Boy & Bear
FYI: topping the charts is harder the second time around. Boy & Bear hit No. 2 in their native Australia with their 2011 debut, Moonfire. The band followed suit with the chart-topping Harlequin Dream in 2013, a sign that the band’s momentum was going to help them overcome the dreaded sophomore slump. Yet Killian Gavin insists that such momentum is really a misnomer, a false ideal that previous success guarantees more of the same.
Fortunately the band’s momentum has continued, but it’s come at a cost. From their demanding tour schedule to challenging themselves in the studio, Boy & Bear refuse to rest on their laurels. Yes, Limit of Love landed, once again, at No. 1, but it was only because the band demanded excellence from themselves once again.
Stereo Subversion: Coming off of Harlequin Dream, did you guys have a specific approach in mind for the making of Limit of Love?
Killian Gavin: Yeah, we knew we wanted to capture the live sound. What can we do from here to make a record sound like we’re just playing a gig, the five of us playing our instruments? We didn’t want anyything else to it. That really opened up the process for us to find the right producer. That plays a huge part, because depending on how they like to work, they might want to multi-track a record or make it live.
We’d dropped the name Ethan Johns, who we’d heard of multiple times. He’d made a lot of records that we really loved. He’s quite well known for using these old techniques for recording. We met him in London and it ended up hitting it off a bit, really. From there, we got together and started writing songs, started rehearsing, started recording demos and putting in the hard yards.
It's not about chasing perfection but it’s about following your instinct of the performance.
Because we’d done so many shows, we really felt like we were at the point where we were able to take on a task like this and execute it pretty well. I think a lot of people like the romantic idea of recording live, but had we done that a couple years ago, I don’t think we could have pulled it together in the way we did this time. I think if we’d not been playing as solid as we did, having played 200 shows over the course of Harlequin Dream. We felt like we were playing well as a group and that gave us a chance to go for it, to make a record the way we’d really wanted.
SSv: Is there a point where you start to lose count of that amount of shows?
Killian: There were a few of those points throughout that year where it felt like more than 200. [Laughs] Looking forward to getting home was a recurring factor at times, but we also really do love playing live. It’s something we always wanted to do and wanted to be known for more than anything since day one, so you have to enjoy it. If you’re setting goals like that, you gotta take them on and not complain about it. It was definitely a very big year. It was the biggest year we’ve ever done, and it had its trials. It pushed us into, at times, a slightly challenging position, but it’s also very rewarding to look back and see how hard you’ve worked.
SSv: What did the live approach provide for you that felt so different, other than the obvious?
Killian: We’ve always played live in the studio in the band. It removes the freedom of the nitpicking and changing and editing. You can’t do any of that. You’ve got to rely on a good performance. It’s a totally analog world, since you can’t copy and paste. So he spoke about that a lot and it was nervewracking for us. It’s quite uncomfortable without that safety net. If you don’t play well, the song simply isn’t being recorded at a level that it would have been.
Once we did that first or second song, it actually became really liberating. It was like, ‘Wow, this is easy. We can just play and that’s it.’ Dave sang all of the songs live and everything was done as a complete take with the band playing. Ethan often jumped on as a sixth member playing another instrument or percussion. I’d say 90 percent of every song was captured and finished in that live take.
SSv: Do you remember the first day? Did that feel awkward?
Killian: Definitely. Usually on the first day when you’re making a record, you’re just setting up gear. You think you’re not really needed. You’re just letting the engineers and the producer set up the space to make it work. We had heard that Ethan likes to work really fast, which is something we were craving—that spontaneity and speed can create a lot of excitement. We spoke to Ethan on that first day and said, ‘Well, I guess you won’t need us.’ He said, ‘No. No. We’ll be recording in a couple hours.’ That first song, “Break Down Slow,” was essentially us walking into the studio on the first day, setting it up, and after a couple hours, we’re doing a take and uploading it.
SSv: What are the aftereffects of having worked with Ethan?
Killian: It was one of the biggest learning curves I’ve ever been a part of as a recording artist. I think the whole band would share the same sentiment. I know I’ve used the word liberating already, but I have to use it again. Having endless choices is so limiting. To get in the room, have a good vibe, concentrate on the performance as a group, that amounts to so much more than making things perfect.
One of the things I learned for sure would have been Ethan’s reliance on intuition. When he felt like the song was happening, the song was done. Maybe there was a whole bunch of mistakes—and the album is riddled with what I might call mistakes or personality—but he’s really big on not doing that. It’s what creates this intangible character of the record. I reckon it’s not about chasing perfection but it’s about following your instinct of the performance. That’s been the biggest takeaway.
SSv: When an album hits the top of the charts once again, as Limit of Love did, does it feel as surreal as when it first happened?
Killian: To some degree, it feels like more of a surprise, because I think it gets harder as you go on. Which might sound incorrect to a lot of people. When you’re first starting, you’ve got a lot of momentum as a breakthrough artist. People are excited about a new band. That works in your favor. When you’re on your third record, the pressure is definitely greater. You have to prove to people why you deserve to stick around. I think you learn to know that a record going to number one is definitely not a given. It’s something you have to work very hard at, and you have to work harder than you did before. You’ve got to completely rely on your songs.
This time around, even though the band is definitely bigger than it was one or two or three years ago, for some reason it felt like it would be a harder task to pull something like that off. We were definitely blown away that it went the way that it did.