Interview: Andrew Davie of Bear’s Den on how the pandemic influenced their songwriting

Credit: Bennie Curnow

How car journeys to school with his teacher father made him the songwriter he is today.

Like many bands, Bear’s Den have had to endure the challenges of the pandemic and adapt to the post-pandemic world. Similar to a lot of musicians, the enforced downtime experienced because of lockdown also had the perverse benefit of allowing the band to review their priorities and recharge their creative batteries. The band was formed in 2012 by Andrew Davie, Kevin Jones, and Joey Haynes, who left in 2016, the same year they were nominated for Artist of the Year and Song of the Year at the UK Americana Awards. Heavy touring has been a key part of their success in building an audience in Europe and America, as well as the UK. The band have a new album for 2022, ‘Blue Hours’, and a tour that takes in Europe, the UK, and America. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Andrew Davie in his Brussels hotel over Zoom to discuss how the pandemic changed the band’s approach to songwriting with a more personal theme to ‘Blue Hours’, how they really enjoyed recording ‘Blue Hours’ in the same room after such a long period of isolation, the real joys of being able to tour again, and how his own recent fatherhood helped inspired a song about dementia. He also shares the role his teacher father had in developing his songwriting skills during the car journeys to school and laid the foundation for his lifelong appreciation of Bob Dylan.

How easy was it to get over to Europe for your tour?

I’m sure lots of people were really stressed out about it, but I didn’t know anything about it, haha. From my experience, I think a few things are trickier and there are a few hidden costs that weren’t previously there pre-Brexit, but my experience of it has been remarkably plain sailing. If I’m honest, I think we employ people who are good at their job and great at creating an illusion, haha.

Your new record ‘Blue Hours’ deals with mental health, why did you feel the need to be so open in your songwriting?

I think there wasn’t a lot else to do. Personally, when I write it is normally about things that are going on, stories about people, and big life moments, and a lot of that was on pause. I think for us we had spent the ten years prior to the pandemic pretty constantly just traveling around the world playing gigs, and actually when the wheels on the bus stop you are left in a pretty bizarre headspace. I guess the story rather than being about other people or other people’s relationships, has become about the inner workings of how I personally process things, or how I see the world, or whatever. I think within that the overarching theme became that sort of slightly inner-monologue universe, rather than the storytelling thing. It perhaps became a bit more personal and introspective than normal, and I think we were already quite introspective, haha. That was the challenge for us, certainly, haha.

Did you find writing those songs helpful in any way?

It was helpful. Like anything, I didn’t just sit down and go this is all going to be about this, honestly, I  just found it really difficult to write anything during the pandemic, like a lot of my friends. I think we are all quite good when the world is still moving, being introverted but wanting to pull away from that and write about it, but if the world stops moving as well then there is not really a lot to inspire you at all, and I did find that tricky. To be honest, I was really struggling to write something that was good enough and felt exciting to us, and now when I look back at it I can see how it was a little bit different and not like normal because you are not writing about specific situations you are almost writing about a feeling or a mood, more than about specific events in your life. I think in the past I have nostalgically looked back on something and put it in a box with a ribbon and a bow around it or something like that, but this was definitely more abstract than that. It was one of the most abstract times we all, hopefully, will ever have to live through. It was a very surreal experience.

Has the experience changed your approach to songwriting, or is it just an aberration?

I just wish I was in more control of it all, haha. I’m offering a response to what I’m dealt a little bit I think, if we have two weeks to make an EP or something, we can make an EP in two weeks. If we are stuck in lockdown then we can try and do a full album but it took a while and we had to get there a different way. I think as a band we are pretty good at adjusting to pretty bizarre parameters. I don’t know whether it has changed it forever, it might of, but I’m really proud of this album, and I think in a weird way it consolidates a lot of things we have been thinking about. I’m proud of the lyrics and I’m just excited for people to be able to hear it if I’m honest.

How did you record ‘Blue Hours’, is it a pandemic record?

The writing was very pandemicy, and then Kev and I kind of got our heads together towards the end of last year, then we went into an amazing studio in London, RAK Studios,  and worked with Ian Grimble who produced ‘Islands’, and he also produced ‘Fragments’ the orchestral record we did. I think it was just so nice to be back in a room with those two guys, and then we had an amazing engineer Duncan Fuller, and then all the session musicians, and then all the musicians we play with live came in a lot, Christof, Harry, Julian, and Marcus. It was the opposite of a pandemic record, and it was our first time not being alone. It was very collaborative, very social, and we were collaborating with a saxophonist in America who was sending us his ideas by email. We then worked with Sally Herbert who did an incredible string arrangement for a bunch of songs, she came in with a quartet and put us all musically to shame by how quickly they got their takes done, haha. I think the ‘Blue Hours’ lyrical journey was an isolated one, but musically it is a celebratory and collaborative thing, and I think that is a very nice combination. We definitely didn’t want to come out with an album that was difficult and that is it, when we perform live we want there to be a catharsis, we don’t want to get ourselves in a hole.

