Here’s a funny story about Belly in the 90s. At one point in that decade, I was auditioning to be a writer for a certain alternative music magazine, and Belly had just released or was about to release King, their fascinating, unrepentant, and melancholy second album, and the editor at this magazine asked me if I wanted to write a profile of the band. I had a copy of Star, their first album, and I really wore it out, really admired it in that deep, totally engaged way that I reserved for the popular song when I was young. I felt about Star the way I felt about Document, by R.E.M., or the way I felt about Loveless by My Bloody Valentine. It was a recording that helped me get through the tough days. So: the editor guy asked if I wanted to profile Belly, and I really wanted to, but I became so terrified—for having not yet really interviewed any musicians, nor written publicly about music, and because of how much I admired the band—that I had to come up with an elaborate bunch of prior commitments and obligations to make it impossible for me to do what, actually, I really wanted to do. That is, I didn’t write the profile.
Fifteen or so years later I was lucky enough to become friendly with Tanya Donelly, of the band called Belly, through mutual acquaintances, and was further blessed to write a couple of songs with her (some of the very best songs I have ever had anything to do with), and to sing with her a few times. Considering my anxiety about the Belly profile, getting to know Tanya well was both a great blessing and a just karmic result, because as an acquaintance of Tanya’s I got to witness a seminal period of her songwriting and musical development, through a couple of great solo albums, into the period in which Belly came to reassemble itself and to recommit to its original mission. This was dramatic and powerful to watch, even from the edges of the action.
The occasion of finally writing this profile of the band, now, was the release of Belly’s new album Dove, which is a really great album, and an incredibly impressive example of what we have all come to know a lot about—reunion albums. The thing about reunion albums is that they aren’t normally good, and, actually, they don’t have to be good. They just have to indicate that the people making the recording have plausibly been involved with the band’s early recordings, and that new songs can proficiently recreate the “old” sound. Dove, the band’s third album (after a twenty-three year lapse), is much, much more than this, however. It both sounds like Belly, and doesn’t sound like them at all. It both sounds like the 90s and sounds like the contemporary moment, which barely has room for the 90s. This album, Dove, has the unsettling observational acuity that we always associate with Tanya Donelly’s lyrics, but it also features a full, multi-tracked, and digital musical register in which virtually everyone in the band gets to sing, and in which the rhythm section has a profundity that it perhaps never had before. The songs are singable, with great melody writing, and are incredibly confident and present in a way that belies the difficult work that went into getting four far-flung adults, two of them with kids, together for recording sessions. It’s a great and beautiful album, a completion and fulfillment of what Belly perhaps set out to do—to make a truly great rock and roll album—but also a beginning on a new way of thinking about them in the present. It’s post-historical, in that it doesn’t need an “alternative rock” world in order to do what it does, and as a result it’s more free, more unrepentant, and more ambitious for its freedom.
These interviews with all four members of the band took place by phone in May of this year. I was just as anxious, in a way, as when I was unable to do the profile in the mid-90s, but at every stage I got to talk to incredibly interesting, thoughtful, and moving interview subjects. Part of what makes Belly important and lasting, that is, is that they really think and feel a lot. You can hear it in the songs. And maybe you can feel it here, too.
Part I: Tanya Donelly (guitar and vocals)
The Rumpus: As an observer, I feel like your Swan Song Series solo project was like a fulcrum through which some of the putting back together of Belly took place. Is that accurate? Tom Gorman (of Belly) wrote music for it, correct?
Tanya Donelly: Yeah, both Tom and Gail [Greenwood].
Rumpus: Can we talk about that transitional period? I think I played with you at that time (at Bell House) and Tom showed up to watch and I sort of felt like “Oh…!”
Donelly: You said, that night, “Are you guys getting back together?” That was our first getting back together dinner.
Rumpus: Do you see it coming out of Swan Song Series in some way?
Donelly: Definitely. There’s a direct path from the first Cabinet of Wonders show [Wesley Stace’s ongoing variety show] that I did at the Brattle (in Cambridge) that night which is the first thing I did in a very long time and then writing with you all as a way of starting to get to write again and sort of realizing that I am a collaborator. That whole Swan Songs project, from beginning to end, just felt so good and natural and exciting to me that I realized that I’m a social writer. What I don’t like is being by myself. What I love is writing with people. And so I reached out to Tom and said “I would love to write with you again; I wrote some of my best songs with you.” And so that was sort of the beginning of it and then I reached out to Gail as well and Chris [Gorman] kind of said, on the heels of that—because every once in a while Chris and I would talk about the band—”Listen, all we need to do is connect the dots.”
Rumpus: Was there a laborious political process to get to that point, or was it relatively smooth?
Donelly: We actually decided we had made a very sort of tentative, very careful email chain saying “Are we going to get a mediator? Are we going to talk this through or are we just going to, as I said, draw a line under it and just move on and start over and never go back?” And that’s what we did. And I have to say, you know, it’s been funny. Why haven’t I done this with every relationship I’ve ever had?! This is very effective! I’m going to apply this everywhere from now on. I think, for the first few months, we were sort of like “Something’s gotta give,” but it just hasn’t and it’s not going to.
Rumpus: You built a new platform.
Donelly: Yes, exactly. There’s a brand new architecture holding us now and nothing really that happened before applies anyway, dynamically. That sounds absurd but it’s true. We just have a new structure.
