Exposure: 85 Bears
85 Bears - Jumpin' With Joe From The Highest Step
East London trio 85 Bears have been causing minor earthquakes as they tour round the country, as anyone who caught their Hinterland appearance in May will be able to testify. The instrumental band are a force to witness; the intricate interplay at heart of their noisy sound creating something completely fresh from some of the drivel currently hitting car speakers. I spoke to 85 Bears as they prepare for another tour of Scotland.
When I typed in your name into Google I got a lot about the 1985 Chicago Bears' team. Know anything about that?
Ben: Adam, was a big American Football fan and he came to an early practice one day and suggested 85 Bears as a sort of homage to that year's team. We all liked the reference in the name as well as the literal idea of what 85 Bears conjures-up.
Alex: Can they sue? Surely not? Well, Adam came up with it, I’ve never heard of this team or of their near perfect season back in ‘85. I’m a football fan but we couldn’t really call the band 85 Hammers that just doesn’t sound right.
Adam: Yep, our name comes from the legendary ‘85 Bears team, one of, if not, the best team in NFL history. Its a great memory of mine as a little 'un watching American football on Channel 4 back in them days with me Dad. I was browsing through the internet and came across an article about them, and in brackets it said (85 Bears) and thought it looked quite good in print as a band name.
How did you guys meet up?
Ben: I played in another band with Adam. It was clear we had more ideas than that band at the time could carry so we began jamming-out 'Bear' sounding riffs in breaks. We spoke about a new band; I met Alex at a Don Caballero gig via Adam. They went back a while having come from similar circles and Adam's band Hentai supported Alex's band Miocene. We rented four hours practice space in some rail arches in East London in late 2007 and it's gone from then.
Alex: When you’re into certain types of music, even somewhere like London is a pretty small place.
Adam: I've personally known Alex from previous separate bands who used to practice in the same rehearsal space, and I used to play in a band with Ben in the past, it wasn’t really what I wanted to do in the end, so after asking Ben to jump ship, the Bears were born.
How come you haven't got any lyrics? Was it something you set out to do, just play great music? Do you hate words?
Ben: Being instrumental was never preconceived. I don't think it's become a rule either; if someone was interested in trying some out we'd always be up for it. That goes with adding any instrument really. To just flat out say no vocals, or no to another specific instrument reflects a limited idea of what a band should be. I definitely don't hate words! I would actually love an Enabler style approach to vocals for our band; that guy, Pete Simonelli sounds like Jack Kerouac backed by a shit hot band. We were lucky enough to support those guys.
Alex: 'Hating words' is a bit strong, I don’t think I’d want to go down as someone who hated words. Where would this interview be without them? I don’t even hate the word hate. We didn’t set out to do it we more like we weren’t averse to doing it, vocals have not been ruled out as a possibility in some capacity in the future. I like singing.
Adam: It wasn’t that we set out to be instrumental, but I don’t think any of us are really cut out as vocalists. Saying that, give Alex a couple of shandys and he does a great Freddie Mercury impression and his Robert Plant and Brian Johnson acts are pretty tight too. I guess we are all fans of certain instrumental bands as well, but it was never really something we had set out to do. Who knows, we may even find someone in the future. We'll never shut the door.
If you've been in vocal-led bands before this, does crowd perception or attitudes change towards a wordless song?
Ben: I thought that the general crowd appreciation of us would be a little reluctant, but we've been really lucky to find the opposite. I think the reason is melody. Our songs are underpinned with an almost hook-like melody. I think this means you don't have the split of people only liking us if they like Don Caballero. I know a lot of people at our gigs aren't fans of bands like that. It seems we've struck a middle ground where fans of mathy bands can still enjoy us and people who aren't won't be turned off. The coolest thing I've noticed that differs from being in a vocal band is the difference in the level of attention people pay to the music. People tend to listen a lot more actively. We've never had someone say we need a vocalist, even though I think it'll be something we have from time to time in the future.
Alex: Singers can be antennae for audience attention. They engage the audience with their story. In an instrumental band the audience has to engage the band more. I feel that there are no peripheral distractions between you and the sound.
