INTERVIEW DATE: August '97
INTERVIEWER: Andy Duffy
Dubliners Sunbear are an eclectic mix of such greats as The Verve, In Motion and Radiohead (so much in fact that Sunbear's idea of using traffic noise and Speak And Spell computers on their first record seems to have been stolen by Radiohead for "OK Computer"!) and assuming things go to plan should be much talked about outside of their home country very soon. The NME loved them when they played the In The City Festival last year - so much that they got signed to a subsidiary (Enclave) of a huge record company. Sadly, this was shortly before the company reshuffled it's staff so Sunbear's record release situation at the moment is unknown. However, you should still check out their self-titled debut album and their only EP, "Bits And Pieces". We spoke to bassist Colin a few days before their headline show at the Dublin Music Centre...
How did you meet and start out?
Colin : We started out...well, I was in school with Martin since we were six - he's the singer in the band. And let's see...his brother is in the band, Paul. We were in about five different bands, the two of us, over the years. And eventually Martin and Paul started a band with Paddy, our drummer, and they were looking for a bass player and I sort of volunteered. We played our first gig, I think it was April '93 - four years ago and it was in Barnstormers (now known as Fusion-Ed) and it was the worst gig ever. It was like, we played six songs and Martin forgot the words for four of them. It was crazy.
Was it all your own songs?
Colin : (nodding) Mmmm. We've never played a cover. We've never been able to for some reason.
Is that because you can't work them out?
Colin : No, we're gonna try before the end of the year anyway to get at least one done y'know?!
Anything in mind?
Colin : Ermm, yeah we're thinking of doing...y'know the band Bread from the seventies? We're thinking of doing a song by them - "Guitar Man". Have you heard it?
No, I don't think so...
Colin : It's brilliant. Or else, that song...I forget who sings it, some woman sings it - "It's Too Late Baby"! Something just off-the-wall like that. We don't wanna be doing a Sonic Youth cover or something like that.
Why did you call yourselves Sunbear?
Colin : Ermm, because there was a friend of Martin's who he was in college with and she was up in the National History Museum - at the 'Dead Zoo' up the road and she saw this animal called the sunbear and she suggested the name The Sunbears for a band [name], as we were looking for a name at the time and we nearly settled on The Kill Sindys', which was really bad. I'm glad we didn't go with that. But that's it. It was The Sunbear for the first ten gigs and then we changed it.
What actually is the sunbear? Why would it be found in a museum?
Colin : The sunbear is an animal, it's the smallest bear in the world. It comes from Malaysia and I dunno much about it.
Was there only ever one of them?
Colin : Oh, they're still around yeah, they're in San Diego zoo as far as I know as well. [I'll] have to go up and see them somewhere.
Did you do any demos before releasing the recordings on the Ultramack tapes?
Colin : Ermm, we did one in Temple Lane with this guy who had a four track tape machine. We recorded I think, five or six songs on that.
Was that stuff like, "Workstation Bench"?
Colin : It was before that even, yeah. Jeez, how did you heard that song?
A friend had a tape of about five or six songs from your early days...
Colin : Oh Jesus!
Are there any songs from that that you still do?
Colin : "Things To Do" - "Things To Do", that'd be the only one I reckon. We did "Flutterby" on that one. "Flutterby" and "Things To Do" were the first songs we ever wrote.
Were those recordings the ones that ended up on the Ultramack tape?
Colin : No, that was a later demo that we did up in Elektra Studios on a 16-track. I think that was sorta the second real demo that we did. The album was all recorded on 8-track though. That was just the bare minimum, like.
Were you happy with the finished result?
Colin : Delighted, yeah. It was great fun at the time, y'know? It was really well done. Marc Carolan produced it. Y'know Marc Carolan?
Yeah, I met him the other day, in fact!
Colin : Yeah, [he's a] legend round these parts! (laughs)
Just a bit! So were they the only demos you did?
