On a sunny late-August afternoon, the bearded, banjo-playing London-based Bear’s Den sat sipping tea in the courtyard of Berlin’s Michelberger Hotel, ready to discuss the trio’s next milestones. Possibly the hardest working three-piece in the business, Andrew Davie, Kev Jones, and Joey Haynes are no strangers to a life on the road: their warm, anthemic folk has filled far-flung venues throughout Europe and the United States, and this fall sees them embark on an extensive international run.
The band plays Berlin tonight, but not for the first time. What makes this visit extra special is that it’s to celebrate—finally—the release of debut album “Islands.” Released on Communion Records (more about that later), this first full-length follows three previous EPs, and is inextricably indebted to those formative touring years.
“Islands” sees some older, fan-favorite material in amongst the new, a combination that vocalist and songwriter Davie sees as vital: “Although a few people have heard those songs, not that many people have heard those songs. So, while we wanted new [material], we also wanted to make sure that the old ones were brought to justice, in a sense. Brought to justice? That’s what you say about criminals, isn’t it… er… do them justice, do them properly in the studio.”
“That’s the thing,” Jones (vocalist and drummer) jumped in. “I think a lot of the songs—the songs that people are aware of —we’d recorded when they were quite new. We wanted to revisit them and make sure that they were actually as we’d imagined them to be.”
As a live band first and foremost, Bear’s Den has a close-knit relationship with its fans that is a key ingredient to the writing process. Davie emphasized the influence that constant touring has, and its role in encouraging him to take a critical eye to his own material: “[Songs] grow up when we’re on tour. Audiences really shape songs. You figure out so much from playing live that you just can’t in a recording studio. That has been a huge part of [the new album] really; it’s been a journey with the audiences, sort of, to make the songs what they are.”
Bear’s Den has always had a homemade, organic kind of vibe: initially the three individually stamped every record they released, using an old-school potato print technique to leave a bear paw behind. However, it’s fast becoming apparent that this hands-on approach is somewhat “unsustainable.” Davie explained, “I think the time we clocked [when it was getting difficult] was when we had to do it on tour. We were out in…”
“Lawrence, Kansas!” supplied Jones.
“Yeah, and we were up the whole night just doing them all. Two, three thousand, and we had no one but a tour manager, no one else really to help on the ground,” finished Davie. “We’ll always try! We’ll just have to be a bit more creative from now on.”
After having independently released the three previous EPs, Davie admits that “now [we’re] with a label it’s a bit more complicated.” That said, they have more than a working relationship with Communion, the label in question: Jones himself is actually one of the founding members, alongside Mumford and Sons’ Ben Lovett and producer Ian Grimble. Communion is noted for its die-hard support of London’s (and now also New York’s) best up-and-coming youngsters, having discovered and nurtured artists like Ben Howard, Daughter, Willy Mason, and Deap Vally.
So how has Jones found working on his own project within this dynamic? “Well…” he paused, “you said, it’s hard to work with your family—but although you can’t choose your family you can… choose your… you know what I mean?”
“The family you choose isn’t your actual family?” suggested Davie.
“Yeah exactly. It’s just been really great to have loads of supportive people around, to help out other people, and just have a sort of… reciprocal level of respect. It’s been lovely!”
Davie added, “I just think Kev’s a really good example of what Communion’s all about. He works a lot with other writers and other people on projects, and I think that’s really really great. I’d find it really weird if the only thing any of us ever thought about was what I was writing—really weird. It keeps us fresh. It’s nice to help other people out.”
And Bear’s Den’s relationship with the Communion roster, and Mumford and Sons in particular, has led to the group playing some pretty spectacular venues, London’s Olympic Park and the gigantic o2 Arena included. Not many bands can claim a show of that size, especially before they’ve even released an album. Was it scary?
“YES,” shouted Davie and Jones unanimously. “It’s crazy,” continued Jones. “It’s definitely way more scary before you go on, but once you’re there it’s actually less nerve-racking than the smaller ones. You forget that there’s a huge distance between you and the front row—that 20 meters is almost like you’re shielded, or on TV.”
“Plus, there’s a big difference between supporting bands on these stages, and headlining them. We can’t take much credit; we’ll let Mumford and Sons have a little bit of that. But the day that we go, and we’re the band on at 9.30pm rather than 7.30pm… it does make a big difference, and it will be very special—if it ever happens!”
Bear’s Den plays tonight at Kantine am Berghain in Berlin. The show begins at 21.00.