“A few years ago we got exhausted producing beatless drone music. We did Colorloss Record which really sparked our interest in working with pop structures. From there we decided to work on more material structured in that vein.”
Belong are quite illusive. Not only do they profess in conversation to be interested in conjuring illusions, but their music seems to suggest as many sounds as those they actually create. The sounds themselves can be highly dynamic; and despite its clearly signposted reference points, repeat listens of their new record Common Era [2011; Kranky] show it to be an idiosyncratic beast. It’s a raw record of huge scope, but is meticulously controlled throughout.
Listening back to their first LP October Language (Carpark, 2006) it seems crude in comparison. For all the complexity of the drone employed on the record it now seems plain, if no less beautiful than did on first assessment four years ago Following an extended break in releasing music – although not in rehearsing nor recording it – Belong have shifted into a versatile group which is continually and rapidly evolving. Their EP Colorless Record (St Ives, 2008) compiled fractured covers of obscure(d) pop hits. Later that year the group found new footing with the sublime 14-minute wig-out ‘Same Places (Slow Version)’. Another hiatus ensued, coming to an end this year with the long-awaited arrival of Common Era.
The duo from New Orleans, escaped, returned, then temporarily relocated out of town before resting once more in their native city before the storm, the destruction and the tragedy. A number of years ago the group conducted quite an outspoken interview with Gabe Soria for Arthur magazine. They spoke passionately about the city and the hurricane. This time around I am instructed by their PR officer that they don’t want a repeat of that interview, as they have more of a desire to discuss the music and not the politics. When ‘the big P’ is brought up Turk Dietrich is assertive: “Politics NEVER enters the equation with our music. We are neither Republican nor Democrat and do not actively engage in the politics of our failed democracy. It’s not in any way an influence on our work.”
Far removed from the Soul Makossa sound of their hometown (advocated by local heavyweights such as the The Earl Of Edgecombe) the group revel in the idea that they are creating as a duo and their sound comes from these moments and the environment they provide.
Thus interviews shows the duo to be obviously passionate about sound: in fact they reveal themselves to be hardened collectors, comparing themselves to music librarians and talking confidently in equal measure from what inspired early motorik pioneers to their love of certain Basic Channel imprints. They discuss the steady evolution of their sound, illusions they like to create, and how touring with Ariel Pink brought about a resurgence in their love of pop music.
“Some people may look at the album as a step backward, but for us it was a step into uncharted waters.”
I want to start with talking about R&B in your music? Occasionally I hear it between the drones and drums. Are you conscious of it?
Turk Dietrich: “That’s an interesting observation, but RnB or Soul is not something that we ever intended to reference in our music. That’s not to say that we don’t listen to various strands of soul music, but it’s not something that we consciously inject into our music. That ‘RnB’ that you are hearing feels like more of motorik thing to us. But then again, I know some of the krautrock guys were heavily influenced by the repetition of James Brown. I guess there is always going to be a seeping through of disparate influences. Especially when artists begin to consume more and more music, a wide range of influences can consciously, or unconsciously, appear; partially because everything is at your fingertips on the Internet.”
Yeah, I can certainly hear the motorik. There’s a lot going on in the new record; could you go through your disparate influences?
TD: “The list is broad and varied and not everything that we listen to comes across in the music. Mike and I are something like librarians when it comes to our music collection – always trying to find music (old and new). Our obsessions range from late 70s and early 80s synth pop, Martial Canterel, guitar minimalists like Glenn Branca and Sonic Youth, late 60s British psych, ambient and soundtrack music, 90s electronic music, noise, etc…it never ends.”
I’d like to know how the group has changed since its formation? For instance there’s momentum in the drums when previously you would have employed blanket sound.
TD: “Any change that has occurred over the years has been natural for us. Our tastes and interests are constantly evolving and expanding; I’m sure that is reflected in the music that we make. We produced instrumental drone music for a number of years, and it was an interesting challenge for us to try and take that into a more song oriented direction.”
Mike Jones: “On the first record, we used guitars, synths and bass. Our next recording, Colorloss Record, we added vocals, and on Common Era we added drums and pop song structure. Although the new album is mostly composed of ‘songs’, I think the new LP sounds similar to our old stuff, production wise and melodically.”
Does production and melody provide the backbone to the group these days?
TD: “I think there is definitely a thread or theme running through all of our recordings. In regards to production and melody, that’s what we have always been about. Everything on October Language is based around a strong melodic idea. Once that is sorted, we go in and focus on the arrangement, production and manipulation of the melodic idea(s).”
“We have always been true to ourselves.”
Did you take a different approach to composition then?
TD: “Yes, the composition is different. The older material was mostly composed and arranged around one strong melodic idea. Then that one idea was fleshed out and manipulated over the course of 4-7 minutes. The new stuff is more classically structured in a pop sense of verses and choruses. Structurally it is the opposite of October Language. It has been challenging working with conventional structure while trying to maintain elements of what we’ve always done. Some people may look at the album as a step backward, but for us it was a step into uncharted waters. It’s an evolution that felt right, and it’s an evolution that kept many elements intact from our drone past.”
Has the idea of Belong changed since making the record? For example, has your perception of your previous recordings changed since you’ve made Common Era?
TD: “No. It’s still just Mike and I executing ideas that sound interesting and cool to us. It’s always evolving, but it’s always involves our tastes and interests, so, there will always be a common thread running through what we do.
“Our perception of the older recordings hasn’t changed at all. We made those records when we did, and how we did, because they were the records that we wanted to make at the time. We have always been true to ourselves. I love the sound of the older recordings. They stand on their own and are testaments to the people that we were when we recorded them.”
From the sound of your drums I suspect you’ve been listening to Martin Hannett productions. Is such a reference intended?
