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Finding The Light: Boy & Bear’s Road To Recovery & Reinvention

Written by David James Young on December 11, 2019

“There’s an art to it, I promise!” In the main room of Golden Retriever Studios in Marrickville, producer Simon Berckelman – AKA Berkfinger – is hoisting up the stand for what’s known as a halo microphone. Surrounding him are the members of Boy & Bear, here to track some acoustic versions of songs from their long-awaited fourth album Suck on Light, which is now out in the world. They’re goofing around, making small talk and noodling on their instruments – drummer Tim Hart, wielding an acoustic guitar, jokingly breaks into an over-earnest version of Live’s ‘Lightning Crashes,’ much to the delight of his bandmates.

For a band that had been out of the public eye up until very recently for well over three years, their interconnectivity has seemingly never waned. After a period where the band was significantly in the woods, they’ve returned as formidable as ever – a new album and a newly announced national-wide tour.

Before they get stuck into that recording, however, lead vocalist Dave Hosking and guitarist Killian Gavin gave a bit of insight into how the band turned the most difficult stage of their career into one that’s fruitful and prosperous.

Music Feeds: How goes the rehearsal process ahead of the tour beginning? How have you been navigating the logistics of translating what you’ve been doing in the studio for Suck on Light onto the stage?

Dave Hosking: You can take this one, Killian – you know what you’re talking about a lot more than me. [laughs]

Killian Gavin: It’s a difficult process, particularly with this record. The last album [2015’s Limit of Love] was a bit more straightforward – we recorded it live to tape. This one, however, has a lot more layers and a lot more finessing of parts. It’s been a lot of fun, though. We spent about three weeks straight in rehearsals, and we spent a lot of that time assigning different parts to each of us. Maybe one of us will adopt a certain melody, or play a certain hook in one of the new songs. It’s like a giant puzzle, almost. You’ve gotta move the parts around a fair bit before you can present something that feels complete.

MF: Dave, you’re not playing guitar on a few songs right now. For many people, the guitar also serves as a guard or barrier between the performer and the audience – what’s it like for you to have that element removed?

DH: I’ve eased into it, and I think I’ve gotten used to it. The last couple of records, there’s been a few songs each where I’m not playing guitar – and now, I’m at a point where I’ve come to really enjoy it. I like the freedom that comes with it, I think. When you’re up there with a guitar, it’s easy to get wedded to it. There’s a sense of restriction in your movement. Having a break from it – whether I’m just singing, or I’m playing a bit of percussion – is really quite freeing. On this tour, we’re playing a song from our first album [2011’s Moonfire] called ‘Big Man.’ It used to have acoustic guitar in it, but we’ve stripped it and reworked it. Now, Killian is driving the whole thing with electric guitar. It sounds really, really good.

MF: The discourse surrounding Suck on Light began with an interview with Dave on triple j. The difference, however, was that it was for Hack – it centred on Dave’s health and bouts of illness, rather than the music itself. Was there ever a concern that the story was going to distract from the album, and that all of people’s talking points would just be about… well… poo?

DH: [laughs] You do run that risk, don’t you. There’s always the danger there. The logic was, going into it, that this entire record was always going to be about my personal challenges. There wasn’t a lot outside the sickness for quite a long time. If the record was going to be about that, why not embrace it instead of dicking around? Let’s share the story – this is an interesting story, and it feeds into the music in a strange way. It was always going to be easier to do it that way. That’s why we focused on it a few months ago – for the most part, it hasn’t felt like all the questions are about it. Most people have been able to join the world. So, to answer your question – no, it’s not all about poo. [laughs]

MF: The title of Suck on Light alone is probably the most provocative one that’s ever been given to a Boy & Bear album. Was the song ‘Suck on Light’ written knowing it was going to be the title track?

DH: No, that song had been there for a long time. It wasn’t originally called that, either – the working title was ‘7/8’ or something like that. I couldn’t write any lyrics for a long time, so when we did the scratch demos I was just singing gibberish. It wasn’t until I started piecing lyrics together where that phrase just kinda fell out of me. Not long after that, I sent an email to the rest of the guys saying that it could be a really great title. I think there’s something really visceral about the word “suck.” It’s great in that sense. We almost didn’t go with it, did we?

KG: We had a couple of other options that came up, but everyone always liked the phrase. It has a really jarring feel to it – even just pronouncing the consonants of it. It’s really interesting. It felt good for all of us.

MF: One of the other key talking points of the record has been the proximity between its release and that of the last album, Limit of Love. It’s the longest gap the band has ever taken between albums. Was there a point along the line where you genuinely thought that Boy & Bear would not be able to continue?

DH: Absolutely. At the pointy end of it all, I was just like… [pauses] I just needed to get through the day, y’know? I just needed to get through the week. I wasn’t thinking about anything else. When I started deteriorating, it was just about survival. Once I found a solution, though, I knew I’d get back into it. We all love doing this. People talked about whether I personally felt pressure around this situation. I don’t know if “pressure” is the right word. To me, at least, it was a motivator. It was a drive.

KG: Nobody knew what Dave’s limitations were when this first started happening. At first, the plan was to just do nothing until we had everything figured out. After a while, though, we started writing again – and Dave, eventually, started coming to those sessions. Even though he was rock-bottom at that point, we were all still looking for ways that he could contribute. He could create melody, he could feel out the songs… there was enough functionality to respond to what we were working on. That was a really positive sign early on.

MF: A lot will be made of your lyrical content for this record. What was going through your mind when you showed the rest of the band what you’d been working on?

