by Margaret Chrystall
IT was in Achiltibuie that the seeds of Hunter & The Bear were planted – home for singer and rhythm guitarist Will Irvine and a favourite place of his life-long friend guitarist and mandolin-player Jimmy Hunter
They’ll have been back twice this summer – once to play the Summer Isles festival at the end of August and this Saturday they are on the bill at the Loopallu festival in Ullapool.
But these days, they are based in London and Hunter & The Bear has had a big year – including support slots with Eric Clapton that catapulted them into the spotlight even more than all the band-to-watch tags – such as Radio 2’s at the start of this year on top of industry magazine Music Week naming them as one of their unsigned bands of 2013.
But it was back in 2012 that Jimmy headed north for what turned out to be the start of the group.
Jimmy said: “I took some time off my job –at the time I was working online in multi media in London.
“I’m from Glasgow but our mums have been friends for a long time and Will’s mum ended up in the Highlands with Will’s dad.
“But I’ve spent a lot of time up there and that is definitely the home of the band.
“Will was at university and he asked me to come up and play some music.
“We started writing some songs – in the autumn of 2012 – and that was the start of it.”
He laughed: “We realised we could write songs that weren’t terrible!”
But it took a little longer to find the band’s perfect drummer and bassist to join Will and Jimmy.
After the songwriting sessions, they headed south.
“When Will and I came back down to London, we tried to see if we could get any gigs and we got a couple.”
There’s still surprise in Jimmy’s voice: “We kept getting invited back, every time we played, so we thought we would try to write more and get together to do more live gigs.
“It was dead exciting and new at the time – we just gave it a shot and it all just started to come off.
“So we took our time to put together a band.
“The last piece of that puzzle fell into place when we met Chris Clark, now our bass player. We immediately knew he had the potential to be our full-time bassist.
“We’d had a residency last year from October to December at Ronnie Scott’s and Gareth Thompson– now our drummer – was in a band that played before us at the last show.
“We got talking afterwards ... and we kind of stole him,” laughed Jimmy.
Inspired by artists such as The Band, Dire Straits and Bruce Springsteen, Will and Jimmy’s songs – under their own label of “power folk” started attracting attention.
Jimmy said: “We were just randomly phoning people on the contact pages of clubs and venues, sending them demos done very amateurishly in a kitchen.
“Then when we started getting invited back to places, we began to think that maybe we might be all right.”
They got themselves a manager, Lily and by sending the right songs to the right person secured a support slot with Eric Clapton for his Glasgow and Leeds dates back in June.
“I remember still just getting the phone call from Lily,” said Jimmy. “I knew exactly who Eric Clapton was, I grew up with his music!
“She had got a round robin email from a promotion company saying ‘These are our shows if you’ve got anyone good to play put them forward’.
“She just took the plunge and didn’t tell any of us about it.
“Unbelievably, there were no stages of whittling it down.
“It was just ‘You guys are confirmed, can you confirm the dates and we will lock you down?’.
But the dates included the night Eric walked off stage early at the SECC Hydro, unsatisfied with the sound.
“We were out front at the side of the stage when it all happened.
“All we know is there were sound issues on stage and it got to the point that Eric didn’t feel he could go on till they fixed it. It was a big shock.
“We were lucky enough to go out and watch him and had also been standing at the sound desk.
“From where I stood it, was going great and I think a lot of the band felt that too.”
But the star was back on form for Leeds the following night.
Jimmy said: “It was nice for us to see him put it back together after the night before. Things were a bit tense in the camp – I don’t think many of the crew had slept.
“I think Lily deserves manager of the year for getting us those dates!”
“I play the electric guitar, so what a great thing to have shared a stage with Eric Clapton!”
See below to listen to Pick Me Up from their latest EP, Before I Come Home.
Hunter & The Bear play Saturday’s Loopallu festival in Ullapool.