Belly Talks Doing Alt Rock in the 21st Century (This Friday at UT)

As you all know, a lot of the ‘90s biggest and best bastions of alt rock have been reuniting in recent years… like bordering on a joke… But to those...

As you all know, a lot of the ‘90s biggest and best bastions of alt rock have been reuniting in recent years… like bordering on a joke… But to those of us born in the ‘80s, simply wishing we could attend Lollapalooza back in the day, while we were actually stuck in first, second, and third grade, during the peak of this movement, this is still quite exciting.  However, there are few ‘90s alt rock reunions I’ve been more excited about than the reformation of Belly, the Newport, Rhode Island-based, Tanya Donelly-led rockers who somehow managed to blend ‘80s jangle pop with ‘90s alt country and the kind of fuzziness 4AD was known for.  (If you’re between your mid-30s and mid-40s and haven’t had a listen in a few years… or decades, give “Slow Dog” or “Feed the Tree” a spin… you won’t regret it.)  Since reuniting in 2016, Philly has been fortunate enough to see Belly twice, with “an evening with” show at Union Transfer during a short batch of dates in the summer of 2016, and a hyper-intimate Free at Noon earlier this year at World Café Live.  Well, they will be returning to Union Transfer this Friday, September 28th, for another “evening with.”  However, this time they’re bringing along new music.  This May Belly released their third studio album, and first in 23 years, Dove, which more or less picks up where they left off sonically with 1995’s King.  I recently had the privilege of speaking with Belly founding-member and guitarist Tom Gorman, who tells me all about how Belly 2.0 has been going.

Izzy Cihak: Since this is a Philadelphia-based publication, I have to ask your thoughts on the city.  Any favorite experiences?  You’ve played here a number of times, both the first time around and even twice since you reunited.

Tom Gorman:  The truth is, other than the times Belly played in Philly in the ’90s and on the reunion tour in ’16, I’ve regrettably never spent any time in the city! I know it’s chock-full of history and art and museums — in particular I just heard about the Mütter Museum, which sound creepily fantastic and I’d love to check that out — I mean, medical “oddities” in giant formaldehyde jars? What’s not to like???  … And then there’s Edgar Allan Poe’s house, which would also be cool to visit…  Maybe someday I’ll get to sample the stranger charms of Philadelphia…

Izzy: On a related note, considering that you’ve been back together for about two-and-a-half years now, what have been some of your personal highlights of Belly the second time around?

Tom:  The responses of the crowds on the reunion tour was a real high — that there was a significant number of fans that kept listening to Star and King over the past twenty-plus years and so enthusiastically responded to the reunion was pretty amazing. And the love for obscure “b-sides” and “deep-cuts” was really satisfying, too. But it’s also been really great that the fans have so immediately embraced Dove as well.

Izzy: And are there any songs from the first time around that you still get super excited about?  I definitely think that “Slow Dog” is one of my top-10 favorite songs of the ‘90s.

Tom:  Live, “Gepetto” is a lot of fun to play, mostly because it seems to get everyone jumping up and down, reliving some part of their youth (next-day joint-and-muscle pain be damned)! But the response to whatever we put in the set is generally across-the-board great. With 20 years of living with Star and King it seems like every single song has some cohort in the audience for whom that song is the favorite, which is pretty cool. And, the same thing seems to be happening with the songs from Dove, too.

Izzy:  So, you released Dove earlier this year, your first album in over 20 years, quite a gap.  How do you feel like Dove compares to your first two LPs?  What do you feel like are the most significant differences between Belly in 2018 and the Belly that recorded Star and King?  I’m guessing there are quite a handful.