Rumpus: When you wrote “Send Me Your Next Nightmare,” for Swan Song Series with Tom did you have a new writing process for your new, rehabilitated relationship? Did you change the way you worked together at that moment?
Donelly: Yes, I think, sonically that song, “Nightmare,” bleeds over into the new stuff and a lot of that is Tom. Tom’s been very active on his own just in terms of being an engineer and as a musician and branching out into different instruments. So, you know, he’s had this lab in upstate New York that he’s been working on for years and so I think, sonically, a lot of that stuff is brought into the new second incarnation of Belly.
Rumpus: So, what about Gail? Gail seems really present on this album, too. The last thing the project suggests is, to be blunt, a conception of Belly as Tanya Donnelly and some dudes. Everybody’s pulling an oar.
Donelly: In every way. Everything. Publishing, everything. Every single thing we do from now on is 25/25/25/25 and that extends to administration and managing and the graphics and the design and the production. We all, luckily, have complimentary skills and so everyone has something. It’s laborious and it’s a lot, but it’s been very bonding. And I think one thing that we’ve learned is just keeping our wagons circled. Keeping the structure tight! It’s going to sound unfriendly but we do well if it’s the four of us working pretty much just as a very exclusive unit. It just works that way and I think it sort of does make us aware that a lot of our issues were coming from without, not within.
Rumpus: So, in the reunion period you toured your asses off for a while and went to Europe, right? Did you already know that you were going to try and write new material or were you just seeing what would happen?
Donelly: We had four songs before we went out just because we wanted to have new stuff to play live. And so we had a plan like, “We can do an EP after this or whatever, even if it’s digital.” The original idea was to do Bandcamp EP but then Tom sort of started to feel like, you know “I’m still writing; are you still writing?” We’re always writing so we just decided to do a full-length album, which we thought would not take as long as it did. Just the logistics of us being in the same place at the same time; there has been a lot of remote recording. Tom kind of pieced it together.
Rumpus: How do you feel about how it sounds compared to the other records?
Donelly: I think it’s what we would have done next, possibly, had we been of sound mind at the time. So, I think it makes sense. We stripped away some of the layers we had added in the process. A few of them because I think Tom and I in particular are like, “I hear this in my head and this and this” and we’re more cluttered in a way than the other two which is another way that we’re well-balanced because we could maybe go too far in that direction of ornament and they could go too far in the other. It just ends up being a good balance.
Rumpus: If one were thinking about this from the perspective of a Tanya Donnelly fan it would be hard not to notice that you’ve been getting quieter and articulating things in music that are more chamber-oriented, like having Sam Davol being the anchor of band for the solo material. But what’s striking about Dove is how loud it is in spots. Was it hard to go back in that direction?
Donelly: No, it was fun. I love being on stage with a lot of noise behind me; that feels fantastic. It feels safe. Playing live has been fantastic. It’s just so fun, which I missed. I love playing my solo shows, too, very much, and I get a very different kind of joy and satisfaction there but it’s much more frightening to me. I have zero stage fright when I’m playing with Belly.
Rumpus: Are you going to continue to try to do solo stuff? What’s the five year plan with this?
Donelly: We don’t really have one, which I think is also nice. I feel like, you know, we’re kind of like “Well, a few months from now, we’ll do this,” and you know things sort of naturally present themselves and it’s a yes or no. It’s sort of more about vetting and fielding and not about planning right now. So, if that continues we’ll just keep doing that and then, beyond that, I have no idea.
Rumpus: I suppose that’s a healthy and responsibly adult approach for musicians who went through the whole thing of being gigantic and then having the record company battles and stuff that you went through.
Donelly: We have experiential proof and knowledge that planning is often fruitless and causes a lot of trouble. People have businesses and families and that’s limiting in a very healthy way.
Rumpus: How does all of this fit into where you are now as a parent? So, you guys are probably going to play in the summer, right? Is it just while the kids are on vacation you do this and then put it down in the fall?
Donelly: Right. The first tour we planned around school almost entirely, and jobs, also. Both of my kids and Chris’s kids are getting to an age where they’re a little more self-cleaning so we can do more next year but we still plan around them. We have a group calendar where everybody just punches in their things that absolutely cannot be moved.
Rumpus: So, do you think that you are enjoying the experience because you’re playing this kind of music again, rock and roll, and it has that ecstatic rock thing, or are you enjoying it because you’re playing with these people?
Donelly: Because I’m playing with these people. Definitely. And I feel that way when I do Throwing Muses reunions, too. It’s all about the people for me. Tom and Chris were in Verbal Assault; we were in Throwing Muses. We did a lot of All Ages things. That we had in common. We were friendly. We weren’t hanging out all the time. It was really after high school that Tom and I started becoming extremely close, and, from there, when I left the Muses, they were the first people I thought of and Uncle Fred Abong came with me, from the Muses, for the first album and he had been in bands with them as well. He was part of the hardcore scene also so that was kind of natural.
Rumpus: So, when you say it’s these people, do you mean these specific relationships or do you also mean “People I knew in high school”?
