“Oh, I’m terrified I’ll achieve nothing at all.” – Boy & Bear, ‘Big Man’.
This is absolutely the last thing that Australia’s indie-folk darlings Boy & Bear have to worry about. The band has had a whirlwind twelve months filled with nothing but achievements after having released their sophomore album, Harlequin Dream, and then embarking on a set of tours that have yet to provide the boys with rest.
Having just concluded an international tour – including their second appearance at American festival South By South West – and never ones to rest on their laurels, they’ve returned and promptly booked a massive 30-date regional tour of their homeland. They’re showing no signs of slowing down.
Gemma Varcoe spoke with Boy & Bear’s keyboardist, Jon Hart, about the shows, their success, and growing as a band.
Gemma Varcoe: You’ve been touring extensively for quite a while now, how was the US and the UK?
Jon Hart: Yeah, they were pretty incredible. It’s been what seems like a long year already, so we started in the UK in February, crossing into Europe, and then the US and Canada. I guess they were, for their own various reasons, great places to visit and tour. It’s nice being in other countries and being able to play your music.
G: On an international level, which crowds have been the most receptive to your music?
J: Maybe in the Netherlands, I think we have a bit of a thing happening. It seems people know about things in the Netherlands a bit more. I think the Canadian crowds were great, but then the American ones were too. I guess Germany, Netherlands, and then pockets of America and pockets of Canada. We saw interesting things, like in America, it seemed like people knew the newer material better. Like they knew ‘Southern Sun’ ‘cause there’s been a bit of radio play, but then in Canada it’s like people knew the first album a bit better, so you’d get a good response to different songs. We found that an interesting thing to see.
G: That’s sweet! How was South By South West, was it different to the last time you guys played there?
J: Yeah, it was different to last time. I mean the festival itself is pretty similar. It’s just complete madness. It’s a sea of people, within I guess a few city blocks, and then they have all these little venues, and if you’re playing, you kind of have to lug your gear in amongst through the crowds of people who are walking along the street. During the festival it’s just all blocked off, it is just people walking everywhere. I think we played four shows on the first day we were there, and then we played maybe three on the second. So we kind of don’t really have time to know what’s going on. But at the same time, we were much better organised than we were last time around, and we have a really great crew who come around with us and they were kind of on top of it all. So I feel like we made the best of it and it was enjoyable.
G: Now that you’re back, you’ve booked a huge regional tour. Are there any specific locations on that schedule that you’re especially excited about?
J: Well, I mean on a personal note, I’m excited to go to Canberra, ‘cause my girlfriend lives in Canberra. I don’t see her as much as I’d like, and so I think she’s excited about the fact that there’s a sneaky little Canberra show. But, you know, I’ve been to Canberra before, so it’s not as interesting as some of the places we’ve never been before. So I’m really looking forward to Broome, because I’ve never been to Broome but a lot of people talk about it and say it’s kind of an amazing place to go. And then I think, in these last couple of weeks, we have stuff like, for example, Dubbo, which I’ve never been to; Shepparton, which I don’t think I’ve been to; and we went to Warrnambool, on the southern Victoria coast. Maybe I’ve driven through there on a family holiday sometime, but I guess I was really interested in the places we’ve never been, as opposed to going back to places we’ve played before. So it’s been really great for that.
G: When was the last time you guys played in Canberra?
J: We actually did a show in Canberra in October, so we have been there recently and it was a surprise to me that Canberra was considered regional. But it was a regional show nonetheless, so we’re there. Which works well for me.
G: Do you have any fond memories from previous shows here?
J: The first time we came to Canberra, I’m pretty sure, was when we were supporting Angus & Julia Stone, which was back in 2010. So we’re playing at the same venue that we did with them, and I remember that was kind of a really nice thing. The first afternoon of the tour, and meeting the two of them, and being really terrified about being on a big tour – ‘cause it was the first big-sized tour we’d done. That was a fun show. I think we’ve done a few festivals as well. But that last show itself, in October, was really awesome. It was nice to have it at a different level when we got back there. And I think the fact is that more people have heard of the band now, so you get a turnout of people who know the music. I think ‘cause it’s at the uni bar, you get a nice uni crowd, which is always good for us – we enjoy that sort of thing. Like we say, we get to sneak back again. Canberra’s the only place in Australia that’s had two shows from us in a year, so I think that’s gonna be a nice thing. And like I mentioned, I’ve got other reasons for enjoying it. Although I’ll probably be nervous as well, because she’s got a bunch of friends coming along, and I’ve met all these people, and they’ll think “Ah yeah, he’s in a band, whatever”. Now they’re actually going to be coming along to the show and seeing it. And I’ve seen a bit more of Canberra now, so I’ve got the scoop on the good cafes and places.
