Glasgow’s Wojtek the Bear make beautifully sad music that will probably blend in just fine among the bands cruising with Belle and Sebastian on “The Boaty Weekender” cruise. They’re our second profile of the bands joining their fellow Scottish indie rockers on this floating Bowlie Weekend at sea, next month. Wojtek the Bear stand among a trio of bands who won The Battle For Boaty, a contest for bands to join the lineup voted on by cruisers, which also include Campfire Social (Campfire Social’s harmony-driven indie pop wins over Boaty Weekender cruisers) and Wet Look (profile coming soon).
The group’s music is rooted in bands that have also probably influenced the headliners of the event — think The Smiths, Ocean Blue or The Field Mice. “Made out of Maps,” in particular has the jangle of an early Smiths song. It’s music riding the propulsion of strummed, sparkling guitars supporting melancholy music that often define the twee label of indie rock. In particular, lead singer/guitarist Tam Killean writes some rather poetic, to the heart lyrics. He, guitarist Graham “Chuck” Norris, drummer Martin “Tino” McClements and bassist Paul Kirkwood formed the band as a quartet in 2016. Becky Cheminais recently joined the band to add an element of strings to the mix. “Becky did some strings on the album for us in 2018 and joined the band in 2019 when we realized the songs sounded rubbish live without her parts,” quips Killean.
Diving deep into their lyrics can be an emotional journey. There’s pining for connection in many songs. The four songs of the group’s first EP, 2017’s “Second Nature,” is capped by an epic, heart-rending track called “What’s for ye.” It opens with the twittering of birds, which is soon joined by the reverberating, minor key strumming of a guitar. The instruments gradually pile up starting with an ambling, lustrous melody on a second guitar and layers of ambient drone (possibly via keyboards) and even some luscious accordion. The kicker in this track, however, is the overt sad hopelessness in Killean’s lyrics. “You’re the lump that’s in my throat/You’re the aching in my bones/You’re the numbness in my hands/Best laid of all my plans,” he sings with his clear Scottish brogue.
Of course it all continues in their full length debut, which came out last year on the indie label Scottish Fiction. A Talent For Being Unreasonable opens with “Oil & Water.” It builds slowly on a rambling guitar melody by Killean and is soon augmented by a sparkling second guitar by Norris. McClements and Kirkwood (who also provides backing vocals) generate a driving rhythm and Cheminais brings yearning strings to the mix. Killean keeps bringing on that pensive exploration of emotional unease to the lyrics of the album’s songs. “You say that kindness doesn’t cost?/Can’t put a price on all I’ve lost,” is the featured chorus of “Kindness Doesn’t Cost.”
“My inspiration for lyrics is primarily a mixture of past experiences, observations on my current life with a wee bit of the abstract thrown in,” admits Killean, who writes all the words while the band collaborate on the music. “The lyrics are never overly opaque, but I also don’t like to ‘over explain’ them either. I think there’s a lot to be said for allowing people to project their own interpretations onto things.”
Though Wojtek the Bear certainly seem to embrace those minor key melodies to buoy Killean’s heartfelt lyrics, it’s not to say that their shows will make for some dour affair on the cruise. Their newest song, “Tonic Youth,” is a perky tangle of swaying strings and plucky guitar. Their video for “Oil & Water,” as seen below, also reveals the band’s fun side.
Norris says you can expect him and his mates also having some fun on the ship. He notes that before the group had won the contest, some members of the band considered booking a cabin to attend the shows. “It’s incredible to attend as performers,” he says. “We are all big fans of loads of the bands playing. I’ve been to see B&S, Mogwai, Teenage Fanclub, Yo La Tengo, Camera Obscura, Alvvays and Honeyblood live loads over the years, so it’s great to be playing at the same festival as them.”
Norris also has no shame noting the practical challenges of being a band from, let’s call it a shadier side of the globe, on a cruise ship. “I think staying hydrated and avoiding sunstroke as four pasty Scottish men, and a scouse lassie will be pretty special,” he states. “No one has mentioned seasickness yet. I’d hope that isn’t something we need to worry ourselves about too much. I use the ferries in Scotland a lot and have never suffered on those, so if we can manage the wee ferries in Scotland on the firth of Clyde in winter, I’m sure a monster cruise liner on the Med in summer will be fine.”
The guitarist also notes that though the band has never played a stage on a “moving vehicle,” he has faith in the Captain. He says that he took a look at videos of the ship’s various venues and found nothing he could foresee as problematic. “All of the venues look great, and it’ll be good to go between each checking out what’s going on,” he says.
Norris also doesn’t seem concerned about being a late addition to the lineup. “I think the nature of playing festivals means you’re always a bit worried about how many people show up, and you hope people remember to come see the band, but we’re used to that kind of thing and the fact we have two slots (one at night and one in the afternoon) means it gives people the chance to see us,” he says. “I know most people are there for the headliners but due to everyone playing two, three sets it gives everyone a chance to check out the bands further down the bill.”
The neat thing about being trapped on a cruise ship with a bunch of bands is that you get to share in the same amenities as the other musicians and vacationers. Norris says he plans to be on deck playing sports and even joining in karaoke at night, not to mention catching other bands. “I’m not sure what the rest of the guys have planned other than Tino (our drummer) planning his schedule to see all of Mogwai’s sets,” he reveals. “On board I’m really looking forward to Kelly Lee Owens, Japanese Breakfast, having a dance, singing some karaoke and playing some football and pickleball!”
Ultimately, it’s this communal experience that is most likely shared among all of those traveling on “The Boaty Weekender” that makes Wojtek the Bear honored to be on board. “There’s so much good music and so many cool bands,” says Norris, “just be great to be with so many like-minded folks on board, and we have a few pals coming from Glasgow, so it’ll be cool to hang out with them too. Can’t wait!”
You can find Wojtek the Bear performing during the cruise at Magnum’s Champagne & Wine Bar, in the middle of Deck 6 on Saturday, Aug. from 1 a.m. – 2 a.m. and then Sunday, Aug. 11, from 3:30 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. in the Atrium. Below you will find a video of the venue. They plan to have copies of their debut album on board and “hopefully” some new T-shirts.
If you are thinking of booking a cabin, there is still space available. Here is a link to some discounted prices. If you use my Sixthman ID (hans_m) as a referral when you book your cabin, you will get $100 on-board credit (you can learn more about the referral program by jumping through this link).