Dementia is touched upon on the record, why did you feel this was important to share?

I’ve just become a dad, and as well as all the emotions that go with that I’ve also begun to think about being a son as well. I’ve thought about my parents a lot more in a slightly different way which is what you do when you become a parent. My mother had dementia and my grandfather on my mother’s side had dementia, and I was interested in the idea of this middle ground between two generations. One of them is building up their memories, and another’s memories are slipping away, it is really interesting and it is one of the most literal songs I’ve ever written. A friend asked me how my mum was doing, and I made a joke saying she doesn’t remember much of the last five years, those five years have been very difficult for other reasons, and so I said perhaps she just has selective memory, and I started writing that. Then all this other stuff about being a dad and that relationship in a bit more detail just came out. So that is where that one is coming from.

What do you hope listeners will get out of listening to the ‘Blue Hours’?

I think it is one of those things that you can’t really control, haha, though one might wish you could. I think all I ever try and do is try and write things that mean something to me, and feel as honest to me as they possibly can. Often the more uncomfortable it is initially to write it, then the more truthful I think it is. The harder it is to write the more I think I get out of it, and the more the audience can relate to it in the long run. For me, it is a record that deals with mental health and it deals with a few other issues as well, dementia and things like that. If anyone is going through anything like that or they can relate to it in any way and feel slightly less alone, or less hurt, then that is positive. I think I use songwriting because I am not a very good communicator in person, but I’m trying to talk about difficult things, and I think music can play a role in that, and songwriting can play a role in that. It can help you access things that are difficult to access. My dream would be that if it can be of any use to anyone, that would be amazing. If people could relate to it or see themselves in it, even if it is just one person, then that would be really amazing.

How did your collaborations with animator and visual artist Mawrgan Shaw come about?

We were really interested in the idea of animation, and I saw some of her drawings as well which were incredible because she has just a unique style, and she was interested in doing something. I think we are always interested in doing things in a longer form as well. When we find an artist we really like we are also keen to provide a platform for them to do something special. We noticed that the songs ‘Shadows’ and ‘Spiders’ had this sort of dual perspective thing going on. So initially it was just for ‘Spiders’ we were looking at, and then we wanted to make this one piece for ‘Shadows & Spiders’ to see what would happen. We took these tiny ideas and turned them into this beautiful video, she is very, very talented and we feel very lucky to have worked with her. Also with Ryan Anderson who is a very different, but equally fascinating, animator, and he did the video for ‘Blue Hours’.

Are we seeing a continuation of Bear’s Den or are we seeing some form of relaunch?

It is hard to know. I think in a way everyone has to relaunch after what we have all been through. For us, I think it feels like a consolidation in a way, for a long time we have been experimenting with musical ideas and stuff, and I think we had a tendency to overcomplicate with loads of ideas flying around, and I think on this album we were really keen to try to keep things down. Again it is the same with the lyrics and the music, it is just trying to be as concise as possible, and not being afraid to present that stuff bravely and boldly and just go for it. Having this thought at the back of our heads about this moment when you are about to play a gig in Brussels, and you play these songs for the first time and making it a moment we all recognise the crap we have gone through, but also making it celebratory so that we will have this shared very difficult experience. Hopefully, it will unify us, not that that is the case politically, but at a small level, there is a very beautiful thing happening with a lot of people’s first gig back which is a message we keep getting. We want it to be like we have all been through something difficult, so let’s have a few drinks and get cracking and make good music, and stuff, is how we see it.

You’ve had a 6-month lead-in to the full release of ‘Blue Hours’, what has the response been like?

It has been really lovely. We are always worried people aren’t going to get stuff. This is all sorts of different stuff I suppose, ‘Blue Hours’ feels like quite a different song for us, it is a high-energy song and it is the first song we have played live and it is so much fun to play. ‘Frightened Whispers’ is a song we have been trying to get on an album for a couple of years, we have been praying to get that one done. ‘All That You Are’ is a really old song that has been going down really well. It is hard to know how much you can read into things on Spotify and streaming data or whatever, but it appears people are enjoying it, which is really nice. It is always nice to get the feeling people are liking what you are doing, haha.

Credit: Bennie Curnow
Is Bear’s Den still a duo?