TD: “The drums on those Martin Hannett productions sound amazing. There is no denying that. A lot of the drum and drum machine production during that time period (‘77-’82) has a distant, dull, and cavernous thing going on. It’s just a sound that Mike and I both like, and it’s not intended to be a reference to any one specifically. I’m also inspired by some of the rhythmic production on the Basic Channel/Chain Reaction records, and I equally admire some of the drum recordings on 60s psych albums.”
I expected lots of diverse inspiration from you guys but Basic Channel wasn’t one of them. But now that I think about it, I can hear Chain Reaction all over ‘Same Places’.
TD: “Obviously, Basic Channel doesn’t come across in Belong, but it’s still an inspiration. Something can inspire and have nothing to do with the music. Those guys had a way of making things sound distant and vapourous. We have our own way, but there is still some sort of shared idea there even if it isn’t something that Mike and I have never discussed.”
It sounds like there’s acres of space between the instruments and the microphones.
TD: “That’s an illusion that we like to create. I say illusion because the only time a microphone is used in our recordings is for vocals. Everything else is recorded directly without the use of amps. That space or distance that you speak of creates a longing as a listener. It can make the listener fill some of that space up in their own mind of what they may or may not be hearing. We could make a record that sounded as immaculately produced as Depeche Mode’s Violator if we wanted to, but that’s not our goal. The dull sound of the record is entirely intentional.”
I find this record a lot lighter than October Language…
MJ: “Most of the songs on October Language were intended to be loud and overwhelming. In contrast, there was a conscious effort to show restraint with the new album.”
TD: “The main idea behind Common Era was to exhibit a certain type of mood through restraint. People who expected the louder, over the top, moments from October Language were probably slightly disappointed.”
So why impose such restraint? (I’m playing devil’s advocate a little here…)
TD: “Because we became tired of the bombastic drone and wanted to try and create something more subtle. We could have very easily produced October Language #2, but that would have bored us to pieces at that moment in time. There are certain ideas contained in our past work that we will surely revisit, but Common Era is what it is because that’s what it needed to be for us to be creatively satisfied.
Do you always want to record new material or is it an instinctive ‘the time is right’ approach? Could you talk a little about the recording process?
TD: “From time to time we take breaks, but we try to keep music a part of our weekly routine. We get together every Monday and Tuesday for a few hours each day and slowly work on stuff. Everything is recorded, produced in mixed in my bedroom studio here in New Orleans. Just like everyone else, we use an assortment of digital and analog synths, guitars, effects boxes, plug-ins and computers to make our music.”
I really like ‘Keep Still’. Could you talk about how that track was formed? What it is about? And where are the vocals from?
MJ: “Thanks, I’m pretty sure that was the first song we completed for the new album and it started with chord changes on guitar and a vocal melody. I sing the vocals; they aren’t sampled.”
TD: “That song is closest to the material we were working on right before we started work on Common Era – ‘Same Places (Slow Version)’ probably being the extended big brother to that song.
So the first question of that is ‘what changed’? How come you moved away from Same Places (Slow Version) styled material?”
TD: “Like I said previously, it was just a natural evolution for us. A few years ago we got exhausted producing beat-less drone music. We did Colorloss Record, four reinterpretations of old Psychedelic pop songs, and that really sparked our interest in working with pop song structure. From there we decided to work on more material that was structured in that vein. It was fun and it challenged us. We do feel, though, that a lot of what we used to do is still major part of what we are doing now. It’s not like any of these songs are going to be on the charts or get radio play. Even though Common Era is more song oriented, it’s still heavily informed by the ambient works that preceded it.
MJ: “Also I think touring with Ariel Pink in Europe and the US in ‘06 sparked an interest in “pop music”. I watched all of his shows and it definitely changed what I wanted to listen to, more moody pop.”
Ariel Pink delves into a lot of historical pop records playing with highly conceptual themes, which you sort of get on Colorloss Record. Do you feel Belong delve into philosophical ideology, and if so, what or which?
TD: “We really don’t feel like we do. There may be references and homage’s to music of past years in what we do, but it’s not to make some sort of ideological statement. We don’t feel as ideological as say the Hauntology/Ghost Box movement. They’ve attached a whole philosophy to the music, which is great. It’s just not what we are doing.
“People have been citing shoegaze a lot in reference to the new album and that actually took us a bit by surprise. While we love My Bloody Valentine as much as the next guy, we never once, when producing the record, thought we were making a shoegaze album. We thought of the album in an entirely different light. We don’t feel any relation in aesthetic, harmonically or sonically, to most of the artists from the early 90s shoegaze movement.”
Do you think about other records when you’re in the studio, or is the thought process less conscious/more holistic?
TD: “Very rarely do we mention other records when we are working. We try to focus more on conveying certain types of moods and feelings in our music and in the way we communicate our ideas with each other.”
Do you feel you’ve reached your destination musically?
TD: “The listener can take from the music whatever they like. And no, we don’t feel like we have reached any particular destination. We are constantly in a state of motion, and we are continually trying to grow and challenge ourselves. If we ever do reach a ‘destination’, that will be a sad day for Belong.”
MJ: “I suppose the idea is, like most bands, we are trying to make the music that we would want to listen to and enjoy. If you set out to make a pop record (with tongue firmly in cheek) did you think about, ‘this is going to be the single’ at all?”
TD: “We never thought about it during the making of the record until then end when we realised that ‘Never Came Close’ or ‘Perfect Life’ would probably make sense as a ‘single’. But nothing on the album was written or produced with that specific intent in the back of our minds.”
So where next for you guys? Explore the customs and conventions of pop further?
TD: “We are more than halfway done with another LP. It will be released on Kranky either later this year or very early next. It feels like another evolution for us that takes all the ideas of our previous work and throws them in the pot with some new ones. We’ll see.”