For Whom The Belles Toll
Belles Will Ring revise classic sounds for a new era on their debut album.
Wafting through the speakers of your radio receiver you may have found the source of that tune you’ve been humming incessantly for weeks. The announcer will appear at the tail-end of the song, announcing Belles Will Ring, from the Blue Mountains in NSW, as the creators of said melody. Timeless in its tones and rich in its quality, the song stands out amidst the paper thin harmonies that attempt to grab your attention throughout the rest of the day. There’s a craft behind these songs that’s oft sought but rarely achieved. I like this band, you think to yourself.
You’re not alone.
The band-comes-big fairytale is a dream that some journo somewhere tries to have you believe for the sake of a good story. Jet, Wolfmother, The Vines – of course they all got signed after their first show, right? Wrong. the story you’re clinging onto is a tale best reserved for band camp bedtime stories, allowing 14-year-old first-timers the right to dream that – yeah – maybe one day they’ll make it huge. In reality, it never happens like that.
Well, almost never.
After opening for the Lovetones at Sydney’s Spectrum, in their first show ever, Belles Will Ring fielded an email from Stefan Zagorski, the man behind the Architecture Label – home to Death Cab For Cutie, Destroyer, James Figurine and fellow outer-Sydneysiders Sounds Like Sunset. It was an email expressing, um, “interest” in the band. Fast forward a year and a half and they now find themselves sipping long blacks on a Sunday afternoon, staving off the sunlight from inside a Glenbrook cafe complete with standard issue rock star shades and a stack of half questions to respond to.
“My head was just completely done in – a few days after our show…” Jacqui Schlender, the band’s percussionist, keyboardist and sole female harmoniser starts, sincerely bewildered at the band’s external development.
“That was through Sounds Like Sunset – the bass player, Dave, he kind of co-runs Architecture, or he used to anyway, with Stef [Zagorski]. What happened? Dave rang up Stef,” Ivan Lisyak, the band’s drummer and percussionist continues, slowly tracing the line from them to Zagorski.
“He told him, ‘There’s this band I think you’ll really like’,” Aidan Roberts, one of the band’s guitarists and vocalists answers, in a conversation that plays out like an idyllic and democratic deliberation. Of course, it’s the other guitarist and vocalist, the one who pens the melodies your hum and heart embraces, who finishes the story off.
“This was at the show, apparently he rang him on his mobile but Stef was in a meeting or something so he couldn’t come,” Liam Judson begins, with an unspoken authority from behind his sunglasses. “But low and behold we got an email, I think it was two days after the gig, from Stef saying, weirdly enough, ‘I don’t know if you’ve got a label or anything, I don’t know if I’m treading on anyone’s toes, but if you’re interested I’d like to do a record with you.’ It was just so weird having someone who’d never actually seen us play, have the confidence to say ‘I want to put out your record’.”
And thus we have Mood Patterns, the first long-player from Belles Will Ring.
So c’mon, let’s meet the Belles.
Having, for the most part, been brought up in the Mountains area, the band is fleshed out by Kent Williams on bass, who’s absent from our cafe date. Through his absence, Kurt remains a bit of an enigma, and so misses out on his purpose-built paragraph. I’m told he entered the Belles world through working in a guitar shop with Liam, and subsequently slotted in perfectly.
Of the others, three of them – Liam, Aidan and Ivan – all used to play in a band called the Architects, and before then, way way before then, Liam and Aidan had a pre-teen hip-hop project going on.
In addition to his mad rapping skills, Aidan will only reluctantly admit he writes folk songs. He lets slide that he’s got something like 130 songs up his proverbial sleeve, only three of which have found a home with Belles, the rest sitting quietly with his folk moniker, The Maple Trail.
“It’s a funny thing being a songwriter, when you’re writing something you’re just writing something trying to tell a story – you can never tell what life it’s going to take,” he says with a passive acceptance that suggests he’ll always be writing his folk tunes, regardless of where life takes him. “That’s what I do to keep myself busy and happy through the night. BWR is the thing that goes on the stage [whereas] I find most of the stuff I write ends up on my four track… It’s funny – I get very sensitive about my songs reaching other people.” Only time will tell, but I’d say once the nerves subside the Blue Mountains will have some more songwriting smarts to claim as their own.
