In a world increasingly permeated by superficial connections and selfie-addicted narcissism, the need to slow down, draw breath, and think about what it’s really all about grows ever more acute.
Welcome to Bear’s Den. Inspired by Maurice Sendak’s 1963 children’s classic ‘Where the Wild Things Are’, this London based trio (Andrew Davie; guitar & vocals, Kev Jones drums; vocals and Joey Haynes banjo; vocals) create music which -whisper it- dares to be both literate and profound. While, crucially, remaining universally accessible.
“Where The Wild Things Are appeals to us because it offers a dual perspective of seeing the world through both a kid’s and an adult’s eyes,” explains Andrew (known, simply, as Davie). “A lot of our songs address the world in the same way. Bear’s Den is our name for the island the kid escapes to.”
It’s tempting to see the trio’s quietly confident rise in fairytale terms, too. But Bear’s Den are built to last – touring duties to date have seen them play everywhere from the Scottish Highlands to touring the U.S with Mumford & Sons. It’s a far cry from Davie’s childhood in the West London suburbs (Chiswick, Acton, Uxbridge) when life as a musician seemed beyond the realms of probability. Schooled in the classics (Bob Dylan, The Kinks) by a music mad dad, his arrival at Music College only served to dampen his hopes.
“I only lasted a term. I was the only person in the class who was writing songs. I’ve always liked Bob Dylan’s quote in Scorsese’s ‘No Direction Home’ where he says: ‘People used to be judged on whether they had anything to say rather than what they sounded like’. That’s what interests me.”
Things changed when he started hanging out at the legendary Bosun’s Locker jam nights in Fulham. Immersed in a cultural vortex alongside a nascent Mumford & Sons, Laura Marling, and a pre-Vaccines Jay Jay Pistolet (Davie sang backing vocals on the latter’s ‘Holly’), he was inspired to form his own band, Cherbourg, with trusted ally Kev Jones. However, it was only when the duo recruited guitarist & banjo player Joey Haynes on Cherbourg’s dissolution in 2012 that the melodies in his head became fully realised.
“I got goose bumps at the first rehearsal,” he recalls with a grin. “We’ve got wildly disparate influences, but the three of us together have got real chemistry. It just works.” Embarking on the age-old process of playing gigs anywhere and everywhere, the trio bridged the gap between performer and audience wherever possible; printing up limited edition bootleg cds with hand stamped ‘bear paw’ prints and individual town crest stamps specific for each gig. Duly signed to renowned UK and US based record label, Communion, an inspired idea saw them conduct a U.S tour with Ben Howard, Nathaniel Rateliff and The Staves, crossing the States in a convoy of ’60s VW Camper Vans.
“That was the point we really bonded as a band,“ acknowledges Davie. “And it was the most comfortable we’ve ever been on tour too!” Debut EP Agape (from the Greek for ‘love’) saw them integrate highbrow lyrics into a musical landscape spanning English folk and dusty Americana. Follow up Without/Within was more progressive still, with breezy guitar pop, (Writing On The Wall) reflective dream-rock (Sahara Pt II) and banjo-laden laments (Don’t Let The Sun Steal You Away) emerging from within a panoramic wash of synth bass and guitar loops. None of which fully prepares you for Islands.
Recorded with long-term producer Ian Grimble (Travis/Manic Street Preachers) at Crouch End’s Church Studios, it’s lyrically both restrained yet richly descriptive, the product of Davie’s novelistic approach to songwriting. “I’ve always been interested in the way Raymond Carver and Ernest Hemingway leave room for interpretation,” he explains. “It allows the listener to have their own individual relationship with the songs.”
The music is similarly multi-tiered; Kev’s dynamic push and pull on the drums and Joey’s melodic banjo parts complemented by the atmospheric sweep of the arrangements. “I obsess over that stuff,” says Davie. “If a song starts with banjo it puts you in a place. Use a synth or an e-bow, and the whole tone is different.”
Consequently, the music wraps itself around the words and the places they chronicle. From the crumbling child-parent relationship in Above The Clouds Of Pompeii to widescreen anthem The Love We Stole to heart-breaking confessional Stubborn Beast. “That was the first song our manager heard and connected with,” says Davie. “The isolated nature of it embodies pretty much everything we’re trying to achieve express.”
If live favourite Bad Blood was always going to be the finale, it’s on the mesmeric When You Break where everything falls into place. “The whole record is about people at a breaking point, whether it’s coming of age, or their lives falling apart,” says Davie. “Both lyrically and sonically that’s where everything just gets too much.”
Musicologists will note debts to everyone from CSN&Y to Youth Lagoon to – particularly – Elliot Smith, but its Islands central message of hope which truly resonates in these desensitized times. Davie states: “It’s difficult to talk about, but I do feel people are looking for some kind of spiritual connection. We’re all caught up in this blind rush for gratification which doesn’t seem to be doing us any good. That’s where the lyric: “Guard your hope with your life” comes from in Elysium. It’s a simple sentiment but it’s honest. Ultimately, we’re trying to reach people and have a communal experience.”
Songs you can sing along to on the radio but which still glow in the dark – Islands might just be the album of 2014.