Boy & Bear
Anyone who has seen five-time ARIA winners Boy & Bear perform will attest to their power as a live outfit – tight snaking rhythms, silky harmonies and intense instrumentals all propel the group’s shows to a level few modern bands can match. It’s not surprising then that, when the time came to return to the studio for the follow up to 2013’s Number One-charting, platinum-selling Harlequin Dream, Boy & Bear decided to make the most of their well honed performance chops, cutting their third album the old fashioned way – live to tape, with almost no overdubs or editing.
“Sometimes we only did two takes, and the most I think we did was ten,” explains frontman Dave Hosking, who recorded his vocals live with the band, something almost unheard of these days. “There are still a few overdubs – a bit of percussion and that sort of thing, but it was very selective. We’ve learned that sometimes, the more you put in, the smaller the song sounds. We didn’t want that this time.”
Recorded in the inspirational surroundings of Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studio – an open plan room filled with an abundance of natural light and space – Limit of Love captures a band at the height of their powers, both as performers and composers. Under the careful guidance of esteemed producer Ethan Johns (Ryan Adams, Kings of Leon, Kaiser Chiefs), Boy & Bear have crafted a collection of tunes bristling with energy and integrity. The live tracking approach – of which Johns is a huge advocate – highlights the magic of real musicians interacting together, making for an album that feels human and honest. Cut straight to 2-inch tape, there were no computers to hide behind – even Johns’ mix-down was done the old fashioned way, without automation, just hands on faders, a live performance in itself. And underpinning that approach was the core philosophy behind Limit of Love – worrying less about things being perfect, and more about them feeling good.
“For instance,” says Hosking, “the last song on the record, ‘Foxhole’, we’d only arrived five or six days before and my voice was tired and literally distorting at the end. I didn’t like the vocal take, but Ethan loved it, and I was like, ‘I’d like to do that again’. He was smiling and he wrapped his arm around me and said, ‘I’m not letting you do that again because it’s got something special in it.’ Now I love it!”
While that approach might have been daunting for most bands, given their recent history, Boy & Bear were eminently well prepared to hit the studio and essentially perform live. “Last year was the biggest touring schedule of our lives,” explains Hosking. “From November 2013 to December 2014, we did 170 shows. That was back breaking. On a good day it’s mind blowing and exciting, you’re travelling the world with your best friends, playing to great crowds, and on a bad day they’re your ‘colleagues’ and it’s minus-17 in Winnipeg and you’re playing to an empty room.”
That hectic schedule saw the band crisscross the globe, taking in the U.S., Canada and Europe on the back of solid support for their single, “Southern Sun”, which was the 10th most played track on the triple-A radio format in the United States in 2014. The group made important inroads on the trip – including a slot on Conan O’Brien – and cemented a solid fanbase almost everywhere they went. However, the grueling travel also had other consequences – Hosking, the band’s main songwriter, couldn’t find enough solitary downtime to write on his own as he had done in the past, and so he took a slightly different approach to composing Limit of Love.
“There were songs there, but there wasn’t enough material,” says Hosking. “Basically I said, ‘With everything that’s been going on, I don’t think I’m going to be ready to do this on my own,’ and the boys said, ‘We can do more on our end.’”
For the first time, Hosking collaborated with his bandmates – Killian Gavin, Tim Hart, Jon Hart and Dave Symes – on a number of songs right from their conception, rather than bringing mostly finished ideas to the table.
“So songs like ‘Showdown’, ‘A Thousand Faces’, and ‘Walk the Wire’ were all written literally from scratch with the five of us in there,” Hosking reveals. “I think it’s a great example of when the usual system isn’t operating, and you’re forced to do something different, how some really great results were yielded.”
Most of the writing for Limit of Love took place through the first half of 2015, including some particularly focused sessions on the N.S.W. South Coast. As they have done in the past, the band rented a house, shut out the world and let the creative juices flow. “We’ve gone down there over the last two records,” says Hosking. “We hire a house, usually two or three times before a record and then we just do demos and write. For me it’s like being a kid in a candy shop – just being with the boys, in a space where you have gear set up, you have fridge full of great food and wine, playing music and surfing. It’s a lot of fun.”
Those South Coast sessions gave the band time to really focus, not just on writing the songs, but also on the arrangements, which were more crucial than ever given the manner in which they were planning to record. “We had to think, ‘Every time we practice these songs, let’s get in the mind set for this live approach’,” explains Hosking. “It was a different way of thinking.”
Largely, those arrangements make up the core of the finished album, although Hosking admits Ethan Johns had a bit of input as a performer as well as a producer on some tracks. “The first song we recorded was ‘Breakdown Slow’. And we were setting up and Ethan was like, ‘Do you mind if I play with you guys when you record?’ And of course you don’t say no to Ethan because he’s a virtuoso. It was cool, he would drag out some weird instrument every time we’d set up for any song. Often it was a little synth or keyboard part that would change every take, and then get tracked down. Like, the synth stuff on ‘Showdown’ and ‘Just Dumb’ was done by Ethan.”
Those flourishes from Johns dovetail beautifully with the band’s own ideas – for instance, his synth parts are echoed nicely by Jon Hart on first single “Walk the Wire” and “Thousand Faces”, both of which had been planned that way during writing. With producer and band so in synch, the whole recording process was very organic, and Hosking credits Johns with giving the group the courage to work that way.
“What made it less intimidating is having someone like Ethan there. Because he’s not there saying, ‘Oh that’s a little bit pitchy, you’re just going to have to hit that better.’ He’s the one who differentiates good mistakes from bad mistakes.”
Those good mistakes add up to a great record, full of mature, subtle fresh material. There’s a new lightness and sense of fun to the groovy slink of the title track and the Eighties vibe of first single, “Walk The Wire”, not to mention the late night jam that propels “Just Dumb”, a song that “was a lot of fun to record,” according to Hosking. There’s also plenty of Boy & Bear’s trademark emotion: “Hollow Ground” wrestles with themes of “stubbornness”; “Breakdown Slow” shakes out some of Hosking’s inner demons, and the gorgeously raw “Man Alone” offers up an anthem to the sort of struggles of the heart we all know too well.
Limit of Love is Boy & Bear, captured in all their naked glory – honest, open and irresistible.