Interview: Bellows

The music of Bellows aka Oliver Kalb is magic. There's no other way to describe what Kalb does, and how his beautifully woven tapestry of sounds, instrumentals and vocals come together. The end of the month marks his return with a brand new full length Fist & Palm, and the early glimpses have been intoxicating. Before the album drops on Double Double Whammy & Topshelf Records on 9/30, Kalb was kind enough to answer some of our questions via e-mail.

Photo: Michael Cooper

Photo: Michael Cooper

When did you first start feeling an inclination that it was time for a new Bellows project? How long ago did you begin work on this album?

Oliver: A lot of Fist & Palm was written during a song-a-day project I did in October 2014 where I wrote 31 songs over the course of that month (one a day!). Those 31 songs sat around for a really long time because I spent most of 2015 on tour. When I finally got back from my perma-tour in November 2015 I started listening back to this huge lump of material I had made a year before. I started to hear a story that kept coming back in song after song- a story about a friendship that two people were trying so hard to fix, but despite all our efforts just seemed irreparably damaged. That idea seemed interesting to me- to explore the ending of a friendship as a subject with a lot of different angles, a lot of different sources of difficulty, a lot of different ways that pain was being caused to both of us. When I started to focus on that subject matter, I picked seven songs from my project that I edited extensively for the new album and wrote four more songs that made the narrative clearer. I finished the record extremely quickly after that! It was finished within 6 weeks after really hunkering down with the songs last fall. We'd finished the whole thing by January 2016 and just had to hold off on releasing it for a while to make space for Double Double Whammy and Told Slant's schedules to clear up - that meant waiting till September to release the album. I'm so excited to finally share it!

Fist & Palm feels like a way different mood than Blue Breath. It's still the same music, but it feels lighter. Were you in a different place emotionally or as a person when you wrote this that it turned out that way?

Oliver: I think of Fist & Palm as a much more specific album than Blue Breath, both lyrically and musically. Blue Breath is about the death of my grandmother, and the death at the center of the album becomes a metaphor for many different kinds of deaths over the course of the record: ends of romantic relationships, ends of music careers, ends of car rides. Blue Breath is obsessed with the endings of things. I think it's an intense album, but has almost too much subject matter in it. There are like three different distinct albums within it. I was really creatively motivated while I made that album, but I think Blue Breath ended up needing an editor. If it had been 3 or 4 songs shorter it would have been a better album. Also if side B had been reversed with side A, I think it might have told a more coherent story. There's no point in regretting things, and I'm still very proud of Blue Breath, but I think Fist & Palm is a much more focused album. It's about the difficulties of a single friendship, told from a series of distinct vantage points, but everything in the album ultimately refers to the central topic: this one friendship on the brink of collapsing. 

What about this album do you think may surprise longtime listeners or how does it differ as far as sound and technicality?

Oliver: I sent the album to a friend of mine a few months ago who said they played it for their partner and their partner said something like, "I don't like this, it's too poppy". That hurt my feelings but I understand! I think the album might alienate some casual Bellows listeners who accessed by previous albums from an angle of seeing them as purely bedroom-pop or lo-fi music based on grit and imperfection, or thought of my music according to any other easy tag lines that have meme-ified the Northeast DIY scene. But I would say to those people that I think this album is by far my best work-- it tells a much more vivid story than Blue Breath and uses instrumentation in a much more deliberate way. And even though it sounds more like "pop", i think it's ultimately a darker, more serious album than Blue Breath too. It's trying to accomplish more. 

You sing on "Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter" of not feeling like yourself. How do you interpret and represent who you are as a person in your work? Like is it important for the material to be a reflection of who you are internally or is the identity of Bellows separate from Oliver?

Oliver: "Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter" is about the ways in which being constantly on tour has made intimacy impossible for me. "I can see how time has passed, I haven't been myself", that lyric is about watching time go by and noticing yourself becoming kind of a passive vessel being swept along, a sleeping, static victim of the wild hurtling passage of time. As the years go by, with the same exact tour routes and places and faces mounting in my memory, I lose track of who I am. Why am I a musician? What is this touring life doing for me? Am I happier because I'm doing this or am I losing the ability to connect to people? I think in previous Bellows albums I held myself at a remove from the listener. There was "a secret in the woods" that I was trying to channel, or some kind of mysterious, aloof persona I was trying to embody. The new album is a lot more straightforward - "I haven't been myself": how can I communicate an imagined mystery voice in my songs if I don't even know who I am when I'm not performing my aloof Bellows persona? There's no mystery anymore, just a straightforward desire to reconnect with myself and my friends after a debilitating few years of receding into myself and losing all my connections in the world. 

