In conversation with: China Bears
Jake Avery interviews China Bears before their performance in Exeter. They discuss the band’s creative process and future plans.
China Bears are a band that offer an emotional and cathartic outpouring of acoustic melodies, warm vocal harmonies in addition to electrifying guitar hooks. On their headline UK tour, I interviewed the band’s twin brothers Ivan (Lead vocals and guitar) and Frazer (Guitar and Backing Vocals) before their riveting Cavern set, and had a fascinating discussion about their creative processes, developing vocal arrangements and their aspirations for the coming year.
Jake Avery: First of all – with the release of the ‘All That Distance’ EP last September, what was the inspiration behind it?
Ivan: I think, soundscape-wise, in terms of the actual instrumentals, it was definitely a lot more layered, and a lot of that we recorded ourselves, so we’re definitely more involved in that process and we took our time with actually getting the right sounds and tones, mainly because we’d spent the lockdowns learning about that stuff, in terms of the recording side. So that was really fun, to explore that and have more time to delve into that. Before we’d book studio time and you’d only get X number of days, whereas with this we made a home studio, a bedroom home studio. It was really nice to learn on the go.
Lyrically – I think it was a collection of songs we were writing before lockdown, or as lockdown happened, and I think particularly from a growing up perspective we were in our mid-twenties, and with the number of years we built with the band, we were finally in 2019 through 2020 on a nice trajectory, just in terms of life. We moved back home, and we were figuring out really what we wanted to do when we grow up. We’d always wanted to do this, but then it was like, we’re becoming adults now, we need to figure out how to do adult life around the band, along with all the other things like heartbreak and loss and grief, and all the fun stuff we tend to sing about! (Chuckles)
JA: Your music has a really melancholic, cathartic and emotionally charged sound. Was that something you had to develop, or did you always have a clear sense of how you wanted to sound?
Frazer: I think we’ve always liked the slow ones on any album, the particular slow sad one would be my favourite, or the one that I guess would resonate the most with us. Just writing, we naturally just like to build on layers and make it a bit more emotive, and if we are singing about something, we just want to use it as an exercise to process our own feelings and emotions and reflections on stuff that has happened to us or other people, so, it’s not something we really try to force, I guess it’s our natural way of pen to paper.
I: Like Frazer’s saying, it’s a way to process things going on, whether that’s in your life or other people’s. We tend to write a lot of autobiographical stuff, and a lot of it is things we’re going through, or things that close ones we know that are going through, and that’s maybe why we write songs as a way of dealing with that stuff. So it’s never anything forced, and it’s just the music we like; that’s what we resonate most with, so we try to be as authentic as we can. And sometimes there are harder topics, but we don’t really consider it, we try not to be super doom and gloom about it. If anything, the thing that resonates with me and the rest of the band is that it’s a celebration of that loss and getting through those times that we’re talking about, and although it’s hard, it’s not necessarily to just dwell on our feelings forever. There’s an element of hope to it, I like to think.
the thing that resonates with me and the rest of the band is that it’s a celebration of that loss
F: The music we make is to play live. I think having that communal experience its why we do it, and I think if you took away the live element, so you’ve just written this song and you’ll never play it to an audience, I think that would probably change the way we write, so we definitely do write to play.
I: It is tricky – quite often for me anyway I choke up a little bit, even when we play, and I think that’s a good sign, I like that. Some songs might be a couple of years old and I still care about them in that way.
JA: Last year China Bears played SXSW festival in Texas. In terms of playing to an international audience, but also given this was your first gig on American soil, was there any added challenge? Was there a different type of approach that you took to the performance?
F: From a general practical equipment thing, we had to use different gear – like my pedalboard for example had to downsize. But I suppose those were practical problems; in terms of our actual headspace and energy with the show, it was just the same really.
I: If anything I’d say that those shows were a little bit more raucous and rowdy. I think that a lot of that was just due to the excitement and realising we’re really in America! It’s crazy that with this band, we’ve started to deal with things that got us here, and sometimes you have to live, think and believe that it will happen, and if it doesn’t, we still just have to play every show like this and try to enjoy that moment as much as you can. Honestly, it was just like one of the best things we’ve ever done as a band. It was such a great week, and it was such a nice show. I can still remember the details of every show, and it’s almost been a year now. I think it was such a nice time, and such a great experience.
JA: After university, China Bears lived at James’ (Bassist) house. With the transition from that to now living apart, how has the dynamic been with writing, recording and so on?