Jacqui, the exception to the Mountains rule, was an exchange student in ’98/’99, from her hometown of Toronto, Canada. In the Blue Mountains, she fell in love with the place and the people, particularly Jon Hunter (from the Holy Soul, and also a dabbler in the sound/experimental scene), now her husband, as well as her current bandmates, who she shows an unaffected love for. In 2003 she moved to the Mountains for good, and since that time has written a few songs and plays a few instruments, although Belles Will Ring is her first “proper” band. She also lives next door to Aidan, and is a co-conspirator when it comes to waging sonic warfare on their mutual neighbour. “We’ll win, because we’re the ones with the amps,” she tells me with a sly smile.
Ivan’s history is as varied as a bag of liquorice allsorts – he’s played in military bands(!), punk bands (from when he was 15) and is heavily involved in the broader Sydney sound, noise and improv scene, a lot of which was borne out of the contemporary arts program at the University of Western Sydney. The night before we met up he was watching an Einsturzende Neubauten DVD. He’s a pretty unique guy. He was also the first person Liam approached for the subtle band mutiny that led to Belles Will Ring forming.
And without Liam there would be no Belles.
“It started after I went to New York and had a little sort of holiday on my own there, and started getting excited about writing songs in a different style to what the Architects were doing,” Liam, the group’s unspoken leader, says definitively.
So with his vagabond shoes, there was Liam in New York, ready to get inspired. “It was one of those – where your whole life changes, where your whole perspective on everything changes. It was bizarre. I turned up there on my own and was sort of hanging out, and I met some American people, but then – it was bizarre – I was in a bar only three nights after I arrived and I saw the Morning After Girls in there, so I went and introduced myself, and we hung out a lot. And they took me to a bunch of warehouse parties, and that was really fun. The other thing I was over there to do was to hopefully find a Vox electric guitar. I found one and I was so excited about it that I spent way too much time in the hostel room, writing songs, when I should’ve been out doing stuff.”
“What I would do is I would actually write the tune, and the chord progression, in my room and then I would go and walk around Central Park singing it in my head and coming out with lyrics,” he adds. “A couple of the songs off the album come from doing that – [Triple J favourite] ‘Park Benches’ is one of them.”
Back in Sydney, Liam played some of the songs to his then band, the Architects. “A lot of people [in the Architects] dug it but there were other people in the band who weren’t as keen on it because it was a real step away from where their heads were at. So the band broke up,” Liam offers with a dose of intentional nonchalance. “And we started doing Belles Will Ring, and it was a six piece at first, without Jacqui in the band, we had a guy playing Solina [keyboard] and tambourine back then.” There’s an awkward pause, as Liam takes a timely breath, allowing the band to ponder the plague of the token female player – often found looking pretty behind that Solina of hers, clutching a tambourine.
“So it wasn’t this calculated move to have a female tambourine player,” he asserts.
Every interview benefits from a contentious issue and with the mention of Jacqui – more as the token female than the incredibly affable person – Belles have hit theirs. The Dandy Warhols, The Morning After Girls, The… well, to be honest, the stockpile of neo-psychedelic bands both locally and abroad all appear to be in tune with the killer mix that includes a pretty girl on keyboards and tambo. To an outsider it seems like a ridiculous adherence to genre aesthetic, but in reality it’s the development of a musical aesthetic that is as integral to the sound as the gender of said sound source is irrelevant.
“I always wanted to be the token female member,” Jacqui jokes, manoeuvring the conversation away from the frustration that comes from viewers and reviewers who are too quick to judge.
Liam: “This is what happened, right? [The music] needs to have tambourine, and it needs to have Solina. It’s not some posed thing. You’re playing that kind of music, you need the rhythm of the tambourine, it drives the song.”
Ivan: “That’s just the way it is.”
Liam: “So we had a guy playing and I had given a demo that we had recorded to Matt Tow from the Lovetones, and he loved it, and said if you guys can be ready by September or something…”
Liam: “If you guys can be ready by then I’ll give you a support slot at Spectrum on a Friday night, so that was our first gig. Obviously we got ready by that time, because we had to. About one-and-a-half weeks out from the show our tambourine/keyboard player guy received a call [saying] that his Dad was gravely ill, and he lives up in Queensland so he had to move away, and Jacqui just went, ‘Um, I’ll do it.’ And so we had a couple of quick rehearsals with Jacqui and that’s how it happened.”
Jacqui: “I was so scared. It was my first band, my first real band. I was shit scared, I had to have a few beers before the show and even then I was still shaking.”
Jacqui seems have learnt to shrug off the rife lady-tambourinist generalisations. “The band that we are is just what we are,” she suggests. “We’re not trying to be part of a scene, we’re not trying to be anything, we’re just being what we are. Being part of a scene or not being part of a scene doesn’t really matter to us. I don’t mean that in a bad way either, if people like us that’s what matters.” For her, as with everyone in the band, the elements she provides to the band are percussive and tonal; more a sonic aesthetic than a visual one.
