Reviews

Backbeat, Bossa Nova and the Space Between Points: An Interview With Jake Bellows

Author: Paul Gleason
08/06/2013 | Caught in the Carousel | caughtinthecarousel.com | Feature
Jake Bellows &emdash; the Neva Dinova frontman &emdash; has released one of the most excitingly eclectic albums that we’ve heard this year. The calling card for New Ocean is “spontaneity,” with Bellows trying on so many musically diverse hats that he never allows his record to become familiar enough to let you know what comes next. Instead, he lays down a fantastic array of tracks that come from so many divergent musical worlds &emdash; country rock, doo-wop, bossa nova, noise rock, and good-old-fashioned pop &emdash; that you never know exactly what to expect but always know that yet another terrific cut awaits you.

New Ocean comes out on Saddle Creek Records tomorrow.

As an exclusive preview to the album, Caught in the Carousel talked to Bellows, somewhere in the backwoods of Oregon, where the singer-songwriter was camping and ready and willing to talk about Neva Dinova, working with Bright Eyes, and the creation of New Ocean.

CITC: Let’s talk about Neva Dinova, the band for which you’re known. How did you guys get together?

JB: Well, we started that band &emdash; Heath and I &emdash; a long time ago, man. It was probably 20 years ago, in 1993. We started playing some music. It was the first time I held a guitar. I got a guitar and tried to learn how to play. Anyway, we had that band going fine and did a bunch of stuff.

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CITC: You did five albums right?

JB: Right. Yeah. For sure five. We did a tape and a CD. Some of that stuff had a national distribution.

CITC: What was it like being in that band? I know you’re from Omaha. Were you part of the scene with Bright Eyes?

JB: Omaha is a small enough town that you get to know all of the musicians, or maybe you’re just friends with them anyway. I met Conor when he was very young and we did a show together.

CITC: What struck you about him?

JB: We’ve known each other a long time. When I saw him play live for the first time, he was like 15 years old.

CITC: What kind of gig was it?

JB: It was a little acoustic gig at a place called &emdash; I think &emdash; The Library. It was more of a coffee shop, a place where people hung around and smoked cigarettes at the time. It was a place to let people play. I was a little older &emdash; 18 or 19 &emdash; so we didn’t exactly run in the same circles, but we met again at a show with some of those guys that came to be Saddle Creek. [They] picked up a tape that we had made at a local record store, and they liked a couple of the songs and asked us to do a show. So that’s how I made friends with a lot of those guys that were on Saddle Creek.

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CITC: You ended up playing on a Bright Eyes album, right? On Cassadaga?

JB: I did some stuff on Cassadaga. I think I just sang; I didn’t actually play. I think Conor brought me in to do the harmonies and stuff. I can’t remember if I actually played, but it was pretty fun to just hang out. Maybe some harmonica? He had a really cool bunch of people together to record that record. Some of those people I hadn’t met before &emdash; Rachel Blumberg. I don’t know; I just made a lot of friends.

CITC: So tell me about more Neva. Is it over as a band?

JB: Well, you know, when we got back from our tour, a couple of the guys were in serious relationships. So guys started getting married and having babies &emdash; that’s a priority &emdash; and being stuck in an independent band, being gone so much, and making stuff like this is not as important as the welfare of a child, so the band kind of stopped playing. Not for any reason like we didn’t want to play together or anything like that. It just became pretty tough to do it. So we just didn’t play. And we lost a ton of money of the 2009 tour. The economy was pretty rough.

CITC: So what was the typical tour like? What kind of venues were you playing? What size clubs?

JB: Nothing huge. You could always expect 50 to 200, depending on where we were. We used to get totally skunked, and we’d walk in and see three guys and two of them were our moms!

CITC: So now you’ve made a solo record, New Ocean. What is it that keeps you going, that makes you want to keep doing it?

JB: I’m so excited to be playing music again. I didn’t really stop writing music or making music in my free time, but I did kind of stop playing out and recording. It was kind of a step back, getting my bearings on your life, you know? Hitting your middle-thirties you kind of have to go, “Well, shucks what’s important?” My little brother is married and got a baby, and maybe this is a strange choice to try and continue to do this. You’re just going to travel around, and some of these relationships suffer. I won’t be with my family and friends as much as I like to.

