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Aussie Folk-Rockers Boy & Bear Prepare for Debut Nottingham Gig

7 February 20 interview: Laura Phillips

ARIA award-winning Australian indie-rock band Boy & Bear captured our hearts with their charming folk sound way back in 2010. Following a four-year hiatus due to lead-singer Dave Hosking’s illness, the platinum record-holding band from Sydney are back on the scene with new album Suck on Light. We spoke with keyboardist Jon Hart about the band’s “weird” approach to developing their sound, preparations for their worldwide tour, and why Australia is dominating the charts internationally…

It’s been four years between record releases. Suck on Light has a rather cinematic quality to it and features some groovy new electronic sounds. Did having more time between albums allow the band to consider a different direction in terms of sound? 
I think it’s more so that we’ve been doing it a little while now, and that tends to happen… unless you’re ACDC or something. You can’t make the same album repeatedly and keep your own and other people’s interest. It wasn’t so much a deliberate thing; we just tried some different approaches to writing. Because Dave was sick, he took some time off where the other four of us got together and started writing. We’d done some of that in the past, but this time it might start with an electronic groove, as you say, or we’d come up with a little drum machine part that sounded quite cool and go, “let’s see what happens”. There was a somewhat negative circumstance – with Dave being sick – but that allowed the possibility for us to just go, “there’s nothing to lose here, we’re just hanging out being creative together.”

Was Suck on Light particularly influenced by any specific musicians or musical inspirations?
It’s hard to see, being directly involved in it yourself. I don’t think there were any references musically we were trying to go for, apart from… we actually wrote a brief together for what we were looking for sonically and creatively in the album. We wanted to find some really good 70s pop sounds but give them a modern approach. It’s a weird way to do it, but we listened to records which may not necessarily be an artist’s best songs – thinking particularly in the case of Ray LaMontagne, we were listening to an album of his that none of us had really gravitated towards before, but in checking through things, we all loved the sounds on it. So, we thought even if there are other Ray albums where we might dig the songs more, in terms of the sounds he achieved on this album, we thought, “there’s something special in that”. We were trying really to focus on finding a sonic palette first.

Nashville is a city prided for its country and folk music outputs. Do you feel that recording the album there added any authenticity to the folk sound of the record?
A couple of us went and checked out country gigs every Sunday night. I don’t think it’s so much our vibe, but it was really cool seeing the performances and the commitment of the different artists, and I think there’s something inherently inspiring about that. We did get some local Nashville musicians in, not so much the standard country thing, but we got two guys and a girl to come in and do some strings on a few of the songs. I think we feel like we got some pieces of Nashville in there in different ways.

You guys have recently toured Australia and North America – which tracks from the new record are your favourite to perform?
We’ve only to date performed three of them live. When we went on tour, we didn’t yet have the record out, and I’ve always believed that it’s better for people to hear your music before you try to play it live. We’ve been rehearsing up more of the album to take out this time in the UK, so we’ll be playing songs live that we haven’t done before. We’ve been playing Work of Art, which is the first track off the album, and Hold Your Nerve, but we were a bit out of practice, so it took us a bit of time to find our groove again. I think we’re in a good place now.

You and your brother Tim were both in a band called Wintersound before Boy & Bear. Do you want to pursue any side projects in the future and if so, what kind of genre?
I kind of haven’t gone there with the side project thing. I think I’d be happy to collaborate with people, but at the moment the band keeps my hands pretty full, otherwise, I’m doing some photography things on the side – that’s my creative outlet really. I do music as a hobby too, but also as a job, so I’ve been trying to diversify a bit as opposed to just do a side project.

What kind of photography do you do?
I started out taking photos of the guys and on tour, because – and its cliché – we go to cool places, sometimes you meet cool people. I guess it’s a life that people idealise or dream about – being a musician for a living – and I was the same before I was doing it, so it just seemed natural to photograph what the reality of that is. I just take photos wherever I go, nothing too conceptual, but I like doing it and it always gives you something to do. Sometimes I take cool photos and sometimes I take bland ones, you never know what you’re going to get.

It’s great to see you guys back on the scene. A lot of incredible music from Australia has attained international fame over the past decade, why do you think this is?
I was wondering the same thing because I was impressed by how many Australian acts seem to have large followings overseas. I feel part of it is that it’s just easier for your music to travel without the need of record labels. I don’t want to sound bitter and jaded but record labels are sort of a necessary evil of the industry. If you’re signed in the US or the UK, that’s a big opportunity, whereas if you’re signed in Australia, our country has a pretty small market.

There are negative things happening in the music industry, like people not wanting to pay for music. I think that’s a bad thing personally, but it’s a good thing that people can get access to stuff easily and get turned onto new things without requiring cultural gatekeepers like radio programmers to tell you what’s cool. You can find out what’s cool because your friends like it, someone across the other side of the world might make a playlist and you can discover it that way.

I think we’ve always made high-quality music in Australia, but it’s just easier for your music to travel in the way the modern music world works – we were definitely an example of that too. There’s an element to which no one really feels that successful in Australia unless you’ve been able to take your music overseas. Everyone wants to go and see the big shiny lights of New York or London and play the crowds there. There’s an element to which we get driven by that ambition collectively as artists and I think that’s a good thing.

Nottingham is one of only six UK tour dates, which will also be the band’s debut performance here. What made the band decide to play Nottingham this time?
We changed booking agents and we’ve done a couple of dates with a new guy so far and he’s looking at the whole picture and thinking: “where are places we’ve missed? Where are places where I think this can really work?”. The opportunity came up to do a show in Nottingham and we’re excited because although it’s a pretty short sharp run of the UK, it’s nice that we’ve got some new places in there. Hopefully it works well, and then we can come back.

Is there anything you’re particularly looking forward to about playing Nottingham?
I’m just looking forward to going because I’ve never been. That’s an exciting thing as well – when the tour bus rolls in and you wake up and go, “I’m somewhere else, and I’m gonna go and have a look around, and then I’m gonna go to soundcheck and then I’m gonna have more of a look around”. I love that because as much as it’s not like travelling for leisure, you still can cram in a bit and see the place and meet people and that’s exciting.

Are there any gigs that you recall as particularly memorable?
We’ve always had a good time in Manchester, the crowd’s great there. London is a bit like Melbourne and a bit like New York, where people are spoilt for choice and they’re not always easily impressed. So we’ve had some pretty memorable ones in London too because if you win over a crowd in a city that plays a little bit hard to get, that’s a very satisfying thing – but it’s also really nice to have the rowdier, Friday night crowd that are just happy to be out.

Have Boy & Bear got any UK festival slots lined up this summer?
I don’t actually know yet, I really hope so. If not, then I assume we will definitely be back this year. I can’t see us waiting until 2021 because it’s been too long.

Boy & Bear play Rescue Rooms on Saturday 22 February

Get your tickets here

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