Bellows on Their New LP, Fist & Palm

Interview

Oliver Kalb of Bellows (Credit: Michael Cooper)

Bellows is the New York-based folk/pop project created and led by Oliver Kalb and aided by the talented Felix Walworth (Told Slant), Gabrielle Smith (Eskimeaux), and Jack Greenleaf (Sharpless). Bellows just released their third full-length record, Fist and Palm, which is their most orchestrally expansive and fully realized LP to-date. The record is centered around the theme of a dissolving friendship that is found to be more meaningful and complex through retrospective reflection. Musically, the record displays fascinating experimentation with vocal correction and layering, live and recorded drumming, and violin and choral arrangements. Generously, too, Kalb agreed to answer some questions via Email about the lyrical themes and musical creation that went into Fist and Palm.

Cover art for Fist and Palm (Source: Bellows on Bandcamp)

1. A common motif on Blue Breath and a common motif on Fist and Palm is that of geography or setting — specifically, the Hudson River Valley. I know that you attended Bard College as an English major and that you discovered the many musical projects of Phil Elvrum from Gabrielle Smith during college, but could you expand about how the Hudson River Valley or, even more generally, the setting of New York influenced the writing of Fist and Palm?

Fist and Palm feels more informed by New York City, which is where I live now, than the Hudson Valley. But the Hudson Valley does appear once in Fist and Palm.

In “Thick Skin,” I sing about “Hudson Palms, the Catskill Gulf Stream” — that’s an allusion to my earlier albums that were more influenced by the Hudson Valley as a space. But anyone who knows the Hudson Valley knows it’s a rural northeast area — the reference to tropical systems, like the gulf stream and palm trees, is a willful misreading of the Hudson Valley as a space. I’m willing myself to see the Hudson Valley as something mystical and different from what it really is, all of a sudden it’s a warm tropical climate in my mind. “The world’s alive” only in so far as you bring life to it — there’s no essential meaning to any space, only the space’s ability to take on meaning in your imagination. Fist and Palm is very preoccupied with tearing down certain premises that my early work was based on. If the Hudson Valley was ever mystical, it was only mystical because I believed it to be so.

“What’s better than looking for it, something you won’t find?” is a rhetorical question. Looking for something you won’t find is the whole process of making art, maybe even the whole purpose of living.

We never really achieve our goals, we’re never really satisfied — all we can hope to achieve is a desire to continue, continue, continue.

2. How did the cover art for Fist and Palm come into being?

Both the front and back covers are my illustrations. I’ve drawn all the Bellows album covers so far. I like drawing my own album covers — it works to sort of solidify the album’s content in my mind. Translating the album into something visual sort of makes it more real for me, and I usually make the album covers right when I’m sure that I’ve finished all the recordings.

The inspiration for the front cover came from the first track on the album “You are a Palm Tree.” The song’s chorus is “you are a palm tree, like me, not quite shady” and there’s a detail in the bottom left corner of two figures splayed out under a palm tree in the midst of these huge cataclysmic scenery shifts — jagged mountain peaks, volcanoes, weird crags and seismic turbulence. Despite this harsh landscape the two figures seek shade together, even though it’s sort of a hopeless, futile endeavor. It’s a metaphor for a broken friendship — two people clinging to the idea that they can be a positive force in each other’s lives when all evidence suggests that it’s too late.

3. You wrote many of the songs that appear on Fist and Palm in a challenging, song-a-day writing process over the course of one month, but the loose concept that unifies the LP is the dissolution of a friendship. Did you already have song ideas in mind before embarking on such a strenuous writing pace? Could you describe the writing process for the songs during this one month and how you decided to keep and cut the songs for the LP?

No, I purposely didn’t use song ideas that I had previously worked on too heavily during the song-a-day project.

I think the reason I started thinking about writing Fist and Palm as a “concept album” about a dissolving friendship was because I found myself returning to that theme over and over again in the song-a-day project. I would wake up every day and write the first thing that popped into my head.

More often than not, it was some kind of preoccupation surrounding some way that I had embarrassed myself or blown up at someone the night before — almost like the way people say that dreams are a person working through thoughts and anxieties from the previous day — the song-a-day songs started to have a cohesive form even before I started thinking of them as a proper album. There were a lot more songs than the 7 I chose to stay on the album that dwell on this same theme. It seems to have been a preoccupation of mine during the time that I was able to put a little more form and organization to once I started thinking of it as a basis for a full album.

4. The production on Fist and Palm is very much of a pop-music flavor, but the songs themselves are composed much like folk songs. Do you still often listen to folk and/or lo-fi music like The Microphones and Mount Eerie? How did your folk and pop influences complement and challenge each other during the writing of Fist and Palm?

No, I almost never listen to folk music anymore.

I had a phase during college when I was obsessed with this image I had in my mind of these mysterious larger-than-life characters in the northwest DIY scene — Mount Eerie, Thanksgiving, Little Wings, Mirah. I had never toured before and I was so enamored with the life I imagined these people having, always playing house shows, permanently moving, always making art, living in community spaces with other people making art, making beautiful huge records on tape, stuff like that. I made As If To Say I Hate Daylight very much with those people in mind. That album was made before I ever went on tour, and before I even had a live band for Bellows. I just started using the moniker as my own Mount Eerie / Thanksgiving style recording project title. That obsession with those northwest DIY musicians gave way to an obsession with WHY? and Sufjan Stevens that informed my second album Blue Breath. Instead of being enamored with the lifestyle of DIY touring and collective art making,

I became more interested in percussion and instrumental melodrama — I started experimenting with drum beats a bit more and tried to make my songwriting more expansive and have this sort of minstrel-like, orchestral scope to it.

