At a time when one-in-four of us experience some sort of mental health problem, the conversation surrounding mental health and reducing the impact of such illnesses is becoming ever-more important.
Bears in Trees are a four-man band from Croydon whose music explores the ebb and flow of such issues; we spoke to them about their music and how they’ve used expressive art to deal with mental health, all while bonding over our shared love for Ikea’s coveted veggie-balls.
The band compromises of singer and bassist Iain Gillespie, singer, pianist and ukulele player Callum Litchfield, guitarist Nick Peters and drummer and producer George Berry who all officially joined forces in 2014. However, they only came to live together in London last September. “Since then we’ve been doing stuff constantly which has been really refreshing,” Nick told us.
“Now we’re all together, we’re literally like a machine,” Iain added. “We’ve spent so long apart, really struggling to keep the band together but we managed to do it and as soon as we came together it was like someone just turned on a tap, we were all systems go and everything has been creatively meshing perfectly.”
Reminiscing about their musical endeavours before Bears in Trees, Iain admits that he was in school with Callum and Nick and that they had previously started another band: “It was a really terrible, terrible punk band in which we all made very loud music in run-down venues to help our friends mosh pit their problems.”
“Laughing and joking about mental health, I find, is a good way of removing the solemnity and the sadness out of it.”
“At the time, we were like ‘Woah, these songs are ground-breaking, they’re incredible.’ They aren’t and we’ll never let them be shown in this light of day but George helped us to record it all as he was studying music tech at the time and that’s how we got properly introduced to him,” he added.
“In our band, you’ve got George who is kind of a quality check, me and Nick are the insane creatives and then Callum is just the ‘get stuff done’ guy.”
When talking about the band’s influences, Iain said: “The reason why we have our own sound is because we’re all influenced by very different genres of music. I think a lot of my inspiration comes from early emo like Fall Out Boy and Modern Baseball, but then there’s folk music as well like The Front Bottoms and Ramshackle Glory.“
“Mine’s more like indie-pop, that kind of background like The Wombats,” George added. “I like the traditional band sort-of thing, with a mixture of the electronic elements, it just makes it more interesting.” Nick explained that “Callum was really into pure pop music” and that pop-punk, emo and R&B are his three main genres. “We bonded over emo and pop-punk,” he added.
We talked about the creative process and the way in which Bears in Trees create their sound: “Callum likes very pop-y, sugary vocals. Nick has got this thing with heavy guitar and like really interesting guitar rhythms. George is really into interesting and clean music and I’m very into almost chaotic structures and quite strange lyrics,” Iain explained. “I think all of this coalesced into this really beautiful sound that we’ve made.”
When it comes to production, the whole band gets involved: “We will present these lyrics to the band as just lyrics and together we will come up with melodies and structures, what parts are important, where stuff goes and such and it’s pretty much the whole band working on a song together,” Iain said. “The lyrics are very minor, like they’re important, but they’re not the whole song.”
“They’re basically just like a whole sheet of ramblings,” George added. “We have to morph it into something that people will actually want to hear so we all sit down together and then it’s usually me takes on the fine-tuning, sort of production role.”
“I think it’s you with the drums and the production which make music. You’re really good at working out what makes a good structure but a lot of the time,” Iain said before he was cut off by George: “We have a lot of what I’ll call disagreements, creative differences.”
The band’s collective nature became blatantly clear when discussing this with both members finishing each other’s sentences; an act almost comedic but incredibly sincere. “I think it’s because we both respect the other’s perspective,” Iain continued, followed by George who said: “And it’s when you care about something so much that you want it to be perfect.”
“Our visions of perfection may be slightly different, but we always come to a fair outcome,” Iain concluded.
When asked about the favourite song they’ve produced, Nick said: “I’m proud of everything for different reasons but I think my favourite is Ramblings of a Lunatic. It’s my favourite song we’ve written and I think it kind of shows our growth. If you put that against the very first song we put out, Lesson Hello, it’s crazy to see how far we’ve come as people and it was really nice to hear us recording our best.”
“We are still people, we’re still fans of music and I don’t want that kind of vibe to leave.”
“I think mine would probably be Nights Like These,” George said. “Like the guys were saying, I like that sort of clean music and it’s a really simple kind of song, there’s not much to it. It’s very clean-cut and it’s emotionally powerful without shouting.”
