An Interview With: Boy & Bear

Posted: Monday 10 February 2020

Having coped with a lot of uncertainty over the past four years, Australia’s Boy & Bear have returned with bright and optimistic new record, Suck On Light, and they’re finally making their way back to the UK.

Before they touch down, we caught up with keyboard player, Jon Hart, to talk about how the band pulled out of the darkness together and created an honest and contemporary record that defines their sound more than anything they’ve done before.

How are you feeling about your return to the UK? It’s been a while!

Yeah it has, it’s been too long as far as we’re concerned. We’re excited to come back, we love playing in the UK. I hate saying it because it makes me feel old, but I was thinking about it and it was like, 2010 when we first came to the UK supporting Laura Marling and we’ve been back every couple of years since then, but we haven’t managed to come back since 2016.

Do you have any favourite memories about playing here?

The cool thing about somewhere like the UK vs. where we come from in Australia is that things are so close to each other. It may not seem that way when you live there, but compared to Australia, you can see quite a diverse range of places in a small number of days. We love London, it’s hard not to, it’s a really cool city and we’ve had great times in Bristol and Manchester as well. It’s the places we’ve gotten used to, when we’ve been there five or six times and you get a bit of a feel for the city, you know the best cafes to go and get a good flat white.

It’s always important to have good coffee whilst you’re on the road!

It really is! It’s a priority for us every day, but now we’ve got a bit of a travelling situation happening where people are carrying Aeropress’ and grinders and making coffees in hotel rooms or on the tour bus, so we’re getting more self-sufficient in that area as well.

That’s good, at least you’ll be surviving on tour! As you said, it’s been four years since we last saw you and obviously, the break was needed to help Dave get better – did you ever feel that the band would never tour, or write again? Did you keep creating and making music during the break?

It was a tricky situation, because we didn’t set out deliberately to have a break. We’d just finished up our last album cycle and Dave wasn’t feeling well, but it was kinda like, we didn’t know what it was, he didn’t know what it was, so we just went, “let’s have a couple of months off and then we’ll see”. Dave then said to us that he wasn’t ready to get back to it yet, but it wasn’t like we just went, “let’s have a year off” or “let’s have two years off”. We were in a little bit of a limbo phase where he was trying to get a bit of a diagnosis happening and that was proving difficult, then the other four of us started getting together because we were like, “well, we don’t really know what else to do, so we might as well work a bit to try and keep the creative juices flowing”.

Tim then went to hang out with Dave one day and said that we’d been jamming a few ideas and he [Dave] was intrigued enough to listen. As he made small amounts of progress, he slowly started to feel like getting back involved and I think he was excited that we’d been continuing to do things in his absence. From there it just built slowly and we just had to be patient and know that we were really in the hands of how he was feeling and the doctors, as to how much progress we could make, because lyrics were still really tricky for him. He could get into a room and respond to some music and come up with melodies, but to actually get the cognitive function where he felt comfortable, that took longer, so it turned into a two-year writing process, which is much longer than we’ve done before. It was different, but I think there were certain advantages to that as well. It allows you to live with material and refine it along the way.

It must have been quite an emotional process wrapping up the new album, what was it like being in the studio together again?

It was great. It was really great. We worked with a guy called Collin Dupuis this time and we were in this really cool studio called Southern Ground in Nashville. It’s a large room where we could all be setup together, or there were a couple of booths to put drums in, or Dave could go in them to stop everything bleeding into the vocal mic, but we could all see each other and we could all play at the same time.

Collin liked to set everything up on the floor, all the microphones he might use, any guitar that Killian would use, any keyboard that I would use, anything that Symes would use, so that, at any moment, all he had to do was push up a fader on the desk and that thing would make a sound. What happens a lot of the time when you go in a studio, is that you sort of go, “let’s play a guitar part” or “let’s play a keyboard part” and then someone will spend 45 minutes connecting a microphone and patching it all in, trying to make it sound right and then eventually you play the idea, but you lose a lot of creative energy and you lose the spark in that period of time. By Collin setting it up so that everything was rolling, you could just go, “hang on I’ve got an idea, I’m just going to jump in and do that” and that was really different for us. It allowed us to continue making progress through the whole period, because basically we got in and recorded the most basic, bare tracks where we all played something together and then we tend to colour in something after that with overdubs, so it just allowed for a good flow and made it enjoyable. It’s one of those things where you go, “we love this so much and it’s so great being in the studio”, but then for me, by the end of it, I’m like, “alright, I’m happy to play live again as well”.

Four years is a lot of time for growth and learning, so did you go into the studio with a different approach? Did you have a set idea of how you wanted this record to sound, or was it a lot of jamming and seeing what worked?

