“If someone said to you ‘Jesus is drinking in a pub in Elephant and Castle’ you’d go and have a look wouldn’t you?” Well, bearded he may be, but DJ Mag is pretty sure the man we’re chatting to in a London pub just up the road from Elephant and Castle isn’t actually the messiah. Having said that, some of the ethos Raf Rundell claims lies at the heart of The 2 Bears’ music is pretty much a plea to ‘love thy neighbour’ — even if he admits he’s having more trouble articulating this in his rambling Cockney brogue than he and his 2 Bears partner Joe Goddard do on record.
“That’s a shit way of putting it but it’s about being credulous enough to think magic can still happen. You’ve just got to go at life in an open-hearted way, and maybe that is a spiritual thing. I used to think I was quite a cynical person but maybe I’ve just got my head in the clouds!”
Joe, for his part, sounds just as philosophical. “I think many people are missing religion in their lives,” he ruminates down the ‘phone a few days after our meeting with Raf.
“The death of religion is replaced by different things by different people. Some talk about football as a replacement and maybe being a good consumer in a capitalist society is a replacement for some people. Then others get a spiritual feel from clubbing and those moments when people seem united by a certain song and a certain feeling.”
If that makes Joe and Raf sound like either pious bores or naïve innocents, little could be further from the truth. Both these thirty-somethings are good naturedly down-to-earth, and have developed a sensitive smell for bullshit during their many trips around the clubbing block.
“We were at Ultra last year watching Calvin Harris and all it was was him with a USB just going ‘whoosh!’,” Raf recalls at one point, whilst Joe states that “I don’t think all those kids taking their first pill to Calvin Harris are having a spiritual experience, although they’d probably say different”.
Both clearly sing from the same hymn sheet — the separate Bear’s schedules might mean the interviews are days apart but neither’s answers contradict the other, except for when considering other famous double acts they think they have something in common with.
“We’d be Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell,” laughs Raf. “Or maybe Brandon Block and Alex P!”
“We wanted to get some photos done as Morecambe and Wise” Joe says. “But we were fighting over who got to be Eric Morecambe. No-one wants to be the straight man.”
Indeed, some people had a problem taking The 2 Bears seriously — or thinking of them as straight — when they appeared with their ‘Follow the Bears’ EP in 2010. Given that Joe was — and probably still is — better-known for his day job in Hot Chip, it was all too easy to dismiss The 2 Bears as something of a silly side project for him and his mate, especially since they appeared to basically be two heterosexual blokes in bearsuits singing songs you’d normally imagine being bellowed out by a glam diva in a Chicago gay club, a culture referenced in both their name — a ‘bear’ being a particularly rotund and hairy gay gentleman for the benefit of the more sheltered amongst you — and pneumatic singalong house music.
“We wanted to express our love for those big powerful woman songs, and the classic thing to do would have been to hire someone to sing that for us,” ponders Joe. “We don’t want to make it over-glossy and perfectly sung, and I think doing it ourselves is a little out of the ordinary. People could say that’s gimmicky but I feel it’s honest.”
Raf explains that the name 3 Bears was originally given to them when they were a trio with Joe Mount from Metronomy, and they decided to just adapt it when he left “because we were too lazy to think of anything else and — let’s face it — everyone loves bears.
So it was never a conscious thing about appropriating gay culture but — by the same token — it’s not something that we’re afraid of. It’s something we’re perfectly happy to represent because we love lots of dance music that came out of gay clubs in America”.
For The 2 Bears are all about giving an equal welcome to all — the musical equivalent of the grinning embrace Raf talked about on their biggest anthem ‘Bear Hug’ — and which made their debut album ‘Be Strong’ feel as dizzyingly fun and fuzzy as barrelling around the dancefloor with your mates.
“The parties we like are beer-soaked affairs with a real mixture of people rather than Ibiza glamour,” elaborates Joe. “It’s really important that people realise that dance music is all-inclusive, so you can be any kind of person and find your own place without having to look like a footballer and his wife. We don’t exactly look like that ourselves!”
It’s the same attitude that powers much of their second album ‘The Night Is Young’, although in other ways this is a much broader church. “The last record was essentially a simple statement of having a good time set to a pretty unwavering house beat, and I think we just wanted to branch out a little bit,” says Joe.
“It’s probably a bit more serious than ‘Be Strong’,” offers Raf. “There are more songs and it’s maybe a bit less happy-go-lucky.”
Part of that is probably down to the fact that both Bears have become fathers since ‘Be Strong’, something they address on sweet lullaby ‘Modern Family’. “You have to face up to the fact that the world is quite real you know?” Raf opines.