Colin : I think we did a demo in Sun [Studios] as well, that never really surfaced. We did "Song For Saying Goodbye" and I think the other one was "Seeing Stars" or something but it was really bad, really bad. Then we came across our manager. We got a solicitor first and she recommended this guy, Nick McDonagh. And he seemed to be pretty interested and he'd been in the business for years and we were really down at the time, and we really wanted to record something. So he gave us some money to go into the studio and record a couple of things. So we went in and recorded five songs - two of them went on the EP and then we went into Sun Studios and recorded two songs there and those two went on the EP as well. And then it was about seven months later or something we played the 'In The City' Festival, here as it happened. There was an A&R woman from the Enclave record label there and she was pretty impressed so she sort of courted us for a while and went to see us again and brought her boss over to see us and stuff and eventually she brought over a contract and we signed it. Went into the studio with a guy called Steve Brown, who did The Cult's "Love" album and stuff like that and the first Manic Street Preachers album. And that was terrible! (laughs)
I heard rumour that he had a bit of a drink problem when you were recording...
Colin : Er, he drunk a fair bit I suppose but I wouldn't say he has a drink problem. Oh yeah, it's probably fair to say he drunk a fair bit and we did as well 'cos we had a tab in the local pub! So we'd free drink and free food for the whole week which we really took advantage of. The recordings themselves weren't that bad it's just the mixing was bloody awful. It just ended up sounding like a different band y'know? We recorded all the stuff, it ended up sounding like another band. Y'know, I was saying - the recordings were good but it was mixed badly and basically we weren't happy with it and they weren't happy with it and next thing we know, we're being told we're gonna be brought over to the States to record an album and all the rest. And then something happens with EMI America and there's a big reshuffling and that sort of brings us up to date. And we don't know what we're doing now. And we can't do anything 'cos we're contractually bound.
So if you record anything right now then they own it...
Colin : Exactly, yeah. Well, they own anything we record, if they pay for it.
What Irish bands do you like?
Colin : The Idiots, ermm Rollerskate Skinny - I'd say they're the only two bands in Ireland I'd say we'd all really like.
What about all the bands on labels like Blunt and Dead Elvis?
Colin : Ermm, I like Sack, I love Luggage - I love Luggage. Yeah, Luggage would be another band and I really liked In Motion when they were around.
Did you ever hear their song, "Sound And Light"?
Colin : Which?
"Sound And Light" - it never came out and I think it was their greatest song!
Colin : I don't think so. It's off the the first EP?
Well, yeah it was an outtake from that EP and then there were the two songs they
went in and recorded about a week after they split up, "Slow " and "Fast"...
Colin : The last two?! I remember the time when they went in...it was kind of awkward for them all, y'know? Ah, they were brilliant. But that's about it. Don't ask me do I like any other bands! (laughs)
Well, how about any of the bands that aren't going any more, like Tucker Suite?
Colin : Tucker Suite I thought were really good. I thought it was a real shame that they split. I mean, it wasn't my kinda stuff but I could go to a gig and watch them. I mean, they were sh*t tight and Joss, of course...Joss is a f*cking amazing drummer. He's in Capratone.
What are they like?
Colin : I dunno, I haven't seen them but I've heard they're really good and I really wanna see them soon. That's about it, I think.
Are there any of the bands like The Wormholes, Pet Lamb, Jubilee Allstars,
Mexican Pets that you like?
Colin : Not really, there's elements of all those bands that I kinda like y'know? Stuff that they're trying to do, whatever, y'know? I suppose, each to their own y'know? You can't really judge a band, like. I hate things like band competitions like, I mean you have a panel of judges. Each might be into a different whole genre of music and like, they pick whatever - a f*ckin' heavy metal band. They might have Sonic Youth in the ranks there and they wouldn't come anywhere. It's just really hard to compare bands y'know, I think.
What music do you like?
Colin : Well, My Bloody Valentine - big time, The Beatles, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., er Codeine, Idaho, Red House Painters...
Are the Idaho you like the same ones who do "Pomegranate Bleeding"?
Colin : I don't know, I have two albums - they're really good. Who else? I listen to Rollerskate Skinny a lot and I listen to The Idiots a lot. I don't have any of the Luggage EP's, that's basically it. And some classical music as well.
