Boy & Bear
Boy & Bear have weathered a personal and professional storm to deliver their fourth album, Suck On Light. It’s a record they feared might never come to exist.
Yet it’s the very challenges they faced over the past three years, as vocalist-guitarist Dave Hosking battled a debilitating illness, that pushed them to create their finest album to date; a record that takes the trademark analogue warmth of their sound and pushes it to places the Sydney quintet have never before explored.
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), you can hear the progression in the elastic bass and malleable, lower-East Side ’70s grooves of ‘Bird Of Paradise’; the psych-pop overtones of the harmony-drenched ‘Telescope’; and the trippy, head-bending melodies and claustrophobic mood of ‘Dry Eyes’. You can also hear the darkness of Hosking’s journey, perhaps best summed up in the opening line of the title track: “I didn’t even try to stand/My world was on fire now and there was nothing I could do.”
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 – as the singer experienced what he calls “a lag effect on the world around [him], almost as if things were glitching”. His emotional state started to decline and he was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. “What I didn’t realise at the time was that my cognition was deteriorating,” he explains.
After a hellish touring cycle for 2015’s ARIA-nominated Limit Of Love – yet another Number One album, and the product of the band writing as a collective for the first time after Hosking’s condition robbed him of the ability to piece together lyrics and complete songs – one of the singer’s doctors detected signs of what they now believe to be a gut bacterial issue that had been poisoning his nervous system. He was prescribed a treatment called Faecal Microbiota Transplant (FMT), which when administered daily alleviated some of his symptoms.
By the start of 2017, the band – which also features guitarist Killian Gavin, drummer Tim Hart, bassist Dave Symes and keyboardist Jon Hart – were in a strange kind of limbo, having made the decision to spend the year off the road to give Hosking time to attend to his health. This at a point where they’d laid the groundwork for significant overseas success following a 163-date international tour off the back of Harlequin Dream, which included sold-out shows across the US and Europe; back home they were playing the biggest headlining gigs of their career in rooms such as Sydney’s Hordern Pavilion, Brisbane’s Riverstage and Melbourne’s Festival Hall.
Throughout 2017 and into 2018 the remaining members would gather regularly and write, uncertain of their future, but certain that they had to do something. “It was super difficult to see someone you love going down and not being able to do much,” says Gavin, who co-founded the band in 2010. “But to be honest it was also super stressful because you’re wondering, what’s going on with our life? You don’t really know.”
As the FMT treatments took hold and Hosking began to make minor improvements, he started to find solace in attending these writing sessions, even if on some days all he could do was mumble a melody into the microphone.
“We had demos for a year-and-a-half with no lyrics, just jargon, but you know a good melody when you hear it,” says Gavin. “It got exciting.”
By mid-2018 Hosking was fit enough to contribute to the writing. Not surprisingly, his lyrics drew heavily on his health battles.
“I didn’t want the record feeling too heavy lyrically from start to finish though. It had to find different angles for what was going on. There are some really uplifting songs; there are a lot of songs about what you get from those challenges, the rewards from those challenges; but then some songs are really dark.”
For evidence of the latter he points to the despondent ‘Long Long Way’ and ‘Dry Eyes’, the latter written from a place of complete hopelessness as he sings: “There’s no paradise life/In an empty freeze/No kingdom of light/Looking out for me”. “That song feels like a bad dream,” he nods. “It was the one song where I went there.”
At the other end of the spectrum is ‘Work Of Art’, in which Hosking revels in the simple joys of nature – with each gradual improvement in his health his senses would come to life a little more, meaning he could appreciate the smells and sounds around him. Another uplifting moment comes in the uptempo, almost New Wave surge of ‘Telescope’, in which he sings: “Just my luck, I found a place high amongst the constellation.”
“It’s a reference to finding the space in your mind that allows you to deal with something that’s really traumatic and difficult,” he explains.
To protect the purity of their musical vision, the band wrote a brief for the album; a clear memorandum of exactly how they wanted it to sound, and how they would achieve it. “We still wanted ’70s tones, ’70s drum tones and guitar tones, we still wanted to embrace harmonies, but we wanted to push it more into the 21st Century and mess with it a little bit, more than we had in the past,” says Hosking.
Another key aspect of that brief was their decision to self-produce.
“We’ve had a lot of experience recording now,” says Gavin. “So we definitely made a conscious decision to run the ship and look for an engineer who can capture sounds, but also be an input when need be.”
That engineer was Collin Dupuis, with whom the band decamped to Southern Ground studios in February and March. The sessions were characterised by a stronger sense of camaraderie and collaboration than ever before, a by-product of both the band’s belief in the new material and the hurdles they’d overcome to get to this point.
“Everyone was bouncing ideas off each other, and the ideas were being caught by someone else and charged forward,” says Gavin. “It was really fast and really exciting, and because we’d done the brief we knew exactly what we wanted to do and how to achieve it.”
While Hosking’s health remains a work in progress, the fact that he and the band have reached this point is nothing short of a triumph. Motivation was never hard to find.
“I’d tasted what it was like to have a pretty good life, playing music and surfing and travelling the world and hanging out with your mates,” smiles the singer. “That was a pretty good goal to get back to.”