F: We spent a lot of that time playing live. We were living North of London, in Buckinghamshire, and we could just do loads of gigs in London, so it definitely helped us like build that scene, and we had time to write. But really we learnt how to play live and be a band, and it was really good and useful. We were lucky that it was a year before the pandemic, because I think that we never really knew how to be a band. We really wanted to do it and the most logical thing we could do was play these songs and have that rite of passage.
I: We went to music uni, (ACM Guildford) and that’s where we met. We were all from different parts of the country, and that’s why once we finished we made that move to James’s parents’ house, so we could all stick together and still live off low rent I guess. Like Frazer was saying, it really was time of, ‘what are we going to do now?’. We want to focus on this band so let’s just go out and play as much as we can and really cut our teeth. And then in terms of how it is now, with the pandemic and having to then separate, we’re continuing to live apart at the moment. I think Zoom sessions and the technology, a lot of stuff we can write virtually and so we like doing that anyways, in terms of writing demos and also different versions of demos, and then bringing it to a practice room, just because there are lots of ideas and different opinions on how songs should be. We like to make a version of each of them so we can all listen to them. It’s not like a crazy hindrance, but it would obviously be lovely to be closer. The technology has really improved, and I think the pandemic really forced us to look into those ways – we use things like audio movers so we can see each other’s sessions on screen, and like we said we were getting into recording and self-recording anyways during that time. So it all just played its part really. I think it’s hard to look back in terms of just before the pandemic, because you just forget what you did and didn’t know, and really just looking back, I didn’t know anything, even just the basics – I didn’t know how to plug my guitar into a computer. So yeah, there was definitely time to do that.
JA: With both of you playing guitar, do you both stick to your own lanes with writing and arranging your guitar parts, or do you both collaborate together and help write each others parts? How is each part arranged?
I: Yeah, so for me and Frazer, and even across the whole band, we’re all songwriters, and it’s all really a big collaborative process. It will tend to be one person, so myself or Frazer, James or Dean, will bring like a skeleton of a song, a rough structure and chords, and we’ll just build on from there. But it hasn’t always been this way, we were kind of built to be this, there’s no real ego; if I write Frazer’s part and Frazer thinks it’s a really good part, it’s great, and it’s the same thing vice versa, if someone writes a guitar part or my lyric melody, its like – that a really good melody. If anything, its just a question of ‘can I better it?’, and ‘can we work together it if it needs bettering?’. It’s really nice.
F: It definitely takes a while to get there, I think ultimately it’s just a better way of collaborating. The hard part was that we just had these stereotypes, like I’m the guitar player so I need to figure out my guitar part, or I’m the bassist so I need to figure out my bass part. Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses.
I: If anything, if there are any hindrances, it’s that we have a lot of ideas, and getting through which is everyone’s favourite. Trying to keep it as democratic as possible can be challenging, but that’s like any collaboration I imagine.
F: I would rather that than no one caring.
I: And it’s such a nice feeling, when we get to a point when everyone is happy, it’s kind of worth all the arguments. Ultimately everyone just wants what’s best what they think is best for the song. So you have to kind of remember that when it can get intense. But there’s never been any slept-on arguments! (Chuckles)
JA: Your acapella performance of ‘I’ve Never Met Anyone Like You’ at Rough Trade Bristol was phenomenal – particularly the vocal harmonies. The fact that all four members of the band are singing is also really captivating and unique. Do you have any comments about it – were Dean and James always singing, or did that happen over time?
I: Honestly, like I said, because we were all songwriters, in terms of like Dean and James and Frazer, because we have different artistries and have been playing in different bands, everyone is a singer. If anything, I was really kind of anxious for myself when I started, because I thought I wasn’t the best singer in China bears, I was just the lead singer. But what’s great is that everyone has their strength. James has such gorgeous vocals, and he can hit higher notes than me, so in terms of that harmony, he can have that bit. Dean is really good with falsettos and the low notes, so he can cover that ground, and Frazer can come up with some really interesting harmonies; our voices are quite similar so they complement. So I think it’s definitely something we’ve always wanted to do. It was never really forced; everyone has always really wanted to do it. And it’s been really nice actually to just rearrange that song. I think that was one of the first songs we ever wrote which we were happy with and made us think that this is the kind of band we want to be and that this is the kind of song we like, and it’s really nice to bring that one back in the set in this like unique, acapella style.
F: I think it’s found it’s place a bit better. In comparison to the old version that’s on the EP, the newer version just complements it better. It’s really nice to go and get into the crowd and sing it acapella.
