Interview: bell monks

For the past several months, Mine All Mine Records has been bringing you bell monks’ monthly packages.  The largely Madison-based band has been diligently working on audio, video and photographic content for this year-long project.  A few months ago, our Mine All Mine Records staff interviewer Ben Schapiro (of The Count and Lovely Socialite) sat down with bell monks to see what makes them tick.

You can catch the full interview below.  You can check out bell monks’ first album here, and their latest monthly package here.

MAM (Ben Schapiro): What’s your instrumentation?  Who’s in your band?

Jeff Herriott: The recorded and live versions of the band are a bit different, though in general our instrumentation is: Heidi Johnson sings and plays keyboards.  Eric Sheffield sings and plays guitar and sometimes bass.  Matt Hund plays percussion and samplers.  Anna Weisling creates visuals for our live shows and will be working on videos for our upcoming projects.  I sing and play keyboards, and sometimes add random other textures.  The recording of our first album, lullabies, was primarily created by Eric and I, as we didn’t bring Matt on board until after we starting rehearsing as a group.

Heidi Johnson: Yeah, I’m not sure if Eric & Jeff know how much time they spent on recording the many layers of instrumentation for ‘lullabies’, but I came in just one day to sing any of the vocal parts you hear on the album. My keyboard parts were learned for the live performance and vocals were shifted based on what worked better for performance as well.

Eric Sheffield: Future recordings, including the ones we’re working on now, will involve all of us much more often, though I imagine the individual instrumental contributions will still be very fluid.

MAM: What’s your newest recording called?

JH: Our only finished album is called “lullabies”, which is a 12-track album centered around concepts of sleeping and dreaming.  Loosely, we imagined slowly falling asleep and then moving through different dream-spaces, though the album doesn’t adhere tightly to that form.

MAM: Is there any central theme to all the music?

JH: Sleep was the central theme to the “lullabies”, and that notion remains a central component to our music going forward as well.  We’re currently working on a series of monthly singles, to be released throughout this whole of 2011, starting this month.  This newer stuff is a little more personal lyrically, though the music is still inspired by these dream-spaces.

ES: I’m hoping to push for more recognition of “sleepy rock” as a genre description.

MAM: Who writes your music?  What’s that process like?

ES: When we first started, Jeff had several small ideas to be developed into full songs, and I had a few as well.  Skeletons were recorded with the best of this material, then layers were added (and added, and added, then sometimes taken away, then added some more).  The instrumentation was very open.  The writing process included setting up and experimenting with a bevy of instruments, like vibraphones, marimbas, giant concert bass drums, and even brake drums.  We basically locked ourselves in a concert hall for entire days for weeks at a time.

JH: Everything usually starts with music rather than lyrics, which primarily come after the fact.  I have written most of the lyrics, though both Heidi and Eric have also contributed lyrics, and our friend, screenwriter and novelist, S. Craig Zahler, also contributed lyrics for one tune.

HJ: I was asked to join in on lullabies after Jeff and Eric had done a lot of the recording and before all the vocal parts were laid down.  When I was given the rough drafts, one of my assignments was to see if I could help create lyrics for one of the songs. This might sound dangerous, but I played their recordings while driving in a sleep deprived-state on I-94 and that was the inspiration for the lyrics which became part of “Solace.”

Matt Hund:  When we started playing as a band the songs took on a whole new character, so we kind of rearranged all the original songs together. We like to cover other people’s music as well. We try and choose stuff that doesn’t sound like us at all, and then put it to sleep. Our new material will be made mostly through online collaboration and solo or sectional recording sessions as we all have demanding schedules.

ES: Ultimately, for the “lullabies”, Anna was also involved with the final touches and mastering, which we did at the studio she works at, Audio for the Arts.

MAM: What’s the album artwork?  How was the artist inspired?

Anna Weisling: The imagery of these trees really conveys the feeling of the album; the branches are stark and (presumably) move slowly in the wind, and they intertwine, navigating through the darkness like a dream world.  A kind of sleepy, dark maze.  Just like a mind falling into rest, there is something beautiful and potentially sinister about bare trees at night.

HJ: Late Fall 2009, just before Matt came on board, Jeff, Eric & I went to a park at dusk to shoot photographs for the beginnings of a web presence for bell monks, which were only used for a short while, but I felt the place had the right feeling for the band. A little over a year later it was decided to complete a full-size album cover. I decided to go back to the same park, but this time alone in the bitter cold to find some inspiring bare branches to work with. On walks alone, I’ve noticed, our music works well on cold winter nights.  Perhaps it was an obvious choice to go with, but I’ve also always loved experimenting with long exposures because they never show exactly what the eye already sees: colors are more exaggerated and moving subjects can ooze through the frame.