Tom:  As far as “sound,” Dove sort of seems like a logical progression on the creative trajectory started with Star and King. We’ve introduced a few new elements and maybe a bit more overall depth as far as the sonics, and our playing and singing, but for the most part it doesn’t stray too far from the sound of the past — I guess it’s evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. As far as methodology, things are very different in 2018 than the mid-’90s — we can’t do the “every-day-in-the-reherasal-studio” for weeks to flesh-out the songs like we used to, nor can we book a recording studio for a month to make a record. Dove was the result of a lot of files emailed back and forth and a lot of home basement/bedroom-studio laptop recording. For all the downsides of modern “digital” existence, it provides us with some truly amazing tools that allowed us to make a largely DIY record that seems like it can stand up quality-wise with Star and King.

Izzy: And do you have a particular favorite track from Dove at the moment, or are you still enjoying them all equally?

Tom: “Human Child” is a favorite of mine — it’s fun to sing harmonies on, the sentiment is beautiful, and of the new songs it seems to very widely resonate with people in a very deep way. It may be the most universal song in the catalog…

Izzy: I’m curious, what have you been listening to recently, whether it relates to, or influences, your own music at all?  Are there any contemporary acts that you find to be especially inspiring, or just especially cool?

Tom:  This is sure to come across as a lame-o, aging-musician answer… I listen to a lot of old jazz and classical music, mainly because I don’t really understand it, so I can listen to it and not get distracted thinking about how the songs are put together, how the writer did this or that… When I listen to rock, pop, alternative, whatever, I get wrapped up in analyzing how it all works. But as far as contemporary stuff, I really like Angel Olsen and Neko Case lately. And Kruangbin have something unique and super cool going on. I also really like Sturgill Simpson and some of the other newer artists who are both working in, and stretching, the neo-classical country genre…

Izzy: So, this is totally a personal question, but how is it being on the soundtrack of/a part of The Doom Generation?  I have to admit, that film has probably had the biggest influence on my life of any work of art and Gregg Araki is one of my biggest heroes.  Plus, you’re alongside so many of the other greatest bands of the ‘80s and ‘90s, like Nine Inch Nails, Love and Rockets, Porno for Pyros, The Jesus & Mary Chain, Cocteau Twins, Medicine, and The Verve.

Tom:  Did we have a song on the soundtrack of The Doom Generation? I do remember seeing the movie back-in-the-day — seemed like there was a kind of nihilistic “moment” back then in the mid-’90s, with Araki’s movies, and books by the likes of Dennis Cooper and Poppy Brite, which I briefly go into. It all almost (……..almost…..!) looks quaint now, from the perspective of a contemporary world in serious trouble!

Izzy: What can we expect of your upcoming show at Union Transfer?  I was at your show there in 2016 and can say, collectively, for the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection, that we were very honored to be one of the relatively few American cities to get to see your “evening with” show.

Tom:  It’ll be similar to ’16, just with material from Dove added to the set — Belly is pretty much a small-scale, DIY operation, so we have to keep to a lean and pretty straight-ahead, 4-person guitar-bass-drums-vocals rock show (meaning no fancy lights or pyrotechnics!) — but that seems to be what we do best! And, in all honesty, it’s really all as much about what is coming from the audience as it is about what is coming from the stage — and in that respect we’re really, really lucky — Belly crowds are unique and incredible.

Izzy: Finally, what’s next for you, whether Belly-related or not?  How are you hoping and planning to spend the remainder of 2018 and the first part of 2019?  Are there plans to work on new music, or additional touring, or are you looking forward for a little bit of time off?

Tom:  We really haven’t talked about anything beyond this last run of US shows — everyone has other jobs, families, obligations, etc., so I think we’ll just have to take a deep breath and see how we feel going forward. We’re all involved in other projects — Tanya has some upcoming collaborations, Chris just published a second children’s book, Gail’s got her band, Benny Sizzler, and a busy graphic-design company, and I’m working on my own recording project.  But certainly the loyalty and enthusiasm of the Belly fan-family is a very motivating factor!

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During the day Izzy Cihak teaches transgression, subversion, and revolution at Temple University. At night he haunts Philthy's best venues to cover worthwhile acts for Philthy Mag. Morrissey is everything to him and, in their own heads, all of his friends see themselves as Zooey Deschanel.