I was trying a lot of cool stuff on Blue Breath, and I still appreciate that record a lot as a series of recording experiments. I can listen back to it and hear my mistakes, hear what I was trying to accomplish — what I did and did not achieve and sort of feel gratified that I went through that period because I learned a lot about recording as I made Blue Breath. Making Fist and Palm, I still had that desire to experiment, only this time the process was very focused on experiments with drums. I was listening to almost only hip-hop and pop music as I made the album, and I worked on the percussion probably the most of any element of the record. I worked with a producer named James Wilcox on electronic drum programming and with my old friend and drummer Felix Walworth on real physical drum beats. Since the songwriting had largely been completed before I started the production side of things, I was able to make more deliberate and focused decisions about how I wanted each song to sound.

5. There are so many records out there about the ending of romantic or sexual relationships. How come you chose to write about a friendship dissolving instead of a different kind of relationship? And was it difficult to imagine the friend more complexly and place blame for its dissolution on both you and the friend (for example, on the song “Bully” the lyrics suggest that there is a kind of shared responsibility for what happened)?

The simple answer is that I didn’t have a breakup with a romantic partner. I’m sure if I had that would have been devastating in its own way — but it just didn’t happen in my life this time!

I didn’t deliberately go into making Fist and Palm with the intention of writing a concept record about a dissolving friendship — it was more that I found myself preoccupied with this feeling of tension and of unresolved resentments and wanted to use the album as a means of sorting through a lot of complex emotions about this problem: “Why is there so much tension between us? Am I the reason for this tension? Or am I being sidelined and mistreated? Who’s being treated unfairly?” I was sorting through questions like that, that come from a friendship falling apart quietly, without a lot of drama and fanfare — there weren’t a ton of screaming matches or loud confrontations. It was mostly that the two of us were becoming unreliable friends to one another, unable to be supportive and unable to hear the others’ voice. I wanted to make a record that demonstrated the full, complicated reality of the situation.

6. The production on your vocals sounds different than on songs on Blue Breath. How was the layering of vocals done differently on Fist and Palm than on Blue Breath? Was there a kind of vocal correction/auto-tune that was applied to some of the tracks on Fist and Palm?

Yes, I definitely was using auto-tune on a lot on this record. Vocal manipulation and distortion is an interesting arrangement tool to me — I’m not the greatest singer in the world so I like to use alternate means to convey emotion and meaning through vocals than purely “vocal performance” or whatever.

I’ve never recorded a Bellows song with a single vocal track — I just don’t like the way my voice sounds isolated like that. Auto-tune became another tool, like multi-tracking, to sort of lend my voice an ethereal, eerie quality — something that felt like it belonged to the same world as the lyrics in each song. There are slightly different vocal timbres throughout the record. Some are pretty straight up, like “A Sordid Ending”, and others have a lot of manipulation, like “From The Palms” and “You are a Palm Tree.” Some songs just feel a little more earthly, and others feel a little more otherworldly. I just follow my instincts when I record and try to follow impulses that feel like they compliment the song.

7. You play/have played in many different musical projects and bands that are part of The Epoch. After the release of this LP will you focus more on Bellows or eskimeaux or something else? How will musical priorities change or remain the same with the release of Fist and Palm?

No, I doubt anything will change.

I’m very committed to my other bands, Eskimeaux and Told Slant, and I’ll still be spending a lot of time helping Gabby and Felix on their projects in whatever way they need. Bellows tends to occupy more of my time because I’m often just sitting at my desk recording little musical ideas or trying to come up with melodies in my head as I walk around. So even when I’m not actively working on a record, there’s always something cooking. I have a few new songs I’ve written post-Fist and Palm that are an interesting change of pace. They’re maybe a little bit less doom-y or dirge-y — they have a lighter, airier feeling while still being serious Bellows songs. I want to pursue that feeling of ease and lightness when I make new music — try to change the pace up a little bit and make a different kind of record.

8. Could you describe the intention of the meaning behind the name of the LP Fist and Palm?

Fist and palm are opposites. The fist is a symbol of aggression, the palm a symbol of camaraderie, generosity or openness.

The same hand can make both gestures. I oscillate between anger and love, feelings of tension and stuckness, and feelings of joy and transcendence, in the narration of the record. Fist and palm felt like a good representation of the conflicting perspectives on the album. The palm tree is also a motif on the record, so I liked the double meaning of palm tree and open hand being represented in the title.

9. How does anxiety and depression inform your songwriting? Did you find there was a kind of therapy in crafting Fist and Palm?

No, there was no therapy in making the album.

I generally channel my worst resentments into songwriting and I think often songwriting can validate certain negative emotions more than it helps to get rid of them. But after I finished the record, I was able to resolve certain conflicts in my life just through talking about the album as a representation of resentments that had been building up for a long time. So it was more that the album as a finished product was conducive to therapeutic improvements in my life more than the process of making it was helpful. I think if I had just made it and moved to a desert island I would still be a very angry, bitter person. Maybe I still am!

10. Lastly, what has been a favorite moment at a show you have played on-tour so-far after the release of Fist and Palm?

We’ve only played one show since the album came out, so I don’t have a favorite live moment associated with the new songs just yet.

We’ve started to incorporate sampling into our live set though, which is new and exciting — using some of the weird ambient sounds from the record and stuff that we wouldn’t have been able to play with just a four-piece rock band.

I’m excited to start our tour in a couple weeks so that positive moments can start to happen!


Bellows’ Fist and Palm banner (Source: Bellows on Bandcamp)

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