last year [at least 100 shows for Harlequin Dream], so don’t you get bored with life on tour?

Yes you sometimes do. It’s sort of hard because for example we arrived in Paris at 3 o’clock today, we put our bags to the hotel, walked around for an hour, ate a baguette,  came to soundcheck, and then I went to buy wine, I was late for you, then we’ll have dinner, I’m going to get changed, then we’ll play the show, we’ll go to bed, get up in the morning, eat breakfast, and going to get a train to London. Sometimes you come to amazing cities and you spend an hour looking around. Sometimes you’re in the middle of America – I like America a lot, but in the middle of America I don’t – like Midwest or Southern America you can be in quite lonely places: you’re in a tour bus, you pull off somewhere where there’s a Wallmart, a hotel and a McDonald’s and that’s where you’re staying that night. It can be quite… depressing, so there are moments of darkness like that. Then you can just get tired, there’s something a little bit tiring of being in a different bed every night, sometimes you just wanna be home in your own bed. But then when you’re in your own bed you kind of wanna be on tour (smiles). There are elements of touring, like any jobs, that you don’t enjoy but you can try minimise those by keeping yourself occupied, because the shows are always fun: it’s the bits around the shows that can sometimes be tough.

Dave [Hosking, leadsinger] expressed the fear and apprehension about your life and career as the time goes by. Where do your picture yourself in 5 years time?

It is hard to predict where you’ll be, hopefully we will still be doing this and if we are still doing this, hopefully we’re doing it maybe in a bigger place in Paris somewhere… I guess you always wanna keep growing, it does feel better when your audience grows a little bit. Hopefully we would have keep making albums that we enjoy, keep getting on well, because it makes life easier when you get on well. I feel like this last album that we made is easily the best album we’ve made, so if we can keep making albums that are as good – like I think is good – as that, I’m not saying that it’s gonna change the world or anything but we really like it and it’s nice when you like something you did. Because we’ve done things before that we were not always happy with. I wouldn’t got back and change things on this, I just like it how it is: it’s a nice feeling. So hopefully we have a couple more albums in 5 years time, that we like how they are.

Interview by Emma Shindo (November 4th, 2015 at Le Pop-Up du Label)

Thanks to Laure and Greg.

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