Thursday, April 16, 2009

Bell Orchestre

"You should come see my other band," Richard Reed Parry of the Arcade Fire told me in 2003, before Bell Orchestre played one of its first public shows in Montreal that didn't involve soundtrack work for a choreographer. When pressed for a cursory description, he seemed slightly pained but nonetheless had one at the tip of the tongue: "It's like Aphex Twin meets Rachel's." Being the charismatic gentleman with impeccable taste that he is, he had me at hello; nonetheless, I was immediately smitten with Bell Orchestre's live show, and have been a huge fan ever since.

Six years later, Bell Orchestre isn't just the "other band" for he and violinist Sarah Neufeld, and nor is it easily reduced to quick comparison points. It's a vibrant, challenging and exquisite ensemble that takes its acoustic instrumentation and creates otherworldly colours; every player has equal footing in pop music (very loosely defined) and experimental sound art, and even their most abstract moments still have a strong melodic or rhythmic underpinning that ties everything together. It's also very Montreal: modern composition and textures with Old World tools.

Their 2006 debut Recording a Tape the Colour of Light was lovely, if not a tad formulaic; many songs featured whole-note brass melodies over top eighth-note strings. I had this to say at the time, in a year-end blurb for Exclaim:

Inside the club are propulsive rhythms with stately ceremonial horns, a driving string section, and a dextrous percussionist who can cut up a beat, slip into disco or tap out on a typewriter. Outside the club is an icy ambience, with submerged pianos, broken bells and lonely brass, washed upon the shore with waves of subterranean traffic. Sometimes if you leave the door open between the two worlds, they miraculously all bleed into one. If Bjork and Eno raised children in the Canadian snowbelt, this is the glorious music they’d create.

The new album, As Seen Through Windows, steps up their game on every level. Sonically, the help of engineer John McEntire finds them creating new and vivid textures, often driven by distortion. Compositionally, they embark on not so much left turns as they do a linear journey; there's very little repetition here; you can hear the band pushing themselves at each step, never settling for easy answers. They also added new members Colin Stetson on saxophones and Montreal MVP Mike Feuerstack (Snailhouse) on guitar.

They have live dates this week:

Saturday, April 18 at First Baptist Church in Ottawa
Sunday, April 19 at La Tulipe in Montreal
Thursday, April 23 at Starlight Lounge in Waterloo
Friday, April 24 at Courthouse in Toronto
Saturday, April 25 at Casbah in Hamilton

Dates in New York, London and Paris follow.

The following interview was conducted for this short piece in Exclaim. Here is a piece I wrote about their first album.

Bell Orchestre: Richard Reed Parry and Mike Feuerstack
February 6, 2009
Locale: Arts and Crafts office

Why on earth would you want a guitar player in the band?
R: (silence, grinning)
M: Who’s the guitar player? I’m a musician. I play lap steel.

The band has expanded by two. Listening to the record, though, I feel like I hear more string parts than I do guitar or horns. When you were adding people to the band, was it a question of adding the most talented and lovely people you know, or the fact that you specifically wanted lap steel and bass saxophone?
R: It wasn’t out of need.
M: It was definitely the former.
R: Mike helped write and played on one song on the first record, and then he would play on a few songs live, and eventually more than that. Then we started writing, and he was as much of a key voice as anything else. Personality-wise, we toured together, and that sealed it.

When were you no longer a contractor?
M: During the beginnings of talking about this record, which I think was two years ago. But there’s been no reason to discuss it with anyone outside the band until now. It also came up when we started recording the first sessions, whether they wanted to bother to fly me out to Chicago or not.

When were the McIntyre sessions?
R: It started two Novembers ago. I’m realizing more and more that how I work personally has a big impact on how this band does things, for better or worse. I need to take a long time to do things. Having made two of these records now, I can see that this was kind of the same process. We recorded initially in a big chunk, and it had to sit a while, and I had to listen to it and think it was crappy and then think of a long list of ways to make it better. Then we go back and record that laundry list of stuff.

Right off the top there’s that extremely distorted French horn to prepare you for that. There’s one sound here that I associate specifically with this band, which is what you hear at the beginning of “Water Light Shifts.” It sounds like it could be a heavily reverbed gamelan. It’s also a sound heard on Recording a Tape. What is it?
R: That is a sampled glockenspiel played back onto an old Dictaphone. It’s the exact same sound that was on Recording a Tape.

I feel like there is less clear delineation on this album, in terms of lead players and tonalities and timbres. A lot of the time I’m not sure who’s playing what at all.
M: I think there are people in the band who would say the same thing.

There are a lot of synths that sound like trumpets…
R: Actually, no synths. Not one. We should have made a note of that.

