Entering the Bear’s Den you’ll find a sense of warmth, love and great music shared between three close friends. Speaking to lead singer Andrew Davie while the London trio are on tour, Huw Hopkins discovers why the band’s lack of outside-awareness makes them such a success.
Travelling across the Australian outback, packed into a sweaty van with little room for instruments let alone leg space, Bear’s Den remain chirpy – tired, but in good spirits following a run of successful gigs on the other side of the world. The band is supporting a folk singer-songwriter with a brave and endearing vocal range by the name of Matt Corby. In his home country Matt is a mainstream star, born out of the primetime show Australian Idol, who, at the age of 22, already has achieved platinum-selling status. Supporting him is quite a big deal for the trio. The guys in Bear’s Den are big fans of Matt, but they’re not quite aware of the level they’ve reached themselves.
‘It’s all happened really quickly, and we haven’t really had time off since we started. We’ve toured so much that we haven’t noticed what’s going on around us, apart from there being a steady build up of people at our gigs. It’ll be interesting coming home and seeing the response we get,’ says frontman and guitarist Andrew Davie.
By the time you’re reading this, the group will be back in Britain, prepping for yet another tour – this time a stretch of headline gigs across Europe – beginning with four sold out dates in their homeland. It might seem like overkill, but Bear’s Den has a bank of good memories from their time on the road. This means they’re as happy packing up the van for a several week run as they are climbing into their own bed after a long period away from home. ‘Some of our best moments come from spending time together. It helps that we’re all genuinely good friends and have a great relationship. For me, one of the best moments we’ve had is when we were travelling across the USA and all packed in to the van. Joey [Haynes, the group’s banjo player, but also multi-instrumentalist] and I were sitting at the back; me with a guitar in my hand and he was just playing around with a banjo. I started strumming our song ‘Pompeii’, which we’d been playing for months, but he added this banjo line and it changed the entire sound, not just of the song, but of the band. It was exactly what we were looking for and it came from a relaxed moment hanging out with each other – it felt great.’
For three acoustic players from the bubble of London, the multi-cultural education of travelling the world over the past two years has been quite a ride. Andrew, Joey, and Kevin Jones [the group’s third vocalist and guitarist, as well as taking on drumming duties] visited Istanbul, Rotterdam, Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam, the United States, they’re just finishing off in Australia, and they will be back out in Europe soon. Andrew reflects on how they got to this point. ‘I used to run some open mic nights a few years ago where Kev played regularly – we’ve known each other for years. Eventually we met Joey, but Kev and I didn’t just want to play with a brilliant musician. Whoever joined us needed to be a good person, what they played was secondary. Joey is phenomenal. He plays guitar, banjo and sometimes percussion all at the same time. It’s the same with Kev – he occasionally plays guitar and drums simultaneously.’
The band was blessed with the use of Martin guitars on the Australian leg of the tour, which suited Andrew perfectly. ‘I love Martins. The guitar I use at home is a Martin, and though the ones we’ve been using in Australia are amazing, I hadn’t realised how much of a personal relationship a man can have with one instrument! I miss my guitar so much. The action on it suits me perfectly and I understand the way it plays. I’m just glad the one that I’ve been using on tour is a Martin, it softens the blow a bit.’
Bear’s Den tend not to push the boat out too far with their guitar tunings, but they do enjoy trying new toys, which leads to a constantly evolving style. ‘We’re always trying new instruments and pedals out,’ Andrew says. ‘It’s not like we make a point of going off in a new direction with our sound, it just happens naturally. We let the song make the decision.’
Opening the group’s new EP, Without/Within, is an ethereal reverb that, in comparison to the final track of their Agape EP, is a transformation. The hypnotic use of new pedals blends ‘Sahara Pt. I’ in to ‘Sahara Pt. II’ seamlessly, the latter of which reinforces the Bear’s Den signature style. ‘We’re open to playing new sounds, but it’s about what feels good, sometimes we’ll add something and just not feel it, then other times, like with ‘Writing On The Wall’ it’ll just happen. We played that song for a while on acoustics but never got it sounding right until Joey picked up an electric one day in rehearsal and started playing this melodic line over the top. That made it.’
Though Bear’s Den experiment with sounds, the band has taken elements of musical history to develop its own. ‘I’m a big fan of Jackson C. Frank. He had a blues sound like no other, and that definitely influenced how I approach music, even if it’s not how I necessarily play it. The songs I write are partly made up, but they are also based on facts from my life and others – artistic licence is used I guess. That’s what probably gets us compared to folk musicians from years ago. We don’t necessarily play traditional folk songs, but we have a traditional folk sound, such as having harmonies and extra vocals on choruses. I mainly leave that to the other two, and sometimes they pick parts of the song or on certain words and make them sound brilliant. Sometimes they harmonise on parts that I’m not expecting and it blows me away.’
While he would never credit himself as the lead man and main songwriter – no one in the band has an egotistical word to say about themselves, or a bad word to say about another – Andrew tends to put together songs at the initial stages. ‘I often bring in a bare pile of bones for a song, and then hand it over to the guys who turn it into a skeleton, then we all get together and flesh it out to make a whole person. Each member of the band brings in another element that will take the song in a new direction. Once it’s in our shared space, it’s not just my song; it belongs to everyone. We’re not that precious.’
This is a refreshing concept to hear. In the current climate of me-firsts and gimme-gimmes – not just in music – a collection of people sacrificing their own narcissistic need to hog the limelight of centre-stage and share it with their friends is an encouraging emerging trend in music. Andrew is positively excited about what is taking place. ‘A lot of people say they would have preferred to have been born in this era or that era, because apparently music was so much better in those days, but I love today’s music. We’re playing at the same time as people like Mumford & Sons, Haim and Matt Corby – how does that not make you better?’
Bear’s Den is right to be excited. Even if the band isn’t truly aware of how popular they are getting, what they can measure is the success of the bands they are touring with. A brilliant video hit YouTube earlier this year that featured Bear’s Den joining the Vaccines and Mumford & Sons on stage for an 11-man sing-along of the Beatles classic ‘Come Together’. The trio is performing to greater crowds by the day; earlier this year 60,000 people visited the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park to see them play alongside Mumford & Sons, Ben Howard, and Vampire Weekend.
Joey, Kevin, and Andrew are going to continue this climb to success for a long time. But at some point they will go from being the band that everybody really liked when they supported Mumford & Sons that one time, to attracting a massive audience of their own. Bear’s Den has yet to release an album, but when that time comes – ‘We’re trying to write songs when we’re on tour, but it’s hard fitting it all in’ – they will know, and see with their own eyes how popular they really are.
Bear’s Dens’ Without/Within is out now.