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Melkbelly Discuss "Nothing Valley," Touring, and Roadkill | Feature Interview


by Dylan Pennell (@dylan_pennell)

Melkbelly, if you haven’t heard us singing their praises lately, are a four-piece hailing from Chicago, Illinois who just released the recent Nothing Valley on Sadie Dupuis’s Wax Nine Records and have been touring the country amidst a hail of praise. The experience of touring is hardly new for them, but getting the opportunity to show off their chops and a pummeling batch of songs has proven to be as exhilarating as both the band and audience could have expected.  

This tour provides a rare opportunity for both audience and the band, one in which we get to watch as a band rests on the cusp of something bigger sonically, critically, and commercially.  Over the course of the band’s life they’ve had the opportunity to open for some bigger acts (e.g. Built to Spill and Speedy Ortiz), but this is the first time they’ve been able to strike out with a full album in tow and riding a wave of buzz too magnetic to ignore. With recent write-ups The Chicago Tribune, Consequence of Sound, and a hovering Stereogum, it’s easy to get the sense that what the band has curated in their sound and aesthetic may not have hit the big time just yet, but it’s certainly about to. With their recent slot opening for The Breeders on a set of West Coast dates, it’s clear that this foursome might have just what the zeitgeist ordered and the music community is starting to take notice.

When I meet with the band - Bart Winters, Liam Winters, Miranda Winters, and James Wetzel - they all come from an exhausting day of travel and an even more exhausting experience involving spilling diesel fuel all over themselves - no, not purposefully. Despite their day, however, the band all seemed in fine form, generously chatting about their experiences on the road, past and present, the recording process, and the band’s ambitious recording agenda.

Dylan Pennell: You guys just released a new album, how has the rollout been for you? How has the pre-release of singles treated you and now that the album’s out in the world, how’s it going?

James Wetzel:  It’s good! I mean, I think it’s exciting just to have these songs out there because in our minds they’re pretty old because we recorded this a while back and kinda had to sit on it for a little while. So for everyone else it’s brand new and I guess it’s easy to forget that because they’ve been in our minds for a long time so it’s just exciting more than anything to have people actually responding to these songs that we’ve kinda been keeping for a long time.

DP: How long ago were these songs written?

James: Probably two years ago? But then they were recorded maybe in a little less than that.

Miranda Winters: 18 months ago.

James: They’ve been around. The live version are maybe like a little bit mutated versions of what’s on the record.

DP: You released Pennsylvania in 2013, that’s a pretty big space between 2013 and 2017.  Were you all just busy or was there any particular reason for the wait?

Bart Winters: Well, we did a couple 7 inches. I think we recorded pretty early on of us being together. When we started playing in 2013 and just had an opportunity to record, so we took advantage of it but I think we needed time to play together. We played a ton of shows in the ensuing couple of years.

Liam Winters: Yeah, Pennsylvania were the first six songs we wrote. It was only within a couple of months forming as a band that we recorded that. We only did two seven inches in there? That’s a lot of time.

DP: Has there been any significant difference between releasing an EP and releasing an LP?  Have you noticed anything different in how the shows feel or now that there is a lot more information out there on your band, interviews, etc, do you find that it’s culminating in a really different experience or is it pretty similar?

Miranda: Well the whole situation is totally different but for the first time you see people that you are not directly connected to experiencing the music or saying something about it or having a reaction about it. Someone that you don’t know that’s outside your bubble.

Bart: Two of the EPs were released on small Chicago labels, there was no PR behind it. It was just word of mouth.

DP: They managed to be pretty far reaching regardless of that though, right?

Bart:  Yeah, I think we got, especially with Elk Mountain, the second one we got lucky, especially with people picking up on it. I think that was maybe in part because people saw us on tour, but with this newest album there’s a real label, PR, and the whole process is different.  We got to make videos with three singles and work with a team to roll the whole thing out.

DP: What would you say has been the best part of releasing an LP?

Miranda: Oh boy. What’s the best part? There are so many best parts.

James: I think It relates to the label and the PR team. Just having other people who are doing work towards getting more people to hear it. Obviously the best part was making it. Working with Dave Attrino, the producer/recording engineer/do-it-all in terms of making it into a product. But having it out there and having a cool label in Carpark and they’re really behind it and helpful in terms of rolling it out. It’s pretty sweet.

Bart: Well, with Pennsylvania we had to assemble all 300 copies. We had to glue the artwork on.

James: it was a wraparound cover. It had double sided acid free tape.

Bart: And then we were cutting download codes out so that was kinda fun, but it was kinda fun not having to do any of that this time around.

DP: What was the songwriting process like for this album, for these songs in particular, how do they start, do they start with lyrics, with melodies, does someone have a cool riff?

James: All of the above.

Miranda: It’s kind of a combination of all that stuff. Sometimes I’ll come in with a mostly written song and then we’ll take it apart and put it back together with our own individual styles.

Bart: Miranda will bring a song that she wrote on an acoustic guitar, ya know, just messing around with a melody or a complete song and then we’ll learn the parts, James will add drums which will maybe pull it in a completely different direction, so it kinda morphs into the Melkbelly sound. Some I feel like are more fully formed. There’s only one song on this album where I had one really small riff and that became a full expanded song.

DP: What was that?

Bart: "R.O.R.O.B." That was just one little idea for a riff and then Liam - actually Miranda was out of town - James, and I practiced once kinda spread it out a little bit and then Miranda came in and wrote lyrics and a whole different melody and then the song was complete.

DP: That sounds great.  Once you have a “song” it goes in front of four different people and runs through four different dynamics so the finished product likely sounds nothing like what it was initially.

