The radio royal flush – being playlisted at Radio 1, Radio 2, 6 Music, Absolute and Radio X – is meant to be the preserve of superstars. It’s certainly not meant to happen to scruffy folk-rock blokes from West London.
And yet, on their debut 2014 album Islands, Bear’s Den managed the feat. And achieved it on Elysium, the fifth single to be taken from the album one whole year after the original album release, no less.
It was the cherry on the top of a spectacularly slow-baked gateau of a campaign, which also saw the band scoop an Ivor Novello nomination, sell out the Roundhouse and eventually move 49,308 copies of their album, according to the Official Charts Company, as Islands became that rarest kind of release: the type that just keeps getting bigger. Even if the band didn’t really notice.
“There was never really a moment when things went completely crazy,” laughs singer/guitarist Andrew Davie as he potters about The Church studio in Crouch End, North London. “It just didn’t seem to go away.”
In fact, the band’s success was no happy accident. The band’s label, Communion, and its partners at Universal’s artist and label services division, Caroline International, drove the campaign, with Caroline’s radio team, led by head of promotions Kevin McCabe and national radio promotions manager Fuzz Chaudhrey,
master-minding the work at radio.
“It’s simply a testament to the music that the band were making, along with the culmination of the work that myself and Fuzz had put in with all of these radio stations, building to the right song at the right moment,” says McCabe of Elysium’s airplay success.
“One of my key phrases to my team, the Caroline team, Communion and the band’s management during the development and building of the band was, Hold your nerve. We did and it all worked out perfectly!”
“The lovely thing about that moment when we were playlisted on every station was that the stations weren’t looking at each other,” says Communion managing director Jamie Emsell. “We’d built decent and relevant relationships with those stations, helping them to understand how this band was relevant to their listeners.”
The radio work reflected the wider campaign, with the band’s gigs expanding from small clubs to a sell-out show at the 3,300-capacity Roundhouse and key festival slots, success that eventually won over an initially somewhat sceptical press. All parties give credit to the blossoming relationship between band, Communion and Caroline, with Davie saying “all the conversations we’re having come from such a good place”.
Communion partnered with Caroline last year, a deal pre-dated by their work together on Islands. Communion had previously teamed with another Universal label, Island, for its UK releases.
Emsell, meanwhile, says Caroline “love Bear’s Den as much as we do – there’s a huge amount of emotional will to get the band to where they want to go to”. The band themselves, meanwhile, are having to rapidly re-calibrate exactly where that might be.
“Our dream when we started this band was to play Shepherd’s Bush Empire, that was the ceiling of our ambition,” marvels Davie. “So [when the campaign finished] it was like being in this brave new world where we didn’t really know what was going on.”
Nonetheless, Islands’ triumph leaves everything beautifully poised for Bear’s Den’s return. The band went straight into the studio after their Roundhouse show and Red Earth & Pouring Rain will be released on July 22, with its first single Auld Wives getting its premiere on Greg James’ Radio 1 show last week.
Support immediately followed from elsewhere on Radio 1, 6 Music and the revamped Virgin Radio, while the song is already playlisted at Radio X, whose head of music Mike Walsh recently tweeted: “I don’t think anyone is really ready for just how BIG @bearsdenmusic are going to be this year – the album is immaculate”. No wonder Emsell is “champing at the bit” to get the album out.
“We’re picking up where we left off,” he says. “The last campaign ended on a peak. As it ended, we were still acquiring new fans and creating new discovery. The pre-orders and ticket sales for the upcoming tour indicates to us that the band have been gaining new fans while they’ve been away. This is the return of a very significant British band who’ve earned the right to be seen as such.”
Nonetheless, Bear’s Den have returned a subtly different band as well – and not just because guitar/banjo player Joey Haynes left the band during the recording of Red Earth & Pouring Rain, leaving Davie and multi-instrumentalist Kevin Jones as the core BD duo (“Touring is exciting but all-consuming,” says Davie by way of explanation of Haynes’ departure, “Spending nine months away from home in a year is pretty challenging on your friendships and families and relationships”).
Their sound has mutated too, from the wiry, banjo-plucking folk-emo of the debut to the widescreen ‘70s FM rock-influenced sound of the follow-up. This time around Davie and Jones’ locker contains homages to the likes of Don Henley and Fleetwood Mac, and songs such as Emeralds and Dew On The Vine that Davie says were designed to be heard while driving at night.
“It’s a reflection of what we were listening to,” says Davie. “Fleetwood Mac and Bruce Springsteen; we fell in love with the sounds and textures they had on those records. There’s something nostalgic about those songs, but we were trying to write a present tense album.”
So out went the banjos and in came synthesisers (albeit vintage ones) and Davie’s lyrics became slightly less wistfully backward-looking and more an attempt to embrace what was going on right now.
“I’m trying to talk about things that are more relevant to my life,” he says. “Like, on [album track] Napoleon, I’m trying to be honest about certain relationship things over the last few years, but trying to be in the moment rather than having hindsight. Everything always makes more sense looking back but it’s a bit scarier when you don’t really know what’s going to come out.”
The end result is a big-sounding, accessible album that surely has the potential to make its predecessor look like very small beer indeed.
The change in sound doesn’t “change the radio stations we are targeting as such” says McCabe. “But I do think that the songs have the ability for the band to take significant steps into the commercial radio arena. The next single, Emeralds, has the potential to be a big moment for the band with media. I also have a band here who have a fantastic work ethic - they know the hard work really starts now and they make themselves available to do the promotion required to get the desired results.”
Davie himself plays down the rapidly-growing expectation around the release, however.
“It probably should change things a lot,” he says, “But we just get on with the things we have control over: the live show, new songs… All we can do is present the album. Hopefully, if we’re really proud of it, some other people might be interested too.”
That seems pretty much guaranteed, with the band’s autumn tour – including a November 8 date at the 4,921-capacity O2 Academy Brixton – already selling well after last week’s live return at the ICA in London. The band also play Glastonbury, T In The Park and Latitude festivals, as well as numerous dates across Europe. So how much bigger can Bear’s Den get?
“The sky’s the limit,” declares Emsell. “Do I think Bear’s Den could headline mainstream British festivals one day? Absolutely. I’m not going to say it will happen on this record, but our approach, the band’s approach and the management’s approach is really about career building and we think this record is going to do great things.”
“Playing the kind of gigs we’ve got lined up, you want to go out there and be confident you’ve got the songs that can work in that setting,” agrees Davie. “But even some of the quietest songs on the first album translate really well at festivals. So I don’t think it’s ever been [a case of], Right, let’s flick the ‘massive band’ switch and become this other thing.
“Even your tenderest song could potentially work in a big room and people can find a quality to it where they want to sing along. It’s really down to whether they believe in what you’re doing. And that comes down to whether you yourself really believe in what you’re doing.”
And right now, that’s where Bear’s Den are heading: a band that everyone can believe in.