KG: Well, this is what’s really interesting: He wasn’t really writing.

DH: No, I wasn’t. Thinking about songs like ‘Work of Art’ or ‘Suck on Light,’ I had an idea or a feel for something – as opposed to forging ahead and writing a complete song in earnest the way that I normally would. I only really had the energy to put forward a few ideas – and they were pretty broad ideas already. Whatever I had, I would just kind of throw into the group. Whoever was there would take those ideas to see what worked and what didn’t. It was a diving board of sorts – a starting point.

With the albums that we’ve made in the past, we were definitely going in there with complete songs. This was more of a mixed bag – we were working on new ideas all the time, just throwing them out there and figuring out what we could do with them. I don’t think there was ever a time with this record, though, that I ever walked in the room with a fully-fledged, start-to-finish song.

MF: In that respect, then, do you feel as though Suck on Light is the most collaborative record that Boy & Bear has made?

DH: To be honest, I feel like all the albums that we’ve made together have been created in a manner that’s not too dissimilar from the way it was done here. That being said, I’m perfectly happy to say that it was our most collaborative album. This was an album where everyone was moving in and out of their usual assigned roles within the band – as guitarists, as bass players, whatever have you. Everyone was working together to create the final arrangements and structures.

KG: I think it goes deeper than that, too. Over the course of the last two albums, our songwriting process has changed a lot. Songs are birthed from different people, different places, different times. It’s coming from all angles, headed to different ends. We’ve spent a lot of time jamming, too, which has influenced the direction quite a bit.

DH: There’s a song called ‘Dry Eyes’ on the record. Killian doesn’t tend to play heaps of acoustic guitar, but he sent me this email with a song idea he’d recorded on it. I remember I was at the dog park, listening to the demo, thinking about the kind of vocals I’d want to do over a guitar part like that. That’s a great example, I think – it’s the first time that someone else has introduced a song to the band on the acoustic guitar. For the longest time, that was my forte.

MF: When Boy & Bear first started playing and touring around the start of the decade, you were lumped in with the nu-folk movement of the time – acts like Mumford & Sons, the Lumineers, Passenger and Angus & Julia Stone. For better or worse, there has been a fairly distinct sound attached to the band’s name, be it through the acoustic guitar or through the harmonies or whatever else. As songwriters, how have you worked to subvert that – to create something that’s still Boy & Bear, but doesn’t just lean on your defining traits?

KG: That’s true what you’re saying about the sound associated with us, and it’s certainly something we’re all aware of. That being said, there are so many idiosyncratic things that makes a band what it is. One of the biggest things about this record was stripping out the acoustic guitar. We’ve done it on other albums too, but we’ve probably done it more times than ever on this album. Once you strip out that fundamental character, the whole flavour of a song changes.

DH: It changes the groove, too. I tend to play in a certain way, so it frees up the guys to find a different way around playing.

KG: There are songs like ‘Bird of Paradise,’ too, which weren’t written on acoustic guitar. It meant that the melodies were coming from a completely different perspective. Dave wasn’t playing, but the band was jamming, which meant Dave was free to just sing. It meant the way the song translates and comes across feels considerably different. There are things that you can do as a songwriter in order to change things up, but I don’t believe that’s necessarily the sole intention. More often than not, you’re just doing things because they sound cool. It’s about finding what is inspiring to you right now.

DH: To add to that, I was thinking about this. You have these two different angles: There’s people’s outside perspective on the band, and there’s the way that you engage with the band from within it. When you’re trying to evolve in terms of your sound, you have to walk that line. You’re working with new things, but you’re also not throwing out everything that you’ve learned. We’re moving to a space, more and more, where there’s other flavours coming in, and we’re finding something – touch wood – that is really unique to us.

MF: Reflecting on Suck on Light now that it’s finished, what was the biggest learning curve that you faced?

KG: Traditionally, we have adopted more of an old-school approach to making music and recording. The band was always playing and performing live. With this one, there was a couple of songs where we did things we’ve never done before. We stripped out all of the performance, laid down a bed of groove, recorded sections independently of one another and stitched it all together. We spoke a lot about the creative process being far more malleable on this record and allowing a song to determine how we recorded it. The learning curve was in the vulnerability that came with dissecting our songs in that way. Usually, we would only ever lay down a performance from start to finish, and to really stitch things together the way we did was a big change. Full credit to Colin, really – he had the skill to pull that off, and it allowed us to hone in on different parts. It allowed for each song to be the best possible version of that song it could be.

MF: This year marks roughly a decade since Boy & Bear first started. For all of the changes in recent years, and for everything the band has gone through, what do you feel are the sole constants – the elements that have kept the band going this long?

KG: Dave’s jawline. [laughs]

DH: [laughs] Obviously.

KG: Goes without saying!

DH: Y’know, something that comes to mind for me… for all the different personalities in the band, I think that there’s a love of classic songwriting. A lot of love for music from the 60s and the 70s. Even though we’re in different spaces, we all tip our hats to that era. That’s a big driver of what we do.

KG: For me, one of the common threads is that every song we end up recording can be stripped back to just guitar chords and the vocals – and it can still work. Even if those chords aren’t necessarily being played on the recording, the movement of the chord progression should be captured one way or another with the band’s performance. That’s the common ground – can it work in a really simple world? We can paint around it, but at its essence, it’s still a simple pop song.

Boy & Bear will embark on a nation-wide Suck on Light tour next year. Head here for dates and details. ‘Suck on Light’ is out now. 

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