Boy & Bear’s fourth album, Suck On Light, is a record they feared may never come to exist. Their ambitions put on hold by singer Dave Hosking’s health issues, the band had to take time out from recording and touring and, for a few years, didn’t know if they’d ever get back in the saddle again. Four years after the release of their third album, Limit Of Love, 2019 sees the triumphant return of Boy & Bear, with a new album, a massive tour taking in dates across Australia, North America and Europe, and a new approach to the creation of their music.
We looked at each other when we were playing some of these shows and …it felt pretty special. It felt like a nice reunion for us being back on stageDave Symes
Around The Sound spoke to Boy & Bear bass guitarist, Dave Symes, down the line from the US, just before they set off on the North American leg of their tour.
“Our singer Dave Hosking had some health issues that have been niggling away at him for some years,” Symes told us, “and after the end of the Limit Of Love touring cycle, we decided we needed to slow down for a second to allow him to spend some time figuring out what was going on to see if there were treatments and ways forward for him to get better.
“This meant as a band we had to take a little bit of a pause. But, the rest of us didn’t really pause, we just started writing ourselves and it wasn’t long before Dave decided to join us. What we ended up doing was bunkering down in Sydney and setting up a permanent writing space in the house Dave was living in. We did that for a couple of years and we came together in four- to six-week blocks over those two years, take a break and then come back.”
Hosking’s health issues stretch back to Boy & Bear’s first album, 2011’s double-Platinum Moonfire, which won five ARIA Awards (including Album of the Year and Best Group) and landed three songs in that year’s Triple J Hottest 100. Though you wouldn’t have known it from the outside, he was suffering bouts of fatigue so severe that on occasion he’d be unable to stand.
The problems intensified during the recording of 2013 follow-up Harlequin Dream – the band’s first Number One album in Australia; it was also nominated for three ARIAs and Triple J’s Album of the Year. His emotional state started to decline and he was diagnosed with depression and anxiety.
Slowing down ‘for a second’ ended up in a four-year break in Boy & Bear’s career and, while they may have been working together creating new music, there was never any certainty about whether they’d ever be ready to release new music or tour again.
“During that time Dave was seeking treatment and we began to see some progress there and, even though it is still a little vague what’s going on he’s seen some positive results from some of the treatments. So, we’ve been chipping away and after a while we were ready to have that chat about are we ready to lock something in.”
The result of that chat is Suck On Light, a magnificent return for Boy & Bear that sees their song writing, production and recorded output take on new dimensions while still retaining the familiar Boy & Bear lilt that fans have come to love since their first offering, 2011’s Moonfire.
While we’d had some positive writing experiences there was always this cloud over us and the thought that we’re not going to be able to do this.Dave Symes
“Once we locked the record in, in terms of a time to do it, somewhere to do it and a producer, it was a bit of a positive turn for all of us, I think, because all of a sudden we had these goalposts to turn towards. While we’d had some positive writing experiences there was always this cloud over us and the thought that we’re not going to be able to do this.
“Once we had it locked in it was a chance for us to reflect on the writing we’d been doing, and in the last four months before we hit the studio some new songs were birthed with a new positive energy as well, which really balanced the album out in a nice way.”
Asked to elaborate on how the changes to their approach to song writing had impacted the band and their output, Syme told us, “I think, as a band our song writing has been evolving over the last three records towards where it is now. When the singer’s down, it means that we were encouraged or forced to write things from a different part of the ensemble. We started to do this a bit on the last record, but we really stared to do it on this record. It opened up our vocabulary as songwriters. The writing has evolved through some of the curveballs with Dave’s health and it’s helped us finesse how we do certain things. That ended up being a positive thing. In the end.”
Yes, in the end, but it was a tenuous journey that could have seen Boy & Bear lose their way. Instead, the latter half of 2019 sees them releasing Suck On Light and embarking on their most extensive tour for some time, if not ever.
Syme talked about how the band’s songs change as they play them live, saying, “When you get out on the road, the songs evolve as well. At the source, we’re a five-piece band. The songs are still alive right now, they’re taking on a whole new life as we play them live. When we play them a new kind of energy comes into the songs. We might change things slightly, because you’re playing them to an audience in different venues and you learn what you can push and pull and change. On the road, we just keep things building.
“We just did some shows in Australia, which were pretty exciting for us after being off the road for a little while. We thought we had some really great shows and we played quite a few of the new songs and we felt really supported with what we were doing and the new songs were well received.”
And getting back on the road was the moment when they shrugged off the uncertainty that had been dogging Boy & Bear for years now.
“We looked at each other when we were playing some of these shows and thought, ‘We’re actually really doing this.’ It felt pretty special. It felt like a nice reunion for us being back on stage.”
There’s a confidence and sure-footedness about the songs on Suck On Light that takes Boy & Bear into territory that few bands achieve.
Boy & Bear’s new album, Suck On Light is released on 27 September. Here’s Around The Sound‘s take on the new music from this much loved Aussie band.
Suck On Light is a strong return for Boy & Bear. In part a very personal journey through singer Dave Hosking’s health issues, the album could have gone south with his state of mind as he struggled to find wellness and the capacity to address the emotional and intellectual challenge of song writing. Instead, the music — even in it’s darkest moments, and there are plenty — sees Hosking and the band on the upswing.
Produced by the band and Collin Dupuis (Lana Del Rey, The Black Keys) in Nashville’s Southern Ground studios, and mixed in part by Grammy Award-winning mix engineer Tom Elmhirst (Arcade Fire, Beck, Lorde, Amy Winehouse), Suck On Light sees Boy & Bear taking experimental leaps with their song writing, building songs around beats, loops, music, instead of starting out with a lyric. This approach, partly forced on them by Hosking’s health issues, partly a result of the band’s determination to just keep moving forward, has them maybe a year or two behind schedule with delivery the album, but light years ahead with the music and arrangements of the songs.
There’s a confidence and sure-footedness about the songs on Suck On Light that takes Boy & Bear into territory that few bands achieve. They’ve been good for years now, really good, but Suck On Light sees them standing on the edge of greatness. This album is one people will listen back to for years and see in their mind’s eye where they were when they first listened to it, who they were in love with and what was happening in their interior lives. In a way it took us back to albums like The Verve’s Urban Hymns, it has that timeless feel about it.
But music always suffers by comparison, so forget that. Suck On Light is like Boy & Bear sitting on a verandah overlooking a beach somewhere. They’re stuck in the shade, a storm is coming and they can’t get out of its path. They just have to ride it out until the sun breaks through again. The 12 songs on this album are about what happens after you’ve ridden out the storm and the music draws on all the colours and tricks of the light that storms bring with them.