From TikTok to tour bus: Bears in Trees

Iain Gillespie plays with Bears in Trees at The Masquerade. The group engages with fans through an active presence on TikTok. // Photo by Maya Torres Student Publications

Advertising themselves as a “dirtbag boyband,” South London indie group Bears in Trees has taken TikTok by storm in the past few months. Following two albums, “Just Five More Minutes” in 2017 and “Bits n’ Pieces” in 2018, the group released their debut studio LP, “and everybody else smiled back” in November of last year. 

With over 450 thousand followers on TikTok, the indie band saw immediate success with their latest release, which amassed half a million streams in less than three days. The album covers serious topics, including mental illness and sexual assault, from a positive angle of support and recovery. It is an album that makes listeners want to frolic in a field of flowers and hug their friends just a little tighter. 

This sense of positivity and community bled into their tour, which launched in the United Kingdom in February. The final performance of the UK tour took place at the Electric Ballroom in London. Before the end of the month, Bears in Trees left Europe to tour the United States with California funk-rock band Just Friends, among others.

Discovering the wonders of the States, including sunny March days and Waffle House, the group traveled from California to Arizona, Texas and Florida before finally arriving in Atlanta to perform at Purgatory at the Masquerade on March 13. 

Besides Bears in Trees and Just Friends, Graduating Life and Cry Baby took the stage for sets of their own. The four groups brought a diverse crowd, with ages ranging from mid teens to upper fifties.

Purgatory is an intimate venue, allowing fans to sneak looks at the bands as they prepared backstage for their sets and even meet their favorite members in the crowd. Before and after their performance, Bears in Trees ran their merchandise table, selling their own t-shirts and even offering to sign them as fans paid.

Following Graduating Life’s energetic set, Bears in Trees took the stage, setting up their own equipment alongside the crew members to hasten the transition process. 

The presence of the group was heightened yet casual. 

One member, Iain Gillespie, wore a pink t-shirt over a simple dress, but streaked their face with brightly colored makeup. 

Alongside Gillespie, Callum Litchfield opted to go shoeless, with polka-dotted socks on his feet and a Stitch-printed ukulele strap slung over his shoulder.

When all was ready, the performance kicked off with “Great Heights,” a cheerful song about the ups and downs of mental health.

A lyric from the chorus, “We’d reach great heights / If we could just make our beds in the morning,” describes the little things, such as not making one’s bed, as a sign of an oncoming breakdown. 

As the song drew to a close, an audience member shouted, “I made my bed this morning,” and the crowd erupted into cheers.

This offered a theme of community that led into the next two songs, “Ibuprofen” and “Heaven Sent is a Coffee Cup,” which are about learning to love oneself through the support of friends.

Throughout the songs, Gillespie especially engaged with fans, looking them in the eyes and smiling as they sang and danced along. Guitarist George Berry often would twirl from one end of the stage to the other, rocking along with both sides of the crowd.

Following the conclusion of “Heaven Sent is a Coffee Cup,” 

Bears in Trees then launched into “I’m Doing Push-Ups,” a well-known song that pairs with a vertical push-up motion. In an emotional chorus, the crowd screamed the lyrics with tears running down several fans’ cheeks.

As their set drew to a close, Bears in Trees dove into the mellow, touching song “Reverberate” which is about struggles, friendship and recovery. The concluding song, “Good Rhymes for Bad Times,” a song about turning emotional hardships into music and community, might as well be Bears in Trees’s theme song with lyrics directly referencing mental illness and detachment from humanity. 

The group bid the audience farewell by throwing drumsticks into the crowd and handing set lists to individual fans, taking time to acknowledge the most engaged attendees before retreating backstage to recover from their energetic set.

Several minutes later, the band reemerged to talk to more of their supporters and to enjoy the Cry Baby’s and Just Friend’s sets among the crowd. Above their groovy melodies and inspiring lyrics, what stands out most about Bears in Trees is their direct engagement with their community. 

Within Purgatory, this meant conversing and posing for photos with members of the audience, taking the time to engage on a personal level. Outside of Purgatory, the band responds to comments and direct messages, follows their fans back on TikTok and even hosts a Discord group called “the sandbox.”

This camaraderie-driven aspect has accounted for a lot of the success of the band and is something other groups, successful or otherwise, can look to for inspiration. Bears in Trees, unlike many other groups right now, finds relevance by bringing humanity into their music, and the humans on the other side can only hope that they bring their talents to Atlanta again soon.