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CITC: How do you see the solo project as being different form your work in the band?

JB: Time essentially separates it. Everyone has a particular taste in music, and so I did have some different players &emdash; although I did bring Heath in to do some bass, and I played with a lot of my friends. Anyway, I’d say time, essentially. The subject matter and my perspective changed on what I think music is for. As far as musically how did it change, I feel like I was always willing to try whatever. Like if the song came down the pipe and it sounded like reggae, well, we’re probably going to suck at it, but here we go, let’s give it a try. So we could just jump into reggae. So, we would do a crappy version, but it was the song, and it was us doing it, so it at least had a personality.

CITC: May I ask you about the first song, the title track “New Ocean?” To me it didn’t sound like your previous work at all. I want to quote you: “I’m looking for the one / A path into the hills / Another setting sun / The power with the will / And fall into the new ocean.” When I heard those lyrics, I thought, “What a perfect announcement for a new project!” So, what is it that you’re looking for in that song?

JB: That’s a cool analogy. I haven’t really considered that. I guess that song just kind of came to me. I was sitting on the side of this broad hill, and everything was down below me, and I imagined that a flood would come and fill up the valley below. And then I’d see all these people scrambling to the hilltops. I was living in Los Angeles, and I got this overwhelming feeling of self-absorbed, self-bent kind of behavior to the culture &emdash; they’re not bad people at all &emdash; but the culture itself is divisive and selfish. So I was imagining all these people putting these boots on each other’s faces, trying to get up higher in the trees, trying to live for one more moment. Trying to live one more moment, at the sacrifice of their brothers and sisters, you know? Everybody on this mound like sad ants trying to maintain their little lives. To me that song is like, “Well, maybe what if all this scrambling and hustling isn’t really all that important &emdash; that we all exist and we are part of the same thing.” Maybe it was better to lower your hand and pull up of your brothers and sisters and, fuck it, let’s go swimming. If this was the last moment we are going to touch land and we’re not going to live through this, but that’s okay. Let’s all do this thing. You know, it’s just more about being human. To me, I barely wrote it. I just sat there and wrote down what came to me. That story illustrates how I can be thinking like that.

CITC: To me, the song sounds like a new beginning &emdash; a kind of a rebirth after a flood. And it’s almost like the rest of the tunes on the record sound like you’re free to explore stuff that you haven’t maybe explored before &emdash; you were talking about reggae a few minutes ago &emdash; and that’s what I got out of it: eclecticism and the freedom. Just that general kind of good vibration you get from this record.

JB: When you have a band together you become one thing. And one thing has one perspective. In this case, we just tried whatever we felt like and it was really fun and freeing.

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CITC: Yeah, so I was wondering, “Why a bossa nova beat on “I Know You?”

JB: Yeah, exactly. That’s the same thing I thought. You’re making a mistake; you’re making a dire mistake. And so we had the players that could actually play it. And by myself, I could I never do that. And (Neva Dinova) would have struggled with that. So it was really cool be able to try rhythmic things. They also come with some meaning. There’s a feeling and flavor that comes with how you present that thing. But it wasn’t really arbitrary. I kind of imagined some kind of some kind of beat that I could never actually say without talking about it. These guys kind of helped translate it into music because they are all fantastic musicians and were willing to listen long enough to figure out what I was talking about.

CITC: So you had the idea and the players came up with the rhythm that you vaguely knew it your head?

JB: Yeah. I mean they pretty much wrote the thing out. But the rhythm kind of did correspond with what I was trying to play on the guitar, but I was like, “I can’t do this and sing” (laughs). But it worked out. Me as a guitarist, I’m constantly, or accidentally, but always strumming with the snare. So these guys found a way to negotiate this a different way. So it was awesome playing with these guys. They did not know the songs, but they eventually chose the songs. I gave them a bunch of demos and they chose out of 30 songs, I had them each choose 10. And then I picked out the over lapping [songs] &emdash; what ended up 15 or 18. So we’ll try and record these and then we were going to take the best 10 &emdash; the 10 that turned out. Because recording music is like taking a photograph. You don’t know really if it turns out. Maybe it’s a bad song &emdash; or even good song &emdash; if you catch it at the right moment, it could turn out special.

