Bells Atlas

There are, and will be, bands whose sole purpose seems to push and pull genre in new directions. But I don’t think Bells Atlas is really one of those bands. They’re definitely hard to describe, and describing them results in a lot of words ending in “-ish” and “-ey.” But their inimitable sound seems like less of an intention and more of a symptom of their band dynamic; I think this is just what Bells Atlas are and sound like.

Hyperlust, the four-track EP, came out this week, and was recorded primarily at Zoo Labs (Oakland) with Jacob Winik, and at Robot Envy (Berkeley) with Aki Ehara. The songs took a few days to record, but the collection of songs were made through the course of a year.

The band’s percussive sensibilities seem like the tree-trunk of their sound. This was the first thing that stood out while listening to the EP — the way vocals and guitar dance alongside the drums, bells, and chimes instead of playing over them.

Bells Atlas seem especially careful with this relationship, of the way each additional element shapes the movement of the song, shapes its distinct stride, gate or lurch; I’m thinking about “Mess It Up” in particular.

Another similar knack of Bells Atlas: their ability to forge a handful of musical touchstones into a cohesive sound. “Sugar for the Queen” for example, feels like the sharper, more angular sibling of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Deja Vu,” whereas “Future Bones” is more of an R&B descendant, with a slick, jazzy sheen. For Bells Atlas, genre is less of an enclosure than a different color to paint with.

Read a short interview with the band members below, and check out Hyperlust below that. Bells Atlas is opening for Trails and Ways at the Independent on June 5.

The Bay Bridged: The songs on Hyperlust, like the rest of Bells Atlas’ catalog, are really intricate, and I’m wondering how they get to this point — that is, how did the recordings grow from initial ideas to fleshed out songs?

Derek Barber (guitar): Well, it’s usually a long process — when you look at an old, well-designed clock, you don’t immediately think about how long it took to design all the gears and hinges that make it work. Usually, you just appreciate the art and design on its completeness. Writing complex songs feels a bit like this to me.

TBB: Hyperlust seems pretty fluent in a handful of genres. Do the four of you share musical taste, or are certain members bringing certain stylistic sensibilities?

Geneva Harrison (drums, percussion, keys): There’s some overlap between each of us for sure, and that’s probably the foundation of our collective chemistry.  But I definitely think everyone brings something very unique to the table that is the essence of the music they’re passionate about, and that’s probably where the magic really happens in our combo of sounds.  I would venture to say that if we had Bells Atlas avatars or superhero characters (yes, nerd alert), they’d each have a different style costume and theme song.

TBB: The band had a month long residency at Era Art Bar and Lounge earlier this year. Did having that much consistent stage time change the way the band thinks about a live set?

Doug Stuart (bass, vocals, keys) and Sandra Lawson-Ndu (vocals, percussion, keys): The residency was a great opportunity for us to take some chances on things that we had wanted to try for a long time.  Playing that much made us excited to re-imagine how we’d play each set and also to feel free in the performances.  Every night had a different character based off of a collective mood of the supporting bands and the audiences that were in attendance.  We wanted to be very aware of the audience experience throughout those 4 weeks.

TBB: When people ask, ‘what does Bells Atlas sound like?‘ what do you all say, and are you tired of thinking about that question?

DS: You can’t put us in a f***ing box man… Just kidding.

[…] It is a daunting question to try to answer.  We feel it is a bit exclusionary and misleading to pretend like we fit completely in any one genre or another. 

SLN: At the end of the day, folks are going to find something familiar to them in our music, and it’s always interesting/sometimes surprising/sometimes hilarious to hear what those things are.  That being said, as of lately we’ve been rolling with that well-known genre kaleidesonic soul punch.

TBB: What has Bells Atlas been listening to, reading and watching?

DB: I’ve been really loving the new Sufjan Stevens album. Gulliver’s Travels has been a favorite read as of late. I just finished watching all the episodes of 90s TV puppetry-show Dinosaurs on Netflix.

DS: Listening: Kamasai Washington, Flying Lotus, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Hiatus Kaiyote. Reading: Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According To QuestloveBeginners Guide to Constructing the Universe. Watching: Boy, Wetlands, Birdman.

GH: Listening: Björk’s Homogenic and Vespertine, Tom Ze’s Estudando o Pagode, Hiatus Kaiyote, Deerhoof, Teebs, Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, Ilê Aiyê, Nik Bartsch’s Ronin. Reading: Michio Kaku’s Parallel Worlds off and on, How Music Works by David Byrne, BrainPickings. Watching: Mad Max (so good!), re-watching Planet Earth, just watched Pim Poko (Studio Ghibli film) the other day- some awesome, sometimes dark and weird as hell!  All I gotta say is raccoons, super powers, tea-bagging.

SLN: Listening: Lately on repeat: Laneous and the Family Yah, Kendrick Lamar, Aretha Franklin
Reading: After Dark, Kitchen, Palace Walk. Watching: Sherlock, Planet Earth, Continuum.

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Trails and Ways, Bells Atlas, Perhapsy
The Independent
June 5, 2015
9 pm, $13-15, (+21)