Donelly: People from home. Yeah, people from the [Aquidneck] Island. You know, it’s a comfort thing. There’s like zero degrees of separation between everybody on the Island and so there’s definitely that; it’s bringing Aquidneck on the road but it’s also them specifically and there was a breakup and it was dramatic at the time but, you know, our family spent holidays together. My brother was involved with their sister throughout the Belly years. I love them, which is, I think, why it’s been successful to just sort of say, “Let’s just leave everything, all that crap behind.” Because who wants to be doing that kind of scatology at fifty? It’s just silly, anyway.
Rumpus: Yeah, the way you’re saying it is you’re saying it like you’re telling a story about family. It’s like progressing past a familial scarring of some kind into a state in which people who already care about one another can care about one other again.
Donelly: Yeah, that’s beautifully put. Absolutely. Every band I’ve been in functions on that level because I’ve been in family bands my whole life. Every single one has had siblings and has had that atmosphere. You know, it’s a very emotional environment but it’s a very healthy one in terms of commitment.
Rumpus: Is that why the record is called Dove?
Part II: Chris Gorman (drums)
Rumpus: I had a long chat with Tanya about Belly’s reuniting and regrouping. She credits you in part for lighting the fire. From your point of view, what was the impetus and what is the sort of emotional arc of getting back together?
Chris Gorman: Probably the overwhelming post-Belly feeling for me always was, How the fuck did this happen? Why did this come unglued so abruptly and thoroughly? Not that it was a mystery to me, not that I was absent for anything. Partly I felt, like, How am I ever going to find a better job than this? But also, from a survival sense, like, How did we let this happen?
For twenty plus years, I had a feeling it just was very unfinished. Without fanfare, without farewell, without any sort of moment of agreement that this was the choice that we should be making. So I don’t know if I ever let go of the idea that sooner or later we were going to have to address this, and, of course, in an optimistic manner, I felt like, We’ll just play more shows! It’ll be cool! which was obviously totally naive and not very well attached to reality.
Even when we decided to do it, it just seemed, from the beginning, How are we ever going to get this to work out? We’re all in different states. We were all scattered and had families and other things going on. But I think that by holding onto that hope it kind of fell together. I was just kind of like, Okay, this is what I had in mind. I had a sense of that this needed to be done, so I’m glad that it happened.
Rumpus: Tanya talked about it as though this were a family matter that needed to be resolved, as though it were less about there were musical goals than, These people are my family and I love them and I wanted to play with them again and it was stupid that we hadn’t done that.
Gorman: That’s pretty much it. I think there’s a huge dose of that. I thought: why isn’t that something we’ve tried to fix. And I feel like I held onto some sort of faith that eventually we would make that decision. Tom and I worked together for years; we always had been partners in one creative project or another, whether it was photography or music. I feel like maybe he was a little bit more cynical about all of this. I don’t want to put words into his mouth but I feel like he probably was more like: “Logistically it’s not possible. It doesn’t make any sense.” But in those conversations, I always said, “Wouldn’t we be failing as human beings not to address this?” And it just seemed like it was relatively effortless. Emotionally, that was the biggest surprise—how little effort it really took. Space and traveling and time are things you can figure out if you put a little bit of work to it; it’s all the other underlying emotional things and baggage and leftover feelings that seemed like they would be the bigger obstacles.
Rumpus: So what is the state of the collaboration at this point? Is it different now that you’ve re-entered into doing this sort of more open-eyed and adult?
Gorman: I feel like a big part of the decision of getting back together and the difference between starting a band when you’re young and doing it now is the level of trust. Knowing that you can rely on all these people to not only put everything they have into it but also to have the intention of trying to make what’s being made better. Very little of the collaboration now is coming from a standpoint of, “This is my mine, don’t fuck with it.” Or, “You sped it up a little bit and I don’t like that.” There’s far more of an ease of acceptance of contributions from everybody. They’re all writing at the top of their game. Not to sound stupid or cheesy but in almost no time at all this record was written. There was no last minute we-need-an-extra song stuff. It really is a packed record.
And there’s nothing in there that wasn’t labored over by everyone to make sure that they had their little piece; it was exactly the way they wanted it and the way they felt would make the song better. You know, it came together in a short period of time and, in the time it took to put it together, I feel like it was also put together in a way that was far more sophisticated and mature and refined. Tom had all these orchestrations and compositional ideas that were just applied without having to dismantle anything. It just worked out. Some vocal stuff that these guys did—the layering of vocals—is really complicated and really unique and a huge progression for the band, I feel. That was important for all of us; we wanted to feel like this wasn’t just a retread of what people liked about us.
Rumpus: Can we talk about this with respect to “Shiny One,” the single, because I feel like the drumming on that is so great, and I know from Tanya that that’s a pretty good example of a song where different sections were written by different people. I feel like the drums must really have had an important procedural role to play in the knitting together.
Gorman: We were doing a lot of back and forth stuff and we probably had maybe five or six songs at that point in the early stage. I was doing some back and forth with Tom, just drum machine stuff, just kind of garage band stuff trying to put some pieces together. I’m trying to think of what the first little crop of songs were. Then I said, “You know, I gotta go into the studio and start playing the drums and see if I can come up with something that I can listen to and try to evaluate whether I’m way off base or not.” For that song, I think there were probably vocals and some guitars and a crude structure probably relatively established and that’s when I went into a friend’s studio in Brooklyn. I went in for a long weekend and just took a bunch of demos and just started playing the drums to them and tried to come up with a much more refined approach.