CITC: There’s a sense of immediacy about these songs that comes through. Because of the eclecticism, it sounds like you’re just taking a chance. How is a strum pattern for a bossa nova song different from what you were saying about strumming to the snare?

JB: It’s a backbeat? I say bossa nova from an uneducated standpoint. It’s some kind of Latin-flavored thing. I’m sure there’s some educated people out there that are like, “That’s not bossa nova; that’s a ‘Copacabana,’ everybody knows that!” (laughs). It’s a space between points, that when you couple it with time, it makes it sound like that.

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CITC: I think that the record also has a retro feel. What about the production? The sound for the most part is pretty sparse. And the vocals really come to the fore. Is that something that you wanted to do?

JB: It really wasn’t my decision. I’ve become slightly, you know… I get tired of doing what you know how to do. I get tired of my strumming pattern. I feel like there are tons of effective ways to present music that I don’t really know how to do. So the tone of the melody became more of an instrument than in the past. I listened to it, and my first instinct would be to pull that vocal way back or whatever. But I wanted to do something that I hadn’t done, and maybe that’s a version of music that communicates well.

CITC: The retro vibe &emdash; and I’m calling it “retro” because in the 50s and 60s, the vocals are high in the mix &emdash; made me think that your tune “Drinking with Dad” sounds like it could of came from someone like Roy Orbison. It’s just a really cool song. Could you tell me about that one?

JB: I always dreamed of that one being a doo-wop song.

CITC: Yeah, that’s totally what I picked up on. And it sounds like a “new” kind of 50s’ music. I don’t know what it is, but it has to do with the vocals being so high in the mix and the melody being so strong. So that’s what really inspired me. As a writer do you tend to think in terms of vocal melody? Is that what hits you first?

JB: Often for me, melody and phrase jump out. If the whole thing doesn’t come together, I try to take a step back and figure out what it’s talking about.

CITC: Maybe you could talk about that process on another song. “Help” has a country vibe to it.

JB: A couple of them did, which I think is cool. I like country—I like good country. All of it is interesting. There’s something about that world.

CITC: Who sings with you on that track and on some of the other ones, the female backing vocalist?

JB: That’s Pearl. I’m almost positive her last name is Pearl Boy. She sings in a band with Brendon Hagberg called Outlaw Con Bandana. They do a lot of country-inspired songs. She’s a poet, and she’s a singer. She can sing the crap out of stuff. She’s great. She lives in Omaha.

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CITC: When I was listening to that song and a couple of the others, I had June and Johnny Cash or Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris in my head. Those are just beautiful tunes. But I don’t want to take anything away from the rock and roll songs. I have two favorites on the album. I really liked “Should You Ever Change Your Mind” and “Frequency.” Who does the guitar playing on those tracks? Is that you making that noise?

JB: Yeah, on “Should You Ever Change Your Mind,” I did play one of the guitars. We all did a live take on “Frequency,” and we were trying to rip apart the fabric of our universe, and Fox played, and Ben Brodine, and the bassist played, and I played. So we all took a shot at that song. We didn’t all play through the whole song, but we all took a shot like it was the apocalypse there.

CITC: Yeah, it reminded me of the end of Abbey Road when George, Paul, and John each take turns soloing. What about “Running From Your Love”? That to me is the pop song on the album or should be the single if there should be one. The melody is catchy as hell. It’s a bright pop song.

JB: That was one of the songs that stuck with me in the years I hadn’t been playing. I forgot about it and then someone showed me a YouTube clip from a show, and I was playing it. And I was like, “Oh, shit, man, I remember that tune.” I had forgotten the whole verse. We actually recorded it before I saw the clip, and I realized I had forgotten the whole verse. So I went back and stole it, and we rerecorded it.

CITC: Are there any plans to take the material out on the road?

JB: Definitely. Absolutely. That’s kind of the whole point for me. I know there are people out there that support music, but I also think there is a misunderstanding for what makes art exist. Like young people think just because they listen to it that it exists, but it won’t exist without the support of the fans.


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