Does anybody else in the band write they lyrics except Martin?
Colin : None of us write lyrics except Martin.
So would you have any idea what the songs are about?
Colin : Yeah, I'd have a fair idea yeah.
So what would "Resin" be about? Dope?
Colin : No, "Resin"'s just a name we just thought of in our head. We didn't relate it to hash or anything like, y'know? I'm trying to think of it actually. I dunno, it does seem pretty self-explanatory. Maybe it could apply to drugs like, y'know? But I don't think that's the way it's written.
Well I think a lot of the songs seem to be about love and relationships,
especially "Notebook" and "Flutterby"...
Colin : Yeah. Martin wrote "Flutterby" I don't think he was...no, he wasn't going out with anyone at the time so maybe it was just wishful thinking, y'know? "Flutterby" - what else did you say?
Colin : "Notebook" - outside the lines!I dunno, I think everybody takes a...I mean, no matter what you say about the songs somebody's gonna find some different meaning and think that you meant that out of the song, like.
What about "Slave" - is that about Prince?
Colin : That was the worst f*cking song in the world. I hate it, we all hate it, like. It was just the biggest mistake we ever did, like. If we could do it all over again we'd take that off and just have nine songs on it. It was just awful. I just hate the music and I hate ...the lyrics are f*ckin' "Why can't I think of something else? Why can't I think of something else? Why can't I think of something else?" like eight times or something y'know? And the only reason he's singing that [is] 'cos he couldn't think of anything else, like! It was like, a real last minute effort for the album and we recorded it dry and it sounded really boring so we got Marc (Carolan, Dead Elvis producer) to put on a load of effects, so that's the gated drums, like and...
..the echoes on the sticks banging together at the start?!
Colin : Yeah, and the cowboy bit at the start - "nyyyyeaahh!" (Colin imitates the opening chords) with a tremolo - we were just messing around like, just a toy y'know?
And then at the end of the song there's the traffic noise which takes up the
rest of the CD...
Colin : Oh, the traffic noise?! The traffic noise was...the building we recorded the album in was where Dead Elvis were based - 147 Parnell Street. Fuse. We went upstairs then to one of the big rooms and put a mic at each end of the room out the windows, so we get a stereo sound of the cars going by and it was about half two in the morning and everybody was leaving nightclubs and stuff, so you can pick up conversations and stuff, y'know. We just left it there and filled up the whole CD. ['Cos] we were told that a CD can hold seventy-seven minutes so...
...might as well fill up the CD?
Colin : Yeah, exactly. The thing is like, it's not a separate track so you have to put it on track ten and let it run.
And that can be annoying because if you want to repeat all the songs on the CD
then you have to listen to half and hour of traffic noise!
Colin : That's the thing, like. You can't do it and it pissed loads of people off, like. And somebody was over in Norway and went into the pub and the fuckin' CD was on a jukebox and there was a sign on it saying "Do NOT play track ten!". It was like, it wasn't on, like!
Well, I think some band like the Supersuckers did a thirteen track album and it
was only half an hour long so track fourteen is the whole album on one track!
Colin : Yeah! (laughs)
Have you done any festivals?
Colin : No! (laughs)
Well have you supported anybody big yet?
Colin : We supported Suede. That was sort of the biggest one.
Was that good?
Colin : That was up in Belfast, it was cool.
Were the audience into you?
Colin : Yeah, there was a mosh pit and everything! From the front...
What do you think of Suede?
Colin : I never liked them up until then, I saw them live that night and they were f*cking unbelievable. They were incredible. I'd never seen a live band like it.
When was it?
Colin : It was the end of '95, so two-and-a-half years ago. It was great, absolutely brilliant.
What are your future plans?
Colin : [We] want to try and get something out on this record label if possible. Because we have new songs to record.
So what's going on with this record label?
Colin : We dunno anything. I mean, it could really happen for us or we might be dropped for all we know. We dunno.
So basically, you don't know what's happening?
