It’s hard to say anything about Bellows’ Fist & Palm that hasn’t already been said.The band’s second album has attracted a large following in the six weeks it has been out, and for good reason: The album is magnificent in the way that it merges emotional instability and sonic complexity. Unlike previous Bellows releases, for this album Oliver Kalb — the musician behind Bellows, and member of The Epoch collective — took his time. Writing on Fist & Palm started back in 2014, and the time and care taken in its creation matters: Fist & Palm is notable for its soaring arcs and painful crashes.
The album is both personal and public. What Kalb achieves in the personal nature of the album is a rich narrative voice. It’s difficult to share intimate stories without losing some of your audience, but on Fist & Palm Kalb delivers intimacy in such a way that all feel included. In part, the album sounds universal because the sounds themselves have been carefully chosen: Kalb drew musical inspiration from all parts of his life, searching always for notes and noises which would add to the essence of the album. Further, the sharp details present in each song (“Yellow cans of 24s,” “F connecting to the M,” “The blooming of the marigolds”) ground the listener in Kalb’s world.
Ahead of their show tomorrow at Rickshaw Stop, Kalb agreed to answer some of The Bay Bridged’s questions over email. We talked about his writing process, the creation of Fist & Palm, and what he does to stay imaginative on tour.
The Bay Bridged: One thing that struck me when reading about Fist & Palm was the timeline of the album. It…evolved fully over a long period of time — first sparked in 2014 during a month of writing, then written and finished by you, and finally contributed to by your collaborators. How has this timeline shaped the album?
Oliver Kalb: Spreading out the writing and post-production steps by a year definitely made it so that there was a lot more focus and intentionality behind the mixing and final arrangement decisions. For both of my first two records, I pretty much wrote, mixed and arranged everything all at once, so basically once the final song was written, I considered the whole album to be finished.
Fist & Palm was different in that most of the musical arrangements were composed after the songwriting was completed. It was more like ‘Here’s a song, how do we want this to sound?’ than ‘Here’s a blank canvas, let’s fill it up and release the result,’ which was how my previous albums were made.
TBB: What is it like to tour on Fist & Palm when your lyrics paint you as an antagonist, as you say they do?
OK: Weirdly, I think that a lot of the conflicts I wrote about on Fist & Palm were a result of the kind of cramped, pressurized environment that touring creates. Constantly being stressed out and physically uncomfortable brings out the absolute worst sides of people, and can really strain relationships between band mates. Recognizing that touring is very unhealthy for me emotionally was an important realization, and I think it has sort of made me more attentive and patient with other people, especially people on tour or in less-than-ideal physical or emotional circumstances. So even though I’m an antagonist in the album, the tour I’m on now with PWR BTTM feels a lot less fraught and drama-filled than past tours I’ve been on. Everybody has been really good about checking in with one another and giving space. I’m having a great time!
TBB: Were you surprised by anything during the creation of Fist & Palm?
OK: I was surprised by my friends in The Epoch’s reaction to the album. I was expecting it to somehow be read as hostile or angry toward them,
TBB: Which was the most difficult song to write on this album?
OK: I wrote about five different versions of the song “Beauty.” It’s such a climactic moment in the record, and I felt like I had an emotional understanding of how I wanted the song to feel a long time before I had finished the song. It has this key change and total gear shift when it moves into the chorus, and I wanted the song’s chorus to feel sweeping and substantial without being sentimental or resting too much on lyrical cliches. It treads this line of almost being the corniest thing in the world, but I think that corniness often feels corny because it lands so close to something really affecting and resonant. It took a bunch of tries to come up with lyrics that felt broad enough in scope to match the key change and club/dance beat, but still had a little bit of subtlety and mystery to them.
TBB: I read that this album marks a shift in place for you from more rural locations to New York City. What does it mean to you to connect your music to NYC?
OK: New York City is incredibly unforgiving and undeniably ‘real.’ There’s no mystery or romance to living there at all, at least for me. I think what I mean when I say that Fist & Palm feels like a New York City album is that it strips away a lot of the pretense and fluff I was basing my narrator’s voice on in previous Bellows albums. It’s very lyrically direct and I think that the focus of the album sort of matches the feeling of living in New York for me. The pace of the city, the feeling of unrelenting motion, I think informed the pace and emotional landscape of the record.
