(photo: Lenny Gilmore)
From now until the start of Noise Pop, we’ll be profiling some of our favorite artists playing the festival this year.
In this installment, Meet Melkbelly, the Chicago punks who had a banner 2017.
The initial riff of “Off the Lot,” the opening track of Chicago noise-rock quartet Melkbelly‘s LP Nothing Valley is a deviant whirlwind of drums and discordant guitar, elements that could easily be confused with grindcore if one didn’t listen past fifteen seconds, where the opening salvo melts into a fuzzed-out verse. At the base, connecting all of this, is the voice of Miranda Winters, direct and refreshing. She and husband Bart Winters mix a blissed-out guitar tone with esoteric melodies — alongside the solid groove of Bart’s brother Liam Winters and over the genius of drummer James Wetzel.
Since 2014, they’ve been finding a precious balance between pop and grime; outright noise and artful melody — all four finding common ground in the estranged aesthetic of Melkbelly.
“I think that we’re all four different minds, but we’re all familiar enough and comfortable enough with each other to make music happen,” Miranda says. “There’s places where we all meet on a Venn diagram, but there’s also places where we disagree.”
When she and Bart saw Wetzel perform with the opening band at a Lightning Bolt show, they knew that his unfettered drumming style was something they needed. After he’d moved into their practice space they recruited Liam to round out the disorderly sound that they were chasing. They quickly created the Pennsylvania EP, which is the first six songs that the band ever wrote, recorded and mixed within just two days. The urgency of such an undertaking is readily apparent in the songs, with many of the releases’ strongest moments sounding improvised, as though they’re making changes to the material as it’s being performed. Melkbelly still utilizes this technique, live and at practice, to breathe fresh life into whatever they’re working on.
“We modify songs a lot live,” says Liam. “It’s fun to know that we’re going to do something different for each show, and it’s not going to be recorded.”
“I love playing live because it’s a very physical experience,” says Miranda. “I like that it’s a moment for people and then it happens and then it’s done and it’s gone.”
While Melkbelly certainly share tonal similarities and geographic history with other Chicago bands like Steve Albini’s Big Black, there’s something organic in the band’s presence that keeps them on one side of the dial and not the other. Instead of chasing the urgent energy of their first EP, with Nothing Valley they were able to take a bit more time in the writing and recording process, about three months in the winter. Individual songs like “Helloween” took three days to record — longer than their entire first EP took to produce. Again, they worked with engineer Dave Vettraino, whom they consider to be a ‘fifth member,’ to conquer the juggling of tones, time signatures, and tricky balance that make up Melkbelly’s trenchant sound.
“There’s places where we all meet on a Venn diagram, but there’s also places where we disagree.”
“Of those first six songs we were able to pick out a path that we wanted to travel down, and we were able to take the time to expand specifically within that,” Miranda says. “I think that we made choices that we wouldn’t have made if we had been in the practice space.”
In each separate musician’s capacity, Nothing Valley treads further upon uncharted territory. Decidedly sloppy guitar leads perform a specific function befitting of songs like “Kid Kreative,” while the seemingly errant drumming on songs like “Twin Looking Motherfucker” emphasizes the abrasive tone of the track without souring the mood. The hypnotic bass line of “R.O.R.O.B.,” tied in with Winters’ eerie vocals, captures the listener in a repetitive wormhole until the bridge breaks out into a sludge riff that tears the song apart. Throughout the album, lyrics circle a drain of anxiety and self-awareness, propagated by inward discovery and a distaste for the mundane. It’s this repetition that inundates the world of Melkbelly, their warm embrace of an industrial pounding that gives their music power.
“We’ll take a piece of a song and repeat it over and over until it sounds totally different, and take from that to make a song,” Liam says.
Striking the balance between so many floating variables can become a task, but one that the band is explicitly capable of handling. Internal debate at long, arduous practices centers around looping parts and playing them ad nauseam, so that they can be shredded them back together in a new way. Miranda worries that the close relationships of the band members will someday affect the contrarian principles that drive their writing process as they work on new material.
“We’ve actually been working on writing new stuff for the first time in a while and I was a little nervous that it was going to feel to easy, but we all started bickering pretty quickly, which made me feel good,” says Miranda.