And so, nestled in the Blue Mountains – virtually an unknown entity amid Australia’s musical landscape – you’ll find Belles Will Ring. Back in January of this year, Sydney street press rag The *Drum Media *claimed the band had “songs with both 1967 and 2007,” and on *Mood Patterns *they embrace those years in equal parts. It’s an ineffable quality that ultimately comes back to an obsession in craft.
The craft: what is it that makes you like one band better than the other? Is it because they’re better? Any arts student who’s dabbled in a bit of post-modern theory will tell you there is no better, that it’s all subjectivities presented to you as truths, but disregard that mode of thinking and embrace the idea of objective appreciation: Belles do, in fact, do it better.
“It was originally going to be a really noisy thing. Then it was going to be totally the opposite – sort of super folk or even ’50s early rock & roll ballad stuff, then it was going to be that really early ’60s exotica thing, like Elephant’s Memory or a Midnight Cowboy kind of thing. And I guess what Belles is a combination of those things. It’s got noisiness, its got classic songwriting styles – like in some of the chord progressions and melodies and stuff, and you’ve got some of that left-of-field instrumentation,” Liam offers, excitedly trying to trace their musical cues.
“One of the sounds that excites me,” Aidan continues, “from our camp, is that Liam and my voices blend quite well, so that we capitalise on that by making up really cool harmonies. But the Simon and Garfunkel harmonies kind of thing is only one side of me and Liam – BWR has more of an aggressive backbone to it than those pop people, but that element is there in the harmonies, so that’s something we’re working on more and more.” Nursing either a hangover or a headache, Aidan doesn’t have an abundance to say. His injections into the conversation do, however, seem like the words of the all-knowing seer, few and far between but always lucid in their content.
So sitting in this Blue Mountains cafe I get to learn about how a band’s sound evolves, and continues to. It’s exciting times, as the debut LP from Belles Will Ring is due to be released in just under a fortnight, and the band seem a bizarre combination of aloof, excited, on edge and engaged.
Mood Patterns was recorded over a period of six months, mostly in different rooms of Liam’s house. ‘It’s Only Goodbye’, a psych-pop number that’ll make you melt, was recorded at the house Jacqui shares with her husband, Jon. Recorded live to one-inch tape, with friends stomping and clapping in the background, the track – much like the album – foregrounds a need for songs with emotion and obsession invested in them.
“Its part of where I think BWR differs from a lot of the bands that float around this psych thing,” Aidan suggests. It’s clear that the four Belles members I have with me are eager to point out that homage ain’t their game.
“There was a resurgence of it, lets say 10 years ago, the Dandy Warhols, Brian Jonestown Massacre,” he continues. “And they were the darlings of that sound, so we’re into that music *but we want to do something with it. *It’s enjoying a genre but with a reason to go there. We want to be a part of that but here’s how we want to do it. And that’s how I think we work.”
A few months earlier, Aidan had said to me, via email, that for him individuality is core to the idea of making music. “Music is a form of communication – in fact, I believe it’s the single most powerful form of communication,” he wrote. “If you don’t have a sense of individuality about your songwriting then you’re communicating something the world has already seen, and that’s not very exciting. Sure, you can take inspiration from other music and other things, but you have to be representing something about yourself or else who cares?” Oh those lucid interjections, but, again, Aidan’s right.
It’s something that’s always constituted my (mostly-failed) attempt at objectivity when trying to appreciate a band, that idea of worth that comes through in individuality. Belles do have a unique blend – they take the idea of core harmonising, but transfer it over to a band context. They love the noisiness a wall of sound can create, and the juxtaposition that’s formed when it’s nestled up to pop melodies. They identify the driving rhythm the tambourine provides as essential, and treat it as such in the mix of their record. But mostly it’s their willingness to engage with vast musical histories that makes them different, that makes them somehow closer to that ‘objective good’.
“It’s finding where they’re inspired from,” Ivan offers, going back to the Dandy’s and BJM references Aidan mentioned.
“Or just realising that it’s the same thing we’ve always been into anyway,” Liam surmises. “That’s what it was like with the Brian Jonestown Massacre. We heard them and suddenly it was like ‘Oh you can take those old influences and make it relevant.’ It still sounded authentically like the old stuff, but it had the freshness that new music has to have. It just sounded retro. They totally had that – but they were totally fresh. So it wasn’t like, OK, lets sound like them but yeah, here’s this band that just inspires you to go back to that old stuff and try and bring it forward in a way that’s going to be fresh but still evoke feelings of the magic that those earlier bands had, because, lets face it, there’s a magic to a lot of that stuff.”
