Interview with Bearcubs
photos by Nicholas Blanchadell and Jacob Lindell
There’s music that you simply listen to, and then there’s music that’s an entire textural experience. It’s clear that UK-raised, Berlin-based producer Bearcubs is making the latter, with his inventive, sensory-activating concoctions. From the first seconds of “Everyplace Is Life”, the listener is pulled into a vortex of restless, buzzing energy. Juxtaposed synth blips and knocking percussion create an addicting cycle on rotation, with only the breathing space of a warped interlude. Fitting with its meaning, Jack Ritchie’s latest single feels like flicking through animated snapshots of day-to-day existence.
“I wrote the lyrics for 'Everyplace Is Life' on my phone while I was on a train to play The Great Escape festival in Brighton,” he describes. “It was a hot summer day, and I was in a pretty good mood at the time. I was thinking about how life leads you in weird directions and about all these little moments that happen all the time, good and bad, how they affect us in ways we don’t realize. So this visual image kind of popped into my head when I was writing the lyrics of little vignettes of happenings in the city: two dogs barking at each other, drunk people shouting in the street, sirens, a couple laughing, a kid dropping his ice cream, etc. It’s kind of that feeling you get on the Underground where you suddenly become aware that everyone around you has all these desires, worries, habits outside of your own.” The track churns with sonic disorder, yet there’s a pattern that holds it all together – much like the big-picture structures of life.
The single is just one piece of a larger collection inspired by the bustle of city living, titled ‘Early Hours’ and set to be released on May 15. “Most of the album came out in a creative flurry about six months after I had moved to Berlin,” Jack recalls. “It’s me looking back over the past few years of living in London, working in a pub and other shitty jobs, partying with friends, different relationships that I lost and gained. I was using the music to help me make sense of it all and digest those experiences in some way. The result is me trying to create this sort of daydream mood, like I’m looking back at a collage of different memories, maybe with a hint of nostalgia, and describing parts of my life through the different styles and sounds.”
The encouraging environment of his new home has allowed for there to be less limitations on his expression as an artist. “Since I’ve been here I’ve felt like people are more open to collaboration and lifting each other up instead of competing, so I’ve met a lot of inspiring and creative people here,” he says. “Also, the pace of the city I think has affected how I make music. It’s as if there’s a bit more time here to think about ideas and be mindful of what you are doing. It’s helped me in being confident just being myself and doing my own thing.”
And doing his own thing, from a production standpoint, involves a constant formulation of new approaches. “I’m just always trying to break myself out of habits, which isn’t always easy, and exploring a wide range of different genres to stay fresh,” he relates. “I think to be innovative is to not be afraid of making something bad or failing. It’s the happy accidents that often create the most interesting ideas. And another part of it is to allow your subconscious to come up with things on its own, which usually happens when you are busy doing other things like going for a walk or eating breakfast.” His music seems to reflect the flow of this slightly disengaged state as well, with synths radiating like the materialization of deep thought sequences.
Despite drawing from such a synthetic palette, Jack wants to actively avoid being too methodical with his use of sound. “As much as I can I’m trying to ignore the technical aspects of music making,” he says. “These technologies I’m using are just tools to create something, and convey some kind of story, mood, or different emotions. So I’m conscious not to get too caught up in technicalities, and instead just try to trust my instincts. If something feels good, then it is good.”
With a spectrum ranging from entirely instrumental pieces to tracks with more conventional vocal melodies, he has to particularly rely on these gut feelings when deciding whether or not to record his voice. “For me, it’s about creating space and deciding whether a song really needs vocals or [if I’m] just putting them in there for the sake of it,” he explains. “I’m trying to fight against common structures of writing pop music, seeing how far I can push it, instead of just caving to the thought that ‘Oh well, then the chorus should come here’, etc. It’s nice feeling like I’m not limited to certain rules and tropes when writing songs, and when I manage to get out of that boxed-in mindset more ideas always seem to open up to me.”