Adam: I guess it gives people more time to think about what they're watching or listening to, well that’s what it feels like for me - there's a bit more space. I was a bit apprehensive at first, not knowing how it may come across. Some people may turn their noses up to there being no lyrics or vocals but we've had great reactions thus far.
What has influenced your music?
Ben: Kronenbourg. We should be sponsored by them! I think between us there's a love of bands like Helmet, Jesus Lizard, Battles, Don Caballero, Hella, Pixies, hair metal and spandex.
Alex: My environment growing up. I liked The Beatles and Motown as a kid and then classic hard rock like Led Zep - nothing out of the ordinary. I liked Talking Heads a lot. David Byrne - now there’s a singer! I like melody but I like heat and stress in the music, I like discordance, something to push into something that builds, so later on I got into stuff like Jesus Lizard and Shellac.
Adam: For the Bears, it's always best when we are in the rehearsal room. It just seems to work for some reason. But as well as all the really great bands out there that highly influence us, on an equal par has to be shite bands too, in as much as it making me realise where we cannot ever be. I didn't think I’d ever be eternally grateful to Johnny Borrell. Thanks JB!
You released an EP in June, but are there plans for an album anytime soon?
Ben: We're going to have an album done by the end of the summer. If it hasn't been finished by then we'll all be having an emergency meeting to shake our heads disapprovingly at each other. Really can't wait to do it though. We have tapes of great new stuff that's going to be worked on as soon as the older material has been recorded as a first album.
Alex: We plan to record an album sometime very soon - August I expect. That will be great for the band as there’s a whole side we haven’t been able to display so far.
Adam: We are heading into the studio some time very soon, hopefully within the next couple of months, with something ready to come out around Autumn time. We have a healthy collection of tunes that we need to get down onto tape.
Any ideas on where the 85 bears are going to go next?
Ben: Ideally we'd all love to do nothing but this band. Realistically we'd like to play lots more shows, make friends with more great bands and people that come to our gigs. Our first album will be put out with the help of a label as yet undecided so that exciting for us. We're hoping to come back to Glasgow in September for a gig with And So I Watch You From Afar. It's being promoted by the people who run Glasgow PodcART who are awesome people, who try really hard to help bands like us out.
Alex: Once the album is out I expect we’ll be going all over the UK, visiting all the magical places and wondrous venues this wonderful island has to offer. We came to Scotland for the Hinterland festival and had a really great time - the best we’ve had as a band - so it’s definitely a place we want to come back to ASAP.
Adam: Practice at the studio Wednesday I think?
How was Hinterland? Coming from London, have you noticed a change in crowd atmospheres when you move further north?
Ben: Hinterland was such good fun for us. We were treated so well by the venues and the audience. As for the venues themselves? Man I'd sooner play in the toilets of some of Glasgow’s venues than some of the shitty places in London that I've played with previous bands. The people that watched us were great, seeing as we opened both nights. No one had much drink inside them, but it didn't stop them moving forward and getting into it. We've been lucky also in London as 85 Bears, as we've bypassed playing the pointless crap places. This has been thanks to A Badge of Friendship gigs, and other cool promoters putting on nights where people actually want to come and listen to a night of music where we would fit on the bill. Considering we are quite different from the majority of the Hinterland line-up, we couldn't have rated the people there any better.
Alex: I have to say, we played three shows and the response was really great, so the myth holds true for us. We found the crowds at the shows we played to be really attentive and enthusiastic. The Aberdeen crowd was a little sparse, but they made a big noise, which I thought was cool of them. Afterwards they were kind too. I guess some nights you get lucky. In London there can be a lot of apathy and hype so I guess when bands get out of the capital and get to meet some people genuinely into it and not afraid to show it, it feels good. We’ve had really great crowds down here too so I guess good nights are possible anywhere, at least that’s what I tell myself.
Adam: Well, the two shows we played at Hinterland were spot on for enthusiasm, if lacking a bit in numbers, but given the number of shows going on at once, I think we did really well. We made a load of new friends, saw some great bands and drank a shedload of free beer - how can we not be happy with that? We're coming back in September, so keep an eye out Cubs!
85 Bears play South of the Border, London, 2 Jul