Colin : Basically, well basically I don't know y'know? It's not that I even can say. Well there you go!
deadelvisarchive.tumblr.com - Sunbear
Colin who played with Sunbear sent me the short account of their association with Dead Elvis which you’ll find below. There’s an open invitation to others with any kind of association with the label - however tangential to do the same. I had forgotten about their long field recording of the late night sounds of Parnell Street (described in his account) which is included on their self-titled album on their own BearBones imprint. It reminded me of the way in which the late night events on the street outside of Fibbers and The Blue Lion were a popular entertainment in 147.
There was a great panoramic view of the street from the other Eamonn’s room and altercations were an extremely regular occurrence after the bars closed. The street didn’t have an immigrant population back in 1993 and 1994 so it was very much the fighting Irish in their ragged glory. Again the street itself and particularly the Welcome Inn, which was really the Dead Elvis office for two or so years, deserve a post. I’ll leave that till later. Colin also sent me on two snaps of Sunbear at the time which you’ll find at the bottom of the post. In one you can see the ramshackle centrail stairway as it was in 147 at the time. The track included above is not really representative of what Sunbear sounded like on the album they recorded with Marc in 1994 - but it is interesting for the free flowing experimentation nonetheless and it’s included because Colin mentions it in his account.
You can stream or buy the rest of the Sunbear debut album over at the Indecater website. The Indecater page also includes an interesting account of the making of the album from Martin. These guys really became part of the general Dead Elvis associated rabble after recording with Marc. He and Og can still be found ranting about the quality of the stuff they recorded in 147 back in the day.
1994: 147 Parnell Street and the Sunbear Connection
To say the first Sunbear gig (08/04/93) was a shambles would be generous. We were out of tune, bum notes everywhere and Martin forgot most of the lyrics. However, we persevered and got (a bit) better over the following year playing venues like Fibbers, The Attic, The Rock Garden and Behans Bar (Fox & Pheasant). There was a very distinct group of bands that played the same type of gigs around that time; Monomer, Unease, In Motion, The Idiots, Luggage and Wormhole. So when we found out that Wormhole were to release an album, we were pretty amazed. Not because they weren’t good enough, but because no band of that size in Dublin was doing anything like that. Plus, their album was to be on CD! CD pressing before then had been way out of most people’s budgets. Most small releases were glorified demos on audio cassette.
This got our attention and we talked lightly about putting one out ourselves. Except we didn’t know where to start. A drunken encounter with Óg Crudden at a North Strand party provided us with some of the answers. For one thing, he was involved in the label (Dead Elvis) that was putting Wormhole’s album out. And for another, he volunteered to help us put out our record. He was familiar with the process involved and they had already got a studio set-up in the basement of 147 Parnell St, where Marc Carolan manned the cockpit.
So before we knew it, we were recording in Fuse for £50 per day. A Soundcraft desk and a Tascam 8 track reel-to-reel machine were used and God knows what kind of mics. Marc was great to work with even back then and was exceptionally inventive too. The “Stephen Hawking” voice on the middle track, Centre Page, was done a year before Radiohead did something similar on OK Computer with Fitter/Happier. Way ahead of his time!
As far as I remember, we were there for 12 days. 12 days which involved hardly any sleep, way too much alcohol (fuelled by John Fitz in the Welcome Inn) and really bad delicious takeaway food from the Black & White chipper across the road.
At the final stages of the recording, someone asked how much music you can fit on a CD. “77 minutes” was Marc’s answer. Well, it’d be a shame not to fill that space, wouldn’t it? So one Saturday evening, upstairs in 147, we miked Parnell St. In stereo. It’s still interesting to listen to the traffic noise at the end of the final track. You can hear conversations, traffic, sirens, screams and shouts.
Following the release of the album on our own Bearbones label and several decent reviews we asked Eamonn Crudden to do a video for us. For some reason, we ended up setting up a living room on a road down on Dublin’s docklands and throwing chairs into the sea at Killiney beach, but somehow Eamonn captured a moment in Sunbear’s life and managed to put together something we were very proud of. The version on youtube (very bad quality) has the song ‘Notebook’ on it, but ‘Your New Laugh’ was also put on the same video. Both versions were aired a few times on No Disco by Donal Dineen.
