Meeting Little Bear

With a momentous 2013 behind them, the indie act from Derry~Londonderry look forward to 2014

2013 was a special year for Derry~Londonderry – designated the inaugural UK City of Culture – and Little Bear took advantage of that more than most. Back in January they had been together for less than a year, and just finalised their line-up, with Conor Mason newly installed on piano.

Two months later, they were performing alongside Beth Orton and Daughter at Other Voices, the prestigious television music show, before going on to appear at the BBC Radio 1's One Big Weekend in Ebrington and be the talk of Belfast Music Week in November.

With a lush sound, songs full of heart and soul and a real groundswell of support behind them, 2014 could be a very exciting year indeed. Chris Jones speaks to singer and bassist Steven McCool about last year and the one to come…

Some bands take quite a long time to get national exposure, but it seems to have happened quite quickly for you. Has that been a surprise?

Oh, it has, and we're truly grateful for everything that's come our way. We weren't expecting it. We were pushing for it [to happen] eventually, but it came out of nowhere. We're over the moon, to be honest. It gives you something to push on from.

When you're given this [level of] exposure, you might as well take full advantage of it and work that bit harder. We play everywhere we can possibly play. We've been up and down Ireland countless times, but it's really worth it. We're just trying to keep pushing it as much as we can.

You recently decided to go full-time as a band, putting work and study on hold. Was it an easy decision to make?

No, it was a hard decision. I was trying to juggle studying and the band. I'm doing an English degree and you need to put your head into it. When there's other things going on, you just can't do it. But these opportunities won't come along again, so we made the decision to do this full-time and put our whole heart and soul into it.

Where does your sound come from?

There's a broad range of influences. Mark [O'Doherty] is a jazz and rock drummer, so there are all sorts of influences from him, rhythms and timings from different cultures. Ryan [Griffiths] is a classical guitarist, and Conor [Mason, piano] is a great musician in his own right. I think he's released five albums and he's fantastic.

His influences are stuff like Elliott Smith, darker moods. My influences are random. I wouldn't really call them influences, books and poetry... I walked the other day and listened to Jon Hopkins and Villagers, if that's anything to go by. It's a broad mix.

What kind of music did you grow up on?

My parents had a really good collection of records. When I was younger I listened to rave music, trying to be cool, but secretly went and stole my parents' records and sneaked them upstairs. Things like Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Led Zeppelin and stuff like that. And Dr Hook, but we'll not tell anyone about that one!

What influences your lyrics? Is there any method behind it?

It's portrayal of image for me. I see an image and try to put words to it. Dylan Thomas's poems were very visual, and I enjoy reading them. He probably influences me too.

As musicians, how is life in Derry~Londonderry?

At the moment it's really thriving. There's a great energy and I think City of Culture has stirred up a great buzz in the city. A lot of people are still riding that wave as it goes through. Hopefully it stays. On the musical side, a lot of bands and artists are coming up and because of City of Culture they've had a platform.

It's great to have a city to use as a base and do our planning and create activity. Everybody we use is from Derry – our sound men and engineers – and we've been creating all these records here. It's a great thing to have and to be able to do in your city.

Your rise as a band was well-timed with City of Culture happening alongside it. Was that a coincidence?

It really was, but for us it has been planned divinely. We're totally over the moon to be here as a band at this time when things are changing in the city.

Have you been able to observe the similarities and differences between Derry and Belfast?

I think they're becoming quite similar. Sometimes there's a scene in Belfast and none in Derry, and sometimes there's a scene in Derry and none in Belfast. It fluctuates like that. But there seems to be a happy medium between the two cities at the minute. We spend a lot of time in Belfast and we've got to know the scene up there and lots of bands. There's a lot of camaraderie within the city and between the bands. It's a good way forward.

Did you enjoy performing at Belfast Music Week 2013?

It went really well, but we had some bad news just before we went on stage. We discovered that our music teacher – a guitar player and Ryan and Mark's uncle – had died. It was a hard gig to get through. It was an emotional performance. We didn't talk too much, just had to get out of there. But it was a great show and really well run. There's a lot of exposure that comes from Belfast Music Week.

What were you other highlights of 2013?

The year was fantastic for us. So much happened that it's really hard to choose a highlight, but Other Voices is one. We took the place of Two Door Cinema Club at the last minute and before we knew it, we were standing on stage. I've been a fan of Other Voices for a long time, so that was a really big thing for us. It got us loads of exposure.

How soon beforehand did you get asked to play?

We were playing in St Augustine's church as part of the Other Voices Music Trail. We sold it out and there was a wee buzz around it, so the Other Voices crew came up to see us. They approached us afterwards and said they really enjoyed the gig. Then we were in the Gweedore bar drinking some lovely stout and watching Other Voices on the big screen when we got a call.

They asked us if we'd heard the news about Two Door Cinema Club and we were like, 'Yeah, it's a shame'. Then they asked if we'd like to stand in and I nearly dropped my pint! It was amazing, I'd been looking tickets myself for it all weekend.

Was it a surreal experience?

It was like a big dream. I was backstage talking to Beth Orton about her kids and her swimming pool, half cut from the night before. And Daughter was really nervous. It was a shock to see someone who was doing so well be so nervous before going onstage. I had my arm around her, reassuring her. Though if I hadn't been half cut, it wouldn't have happened.

What have you got planned for 2014?

We're currently demoing tracks for an album and other releases, and we're putting out a new song and video very soon. Then we'll do the festival circuit and reach out outside Ireland, touring the UK and Europe. And we're finalising a few things at the minute but we're possibly going to America and Canada. It's very, very exciting.

Have you been speaking to labels about the album?

There are a lot of labels waiting for new music from us, but I'm not a big fan of jumping into a big label. It happens to a lot of Northern Irish bands – they jump into the first label they see, or into a major, and they get screwed over.

Fighting With Wire's was a cautionary tale…

Yeah, I'm friends with Cahir [O'Doherty]. Seeing that and the way it can go, the more we can own and produce our music, and have control over it, the better. We'll only take a label on if we really need to. At the minute, we can survive on our own and we don't really need the help and exposure yet. We will at a later time, but at the moment we're very happy where we are.