G: There are some fantastic cafes!
J: There’s a scene really blossoming there, isn’t it? It seems like things are opening up all the time now, and there’s just little pockets of awesome places.
G: Yeah it’s getting really good, it’s getting there. And I’m sure you’ll blow her friends away, don’t worry!
G: I remember in 2011 when you guys played Foreshore, it was raining so much!
J: Yeah, that was insane!
G: It was so good though. I was right up at the barrier and I remember turning around, and there were just thousands of people watching when you were playing ‘Feeding Line’, it was amazing! Definitely in my top ten festival memories.
J: That was really memorable actually. That was one of those things that looked really dramatic, thankfully everything kept working and the rain – apart from being maybe subtly annoying to some people – wasn’t problematic. Yeah, that was really fun.
G: So you’re doing a lot of touring, what’s your favourite part about it all?
J: I guess it depends where we are. So in Australia, it’s nice ‘cause it’s pretty manageable and you get a few nights at home and then a few nights away doing shows, and that’s exciting. I guess our following’s biggest in Australia, so it means we can go a lot of places, and be able to play the music to a lot of people, and that’s really enjoyable. Once you take it overseas, it kinda gets different, ‘cause you’re getting to go places that you’ve read about or heard about, and never seen. I enjoy the travel side of things and just hanging out with the guys. I mean the shows are great, but we’re doing that all the time, and it’s nice being able to do it somewhere different. I think the best ones are where you can kinda have a day off, somewhere that you’ve not been, and get to play there as well. So you can get to be a bit of a tourist as well as working. I think when they come together, like we had that in Amsterdam this year, when we were travelling through, you get to go and take in a bit of city, and then play a show. I think they’re my favourite experiences when they happen like that.
G: And least favourite experiences?
J: It’s probably the endless amounts of time in planes and buses and cars and taxis and kinda waiting around. For example, in America, we had maybe one day off in the month we were there, so every other day we were doing a show or driving ten or twelve hours from one city to the next, and then we’d have to get up in the morning, or drive after the show sometimes, so the actual physical kind of time travelling and spent in the car, it kinda gets to you after a little while. So you have to have your own strategies like music to listen to, or books to read, because basically you spend more time in the tour van than you do doing anything. We’ve been going since the middle of February, so you’ve gotta find ways to relax and try and not let that get to you.
G: You play an interesting assortment of instruments. Which did you initially start with?
J: I was a guitarist before anything else really. And then when I started with Boy & Bear, because my brother’s in the band, he kinda said “John can play some keys” – which wasn’t quite true, but it was almost true. And then, as a result of playing guitar, I kinda fiddled around with mandolin a bit and banjo. So I kinda did a bit of stuff on those and learnt a few things on the keyboards, for the songs that we had at the time, which wasn’t very many – I think we had like four songs or five songs. So I was able to get it together. I don’t really play guitar in the band at all. In the studio I can get involved with that a little bit more, but live it’s just keyboards now really, and when we do acoustic stuff I’ll play mandolin. And Tim does the banjo duties now, so I don’t even get to do that that much anymore. But I think I started with a guitar, which is the one thing I don’t actually play anymore in the band. That’s where it began.
G: In what ways do you guys feel you grew as a band between the composition of Moonfire and Harlequin Dream?
J: Well firstly, there was the immediate thing that happens when you release any sort of body of work – in our case, a CD. You hear it again, so you hear what you’ve recorded and chosen as the end result, and then you get to, with the benefit of time, think about whether that’s something you like or not, or what you do or don’t like about it. So we had our own thoughts about the first record and how we felt about it. And then in the meantime, we did quite a lot of touring on the back of the record, so we were playing together as a band a lot, and working on new material as well. So you have that time for it all to sort of settle a little bit more. And we were listening to different music than we were leading into Moonfire, and I think we changed relatively strongly, in a way that’s been beneficial I think for us as a band. I feel like the evolution’s direction has been something everyone’s really proud of.
By Gemma Varcoe