Australian indie-rock quintet Boy & Bear makes music that sounds like summertime. The warm guitars, sunny melodies and catchy hooks draw heavily on the musicians the rockers grew up listening to with their parents — a dash of Springsteen here, a helping of Crosby, Stills & Nash there, mixed well with some Fleetwood Mac. But Boy & Bear's music is all its own, from the beachy singalong "Southern Sun" to the break-up slow-burner "Three Headed Woman."
Drummer, vocalist and guitarist Tim Hart talked to 77 Square about tour food, songwriting and bears while the band was stopped in Kansas.
Are you playing in Kansas tonight?
No, we played in Kansas City last night — we’re driving on our way to Red Rocks, but we have to stop so the bus can stop. Something about not being able to drive (for that long). It’s gonna be an exploration this afternoon to find some food.
I read an interview with you from a while ago where you said you were dreading the food on tour. Have you been getting enough to eat?
In the cities, it’s fine. Americans really know what they’re doing with salads and with meat, which is great. And the burgers, oh my gosh. It’s so good. It’s when you’re in the middle of country towns and truck stops — it’s interesting. But that's OK. It’s like that anywhere in the world, except Germany and France.
You’re traveling with a tour bus now — that’s a pretty big step. Does that mean you’ve made it?
I don’t know! It’s fantastic. The bus is a wonderful thing. We can get off the stage and talk to a few people and go to sleep. I don’t know. It’s just a step in a long, many-runged ladder in the picture of a touring band’s life in America. We’ve got a long way to go (before we’ve made it). We’re very happy to be here. The crowds have been wonderful.
Do particular albums or songs get different reception in the different countries you’ve played in?
Yeah, of course. It’s always determined by if you’ve got radio in that place, which songs particularly suit a certain culture. The biggest difference we’re seeing is between the States and Canada. We thought it’d be very similar, but the shows we’ve played in Canada, they seem to know a lot of the first album as well. In the States, it’s more the second album. The first album never got released in the States or Canada, but Canadians being part of the Commonwealth or being closer in nature to Australians than people in the U.S., were more interested earlier. That’s been interesting for us.
It’s been an amazing responses from people in the States, knowing songs off the record — we never expected anything like that. We thought we’d be coming in with (small crowds), and it hasn’t been that. It’s been a really lovely surprise.
You guys have played a lot of festivals in the U.S. Now you’re headlining your own tour. What has that transition been like?
It’s great. We love festivals because you don’t know what you’re going to get. You don’t know what the crowds are going to be like. It’s a real challenge and we love that. We love the size of it. At the same time, you can’t really beat the headlining show because there are things (the audience) want to hear, certain songs. They’ve come there specifically with your music in mind. You feel like the whole crowd’s on your side straightaway. That’s been really great for us, going to headline shows in the U.S. and Canada.
It’s the beginning of a dream come true for us. Every young band has aspirations to do well in the States and in Europe. The fact that that’s happening … you kind of have to pinch yourself.
You tend to get described as a “folk-rock” band. Do you think that’s an accurate description?
I suppose so. A lot of times when people hear us live … I think there’s definitely folk elements. A lot of the bands I guess that we really aspire to are the bands our parents listened to — the Fleetwood Macs, the Americas, the Eagles of the world. Springsteen. There is some rock and roll, some folk rock, even some ‘70s pop sounding stuff. Maybe folk rock is a good way to describe it. You probably wouldn’t describe it that way in Australia, but it works here.
Do you worry about getting lumped in with the “Mumford and Sons” sound that’s so pervasive in popular music right now?
It’s funny — we love the Mumford guys — they’re obviously good mates with us. We really love what they do, they’re lovely people and they play great music. I don’t think anyone who sees our show would think we’re in the same vein.
I play the banjo for one song; that’s about enough for us (laughs).
I think it's a privilege to be compared to those guys. I don’t think those comparisons really happen anymore, though. I think we play a bit more of that ‘70s pop — Crosby, Stills & Nash, America. It’s a bit more comfortable. We’re looking forward to the next album they put out. I’m looking forward to seeing what they do next.
Does the record have an overarching theme?
Dave writes most of the lyrics. I think for him, stylistically, this album was moving to more of a narrative way of writing than more of an aesthetic way of writing. What I mean by that is, previously he wrote what sounded good to his ears. I think he’s writing stories more and more. The album tended to go in that way. It was a bit dreamy, a bit dark at times. I think it had a bit more sunshine on it than our first album did. I think that was a big progression for us. Writing with more of a narrative gave us an opportunity to feel like we’re telling stories, which enhances our live shows. I think that’s the biggest difference and signifier of this record.
What’s a Boy & Bear live show like?
I guess the biggest difference between our shows and a lot of the shows of our contemporaries are maybe — and I’m not making judgment on this at all — we don’t use any recorded tracks. Whatever you hear is what we’re playing. Our arrangements of the songs, we pick and choose the elements (from the recorded version). There’s no extra guitars, extra synths, extra vocals being played through the PA. We pride ourselves as a live band. We love playing the songs and we like to think of ourselves as an old-school band who just get up and play. If things go wrong, they go wrong, but at least people get the human factor.
Our live show is probably a bit more rocky than the record. We have a crack at pulling all the harmonies off, and sometimes we don’t and sometimes we do (laughs).
The shows are always really fun. We’re not all rock-and-roll and swearing at people and spitting beer on people in the front row.
That’s awfully nice of you. Also, I feel like I should check, since someone asked me. Some people might be expecting an actual bear at the show. That’s not the show, right? A real bear?
It is not. That might be dangerous. There might be some Occupational Safety and Health Administration restrictions that might mean we can’t do that. I’m not sure there’s ever been a bear.
Where does the name come from?
It’s really not a great story. Publicists always tell us, you need to come up with a better story for when we get asked this question, but I think the truth is the best story. The first thing we’d ever done was an EP called “With Emperor Antarctica,” and the first single, “Mexican Mavis” was getting released. We were sending it to radio stations, and we needed a name. Dave used a band name generator off Google, and we just chose the one we liked best. We’ve had to live with it now for five years.
What’s next for you guys?
We’ve got a whole bunch more touring this year. We’re back to Europe and the UK next month, in August and September, and then an Australian headline tour. We’re back here in the fall, doing shows in the fall. I know we’re doing Chicago (in the Midwest). The dates are out. Then we’re back to Europe to finish the year. I think we get home for Christmas, potentially. Then we’ll make a new record next year. We never stop.
You mentioned earlier that succeeding in the U.S. is part of the dream for most young bands. Why is that?
I can’t speak for the rest of the band, but for me personally … Australia’s 2 percent of the world music market. It’s really nice, as a fragile, slightly insecure human being for other people to listen to your music and to be able to spend your life doing something you love. It’s also mildly selfish at times.
America’s the biggest market in the world. A lot of the music we grew up listening to comes from here. It’s the music our parents listened to, and that comes with certain nostalgias. I guess it’s like any athletes. You want to compete on the highest level you can — but it’s not necessarily about competition. We want to be over here. I guess knowing that we can sort of survive and hopefully thrive in the biggest market in the world, and maybe also people will get a little bit of Australian flavor that they haven’t had before. We love playing live, getting the opportunity to do that. You can tour in Australia for 40 days, but you can do it over here for 150 days. We’re loving it at the moment.