It was a bit of both. We didn’t have a set idea of what we wanted the record to sound like when we began writing it, but the way we tend to do the whole writing process is that, either someone will bring something of a song to the writing room, or we’ll just come up with the song in the room. Then, we’ll work on recording a pretty good version of it with our basic gear, using rooms in some of our parents’ houses and we’d push the demo as far as felt we could get it. When we were listening back to all the demos and getting to the point of going to the studio, we sort of went, “okay, based on everything that we’re listening to, we’re gonna go for a kinda 70s vibe, but we want to have some modern production elements”.

I guess the obvious reference would be, taking a Fleetwood Mac 70’s pop sound and then make it a bit darker and make it contemporary as well. It sounds nerdy but we had written a brief about what we wanted it to sound like and then on the basis of our brief we were listening to records and trying to find people that could create the textures and sounds that we were looking for, which is how we found Collin.

And as you said, you went to Nashville to do it, was that mainly because that’s where Collin was based, or was there more to it?

Nashville is such a musical hub, you can get everything you need there. If you’re trying to borrow or hire an instrument, or find a big studio that’s large enough to put a bunch of guys in a room together, or if you’re trying to find string players or horn players or additional people to come in and play, then Nashville’s the place for that. That was an element of it and then I think there is something where, it’s exciting to go away and that’s what you’re there for, you’re going there to record the album. If we’d just stayed in Sydney or Australia, there may have been a temptation for people to go home on days off, which we’ve done before and it does affect the focus levels sometimes. It’s an indulgence to do it, but we decided that it was the best move and I think it worked really well.

Well it definitely paid off! What’s the song you’re most proud of on the album?

That’s such a hard question, because you sort of go through phases of songs. Maybe I’m thinking too much about which song I like the most, but the one I’m most proud of? You’ve caught me out there, I don’t know.

I love ‘Work Of Art’ and the reason it stands out to me is I feel like, one element of what we were trying to do with the record is to be able to marry acoustic sounds with an electronic vibe at times and I’m not suggesting that we’ll ever become an electro-based band, but to be able to try and build in percussion loops and things that provided creative input when we were writing, and then build that into the songs in the studio, that was a new thing for us and it was exciting to do. In the end, we played in those parts as opposed to using a drum machine or something, but the song was written initially to a drum loop machine, so I’m proud because we managed to achieve that aesthetic and that feel in the studio using real instruments. Everyone in the band has a bit of a thing for ‘Work Of Art’, because it felt like a step forward for us.

So, it was very much pushing you out of your comfort zone and trying new things?

Yeah, exactly.

What do you hope fans take away from the new songs?

There’s a lot of autobiographical lyrical content in there from Dave, so there’s definitely the story of what he’s been through in the last four/five years. The reason we chose the title Suck On Light in the end was, Dave had seen a Leonard Cohen lyric where it talked about there being a crack in everything and that’s where the light gets in, and I think he really felt that as an optimistic line. This idea of trying to take hold of any bits of positivity that you could, was something that we felt really summarised the tone of the record, there’s dark moments to it, but I don’t think it’s a dark record in terms of where it’s leading, so hopefully people can get that sense of optimism amongst it.

How’s it been being back on the road again? Were you nervous to start performing again?

It was pretty exciting! We got to dip our toes in gradually, because we did a run in Australia in August last year and we only did four shows, just because it’d been a long time since we’d played there as well. We hadn’t had the album out yet, so we were just like, “let’s get out there and give it a go and see how it all feels” and that was great. It was nice to just play to some rooms we knew and people who were glad to have us back. Then we did a run after that through North America and I think we all went, “we’ve missed doing this, it’s been too long” and it was just nice to see that people hadn’t forgotten, because everyone kinda hit the panic button a bit.

And what have you been bringing to these shows? Are you trying new things or is it very much a Boy & Bear show how it always has been?

Hopefully it’s more of the same but we’ve grown as people and we’ve grown as musicians, so I think it’ll just be a progression, but it won’t be like a revolution, it won’t be completely like a different band that you’ve never heard before. Hopefully it’ll just be us but slightly more polished and more sophisticated.

We can’t wait! Finally then, what does the future hold for Boy & Bear? What are you hoping for in 2020?

We’ll be getting out on the road as much as we can this year and then if we have little gaps in the schedule, then we’ll be writing again. Dave’s already sent round a photo of his computer with an album folder that’s been created and a bunch of the guys, including me, have just been putting some ideas together while we’ve had some downtime over the Christmas break. We’re keen to get back into the studio and keep rolling much sooner than we did last time, assuming Dave’s health continues to hold and improve, that should be the case.

So, hopefully not another four-year wait to see you again?

No, definitely not. We’ll be doing everything we can to turn this around much quicker!

Don’t miss out on Boy & Bear’s triumphant return to the UK this month, grab your tickets now:

O2 Institute Birmingham: Monday 24 February Buy Tickets

O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire: Wednesday 26 February Buy Tickets

Want to keep up to date with all our interviews, features and more? Why not sign up to our newsletter?

Sign Up