Interview: Bear’s Den

If you go down to the woods today…

With a debut album that sold 50,000 copies and earned the band an Ivor Novello Award nomination for its poignant, considered songwriting under their belt, Bear’s Den weren’t about to rest on their collective laurels. As soon as touring duties for Islands were complete, the London band decamped to Holland for an intensive four-week writing spree before recording at Rockfield Studios in South Wales with producer Ian Grimble. The result is Red Earth & Pouring Rain, a record that also demonstrates a band not prepared to tread water stylistically.

While Islands, released in 2014, saw the band focusing on emotive folky Americana with regal brass adornments, this time round guitarist/vocalist Andrew Davie and multi-instrumentalist Kev Jones paint with a broader sonic palette, creating widescreen music that evokes the great American open road and classic-rock acts such as Fleetwood Mac and Bruce Springsteen.

“It was both conscious and unconscious,” says Jones of the decision to take the second record in a different direction. “A lot of conversations happened preceding that album and there was a lot of time on the road to talk about what was interesting us musically. Fundamentally, it came down to what we wanted the second album to feel like. Rather than `let’s go for Bruce Springsteen’ or something, it was `can you drive at night to it and put the entire record on and go for a road trip?’

“We wanted to have a certain nostalgia around the record, that’s lyrical as well as sonic. We wanted to make it quite cinematic.” The pair had been musical partners for a decade prior to forming Bear’s Den, when Jones says they set out with a carefully formed plan of attack.

Bear's Den

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“Me and Davie had been working on and off for 10 years together and started a band called Cherbourg maybe eight years ago. That went okay, but we were still learning, so we took a year out, went for a coffee and said `let’s do this again’. We spent a lot of time talking about what we were going to try to achieve before we picked up an instrument. We’re so lucky. Everything’s felt very gradual rather than an overnight thing. For the first album, we’d done quite a lot of groundwork, and we’ve got a strong work ethic.

“When we started, headlining Shepherd’s Bush Empire was our dream, and we did that a year ago. We’re not the sort of band who think `we must headline Glastonbury’, but creatively we want to make sure we’re constantly challenging each other and being dynamic and not sitting in a particular channel. Creatively, we’re very ambitious.”

Analogue approach

That creative ambition is certainly in evidence on Red Earth & Pouring Rain. “Rockfield was pretty wonderful and pretty intense,” says Jones. “We did the main body of the tracking in six weeks. All the analogue gear suited what we were going for sonically. We were doing 15- or 16-hour days and had about two evenings off the entire time.

“The first record is a culmination of songs written over a period of years and the second record is a culmination of songs written in one month and recorded in six weeks. We had lots of vintage gear in the studio and Ian was very well educated in recording techniques from the 60s, 70s and 80s. We went for a very authentic approach, everything’s analogue, all the synths are originals and the guitars are vintage. I feel that comes across on the record.”

The build-up to the second album also saw Bear’s Den become a duo as guitarist Joey Haynes departed and Jones left his drummer’s stool to return to his roots as a guitarist and bassist. Live, they’re a six-piece, augmented by a group of talented instrument-swapping friends.

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“One of the things we initially set out to do was create a band that was full of multi-instrumentalists,” says Jones, “so it’s about who has the best idea on an instrument at the time. I’ve been the drummer up until this album, out of necessity. I learnt drums because we felt like we needed a certain kind of drummer, but we realised for the second record we needed a completely different set of skills.”

With festival shows at Glastonbury and Latitude ticked off, attention turns to a UK tour that will see the band play the 4,900-capacity Brixton Academy for the first time, eclipsing that Shepherd’s Bush ambition, and Jones is confident the band’s sound will be big enough to do the legendary south London venue justice.

“We’re a six-piece now for standard shows, and we love getting horns sections in. We’ve got a lot of good session friends who play with us, so we’ve spent time re-imagining the first record, and also the second album is bigger and needs more hands. It’s been great to have those pairs of hands and realise the album live in a deeper way than we were able to as a smaller unit.

“We found this old oil tank outside Rockfield, and a lot of the percussion sounds on the album were just us smacking a big piece of metal with oil in it! So we’re going to try to find something like that and take that on the road with us.”

A long-held desire to own a Les Paul was ticked off Jones’ bucket list on a trip to Nashville, and that guitar is a central instrument on Red Earth & Pouring Rain. “I’ve always wanted a Les Paul,” he says.

“It’s a ’79 Silverburst that I got from Gruhn Guitars. She’s gorgeous and a bit battered up. I’ve got a ’78 Precision Bass that I love, too, it’s just perfect. Those are my two primary instruments and a Martin, and I’ve just bought a National Resonator. I run it all through a Marshall Bluesbreaker. We were going through Hiwatts in the studio. I’d love to get hold of one, but I haven’t been able to afford it – we’ll get there…”

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Gear Bear’s Den
• Guitars 1974 Guild Starfire, Gibson Hummingbird, Deering banjos, Martin D-15M (Davie), 1979 Les Paul Silverburst, 1978 Precision Bass, National Style O Resonator, Fender B-Bender Telecaster (Kev)
• Pedals Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail, Walrus Audio and Strymon pedals (Davie), Origin Effects Cali 76, Klone, Strymon Flint, Fulltone Fat Boost, Tech 21 SansAmp (Kev)
Amplifiers Roland JC-120 (Davie), 70s Hiwatt, ’66 Ampeg Portaflex (Kev)

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