There’s something in the early demos of “Shiny One,” and I don’t know whether it evolved too far away for you to hear it but it had a weird sort of thing that I just couldn’t shake. It was kind of spiritualized or, you know, like some sort of Bobby Gillespie heroin trip. Which was so far off from where the song was at the time. It was kind of just a straight rock song but I was like, “There’s groove in this song that’s just not being exploited,” and, as a band that doesn’t really do too many vampy-type grooves, I felt like that was kind of a risk. I just did something very simple. This guy that I was working with, he’d done tons of hip-hop and stuff like that and he’d gotten really good with samples and loops and we were listening to The Stone Roses and I was just trying to figure out what it was that I was hearing in this song and what it was triggering in the back of my brain. We added this loop and, once that loop started happening, I thought, Whoa, I have to bring the drums way back down. I remember Tom sending me an email and it was kind of like, “I don’t know. It’s really weird; maybe it works. I don’t know. Maybe this works. Does this work? I don’t know if this works. I think it works. Maybe I can make this work.” It was that sort of thing, rather than “Do you have anything else?”
It was that sort of moment when I really felt like: “This is how we’re going to do this record.” If you have an idea, you’re going to put it forward and if you can justify it and you can back it up with creative reasoning then, hopefully, everybody else is going to say “Oh, I get what you’re doing here.” It might not fit an expectation of what Belly sounds like, but we’re the four Belly people so how can it not be Belly? I think we all realized really early on that it wouldn’t serve us to try to rehash any sort of nostalgia trip.
Rumpus: There’s also the question of what a rock band is in 2018 and if a rock band can be the same thing that a rock band was at the time you guys first recorded. To go out and play with two guitars, bass and drums right now means a really different thing from what it meant before.
Gorman: Once we sort of crossed that line of having enough trust to allow each other to make contributions and work in that little world, I think at that point, there probably were early on conversations and emails back and forth like “What is it that we’re going to do?” and “What are we trying to do and where does it fit? Who do we think is our audience and what’s the reason for doing it?” I think that kind of went out the window in those early stages when the songs started to evolve and we were kind of like, “There’s not really anything else we can do other than what we do and we’re doing ourselves an injustice to try to second guess.” We just had to do it and, you know, if people don’t like it at least we didn’t do something we didn’t want to do.
Rumpus: One last question if you’ll tolerate it. I love to look closely at band dynamics and relations in the rhythm section. So how did you and Gail play together, like on “Shiny One.” Did she overdub bass?
Gorman: Well, actually what we did is we recorded that and they were all like kind of crude tracks and then I did the drums down in New York. Then we re-recorded it because the structure changed in Rhode Island (the basics) when Gail played bass. I was playing the drums live and recording those basics with her but then, in the final stage of mixing and stuff like that, it seemed clear that the drums that I had recorded for the demo were better. They were simpler and more consistent and driving so we brought back those drums from that session and used Gail’s stuff from Rhode Island. Then we re-recorded the conga loops that I had done and Dean Fisher came into the studio and he recorded on a djembe that conga loop. Paul Kolderie got introduced to that song like halfway through because we had already done a bunch in the demo stage and the drum tracks and stuff before he even came on board to help us engineer. Then his contributions brought about a whole other level of discussion about the way that song developed. With that one, everybody’s part was being taken from a different place to build that song so that truly is a real complex jigsaw puzzle of recording.
Rumpus: Do you think it’s going to require a scaling up to turn around and play those complex songs live?
Gorman: I think it’s probably just the opposite. Some of them could take a little bit scaling down in the sense of “Does this work?” In the case of “Shiny One,” will that work live without a conga? And you know that trippy sort of loop that runs through it, will that translate into just a groovy rock song? That’s the sort of stuff that will come out in the next state of rehearsals and will evolve over a tour and stuff like that. In the end, I feel like we’re still just a four-piece rock band, you know?
Part III: Tom Gorman (guitar and vocals)
Rumpus: Chris said, when I asked him about reasons for getting back together, that he had a feeling like, Are we bad people if we don’t try to fix this?
Tom Gorman: There was definitely this lingering sense of unfinished business that hung around for a really long time. I guess it was just a sense of unfinished creative business in a way; it kind of went from this idea that’d been going on for years of like “No, no, no. Never, never, never” to, all of a sudden, like “Well, I don’t know. Maybe we’ll talk.” Those last two steps happened over the space of maybe a month, which was kind of weird.
Rumpus: I feel like I was there because I was writing songs with Tanya a little bit and I remember I sang with her one night at Bell House and I think you and Chris were both there. I turned to her at one point and was like, “This is looking a lot like a Belly reunion to me” and she sort of brushed the thing off but then I noticed that you wrote songs for her collaborative solo project with her. Was that writing with her, at that point, a thing that helped smooth the way?
Gorman: I think it was. I don’t even remember how I really found out about it. Something happened around that time when she was doing the Swan Song Series and she wasn’t being managed by the guy that had been managing her and that kind of took it from “This is never going to happen” to “Maybe it could happen.” Chris gets the credit for being the most tenacious about it because, for years (because he and I worked together so we’d see each other all the time) he said, “We should talk to Tanya; maybe we should just talk about doing some kind of reunion thing,” and I was always kind of like, “No, no, no.” He kept kind of pushing on it and then—actually I don’t remember what it was but he was looking for some songs for something, maybe it was for a kid’s book or for a website—he asked me if I would do some stuff so I sent him a bunch of things and a bunch of song ideas and he didn’t tell me but he sent a few of them to Tanya and then told me after the fact!
