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Discovering "Melk": Melkbelly - "Bathroom at the Beach" | Feature Article

(Melkbelly, from L to R: James Wetzel, Liam Winters, Miranda Winters, Bart Winters. Photo by Eric McGrady).

(Melkbelly, from L to R: James Wetzel, Liam Winters, Miranda Winters, Bart Winters. Photo by Eric McGrady).

by Glennon F. Curran

Post-Trash recently caught up with Melkbelly before a performance at The Burlington—a murky Chicago venue permeated by an obscure charm. It turned out to be a fitting environment for a Melkbelly interview. Frontwoman Miranda Winters would later explain to the crowd that it was a birthday of sorts: 

“Two years ago tonight, we played our first show in this very room… look how far we’ve come.” 

Since that show, Melkbelly has released several short recordings and a full length (Pennsylvania, Automatic Recordings, July 2014). Its young cannon stands out as a relevant and exciting new sound in Chicago, which makes Winters’ self-directed lampooning not only funny, but ironic.  

Melkbelly is Miranda (guitar/vocals), her husband Bart Winters (guitar), his brother Liam Winters (bass), and James Wetzel (drums). At its core, Melkbelly fuses pop rock with noise in order to create a sound that the group jokingly describes as “melk.” Though their use of the word “melk” was humorous, it was consistently invoked as a referent to the band’s musical essence. It was also the working title of their first song, which—according to their bandcamp page—is actually from the year 2020 (it was also included on Pennsylvania as “Scrupulous” in 2014). 

So, what is melk? A sound that is “off putting,” says Wetzel, “that has something nice behind it if you can sift through the exterior layers… like a pop song wrapped up in a bunch of distortion.” A song that is “taken apart” says Bart, “made so there is enough of a hook that you enjoy it,” while still making you “uncomfortable.” 

Melkbelly songs energize your musical pleasure centers with familiar pop-inspired motifs, while simultaneously destabilizing meaning with loud, pummeling excursions into noise rock riffage. They attempt to decouple pop-music from some of the more visceral potentials of its DNA. The end result is a misplaced grotesqueness amongst something pretty—like the distended stomach of an otherwise flawless ballerina.   

Melkbelly’s latest 7-inch, Bathroom at the Beach (Automatic Recordings, July 2015), exemplifies this musical dualism in both abbreviated and extended formats. The title track is short, organized around a hook that withstands occasional interruption by micro-bursts of violence. The lengthier B-side, “Piss Wizard,” takes an almost equal and opposite approach by stacking heavy, repetitive movements that are periodically softened with resolve. 

Bathroom at the Beach elucidates some interesting aspects of Melkbelly’s process as well. The band told Post-Trash that the two sides are examples of different song writing approaches. The A-side began as a melody written by Miranda that was later “changed into a Melkbelly song,” says Bart.  On the other hand, a Melkbelly song may materialize as an instrumental composition first—like it did in "Piss Wizard". “Half of the time it’s figuring out how to make lyrics exist in a loud song,” Miranda elaborates.  

The record prominently exhibits the musical identities of Mekbelly’s individual members: the craftiness of Miranda’s vocals, Bart’s endless exploration of tone, Wetzel’s tribal drumming, and Liam’s steering of the tonic center within the wall of noise. The musical personalities are so strong that the band sometimes has trouble naming a song due to divergent ideas about its meaning. This was cited as a reason that the working title of their first song was “melk.” Thus, the band labors consistently to make inroads to a common center; a collaborative effort that is central to its dynamic. Wetzel explains that "Piss Wizard" is exemplary of the search for common ground through a collective exploration of new territory—specifically, Krautrock: 

“We went through a phase with "Piss Wizard" where we were listening to a lot of Neu! and Can. Can put out a box set of their lost tapes and stuff a couple years ago and we were listening to a lot of those that are three parts or four parts; they are like short songs within a larger song. "Piss Wizard" was experimentation with that approach. Not having short songs but a longer song that was more of a medley. “

While Melkbelly takes its music very seriously, there is something inescapably humorous at its foundation. Melkbelly builds a culture of absurdity by flirting regularly with satire, sarcasm, and grotesqueness in its art. For example, songs like “Doomspringa” (from Pennsylvania) and “Piss Wizard” contain lyrics that mock valley-girl utterances and bro-speak, even though the songs may not strictly be about those themes. The video for "Bathroom at the Beach" is bizarre insofar as it recreates an obscure 1970s Italian disco song called “My Time” (by electronic composer Roberto Cacciapaglia as sung by Ann Steele). Liam jokes that this fact is a Post-Trash exclusive because—to the band’s surprise—no one has seemed to notice the “homage.” “We thought somebody would point that out,” says Miranda, “I’m starting to feel guilty about it.” 

Melkbelly’s culture—the “melk” in all of its aesthetic manifestations—is the difference between being a band on the one hand, and something more artistically comprehensive and ambitious on the other. Melkbelly fans are drawn in by the culture and seek to participate somehow, even if only through being an active consumer. 

Though the band is already hard at work on their future recordings, the Bathroom at the Beach 7-inch is an excellent introduction to all things Melkbelly. It conveys many of the band’s unique elements in a digestible, sample-sized package: the pop sensibility, the noise, the varying approaches, the tone, the instability, and the absurdity.  It is a great place to start in an exploration that Melkbelly hopes you will not want to end. “I hope it’s something different,” says Miranda. Asked what Melkbelly will be doing in 2020, Wetzel muses: “Playing at The Burlington, probably playing ‘Melk.’” 

The Bathroom at The Beach 7-inch is available through Automatic Recordings, and can be found below.