“Where do you think that comes from?” I ask, not really expecting an answer.
Liam: “A lot of it comes back to how it was recorded – the production is amazing and so reliant on the rooms and stuff like that to create the sounds, like old Phil Spector albums and Brian Wilson and stuff. You can’t just get those lush sounds using a computer – [it comes from] how much attention was put into recording back then.”
Jacqui: “And how much attention you put into your instrument – I mean, we don’t play with shitty instruments. The reason we recorded the album ourselves was that Liam and Ivan are totally capable of doing it, and have a love for doing it.”
Liam: “And we know how to get those sounds.”
Jacqui: “And the instruments we play, we take good care of them and love them.”
“We love all things vintage, as long as it sounds good,” Ivan throws in there, more to be a part of the ode to instruments than anything else. Aidan suggests it’s on par with his mum’s love of cedar furniture. “It has to have a real character to it, right down to the guitars. You want to feel like you’re playing real toys and all the records we love, we kind of know how to make those sounds, and it’s about exploring how to make new sounds out of what we love.” It’s through that knowledge that Belles Will Ring are able to communicate their own sounds so effectively.
“The thing with the whole psychedelic thing is that it’s really a platform that we’re starting from, and that we’ll take off from, and it probably won’t be around us forever. Further releases will venture out of the sound – we’re all on the same page, and we’ve all got a love for the kind of music and I’m not saying we’re going to suddenly do a record that’s totally leftfield, but it’s a great thing. Think about the Beach Boys,” Liam offers. “And compare their first couple of records to Pet Sounds – it’s still distinctly the Beach Boys when it comes to Pet Sounds, but it’s not the same kind of music. They’ve just grown and I’d like to see us grow in the same way in new sounds, that kind of thing.”
In his sensei kind of way Aidan implies that it’s still very much about that intentional communication, whichever way it evolves. “There’re some people who follow their own thing, and they stay with it, but you just hear glimpses of eras throughout. I just bought that Arcade Fire record and I can hear echoes of Buddy Holly, Bruce Springsteen – you hear these things popping up, but it’s new because it’s the way they’re doing it. I always get immensely irritated when I hear a band that is just echoing, directly echoing something. That’s copping out. We’re lucky to have such a bank of 50 years of rock & roll to draw inspiration from – of course you’re going to be influenced by it, but it’s about doing something new with that, then you’re on the map.”
“There’s a difference between copying something and paying homage to something. And if it’s something you enjoy and it inspires you to do something, to be something, whether it be to write a song, draw a picture, write books, you’re paying homage to the artist you’re not doing something because they’ve done it and its made them popular,” Jacqui adds, with the conversation seems to be going so well I feel like my presence is, at best, superfluous.
“I don’t like the idea of us being considered retro, because we are trying to recreate some sounds of the ’60s, because I feel so strongly about that kind of music in the sense that it’s like somebody might feel as strongly about an old blues player, or classical music, or jazz music from the ’20s or whatever,” notes Liam, always armed with an opinion, summarising the band ethos that everyone has being pointing at.
“Someone doesn’t go to see – this is a ridiculous comparison, but someone doesn’t go and see a classical piece and feel like they’re being retro, or even go to [Sydney jazz and blues venue] The Basement and see blues in the way that BB King used to play blues or whatever, and feel like they’re being retro. People don’t do that with things like jazz and blues. When it comes to rock music – if you’re not trying to sound like whatever is just happening at the moment, if you’re not trying to be Kaiser Chiefs or Bloc Party or something like that – if your drums are echoey, your vocals have a lot of reverb, and the guitars are chimey and stuff, and you’ve got – god forbid – a beautiful melody, then its retro and its like, you guys are just trying to be the Beach Boys.
“If rock music is just as valid a form as all those other styles of music, which I believe it is, I don’t see why you should be tagging it as some retro thing when all you’re trying to do is keep something alive,” he asserts. “Songwriting and production, making a record, it’s a whole idea. People like Dylan, and Brian [Wilson] would say that production was about making a record so that it was 50/50 the song, and the way it came out – it’s a classic way of thinking, and that’s how we view Belles Will Ring.”
It’s refreshing to see bands so eager to embrace that quality of sound, and to do it themselves. The idea of music as communication is oft ignored by pop musicians, or embraced by elitists, rarely finding the space in between where pop becomes good pop, and says “something”. Belles Will Ring have found the space where they can unfold each sound with intent and invested meaning. More to the point, they’ve found the space where they have to.