“I’d say mine is also Ramblings of a Lunatic at the moment, I wrote it and I think it’s probably the best song I’ve ever written, I just love the song,” Iain confessed. “I think Callum’s is Starting Fires because he loves bangers, it’s so emotional and I think he loves how emotional it is,” he continued before correcting himself.
“Actually, that’s probably a misquote. I reckon Callum would say Reverberate which hasn’t come out yet. In every interview, he always says one that hasn’t come out yet.”
“That’s a very Callum trick,” George added whilst we all shared a collective laugh.
The band take a very open approach when it comes to talking about mental health and how this influences their music. Most often, Iain and Nick will write the lyrics. They explained that they used to collaborate with each song but now it’s a more individual process: “Iain tends to write very chaotically, in the moment and kind of like, I would say, emotional outbursts,” Nick said.
“It’s very intimate, like a creative way of expressing what he’s writing about whereas mine is a lot more detached. It’s like he’s in the breakdown and I’m writing after the breakdown.”
Iain added: “I try and look at my own effects, look at my emotions and dissecting how I’m feeling and why I’m feeling that way and Nick will often be narrative-based so his [lyrics] are always about the event, how we acted and how the other person acted.”
“Our songs are like lyrically processing some sort of trauma or something that’s happened,” Nick continued. “It’s not always trauma, sometimes it’s good and like our friends, because we share the same friend group, a lot of our themes come together and a few songs will be about the same situation, the same event or share similar themes.”
But why is being open about our mental health important? The Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey (APMS) has been carried out every seven years since 1993 and has produced some of the most reliable data concerning the trends and prevalence of mental health issues. According to the latest findings, one-in-six adults experiences a symptom of mental health every week and one-in-five have considered taking their own life at some point.
In the UK, the Office for National Statistics reported that more than 6,000 suicides occurred in 2014, that’s one person every two hours. 75% of these were male and whilst suicide is now arguably well-known for being the biggest cause of death for men under the age of 50, undoubtedly there is still a massive stigma surrounding men and their mental health. This is something that the band are passionate about challenging with their music and their community.
“We have a lot of what I’ll call disagreements, creative differences.”
“I think in terms of the openness about life in person as well as in music, I think this is fairly specific for me when I was around 14/15, [a lot of it is down to the fact that] me and [Iain] both ran Tumblr blogs,” Nick explained.
“It was a part of the internet where you could be unashamedly open about however you were feeling to random strangers who you would then become friends with.”
Nick continued: “I honestly think that being on Tumblr and being in those internet communities for so long, especially because we were there because we loved the same bands that other people loved and because we found shared connections in those bands, gave us a way of talking about how we were feeling without having to go through the awkwardness of talking about it in person.”
“I think that’s kind of what we’ve tried to retain in the band – we are still people, we’re still fans of music and I don’t want that kind of vibe to leave. I still want us to be transparent.”
The British Association for Music Therapy (BAMT) notes: “As human beings, music plays a fundamental role in our identity, culture, heritage and spiritual beliefs. It is a powerful medium which can affect us all deeply.” Music Therapy can help people to be more motivated, to develop communication skills and to build their self-esteem.
“I also think that our friend group, as we got older we were all incredibly open about our mental health,” Iain added. “A lot of us were going through mental health problems and we ended up effectively counselling each other and I think that’s just a habit that we formed, just being very open and like saying ‘this is basically like having any other illness’.”
“One of my friends recently came up to me and he said: ‘Ah Iain, I’ve noticed that everyone in our friendship group is now openly discussing their mental health problems. Nice one man, we’ve normalised it!’ and we fist-bumped and I was like ‘yeah, yeah we’ve normalised being on medication, that’s awesome!’ I think it’s important because it makes everyone less worried about it.”
The Centre for Psychiatric Rehabilitation at Boston University suggests: “Alternative approaches can be helpful to people as they cope with fatigue, insomnia, anxiety and stressors that are often compounded by the serious symptoms and consequences of mental illness.”
Such approaches include diet and nutrition, yoga and expressive therapies, all of which fall in line with SAMHSA’s Eight Dimensions of Wellness that promotes whole-person wellness by focusing on the “key aspects of a person’s life that contribute to their overall well-being.” This notion is similarly supported by The World Health Organisation who states: “Health is more than the absence of disease. Health is a state of optimal well-being.”
