By now, Boy & Bear have written enough earworms to have infiltrated every household in Australia at least the once over.
While Boy & Bear: The Musical might still be some years away, allow me to assuage your fears; their new album, Limit Of Love, provides enough catchy melodies to keep you distracted until that fateful future matinee. In fact, the Sydneysiders’ third LP may actually be their strongest yet, blending all their preceding strengths into a record brimming with character. Having performed 170 dates last year alone, the fact they even found time for an album is impressive enough, yet as bassist Dave Symes explains, it was on the road where they first began to sense the shape this next phase of their music was going to take.
“Harlequin Dream came out August 2013, and obviously we did a lot of touring from that,” Symes says. “It was an amazing time. We got to play three European tours, three American tours and three Australian tours, and [Limit Of Love] started during that time on the road. We’re always looking towards the next project, which I guess is true of most artists. You always want to be writing and making new music. So some songs definitely came about on the road. We’d be at soundchecks and try out stuff here and there. But most of the writing started in February. We’d go down to Berry and rent a house, and we’d also had a place a little earlier up at Macmasters Beach.
“We did three or four writing trips where we’d set up all the instruments, have a bit of a surf in the morning and then come back to do a bunch of writing, record a few demos, until we went in to record in May. But all that time touring we were talking about music, about the kind of record we wanted to make.”
It has been a remarkable trajectory for a band that started in the shadow of the Mumford & Sons-headed modern folk movement. Since 2009, Boy & Bear have found themselves supporting some incredible artists – Laura Marling, Angus & Julia Stone and Mumford & Sons themselves, to name but a few – and in the course of their own headline touring have worked hard at fostering a live reputation that keeps the band and audience riding the same wave.
The development of their sound has been a fascinating thing to behold, and on Limit Of Love there are echoes of both 2011’s Moonfire and its follow-up, Harlequin Dream. Yet as Symes explains, these songs do not develop in a vacuum; central to their innovation is stepping back and allowing each to find its own life onstage.
“I think there are a few tunes on Harlequin Dream that could fit on this record; there’s definitely a bit of a marriage between the two. What happened on Harlequin, there was a step in a certain direction of writing music together, expanding our sound, and I think that got more refined with Limit Of Love. I really, really think that comes from performing live. You learn so much there about songs and songwriting, about what you want to do different next time. Not feeling the need to add more, to trust the most basic elements of a song. ‘How does it feel to play it live? How do those chords work, how does it work with the melody?’ I think from playing all those shows last year, performing the band’s repertoire side by side and seeing which [songs] work best, it made Limit Of Love the best of both that came before.”
It is therefore quite fitting that lead single ‘Walk The Wire’ had its premiere at this year’s Splendour In The Grass. An anthemic, catchy number, it grabs you from the first bar and clings on tight (though another highlight is ‘Hollow Ground’, a track Symes describes as their Beach Boys/Beatles throwback). It is easy to hear the truth to Symes’ words; listening to these tracks is to summon the sounds of summer, of festivals and music beneath gentle skies and cooling winds. As it turns out, the secret to Limit Of Love relied on the band having the faith to step back and let the songs call the shots.
“I think if you let your ears tell you what’s right and what’s wrong, if you trust yourself and trust the band, hopefully the music can almost take care of itself. Overthinking and overplanning doesn’t really let a song grow. Prior to this album there was a lot of discussion about what the record would be, because you’re always trying to move forward and improve on something that you didn’t get quite right the last time. What was strong, what wasn’t. So you’re always trying to create something that represents your new time and place. Usually we’re just there letting the song dictate where it wants to go, and hopefully we don’t get in the way too much. You just want to let yourself be driven forward.”
Which, you imagine, is precisely the time when having a diplomatic touch would come to the fore. With everyone in the band having fronted their own projects in the past, there are many hands tinkering with the Boy & Bear engine. It is a creature of equality, with each of the five members encouraged to bring their own distinct colour to the canvas.
“I think that’s the nature of writing music,” says Symes. “Having five different musical opinions all coming together, you’re suddenly drawing from a big pool of styles and influences and tastes. ‘Hollow Ground’ might not be everyone’s cup of tea when it’s first brought to the table, but by the end it’s amazing how everyone is totally on the same page, all because of an individual vision. It’s the same with something like ‘Walk The Wire’, which are very different songs. But that said, you look at them in the context of the album and I think they work really well together. I think there are common threads, and a lot of that can be traced to our live shows. It builds variety.”
With the album release just days away, and another string of international performances around the corner, there is precious little time for the band members to sit back and enjoy the fruits of their labour. As Symes says, Boy & Bear want to keep driving forward, and who knows what shape their next few years will take? They will keep following the songs, of that there is no doubt; keep trusting the music to know its own soil. As such, while my next suggestion is not dismissed out of hand, neither does Symes sound all that convinced.
“Boy & Bear: The Musical? Wow. Would anyone go? For now, we’re just excited to be getting the album out, then the tour. Later we want to do the same thing as last time – do a big regional tour. We’ve already started working on some new songs; we did some rehearsals of them last week. I think we had such a fun time making this record, it was so pleasurable and inspiring to work on, that we came out thinking, ‘We’re not burned out, we’re not exhausted. We’re kind of hungry to keep going.’ I think working on another record isn’t too far away.”
Suffice to say, stay tuned for Boy & Bear On Ice, coming soon to an imaginary arena near you.