TBB: The Epoch has an incredible creative output, which means that you are often touring. How do you think of touring and contributing to other Epoch releases in relation to your work on Bellows?
OK: Touring constantly definitely makes it hard to feel creative. It makes the time at home feel very pressurized, like every second that we’re not touring needs to be spent writing and recording new music, whether or not there’s really inspiration for it. When there’s a chance to really dig in and make significant strides toward new material it’s great — I love making records — but there’s an unhealthy attitude I think that a lot of heavy touring musicians get that it’s somehow not OK to just take some downtime. I think people get burnt out really quickly when they don’t give themselves any time to disconnect from their songwriter/band persona. Sometimes you need to just chill out and be nobody.
TBB: What do you do to chill out when you’re at home?
OK: I never chill out! I mostly just record and write new music and play board games. I recently got into Magic: The Gathering because my bandmate Felix is really into it. I have a blue/red deck that is all about putting 1/1 devil tokens on the board. It doesn’t make much sense to me yet, but I’m learning!
TBB: What was the sonic process like for Fist & Palm? How did you approach creating songs with so many different textures, layers, and sounds?
OK: I use a lot of volume swells and guitar noise in the background of all of my songs, sort of flowing in and out of the tracks to give them a feeling of sonic depth and the impression that some kind of dark gurgling is going on under the surface of every song. I like just throwing improvised, weird sounds into traditional folk songs, seeing how much I can distort and manipulate things to give the songs an unwieldy, wobbling feeling. Gabby Smith, one of my closest creative collaborators, also arranges violins and layers of harmony vocals that also give the songs a creepy, ethereal quality.
TBB: Are there any specific tools, games, or tricks that you use to manipulate songs in order to match the emotional tone you’re going for?
OK: I always keep my ears open for strange sounds in buildings and out in nature — there’s a sound I really love in the background of “Orange Juice” that’s the squealing of a heater at my parents’ house. The heater was making this high-pitched whistle, almost like a tea kettle. It turned out to be squeaking in the exact key of the song, so I just mixed it into the background of the beginning of the song. It gave the song a sort of evil feeling — there was something ominous about the whistling in the midst of the happy-go-lucky, almost Motown-sounding backbeat of the song. Little things like that are always on my mind when I’m making an album: How can I turn this fairly traditional folk or pop song into something unique and interesting? How can I give it a feeling or sound that I’ve never heard before?
TBB: What is your imaginative process like? E.g., do you keep a journal on tour? Sketch? Watercolor? How do you inspire yourself?
OK: I mostly read a lot. Tour can be such a mindless grind that falling deep into books has become kind of a self-preservation mechanism. Almost like the only way I can keep myself curious and awake while I tour is to inhabit the lives of other characters for a while. It’s been a good way of reading a lot of things I just wouldn’t have made time for before I started touring. There’s so much downtime that I can finish a couple books every time I tour. I think the worlds I’m visiting in novels end up informing songwriting much later, and in abstract ways, like trying to draw a picture of something you saw in a dream. It’s never a direct representation, but more like an emotional reconstruction of the place my mind was in when I was reading something.
TBB: What has been your favorite book you’ve read on tour? What are you reading now?
OK: My favorite book I’ve read on tour is Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. It was the book that made me realize that reading can be a therapeutic activity on tour. Franzen’s relationships with all his characters are so deep and rich; every tiny emotion and personality tic they have is explained in such detail, and every corner of their lives seems to be laid out for the reader. This closeness and intimacy with the novel’s characters was the exact thing that was missing from my life on tour at the time: I was feeling very disconnected from my friends and shut off to myself, unable to really access my emotions. Reading Freedom kind of brought me out of that emotional slump and depression and made me realize how amazing it can be to truly understand another human being.
It feels weird to say, but I felt a lot more loving toward my friends and myself after reading that book. As if it reassured me of my connection to the human race. I think novels have this special power — [which is] maybe especially useful to people like me who have trouble socializing — of reminding you how huge and complex the world is. I’m reading a book called Saturday by Ian McEwan right now. I’m not far enough in to have anything interesting to say about it yet though!
PWR BTTM, Bellows, Lisa Prank
November 9, 2016
8pm, SOLD OUT