Whilst most artists often write songs about their issues, mental health or otherwise, not everyone is as open to discussing such matters in the public domain. We spoke about this and how in some ways this contributes to the stigma surrounding mental health: “It’s almost taking the stance of 1. Artists suffer to make art and 2. That’s the only way that you should process things,” Iain said. “Both of those things need to be deconstructed massively. You need to be able to express yourself.
“I’m writing about this stuff because it’s part of my life and I’ll talk about it because it’s part of my life. It’s not the reason I make art, I would make art whether I was going through these problems or not, it’s just that this is the only thing that seems important to write about at the moment.”
But, of course, there are pros and cons to each story: “It’s interesting saying that and like because obviously when you’re famous or whatever, you don’t want certain things to be in the public eye, so I guess there is that argument that maybe they don’t want to publicise too much of their own life,” George added. “I know it’s difficult to find the right balance. You don’t need to go into specifics but it’s okay not to hide it.”
As with the positive effects of music therapy, humour can also be very beneficial when dealing with mental health issues. Marc Gelkopf wrote in a review for the Faculty of Social Welfare and Health Sciences at the University of Haifa, Israel: “Humor seems to have the potential to effectuate pain relief, strengthen immune function, improve positive emotions, moderate stress, dissociate from distress and improve interpersonal processes.”
Nick agreed that “it’s important to normalise the way you talk about it. [Mental health] is a serious issue but it doesn’t mean you can’t find humour in it. There’s like a common ground in everyone laughing about being really frickin’ sad and I think [that’s good] long as it doesn’t become like just the sad bit.”
“We shouldn’t joke about mental illness, we shouldn’t make fun of mental illness [and] we should also not romanticise it, comedically or otherwise,” Iain added. “But laughing and joking about mental health, I find, is a good way of removing the solemnity and the sadness out of it.”
“If you can approach it in a much more human, honest and in someways comedic way then it makes it more accessible.”
Bears in Trees have seven singles coming out over the course of the year and have two EPs in the making. However, they note that trying to establish themselves in the industry has been challenging: “I think because London is so oversaturated with music, it’s hard to build yourself up in the scene, especially a band like us because we’re kind of like we don’t really fit into one main genre,” Nick said.
“We’re just focusing on making the best music we can, being there online, making sure we are like gigging; we have some gigs lined up for the future but we’re trying to make sure that we make them count.”
Their first EP I Want to Feel Chaotic comprises of five singles and guitarist Nick described it as “the darkest EP [he’s] ever written.”
“It’s about very much coming to terms with all those different parts of yourself and how to build yourself back up after a tragedy,” he said. “Awful tragedies,” Iain chimed in, “presented in a really nice way,” George concluded.
Coming into the autumn, Bears in Trees are excited about a new era of music. The ‘Keep Me Safe’ era is all about healing. In an update on Instagram, they said: “It’s all progress, but progress isn’t linear. steps back are just part of the process!” The first single of this new era, It Gets Better, is released on September 4: “It’s about the friends who hold your hand while your world falls apart,” they said.
It’s fair to say that Bears in Trees have an incredibly refreshing approach to creating music; their openness and honesty with regards to mental health is admirable. Whilst holistic approaches to mental health are ever-increasing in popularity, here’s to good music for helping to start the conversation.
You can buy tickets for their winter shows here.
If you believe yourself or anyone you know to be struggling with mental illness, the following resources are available:
Samaritans provide confidential non-judgemental emotional support, 24 hours a day. They can be called free of charge on 116 123 or contacted via email at email@example.com. You can also contact your local Samaritans branch if you’d like to talk to someone in your region.
Mind offer advice, legal information and support across a range of mental health conditions. The line is open from 9am-6pm, Monday to Friday (except for bank holidays). The infoline can be reached on 0300 123 3393. You can also text Mind at 86463.
YoungMinds offer a Parent Helpline that provides free, confidential online and telephone support, including information and advice, to any adult worried about the emotional problems, behaviour or mental health of a child or young person up to the age of 25. You can call them on 0808 802 5544, Monday-Friday from 9:30am-4pm.
Featured Image by Mags Luckhurst.