Gorman: He said, “I sent Tanya these songs because Gail did one of the Swan Song Series and you should do a couple songs with her,” and I emailed her pretty quickly and said, “Chris wasn’t authorized to send those songs so don’t listen to those songs but if you’re interested in doing it, I have a couple different ones that are more interesting,” and it kind of went from there.
Rumpus: Both Tanya and Chris are really emotional about it, you know, feeling like important human work has been done and accomplished and moving forward. Do you feel that way about it?
Gorman: Yeah, I definitely do. It’s kind of interesting now with the new record and, while the apparatus involved is nowhere near what it was twenty years ago, I get this slight apprehension when other outside people are involved in doing it now. Before, the thing that was so great was just when we said “All right, let’s try this,” and, you know, “We’ll talk to each other” and “Yeah, I think we should do this.” We kind of set up doing a reunion pretty much entirely without being face to face because we’re spread out. And I think the first time we were all together was when we were rehearsing and it was just great from the first minute. I think what was really great about it was it was just us. It’s a hard thing to navigate, as far as a creative endeavor, because it seems like a band is about the worst creative organization you could possibly think of because it’s bigger than one person, so there are some politics involved, but it’s also not a big organization where there’s a set hierarchy. So, when it works, it works really great. Otherwise, it’s like “Who invented this concept?”
Rumpus: What about getting the songs together and recording? It seems like it probably was an incredibly different process from anything that happened the last time you guys recorded because of computers, the Internet, and so on. How did that impact you personally?
Gorman: Well, yeah, it definitely was a different process in most respects. When we were working on King, I think, we were swapping cassettes but doing it now with emails, file transfers, and computers… the speed at which stuff can move is just so much faster than it was then and it’s a lot easier to change things on the fly. You can send something and if someone is like “Well, what about this?” you can chop, cut, and paste, you know, and move things around which you couldn’t really do in the old tape days so that was definitely a really different way of putting things together. I’ve been writing and recording stuff on my own pretty much since Belly broke up a couple of decades ago so my personal workflow has evolved as technology evolved. It wasn’t really until we were kind of laying things down that we were like, “Wow, this is quite different than it was twenty years ago.”
Rumpus: Did that affect the way the collaboration worked this time? At least to the outside observer, it looks like more of a four-square collaboration perhaps than it was before.
Gorman: The way the songs got put together varies radically from song to song but definitely having the technology that we have at our disposal meant that everybody was a little bit freer with just throwing an idea out there because you could just put it down quick and put it in a file and email it. “Well, what about something like this? Here’s a sort of vocal idea that I just came up with and here it is on a file.” I was basically the clearinghouse so stuff would get sent to me and I’d go into a basic recording session and move things around and say “What if we do this?” and “What if we do that?” It was definitely more collaborative in that people had the liberty of being able to work on stuff on their own, whereas, back in the old days, you really had to make it happen in a rehearsal space with everybody there.
When everybody’s in the room playing, sometimes you get some happy accidents but, on the other hand, when you’re kind of under the wire, sometimes ideas get rejected or discounted faster than they should and don’t have the space to evolve. I think the way we did this record definitely had that sort of breathing space for ideas to get introduced. It made it a lot more immediately exciting. You don’t write a song and then go in to record it; you’re kind of writing and recording it at the same time, which is a really exciting process.
Rumpus: One thing that seems to bind the record together is that it’s really melody oriented. Was that an evolving accident or was that something that you guys sort of thought about ahead of time?
Gorman: We didn’t consciously think about it but I think that those are elements that we all gravitate towards naturally. You know, we grew up listening to The Beatles and all those 60s bands and then AM radio in the 70s. Without becoming saccharine pop, there’s a kind of craftsmanship to writing songs that have those sorts of elements and, you know, we like it when people sing along! It’s kind of fun. Not to dwell too much on the past but I think there could have been more of that element leveraged on King when we recorded it.
Rumpus: Tanya told me that she and you both were really interested in adding more and layering but then, at a certain point, you made a sort of strategic decision to cut back slightly.
Gorman: Yeah. I sort of wish we didn’t cut back quite as much as we did but, you know, a band is a collaborative thing so everybody’s got to be happy. I was pushing for the more layering and putting some more sounds in there to try and get a little bit more distance from the 90s thing and get a little bit more distance from Belly as it was. I think it was a little bit obscure like we might be going too far in that direction and that might alienate people. I’m not sure if it would or not but it was more of a matter of balance. When we were doing the mixing, there was a point of, “Okay, let’s bring down the orchestration or some of the other instrumentation and bring up the 90s rock guitars and push back towards that direction.” I think it works.
Rumpus: Was any of the thinking in that regard about playing the tracks live, too? Did that enter into the decision-making?
