Putting in long hours at local dives has long been part of rock and roll apprenticeship. But for Will Irvine that meant donning the scuba gear and hunting for scallops rather than slumming it at small music venues on the road to stardom!
The Hunter and the Bear frontman may spend his days making sweet music – with an October gig at Glasgow’s Garage next up for the band.
But back in the day Will was more likely to be swimming than singing as part of his job as a deap-sea scallop diver near his home village of Achiltibuie in the Highlands.
He may have swapped one curious endavour for another, but Will reckons the work ethic and ‘Buie’ – as he fondly calls the village where he grew up – will never leave him even when he leaves it.
Will says: “Being from Achiltibuie everyone is a hard worker. The people there get up early, work all day and go to bed late and there’s a lot of unconventional jobs. A lot of jobs are based around fishing.
“I used to be a deep sea scallop diver. On my first work day I had the best scallops I’ve had in my life.
“I dived for scallops and 30 seconds after I came up I was cooking them! That’s the essence of Buie. It was a cool job and I like scallops but I felt quite sorry for them when I was chasing them around the sea bed.
“They have two shells that open and close and they just swim around aimlessly, just powerless. Another time I went out there was a pod of orca killer whales spotted in the bay – I didn’t fancy going out with them there! It was proper hand to mouth living. Working hard has always been a thing I consider normal.”
The former English and drama student studied at Northumbria University in Newcastle but doesn’t have much praise for it.
“It was a crap uni,” he smiles. “I often ask myself what I would have done if I continued with my degree and not music but I’m very much of the mind that I don’t want to have a Plan B. “I’ve always thought, ‘I’m gonna make this happen’. I’d probably have gone home and done obscure scallop diving.
“The drama aspect of my degree gave me stage confidence not to be a quivering wreck. I started playing acoustic at uni in Newcastle. I was absolutely sh*t at guitar. I just could not play. My friend Jimmy said, ‘you can sing and I can play, let’s play in the street’.
“We were busking but we were getting moved by the police every 20 minutes. I don’t understand busking rules! Some places it’s okay to play and some it’s not.
“We ended up heading off to Buie after that and made a decision to give it a go with music. We then moved to London and stayed on friends’ couches.
“The whole point was we wanted to play every night and ideally get some paid work so I worked for an agency catering at events working at the bar or serving food, standing at a door and holding a tray of champagne.
“I worked there for two years and the more work I got gigging with music the less I worked there. I would watch bands playing there every day and wish it was us.”
While playing the music circuit and working in London the canny Scot managed to blag his way as a singing coach earning a good wage to support the meagre music living.
“Being a singing coach was completely ridiculous as I’d never had any formal training,” he said.
“I put an ad on Gumtree and people used to come round and I’d learn a song on piano or guitar and critique their singing performance. I found you could charge quite a lot doing that! Eventually I left the catering work but turned up with the band to play at one of the events. It was great to say, ‘hi guys, we’re in the band now’.
We started out just me and Jimmy and all we had was a couple of acoustic guitars, we were almost folky and the more small gigs we had the more we thought, ‘christ we’re crap’.
“Everyone had a band and sounded more powerful. When we got together with the other guys (bass player Chris and drummer Gareth) we were playing songs acoustically.
“In the last 18 months we started to hit people between the eyes with our sound. When we started we were just learning but in 10 minutes of making a song you have it on Apple and our first song we wrote was published and out there.
“We went to a couple of rehearsal studios and went to one near our house and it was so expensive we couldn’t rehearse at home. Our neighbours were like, ‘what are you doing?’
“We found this guy who lived and slept in a sound-proof shipping container and he was renting it for £4/£5 an hour. He made us leave the money in the microwave! He had a little drumkit in the corner, two small base guitars and two amps. Once you were in it, it felt like a tardis though there was no windows and it felt baking hot and stank of sh*t all of the time.
“We spent hours and hours of sweat and tears but we think now, ‘all those hours, that’s why you did it’. We got a few of these good gigs early. A lot of bands pack it in and think it’s a lot of faff and hassle and no reward.”
The band spent a lot of time song-writing in Dundee and soon learned the smaller the festivals they played the higher up their names were in the line-up.
Will said: “It’s super special playing small gigs. In our weird way we can play to more people when our name is high up in the poster and people are eager to see what we’re about that’s special.
“That’s genuinely what we’re aiming for. It takes a hell of a lot of luck and great song-writing.”
The boys came up with the band name because Jimmy’s surname is Hunter and Will used to play a lot of rugby in school and as a heavyweight was known as ‘the bear’ and a lot ‘beefier and slower’ – hard to imagine with his svelte, boy band physique.
When Hunter and the Bear released their debut album Paper Heart last year they’d written 10 singles and played 10 music ‘budget’ videos over 10 months.
Will says: “I’d like to do a video with someone else’s money and some helicopter shots. (laughs) Tom Hardy can play me and we’ll get Aquaman, the guy from Game of Thrones, the enormous bearded ripped guy to play Jimmy (laughs). The helicopter can fly to some desert…or LA…or Vegas!”
The boys finished last year on a massive high, went on tour, completely sold out and then went into shutdown.
Will goes on: “We put our heads down into writing. At the beginning of this year our schedule was looking super-empty so the single ‘Electric’ was that feeling of wanting to do so badly what we do best.
“That was the premise of ‘I wanna feel electric’. We felt caged in our own house and it didn’t feel like we were in a band any more.
“At that point we wrote Electric exactly about that feeling. You wake up in the morning and think, ‘I don’t have any reason to get up’.”
Luckily things quickly turned around for the boys and they were booked to play festivals like TRNSMT and their music was sound-tracked for small independent films as well and added to Sky Sports highlight montages.
Will enthuses: “We’d be watching sport at half time and hear our music and scream ‘YAS!’”
So it’s a fast-paced life for the boys but there’s always the inevitable return back to Buie where time sometimes feels like it has stood still.
Will says: “It’s the same chat, the same people sat in the pub having a pint.(with the band) It does get a bit mental sometimes and it’s a bit of a big world and I’m a village boy at heart so when I return I make sure I clean my mind and I’ve not become an egotistical pr**k.
“I’ll move back when I’ve had enough. Travelling is one of our favourite things but the dream for me is a pit stop home while on tour.”
Hunter and the Bear play The Garage in Glasgow on October 20.
by Susie Daniels