Short Sharp Pop

1 May 2012 | 7:58 am | Michael Smith

Frontman of Sydney five-piece Bearhug, Ryan Phelan is calling from a café not far from his place from which he's managed to lock himself out. He reckons it's down to having been awake too long and when it rains his key freezes up, but he's cool. After all, he's chatting about the band's debut album, Bill, Dance, Shiner, a long time coming perhaps for a band that got together nearly five years ago, whose members had all attended the same school but had only become friends once they'd left.

“Yeah, it took us a while,” he admits. “And we were very conscious about trying to make it an album rather than a collection of songs. To me, it works as an album because, although it jumps all over the place in terms of mood and everything, but I don't know, I guess there's a specific sound that goes through it. The sound is quite cohesive even though it does… We wanted to make a kind of weird album I guess; we didn't want to make an album full of straight indie rock songs or an album full of the opposite of that, whatever that is.”

It's quite a short album too, with only nine songs, though that does include the seven-minute Cold Stream, but then their first release, the 2008 Cartoon Islands demo EP, was eight songs long. “It's perceived as an album a lot of times,” Phelan admits. “I guess it is an album, though it's short. Especially in this day and age aren't albums getting shorter and shorter anyway from what I can see? I guess a lot of times albums aren't listened to as albums anymore I'm sure, with iTunes and all that. There were a few other songs that we scrapped; I think we scrapped maybe three or four other songs for a lot of reasons. Personally I like shorter albums. Also, if we tried the other songs, they weren't exactly ready and we really didn't have a lot of time in the studio, so it would have been too much of a risk I think.”

There was obviously something about Bearhug that their eventual label, Spunk, which distributes recordings by Arcade Fire, Joanna Newsom and a major influence on Bearhug, Broken Social Scene, whom they supported in their 2010 Sydney Splendour sideshow, recognised long before they'd even started thinking about recording.

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“Aaron [Curnow, label manager] sent us a message years and years back, pretty much when we first started – I didn't know who Spunk were; I didn't know who any label was but it was very… I didn't know much at all. And then they started to contact us about the [Spunk] Singles Club and we had just put out that first batch of stuff. Then from that, I think it was six months after that or something, they came to us again for more of an actual signing.”

They contributed the track, Snow Leopard, to the 2009 Spunk Singles Club compilation, which was followed by their first official Spunk release, the To Anything EP, itself a more traditional four songs long. The Bearhug sound has been described as having something of a '90s West Coast American guitar sound, the band citing influences as diverse as My Morning Jacket, Pavement and Tom Waits among many – and it certainly harks back to a more melodic sound than your aforementioned regular inner city indie sound.

“I guess it's different when you have three guitars in a band and you kind of lean towards, I guess, that sound. The way we achieve it, it's kind of flowing in terms of it all happens really quickly and it's just everyone just kind of going on what they feel like playing over the track. It never turns into a bigger… what's the word… The songs aren't exactly a real thought out process I guess, just whatever feels right when we start working with an idea. Some songs I'll have a basic skeleton and I just bring it [to] everyone and we just flesh it out – it usually happens very naturally and pretty quickly.

“A lot of the lyrics themselves aren't that structured either,” Phelan expands, though a little vaguely. “Kind of all over the place. I don't know… Sometimes it's hard for me to remember how I even wrote them.”

Working with three guitarists – Jesse Bayley and Kyle Taylor joining Phelan, with Mitchel Cumming on bass and Nicholas Mabbit on drums – you need to be far aware of where you are in the mix than you do with a more traditional rock line-up. “I guess it all comes down to tone. I mean I don't use any pedals; the other two guys use pedals. We used quite a bit of keys as well. So that was mainly the two other guys because I would be playing rhythm without a pedal so we'd always sound kind of the same. I mean the most I would change up would be an acoustic, but they knew how to sort of, you know, meld their sounds together so they're not doing the same thing.”

Bearhug had toured with Philadelphia Grand Jury on a tour where producer Tim Whitten, whose credits include records by Powderfinger, the Hoodoo Gurus and Augie March among many, was acting as their live sound engineer and he expressed interest in recording them. So he became the obvious choice to co-produce Bill, Dance, Shiner, written and rehearsed up over some seven months in their rehearsal space in Hibernian House in Sydney, with the album's title itself, Phelan explains, an amalgamation of “little things”, Shiner the title of the album's second track.

“My girlfriend actually suggested the name Bill Dance, then it was going to be called Sump and we eventually just had this quite enormous Facebook thread between us where the five of us did mostly irrelevant things, but we were just putting what everyone was thinking about names, which were usually just words and it ended up being that… Yeah, just that. It's nice, even though there's no real connection between the words.”