Gorman: No, that actually didn’t. I know you can’t avoid thinking about that a little bit but I’ve always kind of felt like Belly recorded and Belly live can be two different things and still be cohesively connected. Some of that is kind of the fun challenge: What are the elements in the song that need to be there live in order for it to work and do what it needs to do and what are the elements that need to be dispensed with in a recording? They need to be there for a recording but not necessarily for a song to succeed live. That’s all kind of stuff that we sort out when we’re rehearsing.
Rumpus: Chris remarked that Belly has expressive power live despite the multiple guitar tracks on the recordings.
Gorman: Because of our styles as far as writing, we all feel like, at its heart, the song has to be able to work if it’s just one person singing with, say, acoustic guitar, and, if the song succeeds like that, it gives you a lot of freedom. We can take it anywhere we want. So, on the record, we can take it to this one place and live we’ll take it to another place. This time we have a lot more harmony vocals and backing vocals going on; they’re in there on the record but they’re not pushed way up front. I think that’s definitely something that we’ll rely more heavily on because some of the other stuff is stripped away a lot. We don’t have a cello player, we don’t have a piano player or an organ player, but we do have three people who sing so we’ll use that to fill up that space.
Rumpus: Does it feel strange, in this historical context, to still be doing a rock and roll band kind of a performance?
Gorman: That’s an interesting question. At heart, we’re a guitar band and we’re never going to be a sort of super technology-reliant kind of band and I think that’s what makes it more human. Definitely, this record is pretty polished given that we did it with practically no money. It’s refined but I think it’s a human record. The vocals aren’t always perfect and the playing isn’t always perfect and that kind of helps it be a little more real. One of the things that is interesting about the reunion tour is sometimes the accidents or the mistakes that happen almost help to make a connection with the audience. It seems like so much of what’s out there on the radio is just so incredibly overworked and polished and you see the videos of these live shows and everything is so choreographed; it’s like a machine. I don’t think any of us want to live or be a part of a machine. A bunch of people making music for a bunch of people in a room drinking and laughing and crying and whatever: that’s a reason to do it. A lot of the stuff that the current music climate is at the top of the heap there just seems like just a business. It’s a widget. It’s kind of funny because, personally, I think craftsmanship is really important but that slick kind of stuff takes craftsmanship to an odd place that I don’t understand. It’s crafted with micrometers or something. It’s been made too perfect and doesn’t seem like there’s a human behind it and that’s not the kind of band that we are.
Rumpus: Are you excited to go out and play some more?
Gorman: We haven’t done any rehearsing yet. That’s always been my thing where I get nervous and our next show is this big free thing down in Baltimore and it’s like, Oh, god, I wish we had warmed up for that show before walking out on that stage, but I think we’ll be okay.
Part IV: Gail Greenwood (bass and vocals)
Rumpus: So, for you particularly, what was your feeling about the original call or sequence of emails, in which the reunion got underway? How did you feel about it?
Gail Greenwood: I have been playing with Tanya in our thing called Band of Their Own which is a bunch of all-star ladies from Boston and Chicago that play at Hot Stove Cool Music at the Paradise every year. Prior to that she and I actually did a four-song Belly set at the same event. And we have remained friends throughout the years so we’ve seen each other often. We also recorded ‘Tu Y Yo’ together (with our band Benny Sizzler) for her Swan Song Series like you and she did. After Belly broke up I went on the road with L7 for three great years. I played with my best gal pal and mentor in Canada, Bif Naked, for two or three years and I have my own band, Benny Sizzler, with my paramore Chil Mott and Mark Thomas and Slim Jim so I had been playing a lot. I hadn’t really been jonesing for playing out, you know, because I’ve been playing all along with varying degrees of popularity with whatever band I was in. So, I was satiating the playing-out need. But, I was curious about it. At first, I was like “Ehhh” but then, you know, the more we talked about it, the more it seemed like a viable thing and it was exciting and I missed Belly tunes. I missed the dynamic that that band had. Chris and Tom couldn’t have been sweeter and kinder to me in emails and everyone was so grown-up and mature. So, I figured I need to kind of be grown up and mature and, you know, whatever the hell our problem was, which I still don’t know what it was, it disappeared; there was nothing! I was like “These people are rad. I love them!” They have the exact same political views I have, the exact same sense of humor that I have, the shared experiences that only the four of us have (you know, like of tour managers that would wear shorts with no underpants). All you had to say was “fruit bowl” and the four of us would dissolve into laughter. [Laughs] So, it was almost instantaneously, like, These people rule; I want them in my life. This is awesome. And the music was a little bit secondary. So, that’s how I felt about that.
Rumpus: The conversation with Chris was really amazing and illuminating to me and he’s so heart-on-his-sleeve about the whole thing.
Greenwood: He is so honest, man. He’s great for that shit. He’s so great.
Rumpus: So, it seemed to him (and Tanya says sort of the same thing) that it was like a family problem that had to be resolved.
Greenwood: Yes, I think that’s perfect; I would say the exact same thing, yes. It was sort of a simmering kind of, “Hmm? What?” You know, you break up for twenty-three years and are like “What?” And I always put it off as, you know, it was eighteen months in a tour bus and, if you’ve seen the movie Das Boot… It’s just people in a tin can like sardines going down the road at eighty miles an hour for eighteen months and living on top of each other, so I just put it off on that all these years later. But it’s very interesting to think about it as a family problem that needs to be resolved. It’s really interesting. I’m friends with Chris and Tom’s parents—they live in my town. I used to be on the Conservation Commission in Middletown and I had a group that fights sprawl and they were members of my group and so I was very friendly with his parents. But I just hadn’t talked to the boys in twenty-three years, or twenty-two years, whatever it was.
