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So That You Might Hear Me: Behind the making of Bear’s Den’s latest record

Fiona Hope catches up with the folk-rock band's lead singer Andrew Davie and mixer Craig Silvey to chat about songwriting, their individual creative processes, and old-school analogue

So That You Might Hear Me, released on April 26 by Communion Records, is the follow-up to Bear’s Den’s debut album, Islands, which earned the band an Ivor Novello nomination and a devoted following worldwide. The band is a British folk-rock duo, formed in London in 2012 and made up of lead vocalist Andrew Davie, and Kevin Jones.

Their 2016 album Red Earth & Pouring Rain was written in just three weeks, squeezed in between tours and festival slots, so the band wanted to take a more slow and steady approach for their next studio offering. The band now has their own studio, Josiah Booth Studios in Crouch End, providing a sense of freedom in recording previously unknown to them, enhanced by the fact they were free from the constraints of a deadline for the record.

The album made its way through a couple of studios before being finalised, demoing in the band’s studio until landing in producer Phil Ek’s – The Shins, Fleet Foxes, Father John Misty – hands at several studios in Seattle over the course of seven weeks. Finally, it was mixed by Craig Silvey – REM, Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails, Portishead, The Magic Numbers, Arcade Fire, The National – at Eastgate Studios in London.

Bear’s Den’s four-man touring band also appear on the album, joining the band in Seattle throughout the recording process to beef up the songs with brass, drums, electric guitar and more electronics.

Here, Fiona Hope finds out from lead singer Davie, and mixer Silvey, about the upcoming album and their personal processes in the studio, as well as the importance of collaboration and a love of analogue…

What was the album’s recording process like?

Andrew Davie: On this album we worked in multiple different studios. We started writing and demoing the songs at Josiah Booth studios before heading to Seattle to work with the legendary Phil Ek. We worked in AVAST!, Studio Litho and Elektrokitty. It was a really awesome process working with Phil and his engineer Garrett. Phil has incredibly high standards for what he wants to achieve and really encourages you to deliver something you didn’t think you were capable of.

How did your process differ to previous albums? How much of an input did you have in the sound production?

AD: I think our demoing process has changed a bit. Since making our first album, Islands, production ideas are becoming more and more intertwined with the writing. In terms of our input on sound production, we often try to provide a blueprint for where we want the songs to go musically and sonically in our demos. Once we were working with Phil, it became a very collaborative process of trying to figure out how exactly to achieve that.

What are your songwriting and studio processes?

AD: It’s a bit of a mixture. I spent about three weeks writing songs in Cornwall on my own and it probably took about six months in total to write the bulk of the songs on the album. At the same time, both Kev and I were working on song ideas in our studio in Crouch End, building up layers of different textures and experimenting with new sounds and instruments. I think each separate process shaped and informed the album enormously.

What was your general inspiration for the album?

AD: The sense of trying to reach someone who cannot be reached was a major theme and inspiration.

What were your sonic influences for the album?

AD: Our songs incorporate all sorts of sounds, but not in a pre-ordained way. We could start with a weird pocket synth sound or Kev playing a creaky old upright piano. We just tried to follow our collaborative intuition and go where ever each song suggested. We talked a lot about Steve Reich when it came to Kev’s piano ideas and about Johnny Marr’s use of tremolos; we wanted to incorporate those textures across the record.

We knew the album was going to be called So That You Might Hear Me pretty early on, so we were dealing with ideas around communication and connection. The aim was to be more honest and instinctive, like when you blurt something out and can’t take it back so you have to deal with it.

We messed around with sampling the sonar from submarines and using morse code messages, quantising them to become part of the rhythm tracks. On a lyrical level, I was listening to Phoebe Bridgers’ record a lot and found that hugely inspiring.

How would you describe your signature sound, and how do you go about trying to project that in the studio?

AD: I don’t know if we really have a signature sound; I think we’re always trying to make music that is moving in some way, but we’re not very precious about how we get there. Whether that’s drum machines, synths, banjos and/or pianos, it’s about whether we’re telling a compelling enough story both musically and lyrically.

We also spoke to the album’s mixer, Craig Silvey, about his approach to the art…

What is your studio set up?

Craig Silvey: So, for my sins, I still mix in a mostly analogue set up. I mix through a 1972 Neve 8026 desk with mostly 1084 modules. It has 40 inputs, so on big sessions I do have to do some summing inside PT, but I try and keep as much summing on the analogue side as possible. I have a wide range of outboard delays and reverbs that I prefer, the Ursa Major Space station and the Lexicon Super Prime Time being a couple of my favourites. I also use a lot of old standards like the Eventide H3000 and the AMS RMX-16. My latest purchase is a Hawk He-2150, which is a Japanese reel to reel tape delay from the ‘70s. Apparently in ’70s Japan, there was a market for home enthusiasts to ‘remix’ albums they bought, and Hawk made echo and reverb units for that purpose. I guess a form of Japanese dub! I also have quite a few analogue compressors that I have on PT hardware inserts so that they are readily available without patching and can be pre-automated.

How did you work with Bear’s Den’s sound? Do you adapt your approach to a band’s unique sonic DNA?

CS: Every band is different. The albums I work on vary a lot, from electronic pop to acoustic anti-folk, so I have to approach each one differently. When it comes to mixing a record, you need to quickly assess what is required for the tracks and what the artist is trying to get out of the mix. Sometimes it is a radical transformation, and sometimes it is just doing really posh versions of the rough mixes. The skill is in recognising that.

Bear’s Den came to me with some very well recorded tracks and some well done rough mixes. I think the band thought (and I agreed) that they were missing
a distinct colour or character. I also felt the song arc was being lost too. The band had written and produced some beautiful songs that had a story to tell; they had a journey, and I felt that needed to come out in the mix. So, instead of thinking about mixing it to just sound “good”, I looked for places where I could find contrast, where I could emphasise light and dark, dirty with clean, small to expansive, all to work around the story Davies’s vocals were expressing.

What are your processes and techniques?

CS: I often use the same standard techniques, but I would say the process is more interesting to me. The sound of analogue is great, but it is the tactile-ness of analogue that I really enjoy. The immediacy, the ability to change multiple things at the same time (like grabbing eight faders with eight fingers and finding a balance in real time). Trying to listen more and look at screens less, and the limitations, which make you make decisions quickly and decisively.

Having recently recorded an album to tape instead of PT reminded me that a two” 24-track machine is not just about a great sound, it is also about making decisions.
It means that you don’t just record every idea with 10 tracks and figure it out on the mix.

You have to decide in the moment what is the best way forward for right now and go for it. It adds a spontaneity and rawness that is often lost in much of today’s music. Sometimes there is too much control. I try and bring that attitude to mixing as well.

So That You Might Hear Me is available now.