Interview: Eliza and the Bear

by Silja Slepnjov, Editor-In-Chief

Eliza and the Bear. Left to right: Martin Dukelow, Chris Brand, James Kellegher, Callie Noakes, Paul Kevin Jackson

There’s an ominous atmosphere in the purple lounge room at Tut’s. It only takes a second to identify the most probable culprit – a deck of Uno cards spread out on the table. It takes another millisecond for the competitive game tension to dissolve and I’m greeted by a chorus of hey-how’s-it-going-s.

Eliza and the Bear, who, in their own words, make ‘uplifting, honest, fun but sexy’ music, are a five-piece from Essex, comprising of James Kellegher (vocals), Martin Dukelow (guitar, vocals), Chris Brand (bass), Callie Noakes (keyboard) and Paul Kevin Jackson (drums). The peculiarly charming name is taken from a collection of fairy tale-influenced poems by Eleanor Rees. When I ask them about poetry, the guys give each other sneaky looks, almost as if to say ‘every time’ – asking if there’s a bear or an Eliza in the band seems to be a compulsory cliché. Instead, I enquire about how they came across the collection. “A couple of us are into poetry. Paul was the one who found the book and mentioned it to us. Callie was in San Francisco and saw it sat on the window at a bookshop right after, so a coincidence, really. It was just a kind of thing where the name suited what we were doing at the time.”

The quintet, all close friends, have been playing together since 2011. The post-hardcore and scream bands that the now irresistibly jovial gang played in were not performing enough, so they eventually split up. “James and Callie were in another band, Me Chris and Paul in another. Both terrible bands!” Dukelow exclaims. “We’ve just got to admit it, it was terrible,” Brand adds. “We got so bored with not doing anything so we got together and just thought sod it, let’s write some music, nothing serious,” Dukelow recollects with a sneaky smirk: “And then that all kind of backfired and it got, well.. pretty serious.” Serious indeed – since then, the band have toured with Paramore, AWOLNATION, Athlete and Luke Sital-Singh, to name just a few, and have now embarked on their second headline tour. “We’ve had a busy year, it’s exciting times in the Eliza and the Bear camp, really,” they modestly admit.

Despite being compared to a plethora of different bands and having tonnes of various influences identified in reviews, the guys themselves are quite vague about their inspirations. “I don’t know, I think we just listen to what music we enjoy and we go into our tiny practice room in Essex and just write music that we want to hear. And we can always find this joint opinion, this point where we agree and that’s when we know we’ve hit it. And if other people are into it then it’s a bonus.”
“I mean, in a Guardian review, we got a massive comparison to Flaming Lips and we’ve genuinely never listened to them,” says Chris, “so quite a lot of it is unintentional.”

“Each person seems to have their own corner of music they enjoy and sometimes we don’t agree,” Martin admits. “I bought the new Justin Bieber album.” At this point, Chris laughs and adds: “Yeah, that didn’t go down very well in the van.”

That same casual attitude translates into how they write. “It starts from many different things, it might be a cord progression, it might be a melody, we take it into a room and we all just sit there and just kind of chuck bits together and it grows and at the point we think we’ve got a decent chorus we continue with it, ” explains Martin. “Is it cheesy enough?” James interjects with a laugh. “And if it is, we usually go and demo it and give ourselves a week away from it and then go back to it.”

“There’s a lot of stuff that goes,” Kellegher says. “Yeah, loads,” Brand and Dukelow agree.
“I suppose it’s better than having not enough,” Martin continues, “but we have too many ideas. We all sit there and we go ‘oh, what about this, what about that’ and we end up layering about 50 million guitar parts on and having to lose the ones that end up sitting in the background. But I think that just shows that we’re massively enthusiastic about making music and we just throw around as many ideas as possible and hope that some of them are alright.”

I ask them how long it usually takes to finish a song. Martin lets out a little sigh with a head shake and responds: “You know, like a song for us is never finished. That’s why this album is going to be an odd time for us because we’ll have to put it there and put it to bed once it’s on the album. We’re quite perfectionist, we like to go back and edit pieces, make a verse stronger or add a bit of layers or lose bars, add bars. Not after the album I’m afraid, we’ll hear it and it’s final, so…”

Based on another interview Eliza and the Bear did in February, the plan was to have an album out before festival season. Instead, the band released a short but spirited EP ‘Light It Up’.

James goes on to explain the idea behind the EP: “When we were writing it, I was having a really tough time getting something good out, something actually worth keeping, like melody-wise and lyric-wise. It’s kind of a writer’s block turned into song. And then ‘Light It Up’ on the whole is about turning a bad situation into a really positive one, seeing the brighter side. Bit of a positive song, I think. Actually, the most positive song I’ve written in my entire life, probably.”