Some stuff sounds like old Arps.
R: That’s a trick of the hand. Many things are heavily effected, especially horns, but everything, really. That was another goal of this record, was to aesthetically push it all the time. We all agreed on that from the beginning. We didn’t want it to sound like anything else, to just be another record that exists.
M: To not be shy of extreme ideas.
R: That was another goal for this record, that the whole thing would constantly be surprising you, not repeating itself and not sounding like itself, in a weird way. I wanted there to be many overlapping different-sounding things that keep turning corners. It all sounded like one sound world, but many separate things inside of that. Many different places, if you will.

It’s not a lazy record.
R: No!

Could you make a lazy record?
M: I don’t think so.
R: I think we’d make a dance record first.

That could mean many things considering your history.
M: So could a lazy record.
R: Music to dance to.
M: Club dancing could be a part of it.
R: What I was thinking about the other day was the Bach cello suites, which are all dance pieces. Each movement is a dance. It doesn’t make you want to dance, but it flows in this amazing way. There’s a totally different essence to each movement, but it’s so clearly part of a larger body of work. I can imagine us trying to do something like that—though it would be a lot more spastic and all over the place.

If the goal of this record is to keep turning corners, is there a narrative or a through line here?
R: Not narrative. The idea that came up a lot was weather systems, and shifting and fading in and out of each other, and something transforming into a different version of itself; things colliding and rubbing up against each other and having friction. Something unidentifiable and elemental.

What did you learn from working with John McIntyre?
R: On a technical level, I feel like the musical lesson is to make things the way you want them to be in the moment that you’re doing them. Traditionally, there’s been this idea that, ‘I don’t like this but I’m going to do it and hopefully later it will somehow become good.’ That made me mental on this record, because I end up doing 99 per cent of the overdubs.
M: If there was something we wanted treated, John would do it immediately. He wouldn’t say, ‘Yeah, I’ll do that in the mix.’ He would run it through a reel-to-reel player in the studio. He would add things at the ready and he knew what the effect would be. It wasn’t a time-waster; he was just able to show us the options quickly.
R: That first piece with the super-distorted horn was all done live. There’s no effects added in the mix. That was really exciting, to make something really red [level] and frame it and have it done immediately.

All that runs against the prevailing attitude of the digital era, which is: “fix it in the mix.”
R: For me, on a recording, on a musical craft level, that’s the opposite of what this record is. Make what you want to make with the time you’re making it. Otherwise someone will be cursing you, trying to make something good out of what you’ve done much later, at two in the morning. And that’s about my own process as well; I’ll think, ‘Oh, that’ll probably do.’ When really there’s just right and wrong.

I’m curious about your Baltic experience.
R: Best tour ever.

Why did you go? Were you invited or did you throw a dart at a map?
R: I met this awesome radio journalist lady named Audra on an Arcade Fire tour. She wrote to the Bell Orchestre and said she was coming to see Arcade Fire and wanted to interview someone about Bell Orchestre. During the interview she asked us, ‘Why don’t you people ever come to the Baltics?’ She was born and raised there and worked there. We didn’t have an answer, other than, ‘Well, if someone invited us, we’d do it in a heartbeat.’ She’d never booked a show or anything before, but she told us she’d do it. Two months later she emailed us with a plan, with details about grants and cultural festivals in Lithuania. We played Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia as official Canadian cultural ambassadors.

What did you see and learn about local music there?
M: We weren’t lucky enough to meet any musicians or see much music. For the most part there weren’t opening acts.

I thought the gigs were at festivals.
R: They were more like conferences. Lots of talking.
M: But we did meet a lot of people, and we were lucky to see how excited they were about our music. It was a very different experience than touring North America.

This is a broad generalization, but is there something about your music that translates better to a European experience?
R: There seems to be a real eagerness to listen. People really want to listen to what you have to bring to them. They’re excited to experience things through music. That happens everywhere to an extent, but more so there. People are interested in these things to the point where Audra, who is not a show promoter, told us that she didn’t have to advertise—all she had to do was tell three people, and they’ll tell everyone else. Soon our record was being played on the jazz station, the classical station and the rock station and the college stations. We showed up in a city where we’ve never been before, with no ads, and we played a puppet theatre with an audience of all ages—from really young people to really old—and everyone is really stoked and listening hard.

Do you think that the elements of classical music or sound art translate better there? Or anything else specific?
R: Hard to say.
M: It felt like a folk music connection, more than anything else. In a more visceral, emotive way rather than a high-brow way.
R: There’s a lot of discussion of music and ideas there, and it’s talked about by everybody.
M: It’s an intellectual experience, but not a high brow thing—people are just interested in talking about it, whether they know much about it or not.
R: Non-academics having intellectual discussions.
M: Not even crazy music fans necessarily.

Anything else we should know?
R: There’s more where this record came from. And we’re really proud of it. Seriously. We all feel that it’s unique.
M: And the shows will be great.