A listen to Bearfoot Beware’s latest release is to be confronted with some odd pairings, in the best possible sense. The Leeds trio’s latest effort, Sea Magnolia, is as noisy and visceral as fans might expect, yet coordinated with striking geometrical precision.
There is not a sudden shift in tempo, key or time signature, radical change in mood or in volume that is not answered directly by an accompanying hi-hat fill, a formally unexpected but perfectly adapted guitar chord, or punctuated by a bass line simultaneously melodic and grounded in occupying that space of the lower frequencies needed to produce a full-bodied but fragmented sound unique enough to deserve the word ‘signature’.
You can isolate each instrument but if you take one step back in an attempt not to overthink it, it all sounds like a well-oiled machine – albeit one vulnerable to loud accidental hisses, thumps and the sounds of its constituent parts grinding and clattering together. It is testament, yes, to the years of practicing, writing and gigging that have left Bearfoot with the idiosyncrasies needed to do this. But it is also a reflection of an eclectic understanding of punk music and the multifarious forms that fall under that increasingly broad umbrella.
The form and lyrical content, as well as the circumstances of the album’s production, show commitment to the ethics the ‘punk’ label often alludes to – inclusivity, playful irreverence, community – and an endeavour to give voice to that which is marginalised. The lower classes, those who are othered; perhaps even the North and the experiences particular to the precarious life of the working class in the North.
In short, there’s a shitload going on. This all may sound excessive, but Bearfoot execute this grand trick very tastefully and whilst remaining true to a DIY ethos. It’s impressive stuff.
Even the title presents a juxtaposition. At first glance, it may be read as a sublime, romantic, sentimental evocation of a sea image. It in fact refers to the colour of paint used for “magnolia coloured box rooms” and points towards a thematic concern with the drudgeries and lack of control over one’s own life in the rent cycle.
Sea Magnolia is concerned with the everyday, the restlessness felt by many but underrepresented in much contemporary music and, crucially, the anger that arises from this. Anger, for Bearfoot, is a potentially productive force and music provides the three-piece’s core platform to express this anger and to make it be heard. Very loudly. Perhaps this is what is meant when they refer to the record as a “sonic manifesto”.
I had a chance to do a quick Q&A with Tom Bradley (guitar, vox), Ric Vowden (bass, vox) and Michael Osborne (drums) ahead of the release of this, Bearfoot’s second LP – due to hit the literal and virtual shelves on March 16 – and their upcoming UK tour. Here ’tis.
One thing that struck me about the record is just how tight the playing is. All the parts seem to converge in surprising but responsive ways. What is your creative process when writing and arranging the songs and does this reflect your attitude to collectives in music and outside it?
Mike: I’ve always thought it was insane reading about bands who demo something like 40 songs before deciding on 12 to make a complete record. Our process really just involves throwing ideas around in a practice space until something clicks. There’s no other way to explain it, one random little note or groove catches someone’s ear and usually turns into a song shortly after that.
A lot of the time we jokingly suggest hypothetical progressions, thinking that it’ll be fun to play but probably won’t work, only for them to become our favourite parts of the songs.
You say in your press release that your music is not ‘hateful’: ‘anger is a tool you can use to express yourself but hate is a weapon’. It’s an interesting distinction, especially since the titles of one of your songs is ‘Punk is Violence’. How do you define violence in this context?
Tom: I think it can be perceived that there’s a fine line between anger and hate but for me they can be two different things. Hate is something that you can do to someone or a group, it’s hurtful. Anger or the expression of it is more of a way of telling people that you are hurt. I picked that title to make people think about how they express themselves at gigs.
A particular incident happened at CHUNK in Leeds where a ‘punk’ was being irresponsible and unrepentant. I kicked him out and he cried ‘punk is violence’. It got me thinking about the whole thing. He also called me a ‘Facebook hipster’ too. Not sure what that meant.
What bands – or anything else – do you draw your influences from?
Mike: We’re definitely an amalgamation of loads of musical ideas but I’d say we’re largely influenced by culture that is passionate and genuine. Many records we’re into as a band have elements of humanness to them. We like leaving mistakes in, little accidental sounds, stuff that gives the listener a greater sense of our character.
“We’re an amalgamation of loads of musical ideas but I’d say we’re largely influenced by culture that is passionate and genuine.”
Tom: We try to keep an open mind and take things from all over. This album has been influenced a lot by our local noise rock scene and whatever we do is linked in with the Leeds scene anyway. They’re the gigs we attend, run and have fun at so it makes sense.
If there is a ‘math’ dimension to what you do, what role do you see this having alongside your commitment to punk? Or are ‘punk’ and ‘math’ not necessarily antithetical?
Ric: To me ‘math’ in music has a lot of meanings. It can be like us – incorporating changing time signatures, tempos, and styles to songs – or it can be what ‘math’ probably means to most people, which is tapping guitars and insane musicianship. Personally I think we only touch on ‘math’. It’s probably something that has influenced us and when used tastefully can catch the listener out.
Punk to me is hard and fast songs with a DIY ethos, also something that can be found in our songs. Generally I think we are quite a hard band to pigeonhole into a specific genre as we take so many influences from so many different places, but punk and math are definitely two areas we’ve learnt a lot from.
You have defended the value of including things I suppose people would see as ‘everyday’ – rent cycles, box rooms, wall paint colour tones – as lyrical themes and thematic concerns. What is at stake for you politically and/or personally in this?
Tom: You use the things you find around you to express how you feel, and if that means talking about how exploited you can feel – when the home you live in is dictated and governed by a landlords desire to reach the ‘bottom line’ then that’s what you use.
“We like leaving mistakes in, little accidental sounds, stuff that gives the listener a greater sense of our character.”
Getting anything fixed is like a Kafkaesque nightmare in modern Britain and the power isn’t in our hands. I hope one day to be in charge of that stuff myself and be in control of it. That’s what I’m saying.
How was it working with Lee Smith and Jamie Lockhart? What were their creative contributions?
Mike: It’s great working with Lee and Jamie as we’ve built up a strong relationship over a number of releases now. We demo and experiment extensively during the writing process so studio time with them feels relatively relaxed.
They understand what we’re about, where we want to take the sound sonically, and know when to push us that little bit further to get the perfect take. That being said they did create a lush tape reel delay, using a couple of their tape machines, which featured all over Sea Magnolia‘s final mixes.
What other emerging acts within – or outside of – your collective are exciting for you right now?
Premature, perhaps, but what are your plans for future records and songs? Any stylistic changes afoot? Anything in the works?
Mike: It’s hard to say because I don’t think any release we’ve put out has been like the last. There’s definitely a common thread running through our body of work, but we naturally strive to change it up and evolve as time goes on. I’d quite like to further incorporate sound design/electronic elements in the future.
Tom: I would really like to change things up a little. Play around with repetition. I’ve been listening to bands like GNOD more and enjoy the droney loops that form the basis of their tunes. But the other two would need some convincing.
Magnolia Sea is released March 16 on Superstar Destroyer Records. See Bearfoot Beware live in the UK:
Monday 12 March – The Old Hairdressers, Glasgow
Thursday 15 March – Wharf Chambers, Leeds
Friday 16 March – Soup Kitchen, Manchester
Saturday 17 March – The Audacious Art Experiment, Sheffield
Friday 23 March – JT Soar, Nottingham
Saturday 24 March – Mothers Ruin, Bristol
Jo Rose is a Manchester-based musician and writer. He has an MA in Modernist and Contemporary Literature. Follow him on Twitter.