There's so many cool sound effects and really intricate instrumental work on your albums. What are some of the tools you use to make this really large and impressive sound? And how did putting together this record differ from the past?

Oliver: I got very into programming MIDI last year - downloading drum sounds from the Internet and experimenting with inventing beats and interesting rhythms. The drums are really what sets this album apart from my other ones. My friend James Wilcox did some great work making electronic drum beats over my bedroom recordings and bringing the percussive world of the album to life. Other than the drums, the album was recorded in a very similar way to my other ones. I still record using one USB microphone called The Yeti and I still use GarageBand. I'm very interested in big distorted volume swells and making interesting ambient textures by layering synths and panning acoustic guitars and stuff like that. That's just my style!!

One of the things I really love is your deeply confessional and personal, but also visual lyrics. You talk of being a better friend, bonfires on your fingers, loneliness and anger. Does much of that come from a personal place and in turn is it then hard to share that part of yourself with a live audience or listeners?

Oliver: I love recording and I love playing live shows. Writing and performing songs is such a pleasure for me, it brings me so much joy, and even when the subject matter is difficult and refers to difficult subjects, the actual music-making aspect is always so invigorating for me. Being able to share these thoughts with people who might be able to feel a little less lonely in a difficult time in their life makes the whole thing feel very worthwhile. I've said this in interviews before, but I think the difficult part of confessional songwriting is not the initial act of honest writing, but rather the expectation of selling and commodifying your difficult life memories for an audience of college students. Having to reduce my life to bite-size headlines is weird. Begging for attention from teenagers with some tantalizing tag line of, like, "this album is the most true to my real life of any of them yet!" kind of makes you think of yourself as a voyeuristic, semi-pornographic product for other peoples' crass consumption. That's a bad feeling. The original thought is always beautiful though! It's the industry stuff that is weird and complicated for me.

On "Dark Heart" you sing of wanting something more than life. As far as the Bellows project goes, your music, what do you want from that and for even you personally as you move forward?

Oliver: "Dark Heart" is a song about ultimate defeat. It's about questioning the motives of the songwriter that used to want to discover "a secret in the woods", discovering nothing more than an empty, blank center of things when you really try to look at yourself and analyze why you get up and be an artist every day. "I want something more than life, eyes closed, hiding nothing" - that lyric is literally about wanting more than this life of shows and albums and confessions and honesty-- none of it feeling satisfying anymore, none of it illuminating anything about real life as "honest" as the music might have seemed. That perspective is obviously so extreme. I don't think I could continue doing what I do if I felt such abject failure all the time. But I oscillate in very extreme ways between maniacal confidence in myself and total defeat. I think constantly acknowledging the possibility of failure is a defense mechanism I've acquired over time. Paul Simon has this beautiful lyric: "when something goes wrong I'm the first to admit it / I'm the first to admit it, but the last one to know / when something goes right... It's apt to confuse me, I can't get used to something so right". I really identify with that line. As an anxious person who takes my art really seriously I feel this terrible disaffection, an inability to ever rest or consider myself satisfied even when things are going really well. Songs like "Dark Heart" are about exorcising unhealthy feelings in the hopes that I won't have to feel them so acutely anymore. I'll never end the Bellows project, even if it never is commercially successful, I think in large part because I'm aware that even if I was successful it wouldn't change any of the terribleness of the itch to remove destructive and anxious feelings from my life through songwriting. 

With so much of the album focusing on friendship and relationships, who are some of the friends that you were able to collaborate with for this release and how do the friends you have inspire your material? 

Oliver: This album was very collaborative, more so I think than any of my previous records. James Wilcox (who produces music under the name JCW) sequenced electronic drums for the album, Felix Walworth (told slant) recorded live drums, Gabrielle smith (eskimeaux) arranged violins and choral harmony sections and Jack Greenleaf (sharpless) mixed the record. It was such a pleasure to work with all those people- each of them is so talented and brought such a particular character to their parts. James' ability to come to with interesting hip hop beats, Felix's frantic drumming, Gabby's instinct for writing complex harmonies & Jack's ability to make really accessible pop music-- all of their unique characteristics contributed hugely to the way the album sounds. I couldn't have made it without them! 

and just for fun

Which emojis best represent this album?

Oliver: *closed fist* *palm*

What is the official snack of Bellows?

Oliver: Apples! 

stream: Can I Get A Ride - Steppe People

photos: Penniback's Save the Smell Benefit ft. Ty Segall & No Parents, Teragram Ballroom, Los Angeles, California (9/10/16)