Rumpus: For you, when you guys began to play shows, whatever year that was—was it 2015 or 2016?
Greenwood: I think it was 2016.
Rumpus: Was the musical chemistry there or was it a sort of process of building back over the course of the playing those first shows?
Greenwood: No, I don’t know what those guys said but I’m going to be totally sappy. I was in tears; it came back instantly. I felt like it was better than ever. Everybody brought their quarter of whatever it is they bring to the live shows. The live shows were so moving. I mean, I literally always had eyes welled up with tears. Obviously, you couldn’t have done it in a vacuum. The audience came back. You know, it’s not huge; we’re not enormous but enough people came back. They gave it back to us.
Rumpus: The album seems to suggest that the collaboration is more evenly distributed than it was before. Is that the case?
Greenwood: I guess because all four of us were contributing riffs. The three of us were writing musical riffs with Chris contributing all of the drum parts, which he always did before anyway. In fact, we were always free to contribute artistically. It was amazing, though. It was just like, “What do you guys have? What do you have?” and I was like, “Well, I got this riff; I got this piece of a song.” On “Shiny One,” I was never able to do anything with that riff. I couldn’t figure out how to resolve it or make it go anywhere; this goes for all the submissions that I brought to the band and then I’d send it to Tanya or Tom and then they would add something to it and it would just be like, “Holy shit!” Tanya’s lyrics and melodies and guitar parts! And I’m sure everyone probably told you this but Tom would literally be in his studio for hours and hours and hours turning these things into really comprehensive tunes that went somewhere. So, he was the magic that made everything sound great. I can only take credit for riffs here and there and bits of tunes but what they came back with was just… I would play it for Chil, my boyfriend, and he would just be like “Holy shit.” You know, you’d never think that your riff could go in that direction and, when it came back, you were just astounded.
Rumpus: You played guitar on “Shiny One,” is that right?
Greenwood: That’s all Tanya and Tom playing the guitars on the final recording. The original demo is me playing guitar and bass and a drum machine and singing and it was actually very Nine Inch Nails-y, if you can believe it. It was probably like a really watered-down version but it was actually kind of more industrial. It was like a crazy industrial loop with the melody and the chorus (that’s the pre-chorus, I guess). So, I didn’t know if they could do anything with it. You know what I mean? It was not Belly at all. It’s funny because now it’s actually similar, sort of, to me. It sounds exactly the same only better. They were able to make it work in the original spirit and tension in which I wrote those riffs.
Rumpus: I feel like the lyric on “Shiny One” is sort of like Paradise Lost because you started with that “Bless me, my son” thing and then, suddenly, it turns into some kind of subliminal, almost satanic depiction of this protagonist or it definitely feels like it’s some kind of spiritual something or other happening and I mentioned it to her and I said, “Clearly, I’m reading into this,” and Tanya said, “Oh, no, that’s right!” What did you think as it was coming out?
Greenwood: It’s funny because so many people have said such nice things about the song and people have been singing along and a lot of people have been like, “It’s my summer song with the top down on the car,” you know, “when I’m driving down the highway in sunny California” and I love that, that people get that vibe from the song, that it’s a summer song. This is why I’m not a lyricist, right? I’m very literal. I’m not a wordsmith like you or Tanya with the visual imagery that you guys conjure… I wish I could do that but I just can’t. But my original idea stems from railing against a patriarchy, you know, a patronizing patriarchy so, to me, it was like “Bless me, my son,” you know, “Fuck you, do you know who I am?!” And then Tanya took it and ran with it in the genius lyrical way that only she can do.
Rumpus: So, what was the recording process like for you?
Greenwood: The recording was great. It was so easy. There are no complaints; there were so many snacks. It was just a lot of M&Ms. It was really easy going working with Paul Kolderie. He’s an old Belly friend. We just said “Hey, I wonder if Paul’s available.” And miraculously he was—because he’s phenomenal. It was important to do production with Tom. Tom had done so much preproduction; we all knew what our parts were going to be because he worked on everything a lot practicing-wise and he arranged a lot of stuff to really just be perfect and, then, if it didn’t work out in a practice situation we arranged a few things differently. And we rehearsed in my basement.
Rumpus: Oh, really? You guys rehearsed in Rhode Island?
Greenwood: We rehearsed in Rhode Island at the Rock and Roll Control Center. That’s what we call my basement. It’s filled with mouse poop. In fact, I was just pulling down some of the insulation that Chil and I put up; we have another band called Benny Sizzler which is our very loud basement metal thing and we have to soundproof the hell out of the room because we’re really loud; we live close to the neighbors. So, I’m pulling down insulation and I get a mouth full of mouse poop and I thought, Oh no, this cannot happen. Not with Belly.
