If, as Thomas Jefferson said, “honesty is the first chapter of the book of wisdom,” then the debut album from Bear’s Den would make King Solomon proud. The British trio – Andrew Davie (vocals, guitar), Joey Haynes (vocals, banjo) and Kevin Jones (vocals, drums) – recently released “Agape” (ag-ah’-pay) to widespread critical acclaim.
After playing music in various incarnations, the London-based threesome officially formed the exceptional band in 2012. Their melancholic melodies, heartfelt lyrics and emotive harmonies quickly gained them a legion of loyal fans.
After solidifying their identity as a band through extensive touring with Of Monsters and Men, Ben Howard and Matt Corby among others, Bear’s Den turned their focus to studio recordings with the help of Ben Lovett’s independent taste-making label Communion Records.
“Agape” is the extraordinary result. Davie took the time recently to chat about the singular release and its straightforward brilliance. Although a veteran of touring, Davie was understandably thrilled at the release of the band’s freshman effort.
“It’s still really exciting for us. It slightly changes because when you play shows and nobody knows your music really, there’s no expectation at all of you being good or bad. So it’s sort of anything you do that’s not terrible will probably go down okay (laughing).”
“But it’s nice when people know the words and know the songs and they’re part of that team as well. It feels like it’s as much theirs as ours. Just making sure we do it justice for them is how we feel about it when we’re performing. And it’s really good fun. It is really amazing.”
“We’ve just been so fortunate that we’ve been asked to go on a few support tours with some really nice people in the U.K. Obviously Mumford and Sons and The Vaccines and people like that. Touring with them is just such a huge and wonderful opportunity. And they’re such lovely people that if it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t be able to have done it.”
Not only has the band benefited from the exposure to new audiences, but Bear’s Den has obviously learned musical lessons as well.
“They’ve always really been friends. I mean personally, I’ve known Ben for about six or seven years before Mumford and Sons were a band and anything we started doing. It’s always been the kind of friendship where people help each other out and give advice to people on songs. It’s that kind of atmosphere.”
“Communion as a label has been really helpful for us and we have an understanding. We’re in a world where most record labels are not very understanding of what the band actually needs, in terms of how much touring bands really have to do now, if you want to do it the way we’re doing it. Communion really has understood that and pushed us forward to do that and said ‘we want you guys to be on the road as much as possible.’ That’s kind of how it works.”
Touring with experienced musicians has been a matchless opportunity for Bear’s Den. But even that couldn’t have fully prepared the band for the daunting task of selecting tunes for their debut, much less a debut EP.
“For us it was more just, these are the five songs that felt like they all worked together. We wanted to make something that you can listen to and it kind of feels like it’s all from the same place. And that’s how it worked really.”
“When it comes to doing our (full-length) album that will probably be a much trickier process. But the EP wasn’t too tricky deciding on what to do. Hopefully by that time, we’ll have quite a lot more songs.
“We’ve already got quite a few songs that we’re working on behind closed doors that we’re really excited about. So yeah, it should be really exciting – can’t wait until we get to playing more songs.”
While the band’s affecting lyrics and sound are perfectly suited for connecting with an intimate live audience, capturing the same feeling in the studio can be difficult.
“To be honest, we were all working with this really talented bloke named Christopher Harris, who’s in an amazing band called the Story Books. This was one of the first times I’ve worked with someone who really understood how much lyrics and all that meant to us as a band.”
“He was really sensitive toward that and really sensitive to the performances of everything that we did. So it didn’t really feel it was too difficult. If you’re with the right people, it becomes a lot easier.”
It would also seem that the band’s impassioned melodies might not translate to a festival stage. But Davie declared that it was really all the same to him.
“Sometimes it’s quite interesting on this tour, which is not really a very common tour to be on for us and probably won’t happen again for us for the foreseeable future – maybe never. These are very big venues.”
“But the festivals, there’s loads of people who sort of race in at the very beginning of the day to try to make sure that they’re there for Mumford and Sons. And they’re this crowd who are really, really attentive and they’re listening as if they’re at a church.”
“It’s really incredible. It’s been really lovely, just showing up and knowing that before you walk on there’s this cheer and the crowd is behind you. We’re not really big fish at all, so it’s lovely to have people support us like that.”
“We feel very welcome and we just want to go out there and give it everything we’ve got. Raw performances and all that kind of stuff is the least we can do if people are going to give us the chance to perform. We want to make sure we deliver, you know, make sure we give them as much as we can.”
Fans will appreciate that kind of an attitude no matter where they’re at around the globe. But Davie confessed that there are certain differences between crowds in the U.K. and the U.S.
“There are slight differences. It’s hard to put your finger on them. People have been so friendly and so nice to us. They’ve really got behind us since when we’ve started playing, which has been really lovely.”
“That is something that happens in England too. I just think the English are slightly more reserved than Americans are when it comes to showing their appreciation, which as a performer is so nice to play and feel like the crowd is behind you. So yeah, we absolutely love it. Every show on this tour has just been such a blast for us. It’s been amazing.”
No doubt it’s been amazing for the music fans as well as they’ve witnessed the incredible vocal fusion of the three bandmates. The trio’s harmonic elation is unmistakable to listeners – and to Davie.
“To be honest, we all really, really love singing harmonies together. It’s one of those things that when we sing in harmony, it’s an amazing feeling and everyone should do it. It’s just so much fun. We spend quite a lot of time just working on them and trying to make them as good as we can.”
“And there’s different types of harmonies. There’s more distinct ones you can do. But if you really want to try and do something more interesting, it’s a whole world there if you want to explore it. We’re all so interested in it and how if you have a harmony, you can totally change the way you listen to something. It can shed a whole new light on something in a really strange way. That’s so exciting when you have that.”
Of course the quality of the harmonies shouldn’t surprise anyone given the fact that Davie and Jones have worked together before. “Yeah. Me and Kev used to be in a band called Cherbourg together about five years ago maybe. And then we kind of went our separate ways a little bit and I really didn’t know what I was doing.”
“About two years ago, we decided to start again and we started writing songs together. From there we met Joey along the way and he’s just been amazing ever since we met – really, really talented guy. He’d been playing in a bunch of bands and he’d been studying music in Liverpool. It kind of all went from there really.”
The new album is the best evidence of the chemistry between the trio of musicians. It’s also a definitive statement about the importance of “agape” – the love of humankind – as a life philosophy.
“To be honest, yeah. For me the whole EP was about being more open about things,” explained Davie. “There are risks with it. I’m not as good in person at being open as I am in the music. It sounds really cheesy, but I think I was just trying to be a bit more open with people in everything, not hide anything away.”
“And for me, something about the word ‘Agape’ gave a new impetus to the word love. It sounds like a door is opening or something. For me it just became this thing about being open with the people you care about.”
If you listen closely you’ll hear the sound of a thousand doors opening…and that’s anything but cheesy.