MAM: What does your music sound like?

JH: I’m not sure what sleep sounds like, but it’s a concept that permeates the way I think about the music.  Our music is slow, luscious, and rich.  I would describe it as “warm”, though I think many people would instead describe it oppositely, as “cold”, as the vocals are subdued-sounding and not overly emotional.  Musically, it’s somewhat ambient, usually pretty layered, with multiple voices, guitar parts, keyboards, and different percussive choices.  Most of the lullabies were recorded without a real drum kit – instead, we used an assortment of toms and cymbals.  We also used a lot of prepared piano, though that’s mostly just a textural element.  Incidentally, Craig also came up with the band name after he heard some of the early recordings, whatever that means about the way we sound.

MH: To me it sounds like the semi-lucid moments right before you fall asleep till right before you wake up and everything in between.

HJ: How about I just throw out some words or phrases—floating, suspension of time, wind winding through you, quicksand, longing, gorgeously desolate, swimming figure eights.

MAM: Who might you list as some of your influences?

JH: The original motivation for this music was a band called Sebadoh that we don’t sound much like at all.  But I love their first couple of lo-fi albums, “The Freed Man” and “Weed Forestin'”, which included a bunch of short tracks that didn’t waste a lot of time.  The simplicity of those tracks is still an influence on me, even if our music is much richer and wider sounding than that material (and slower).

Sonically, we more closely resemble a mix of Brian Eno and Low, as was astutely mentioned by a writer from The Onion’s AV Club.  And both of them are influences, along with PJ Harvey, Akron/Family, Liars, David Bowie.  And lately I would add some of the mellower post-rock bands like Talk Talk and Bark Psychosis and Hood.

HJ: I can’t help but mention sound makers such as Sigur Ros, Boards of Canada, Blonde Redhead and Mum.

MH: Between us all we are influenced by almost every kind of music, pinning down even just a handful is difficult. But I think the concepts of sleeping and dreaming had the most influence shaping the ambience of the music. Personally I am influenced most by my fellow musicians and the atmosphere we create sonically and visually.

MAM: How is your newest recording different from your others (please list your others).

JH: We’re just getting started with our 2011 project, which we’re really excited about.  We’re creating a series of 12 new dual singles this coming year, with two related releases per month – 24 total for the year.  The first half of each single, which will be stream-able online starting on the 15th of every month, will be more of an ambient, textural treatment, while the end-of-month release will be a fuller, more traditional song.  The end-of-the-month package will include a download of both tunes, videos, and any associated artwork/photos.  At the end of the year, we’re planning to create some sort of physical package for the project, though we’re not sure what that will look like yet.

Also, the music we’re creating for our 2011 project will all have shorter gestation period than lullabies did.  I think it will be a bit rawer and dirtier as a result.  We didn’t make any rash decisions with the “lullabies”, which were crafted over a long period of time, layer upon layer.  I think this year’s music will be more melodically-driven and feature fewer parts, partially out of necessity, as we won’t have months and months to sit and think and re-think and tweak and change and push.  We want to just put the thoughts down, cataloging the process along the way as it happens.

HJ: I think one obvious difference is the first album began before the band was fully formed.  As stated by Jeff, there is a set time structure involved, so it will be interesting to see how it fleshes out with all of the heads collaborating in the sonic and visual ventures of bell monks in this compressed format.

MH: The new material will strive to be congruent with the bell monks mantra, but with more collaboration and a shorter time frame, who knows what is gonna come out.

MAM: Where do you play?  Any home bases?

ES: Madison is our home base.

HJ: If we had to name one regular venue for 2010, it would be The Project Lodge.

MAM: Any future aspirations for bell monks?

JH: I’m just looking forward to making all of this new music this year.  That’s going to be a pretty big project for us!

ES: I’m expecting that this crazy schedule with set deadlines will help to cure my recording process OCD…  But really, I can’t wait to put stuff out with MAM and get our music heard and visuals seen by more people.  Hopefully our creations will soothe, inspire, and bring more musician and artist friends along the way.

MH: Play new places, meet new people, make new music, reach new listeners, find new ways to express our creativity.

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