So although Sunbear weren’t on Dead Elvis, we certainly would’ve been lost without their help.
Colin (an ex-Sunbear)
Indiecater - Sunbear "Bits"
Sunbear and In Motion will always hold a special place in our hearts despite breaking up a long time ago. They both appeared around the same time in mid 1990’s Dublin and adopted a similar post-shoegaze sound. You can find both of their debut albums on indiecater (here and there) and even though the century has changed they remain vital releases. As it happens both bands never recorded a follow-up LP, however Sunbear did put together a couple of fine EP’s (Bits and Pieces, Dog) that are near impossible to track down. Bits includes both these EP’s as well as a clutch of unreleased tracks culled from dusty old master tapes. It has been quite an achievement to get this package together and much of the praise must to Patrick Moran for making it possible. Bits is a startling album in its own right with potential mixtape favourites dotted throughout.
This collection is available to download for just 4 euro but if you are one of the first 20 people to buy it you will also get an ultra rare copy of Sunbear’s eponymous debut in the post.
Here is Patrick from Sunbear with some background on Bits.
When I first came into contact with mp3hugger we discussed re-releasing the Sunbear album and went on to do just that. But I guess deep down I always felt I could use the opportunity to do something with the songs we had recorded after the album. I always had a feeling of unfinished business when I thought about those songs.
The Bits and Pieces EP came out a couple of years after the album and actually did kinda ok for us – it was given a Hot Press single of the fortnight review and we thought we were growing up a little as a band. Joe Chester got involved with the band and started to bounce ideas off Martin and things looked pretty promising. Though we were never the most prolific band I still felt we were writing some good songs at that time. Martin’s usual influences of MBV, Sebadoh, Swervedriver were all still evident but the songs started getting a little more accomplished and other influences he had, such as John Lennon, Evan Dando & Roxy Music started to creep in too. Around this time we came up with a song called Dog which I think we all agree is the best song we have written, and also came up with songs such as Poke My Side and Bits which we are still very proud of today. We got a good buzz going and some pretty cool support slots with bands like Suede, Sebadoh and Grandaddy. This ensured that, even if we gained nothing else from our music careers, for years to come we could drunkenly mutter at bouncers as we were ejected from pubs…”I fuugggin played with SSSHeebadoh ya fuggiin pprrick!”.
Probably to our detriment, other influences started to lurk in the shadows too, the music “industry” came knocking. At that time the idea of self releasing music, even though we had self released our album, was not a hugely popular one. I guess inevitably we kinda fell into the trap of looking for record deals etc. We did eventually sign to the Enclave, an American record label who funded some demos for us, some of which appear here (Somebody Change The Season, Pennies). In truth these songs were a bit of a let down to us, they could have been much better. But because they kinda formed part of our story, albeit the concluding chapter, I still thought they should be included here. Shortly after this the record label was folded.
The band continued on for a while after this but rehearsals and gigs especially were getting further and further apart. As life and age began catching up on us we started drifting apart and eventually decided to call it a day sometime around 1998/99. We did do a very limited release of some of the songs from mid to late 90s on an internet release called peoplesound.com in 2000, but it’s a real rarity.
This collection of songs is pretty much in chronological order from the Bits and Pieces EP in 1996 and includes almost everything we recorded up to the time the band split including the songs that appeared on the Dog EP in 2000. The collection starts with Leadbelt, with its prominent keyboard intro, and finishes on Bits. This was often how we started and finished our live sets. Here you have to settle for the 7 minute plus studio version of Bits which comes to a close with strings provided by Marc Carolan. I myself yearn for the days when we did our best to make peoples ears bleed in Whelan’s with the song often extending to a ten minute shambolic noise fest ending with guitars squealing and feedback almost knocking me off my drum stool. They were the days!
It’s probably appropriate that one of those songs we recorded for The Enclave “Pennies” with its closing lines of “penniless and painless is such a better way to be” is also included here as that is ultimately how we ended up from our music careers. The band ended, but we all still remain good friends and certainly none of us have become rich men from the experience! Yet!