“But also we couldn’t make the same record that was all about love and partying again because then you’re on diminishing returns. We’re both hyperactive music lovers so we wanted to try on different hats and do different things. We’re always looking for something fresh.”
A search which led them beyond the edges of their own encyclopaedic record collections and London stomping ground to South Africa, which Raf and Joe visited as part of a British Council-sponsored trip last year. There they met kwaito star Senyaka — who provided a vocal for ‘Angel (Touch Me)’ — and also a teenager called Sbusiso, whose vocals flow through the meditative vibes of ‘Son of the Sun’.
“Johannesburg is a really exciting place at the moment,” says Raf. “After reconciliation all the big business just left downtown so there’s all these huge empty buildings that people are just taking over floors of and doing their own thing. We were recording in one with all these different people chipping in and this quiet little kid started whispering something.
We asked him what he was singing and if he wanted to record it and then he did it all in one take. Everyone in the room went silent and the hairs were just standing up on our necks. You sometimes get so caught up thinking ‘We’re making our second album and we need to licence it and this and that’ but that was one of those moments when you remember that it should just be about some bods making music — that’s why we’re doing this.”
‘Son of the Sun’ also features a rap from Kool Keith, whilst London reggae artist Stylo G adds some toasting to the buoyant digital dancehall of ‘Money Man’. “It was important to have other voices on the album because it is supposed to represent club music in some way so you don’t just want to hear us droning on the whole time!” explains Raf of their decision to get some guests on the microphone this time.
But with lyrics like “they will take your NHS” ‘Money Man’ is also emblematic of another aspect of ‘The Night Is Young’, asking you to look outside the happy bubble on the dancefloor to a wider world where not all is well.
“We were concerned about political developments in this country and wanted to express that,” Joe elaborates. “We felt like dance music is brilliant at helping people escape from everyday life and that’s not a bad thing — it’s very necessary for people in many ways. But we were influenced by stuff from the past that manages to be dancefloor music but also has some seriousness to it. No-one wants to be beaten over the head with politics when they’re out but you can do it in a clever way.
Raf introduced me to Fun Boy Three’s first album and that manages to do that really well. It’s really intelligent and political but those tracks were big on dancefloors as well — we heard that Jazzie B used to play tracks off that record at old Soul II Soul nights at the Africa Centre.”
ATTITUDE AND PUNKINESS
Although too young to have visited the Africa Centre themselves, Raf and Joe have certainly spent more than enough time absorbing the heady multicultural mix of London clubland since, enthusing about raving to “garage and jungle and bashment”, Soul Jazz parties, Basement Jaxx’s nights in Brixton and Ministry and Turnmills in the late '90s.
All of which inspired Joe’s Greco-Roman nights, where The 2 Bears were born when Raf became a regular guest DJ, and which also spawned the Greco-Roman label, which has released tracks by the likes of Drums of Death and Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, as well as ‘The Face’ EP by a then-relatively-unknown pair of kids going under the name Disclosure in 2012.
But with the brothers Lawrence now headlining festivals and the likes of Gorgon City and Route 94 scrabbling after them into the charts, do Raf and Joe feel they relate to the new wave of British house music your mum is whistling along to on the radio?
“I’m not referring to Disclosure,” Joe quickly points out, “but a lot of that stuff is just too polished, quantised and computerised for me. We’re not part of that scene at all. Our stuff sounds older and crunchier and I always find myself drawn towards things that have more distortion in them. I think dance music’s definitely missing a bit of attitude and punkiness right now.”
Something they’re hoping to bring back with their new live show, which features carnival dancers, cartoons and — with Raf upfront and in-your-face — a burly bonhomie that’s the antithesis of watching a tiny speck punching the air on a faraway stage.
“Dance music’s always been about smoke and mirrors but I think the smoke’s getting thicker and the mirrors are getting smokier,” is his slightly gnomic interpretation of the superstar DJ spectacular. “But we didn’t want to just put a big light show up — we wanted something more homemade and psychedelic where you can see the cogs a bit.”
The risk of course, is that by banging on about playing real music like it was in the good old days you begin to sound as reactionary as any classic rock anorak with a Mojo subscription and a shrine to Paul Weller in their bedroom.
So do The 2 Bears ever worry that they’re just chasing a youthful buzz that they’re fated never to recapture, or is it more about age and experience putting things in a different perspective?
“As you get older you see music going round in cycles so you have less regular moments of eye-opening brilliance because you feel like you’ve heard some of it before,” thinks Joe. “You can be out in a club and just feel like there’s no real passion there. But when you feel like things are right, it makes you feel even more elated because it restores your faith. You come back feeling energised and part of something and that helps you to keep going because you feel that if you make a track that makes people feel good, there is something good and worthwhile there.”
Amen to that. As some bloke we think we saw in the pub might say.