When it comes to the album, the guys are apprehensive about giving away too much: “There will be some tracks that we’ve released before and then there will be some new tracks, we’re playing them for the first time on this tour tonight, a couple of acoustic tunes. It’s going to be a mixed bag but we hope people will dig it.”

At this point, the sensitive (at least that was my fear) topic of James channelling the pain of his arthritis into music, included in the aforementioned Guardian review, comes up. Contrary to my expectations, he’s not very fussed about it: “This has kind of been taken out of context. When we started a couple of the earlier songs, I had arthritis in my knee. So a couple of the early songs were about that, how I felt like I was growing old way too fast and then the Guardian somehow took that into this dramatic ‘I have arthritis in my hand and this guitar is the only way to soothe this pain’ musical therapy thing. It surprised me.”

The group tends to be cautious of reviews in general. “We try not to read reviews. We’ve been kind of fortunate – we’ve gotten some bad reviews, who hasn’t – but I’ve read some really good ones and that’s great. My problem is, I can read a hundred great interviews and I will read one bad one and it’s the bad one I end up focusing on,” Martin concedes. “We take everything quite personally. I have to get someone to read it for me and tell me whether it was good and then I’ll read it.”

He will have done quite a bit of reading then – the group has received some cracking reviews for their live performances. “We pride ourselves on our live performance, this is where our strongest point is,” they acknowledge. When I ask them what we can expect from the gig tonight, Martin laughs and chimes: “New songs, an acoustic number, lots of sweat and bad dance moves.” He continues: “Glasgow’s sort of like a second home for us. Plus, King Tuts gives us mac and cheese, so were always glad to be here. A lot of our crew are Scottish as well. In Glasgow, they’ll always bring their friends and family, who are now our friends.”
“We played Belladrum earlier in the year, it was our first Scottish festival. It’s so far from home so we turned up at the festival and thought there would be zero people there but the tent was actually full and people were singing along as well, so we feel like we’ve been welcomed into Scotland.”

They seem to be really happy with their touring experiences so far, even though it was a sharp transition from intimate venue to gargantuan stage. “I mean, Paramore was the second tour we ever did, so we were massively chucked in at the deep end,” Martin adds. “I don’t think we’d ever played a venue with over 300 capacity at that point and then we went up in front of 20 000 people. But we loved it man, we absolutely loved those shows. We watch a lot of live music and we learned a lot from Paramore to be fair, their energy and how polished they were. And the same for AWOLNATION, Athlete, all the bands we’ve played with.”

There are downsides to touring though. James holds up a packet of cold and flu pills and nods. “We’re all packed into one Travelodge room. Illness and hygiene, like sometimes sharing a shower can suck but we love what we do and we may continue for a very long time,” says Martin. “As long we have the chance,” utters Chris. “We do get deep sometimes!” Martin smirks. “Someone’s going to start crying,” jokes James.

They’ve got grand plans for next year, too. “We’ll probably do another support tour and then a couple of headline runs, onto festival season. We can’t plan too much into the future, just take each thing as it comes,” Martin tells me. In terms of where they aspire to play one day, the list is quite long: “We’re looking for that Glastonbury invitation. I’ve never actually been. So to be there for the first time and play, that would be pretty special. Reading and Leeds, the festivals we were really into as kids. We never got to play Astoria in London, that would have been the dream but it got knocked down.” Chris adds: “Even the Roundhouse, I’d love to play Roundhouse.” Martin pauses for a second, then adds: “We drove past the Hydro on our way in, so just let the guys know that we might be back there in February. Heard it’s amazing.” James finishes with: “Aiming a little too high, maybe. We’ll see how the album goes and that will determine whether we’ll be in the Hydro next year or back at Tut’s. Or back at Bloc.”

“Maybe set up a Wikipedia page?” I jokingly ask. “Have we not got one?” the guys ask in amazement. “I’ve never ever googled our own band,” Martin realises. “I suppose you could start one yourself but that’s pretty embarrassing,” adds Chris. I offer to lend them a hand. “There’s some true stuff we can tell, mainly about Callie because he’s not here. He’s the most horrendous snorer you’ve ever heard, it’s ridiculous. If we’re ever at a festival, we need to soundproof our tent.” Martin adds, laughing: “Paul used to do horse-riding. Dressage.” Chris and James, in stitches, bawl: “Oh man, I still can’t imagine that.”

“Although, If you got a photo of each of the members in 2005 and put them next to ones of us now…. Thank god Myspace was deleted,” Martin reminisces.

As we near the end of our little chat, I ‘m left with a feeling that despite the impressive number of tours under their belt and a rapidly growing fan base, Eliza and the Bear still don’t quite realise just how good they are. When we chat about nightlife and I mention that I’ve heard their track ‘Friends’ played in Propaganda, they all bellow a wonder-filled, sincerely humble :“Really?!”

Photo: Sophie Mayanne

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