I: We saw Fleet Foxes in the summer, and I was like taken aback by that, and just watching bands like that. We did a version of ‘Meet Me In London’ like that a few years ago, as we went on tour with October Drift and they were in the crowd and ending the show that way. We tried it before and thought, we should really bring this back and try and rearrange it. If I’m being honest, it was kind of a last-minute thing on the last tour, and we’ve just kind of stuck with it. It’s become a really nice way to close the show, you’re in amongst shoulder to shoulder with everybody.
F: I think it just gives a different angle on the band, because that’s the type of music we like anyway, as much as we like full blown distortion, full blown guitar and drums, we do like soft, quiet music, and it’s nice that we can sort of encapsulate China Bears in that way.
I: And all the songs are written that way, around a piano or acoustic guitar or vocal, and they’re not really finished until they sound good like that. If we keep layering things we can make this bridge shine, but actually the problem is that we keep layering it and add a really cool lead part, but really the chords and the melody aren’t working yet, so we need to get that right before. It’s like building a house – if the foundations are not right, you can have a really nice roof and windows, but it’s going to fall and not last very long if the foundations aren’t great. So yeah, it’s nice to do that.
F: We play a lot of acoustic shows. And it definitely helps – Dean and James are phenomenal singers, and Jonny and Curtis who are also on tour with us, they’re also great, and they’re up for singing, and it’s just really nice to have those options. And everyone has filled their range into the role, and it’s really cool that we have that like sort of thing to play with, as well as the guitars and extra people.
JA: What would your biggest aspirations be for 2023 with the band?
I: This year, we really want to just write and record our debut album. This is really our time to get that done. But if we get to, we’d love to tour more, especially to places we haven’t seen.
F: Yeah, we’d love to go to Europe. But finishing the album, that’s number one, because its definitely overdue. We do try, it’s just, people don’t think we write – we do, it just takes us forever to finish it!
I: We’ve got a writing schedule now, like we said earlier with the distance, in terms of working normal jobs and being in a band, we’ve all kind of aligned that a bit better this year, and really being strict with writing days and events, and outside the band really being disciplined, because we really want this album to sound as good as it could possibly be. That’s the plan for 2023 – write and record it. After this tour we’ll knuckle down.
JA: What key advice would you give to university students in fledgling bands who want to take their musicianship to the next level?
I: To new bands, writing and playing as much as you can. But also, in the modern day of Tik Tok and Instagram reels, social media outreach is important. We were literally having this conversation, asking ourselves – could we sit and really focus on creating good Tik Tok content, and if so, how many people that would reach? If we got a Tik Tok and released a video of us playing, and that reached like 15,000 people, that’s going to be more people than we’re going to see on the whole of this tour. But it’s not just that, you have to combine methods. Tik Tok is such an amazing asset, these social media tools we have right now all are, and it’s definitely good to use those for what they’re made for.
But also I still think that as a live band, the only way you can do that well, for us, is by just doing it hundreds of times, figuring out what works for you. In terms of bandmates- being able to communicate with them, and being comfortable enough to like to tell them how you feel and have that argument, but also know that it’s also for the better of the song, not to damage these relationships. If they’re people who respect you and who value you and, honestly just try and have some fun with it. If you don’t care about it, how do you expect someone else to care about it? You’re going to just have to do it, and not just because you want to do it, but because you can’t imagine not doing it; it really just takes over your whole life. That’s such a beautiful thing because it’s so nice to be playing with some of your best mates and visiting places. It’s honestly one of the coolest things in the world.
F: I would say, just be nice to everyone you meet. And not in a way of, ‘if I’m nice they might give me something back’, but in a genuine way. When we’re on the road, you need to have a positive energy, you need to just be empathetic. We met the sound guy tonight, Luke, and he’s really cool. We’ve just been chatting to him and getting to know what he’s up to. Because all of these opportunities you’re given might not seem great, like when we were starting as a band we kind of took any given opportunity we could, but these things do lead onto each other. And as the years go on, you realise, you were in that show, and that’s how that happened, and that’s how this happened – so if you can afford the time and whatever, just don’t turn your nose up at stuff -just think, why not?
I: Yeah, take opportunities and network. Just talk from a way of not trying to get something.
F: Yeah, don’t be sleazy and weird, just actually be interested in people, because people are great.
I: Yeah, we’ve met some of our best friends through the road and through music!
If you’re searching for a superb blend of live harmonies and guitar melodies, be sure to catch China Bears on tour!
China Bears’ latest EP ‘All That Distance’ is available now via Fierce Panda Records.
Watch China Bears’ fantastic acoustic rendition of ‘I’ve Never Met Anyone Like You’ at Rough Trade Bristol last year here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yIJUNGEo5rY