Greenwood: I have to redo the basement. What’s that thing you get—Hantavirus? Oh, God, I hope not. Dear God. We rehearsed in my basement. We did pre-production there and then we went to Stable Sound in Portsmouth to do the basic tracks mostly for the drums and the bass and we kept some guitar tracks. Tanya did some scratch vocals that were so good that we actually kept them. We pretty much played live and then recorded it and she sang along so we knew where the changes in the song were and then some of those vocals I think they kept. Don’t quote me. That’s a fun place to play; it’s an old Vanderbilt horse-riding ring; my sister used to ride there in the 70s. It’s been around for, I don’t know, one hundred and fifth years. It’s a beautiful old indoor riding ring and, on the end of it where they used to have the trophies for the riders—the trophy room—Steve Rizzo turned it into a recording studio. There’s a big glass window where you can watch people working on their dressage. Kristin Hersh records there are a lot; that’s her go-to studio so she knows it really well. So, we did the basics there and then we did the overdub vocals at Chil’s and my house in Little Compton. Paul came out there and we turned the bedroom into a little vocal booth.
Rumpus: So, you guys are rehearsing now, right? You’re doing the Baltimore gig very shortly, right?
Greenwood: Oh my God, yes. Our first show is literally in front of a festival audience (Spinal Tap reference). So, yeah, we are rehearsing. I guess we rehearsed four days last week (again, this is at my house) in the Control Center with the mouse poop, which I mitigated.
Rumpus: Is it all right if I ask one question about your health?
Greenwood: Oh, I’m fine with that. Absolutely. Yes. I went public because of the ACA.
Rumpus: I loved your post on the Belly website about the ACA. It was tremendously moving and incredibly moving in the context of the band reunion that this is sort of a topic in the discussion that the band was, you know, moving things around to make sure that you were included and looked after and everything.
Greenwood: I just want to say something for a minute. I did not know—because this is how amazing these human beings are—that they were moving around so many things. They never said, “Oh shit, we have to cancel this in store or this radio appearance.” I’ve been listening to Tanya’s recent interviews on that very topic and I looked at Chil and I was like, “They canceled some shit? Are you kidding me?” That’s how lovely these people were. They never once put any of this pressure on me like “Well, shit, now we can’t do this,” or, “Now we’ve got to cancel this,” or, “Now we have to reschedule this.” Is that amazing?
Rumpus: It’s amazing and powerful.
Greenwood: You know, I’m a cancer patient and so I feel like I’m a walking petri dish of fast-dividing cells at any given moment. Today I woke up with this red spot on my tongue and I’m like, Well, I guess it has metastasized to the tongue or whatever new cancer that is. I do currently feel good, thank God, and I’m really thankful that I do continue to have Obamacare and that it still exists so that, as a patient with a preexisting condition, because I had breast cancer the year before I discovered I had endometrial cancer, I am still covered. I basically live at Women & Infants Hospital in Providence and I have great medical care and thank God it’s covered. They have an amazing team over there. I have a great nurse navigator; she’s my gynecologic oncology nurse navigator. Her name is Sheila Enderby and she saved my life. She’s the one who told me I could tour on chemo. I had gone to the big unnamed fancy Boston cancer hospital for a second opinion. When I said, “You know, unnamed fancy Boston cancer hospital said I won’t be able to go on tour during treatment. Do you think I’ll be able to tour?,” Sheila said, “Only if you take me to Ireland with you.” And I said: “I love you.” The attitude that they have at that hospital for women’s cancers is just phenomenal and they’ve been taking care of me ever since. I found out in the middle of rehearsing that I had cancer. We thought at first I could just get a hysterectomy but they found that it had spread so I had to have a full hysterectomy with chemo. If I had to just get a hysterectomy, I never would have gone public, probably. Luckily my awesome breast surgeon had an in with the best endometrial specialist up there; he put in some calls and got me in. He was a Belly fan so he got me in to get surgery right away so that we could make our first UK date six weeks later. And then upon our return my team scheduled the chemo treatment around our US tour dates. It’s stressful enough not playing together in twenty-three years and, then all of a sudden, you have cancer too and you’re doing this in the middle of that.
Rumpus: It gives the whole project an added importance for the audience and I’m sure for you guys, too.
Greenwood: I know. I was losing my hair on stage actually at our show in Boston, like, chunks of hair were literally flying off my head. I had my first treatment and they told me I might keep it for two treatments so I was holding out for that, trying to get through the first US leg (long hair has always been fifty percent of my musical ability), but I was headbanging and I literally saw chunks of hair on my pedal board and I was trying to kick it behind my amp because it was backlit and it was glowing. It just looked like a dead cat on stage. I had long hair down to my waist and I was like, Oh, this is really gross and probably unsanitary. [Laughs] I can’t do this to the crowd; I can’t do this to the stage crew! Initially I didn’t want to go public. First of all, I didn’t want promoters to get squirrelly, like, “Is this chick going to die?” in the middle of the tour. You know what I mean? Business-wise but also emotionally, I was like, “I don’t feel like talking about it,” so then I busted out the wig and the do-rag and no one seemed to notice or they were so classy they never mentioned it. No one ever mentioned it. Tanya was describing a little bit of the ordeal in a recent radio interview and I was listening to it with Chil (who was with me every minute—he went to every chemo treatment and sat with me for eight hours). He’s been living it for forever and he’s a punk rock guy, right, he doesn’t cry. I look over and there’s fucking tears welling up. We looked at each other and we’re like “Why are we crying?!” We were both laughing and crying at the same time.
Photographs of Belly © Chris Gorman.