Yeah, very much so. I think it has had to become a slightly different type of duo. I will get the ball rolling with some chords and some words, and sometimes it is pretty close to where it ends up, and sometimes it goes bananas and that is a million miles away from where it ends up. The identity of the band is really forged when we get our heads together just before we record stuff. That is when we figure out what the songs are trying to do, from there it is a duo and it is also on another level a six person band that includes the four guys who play with us live, and who also recorded with us. Julian is an amazing drummer, and we write like electronic drum ideas and then he comes in and does the actual drums, and it is like, OK that is so much better, haha. It is the same with Marcus who plays synths, I’ve got a bunch of synthesisers at home and I love playing them, but he is so good at playing them, he is like a total genius at it. So it is their expertise as well, and Kev and I dream stuff up a bit, but then those guys really help us chisel away at it. So very much still a duo, really, and a bit of a bigger band as well, haha.

What are the dynamics of the duo, and how does it work?

When we started out we always had this idea, and there were three of us originally with Joey Haynes, that we didn’t want to be one of those bands where there is a designated bassist, guitarist, and drummer, we wanted to make sure it was something that was quite fluid so that people could do whatever the song needed. Joey ended up playing banjo a lot, or electric guitar a lot, Kev was on drums usually and then moved to bass guitar, or sometimes electric guitar and sometimes he plays piano, and I’m now playing piano as well. So for us, I think it is this ever-evolving thing where we are often not playing our best instrument, that’s for sure, haha, and between the two of us, I think there is just this nice chemistry. I will often start with an idea, but then Kev will have an idea that throws it into an interesting space that immediately feels a bit different and more unique. So I think we just bounce off each other, and we also inspired each other, I suppose. We build up demos ourselves, and then present them to whoever is producing our album and our band, who are like, you are totally crazy but we actually know what you are trying to do, and then we all just figure it out, haha.

What are you hoping to achieve when you take the tour to America?

I really love touring America and Canada, I’m so infatuated with music that has come from those places, all my favourite songwriters. I’m so excited, and it is hard to put a specific thing on it. I feel we are a very lucky band, and we have toured a lot over in America, and we might not be sort of playing these huge arenas and theatres and things, but we kind of play everywhere. I think a lot of bands are East Coast and West Coast and that’s it, and I think we are fortunate we can dig our way into Middle America. I think we might be playing a few places we haven’t played before, as well. I am just so excited about being there really, haha.

Who inspired you to become a songwriter, who do you really admire?

The main person is Bob Dylan. My dad taught at the school I went to when I was a kid, and when he drove me in he was either listening to classical music or Bob Dylan, or The Kinks, or The Rolling Stones. I remember I really liked both The Kinks and The Rolling Stones, but whenever he put on Bob Dylan it felt bizarre to me and I really loved it. I also remember he would just go, “What does that line mean?”, and my dad teaches Latin and he translates Greek plays as a hobby, and he is just obsessed with language, I guess, and with Bob Dylan. He was basically teaching me how to write songs in the car, without him being a songwriter himself. You would be listening to ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and he would stop it and ask me what did a lyric mean. I was like, I don’t know and he was like, well just think about it. I kind of realised from that, that this isn’t just like pop music where lyrics are there as placeholders for something, you can have a pretty amazing dialogue with an audience and be pretty profound through music. I think when I realised you could do that, I was like I need to learn guitar so I can write songs. That was it for me. In the beginning, it was very much the songwriting, and the music was really secondary, and as I get older I’m more and more concerned musically with what is going on. I think once upon a time they were quite separate entities, but nowadays I think songwriting is so musical I don’t think it is as easy to separate the song from the music, as perhaps it once was.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums, or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?

I’ve definitely been listening to the new Arcade Fire album, ‘We’, which is really interesting. Whenever they release an album I’ve always been very curious about what they are up to because their early records inspired me so much. I absolutely love the ‘Father John Misty’ album which I think is bizarre, but I kind of adore it as well, and I think it is really, really special. Pheobe Bridgers is part of the new breed of songwriters, and I think she is so brilliant, and she has a song out called ‘Sidelines’ and I think it is so good. When it first came out I listened to it probably ten times in a row in the car, I thought it was so brilliant. I think she is a really good storyteller, and that is so rare, especially to be as popular as she is. When someone can achieve it, for me it is a triumph of an art form, and really good songwriting meant the world to me growing up and really shaped who I am, so when I hear it done well with people relating to it on a big scale, I just have to champion it, and she is so good. Not that she needs me to tell her that, haha.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our UK readers?

Hopefully, we will see some of you at a gig down the line, and we really appreciate the support. I just hope some of the readers hear the album and enjoy it.

Bear’s Den’s ‘Blue Hours’ is out now on Communion Records.

About Martin Johnson 378 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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