Unlike most artists, though, his vocals aren’t at the forefront of the production, but tangled within his complex, unfolding layers. Sometimes it’s just a hint of a word here and there for effect, like a brief glimpse of an image. “I think this came from me starting out as a producer,” he observes. “The voice is such a varied instrument you can literally create any sound you want with it, which to me is a dream because I really search for sounds that can’t be pinned down. Perhaps my mindset in the past had often been focused on the instruments and vocal melodies as opposed to the lyrics themselves when I was listening to other people’s music, so the voice in my songs just became a complementary part of the whole picture, another element to create a mood through choice words. But over time I think I’ve become more interested in songwriting. There are definitely instrumental tracks that will stay with me forever, but in general it seems like there’s something timeless about a well-written song.”
The lyrical style of Bearcubs comes from a process of avoiding overthinking, finding the beauty in ambiguity, and even making sense of singing complete gibberish. “I’ve always tried to write lyrics that are open to interpretation,” he says. “The meaning of the songs sometimes only becomes clear after I’ve finished them. My hope is that people can listen to the songs and apply their own experiences and meanings to them, so they stop being my songs and become everyone else’s. I think my writing style has become a bit more direct over time and I’m aiming for more simplicity and conciseness. Mac DeMarco, for example, has inspired me a lot in the way he leaves so much space in his lyrics and keeps the language simple without it feeling cheesy or obvious.” In his songs that are more lyrically-focused, the phrases float along on the same abstract plane as the sounds themselves, deliberating igniting feelings at the right times.
Plunging into album two, Jack wanted to keep all of these intentions in mind and more. Coming off of his 2018 debut LP ‘Ultraviolet’, he began to revisit the music he was connected to from years’ past. “I had just moved to Berlin and spent six months working on a soundtrack [for a feature film called ‘Relativity’],” he tells us. “So it took me a while to get going, but I eventually decided that I wanted to look back at music that I listened to growing up [and make that part of my new music]. For example, the 90’s hip hop and dance music my brother was DJing upstairs in my parents’ house, and the pop and R&B music constantly being played through the radio and TV.”
He’s proud of many developments on the record, including the hazy, melting trickle of his March single “Screentime”. “Sound-wise, I’m pleased with how [that] track turned out,” he notes. “It’s like this mix of more modern trap drum sounds, but with these woozy 80s synths and kind of crappy old drum machine sounds that have a nice charm to them. I also like the glitchy, chime-like key sounds on the last track ‘Shining’, which I created on one of my analogue synths called the Prophet Rev 2 when I was just messing around with sounds one day.”
From the way Bearcubs songs flood the speakers, you can almost envision the twists and turns, shadows and changing depths. It’s no surprise that Jack not only hears the music, but sees it, too. “My brain is quite visual, so most times I have a video idea or images in my head already when I’m writing the music,” he says. “For some reason, I imagine each of my songs having a different colour or set of colours, even though I don’t have synesthesia. So this makes it easier for me to decide on the artwork.”
His tracks’ covers, up until 2020’s ‘Early Hours’ singles, have been quite representative of the music itself, like peering into a delirious virtual reality. However, he wanted to change it up for his sophomore record. “For ‘Early Hours’, I ended up making the artwork myself because I felt like I couldn’t really express to any designer what I wanted,” he reveals. “I was searching for something organic and collage-y to represent the different memories and styles of the album, so I wanted to create something that looked like a scrapbook or photo album. I edited photos on the computer first, then printed them out, arranged them, and rescanned them. It was me sort of trying to escape the screen and make something that felt more hands-on and real. There was a lot of trial and error involved, but eventually I got to a point with it where I was like, ‘Yeah, this is it!’” The artwork, spliced together with jagged edges, gives a nostalgically imperfect effect – possibly evocative of the childhood influences he drew from.
Going forward into new projects, including more Bearcubs music as well as collaborations, Jack’s goal is to create what hasn’t been created before. “I’m just trying to make the music that I want to hear but that I can’t find around,” he expresses. “It’s sort of like a gradual process of chipping away at a block of stone. I’ve got all of these ideas; some of them fit together and some don’t. But you have to keep going and refining your style with every new thing you create. It’s all in accordance with the world around, digesting events like the situation happening right now, and seeing styles in music or art and filtering them through your own experiences and ideas.”
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