James: There’s versions of every stage in between. We’ll record it and sometimes she’ll send voicemails and sometimes I’ll beatbox a rhythm and send it to the band or record practices on tape and send them back to everybody and you can actually hear the growth and the progression. Sometimes It can be fun to pull out those old recordings and listen back.

DP: Does the process still feel kind of romantic for you all or does it feel like a bit of a slog?

Bart: It’s been so long since we’ve gone through the process, I feel like we all wanna get back into it. That’s what we’ve been talking about lately. We wanna record again because I think that’s where we have the most fun as a band.

DP: Really? In the studio?  

Bart: For sure. Writing songs. Just being in the practice space. Well, like James said, he records the songs and then on the way home from practice we will all listen to the recordings and then talk about what we want to change or what we like about a song.

Miranda: Yeah, and on the board in the practice space we have working setlists for the tour we’re going on and then a list of songs that we wanna practice or that are partially written so that we can just try to mess around with them in between practicing the stuff that’s already written.

DP: Other than music, going into the creative process, what are some other things that inspire you all to be creative and to write?

James:  Other than music? Wow. I think my job. I have a job where I work a lot with high school students who are aspiring artists or want to go to art school.

DP: Is it with a particular program?

James: It’s with a school. The Art Institute of Chicago. I look at a lot of high school art portfolios and I find that stuff to be constantly renewing and inspiring.

DP: Do you get to talk to the kids at all?

James: Yeah, all the time. That’s the main thing that I do, so it’s fun to have their refreshing perspectives. A lot of them may be naive or just not fully formed ideas and some of them are.  It’s all over the place, but I find that to be constantly... that’s always in the back of my mind, having that perspective is nice.

Miranda: That’s a big question. I guess I’m inspired by the experience of navigating through life in general and having to deal with anxiety and human interaction. I feel like it’s important to talk about that and share it out and give people something performative to release into, especially now because a lot of shit really sucks. I think maybe some people don’t realize that they wanna be screaming or that it’s helpful to listen to something loud, so it’s nice to be able to give back like that.

James: I think we all talk too, pretty frequently, about how much we really need the band as an outlet, for many reasons. So a lot of our inspiration comes from necessity talking about what we would do if we didn’t have this project. We all have our own other outlets and we find ways to fulfill that, but I think it’s really important to us and our everyday well-being.

DP:  Absolutely. I think there’s something to be said for solidarity and feeling like you have a group of like-minded people around you. What has been the most memorable experience you’ve had on this tour thus far? I know you haven’t been out too long, but hopefully you’ve managed to earn some memories that don’t involve diesel.

James: [laughter] It’s just hard to see past that right now! There’s like a diesel cloud around me. 

Miranda: I think that maybe talking to people after shows who have listened to the music online and then come to see us play because of that and are like “holy shit that’s not what I was expecting, but not in a bad way. Our live show can sometimes feel different from how we sound recorded. Talking to people about those differences has been interesting.

Bart: Yeah, we played that show at SUNY in the student union. It was a lightly attended show, but the few people that were there were so excited, which was really nice. A bunch of really young kids coming up and listening to the album stuck around for this really weird show in a really well-lit room. [It was] just the worst conditions to put [on] a musical performance. Well, not the worst. It was not good.

DP: Uncomfortable.

Bart: Not ideal, but there were just a bunch of really nice people there.

Liam: One band at that show, actually the drummer for the band that played before us had this amazing hardware cases for his drum kit and when he loaded in he put on workman’s gloves to unload his drums and set them up. It was super entertaining, dude. He left right after he played, even though there were only like eight people there.  

Miranda: But he didn’t leave [right away].  He left in the middle of our first half and I fucking hate that, that’s no excuse. If you can’t stay, you can’t play.

Liam: But watching him carefully take apart and set up his drums was definitely the highlight of this tour so far for me. It was the most entertaining thing I remember.

DP: Do you all consider Nothing Valley to be an extension of the Pennsylvania EP or do you consider it an evolution? How do you look at it?

Miranda & Bart: Definitely an evolution.

DP: How are you personally differentiating between them?

Miranda: Well, I think stylistically [Nothing Valley] is more cohesive. Pennsylvania was really the first six songs that we had written to completion enough to actually record. So from that album we were able to take some time away from it and then listening to it again we decided “Oh, we like these few things and this is the direction we want to go. It’s not like we don’t like all of the songs.

DP: Certainly. I think it’s definitely hard to not feel a certain way about the first songs you produce. It’s hard to not be a little bit contentious with it.  

Miranda and Bart: Yeah.

DP: Well, where, then, do you all see the band in five years?

Miranda: Covered in diesel on the side of the road.

DP:  Well, rather than where do you see yourself, where would you like to see the band in five years?

Miranda: Living in a commune. I’m really pushing for that.

Bart: Right now is so fun because we’re about to go on tour with The Breeders, so anything beyond that doesn’t matter.

James: I would definitely want to have a higher album-per-year ratio than we have right now, since you brought that up.  

Miranda: Two to three album in the next five years.

James; At least, at least.

DP: Damn. Do things tend to move pretty quickly especially now that you feel more comfortable with the recording process?

James: I think when we find the time. I guess that a lot of stuff is new for us right now, with this being the first official album release. Once we focus on [recording] things tend to happen pretty quickly. The only reason Nothing Valley took a while to record is because we decided to do it that way. We kinda spread it out so we could have a different approach, because a lot of those songs were recorded really fast. There were only a handful of them, maybe two or three that took more than two days. I don’t see it being difficult to crank out more albums in the next five years.

DP: Are you recording live when you record or are your doing mostly overdubs?

James: We start recording everything live and we’re playing scratch vocals and then going back in and adding things here and there. For the most part the structure of all those songs is as if we had played them live. That works well for us.

DP: Do you all have ambitions to work with Steve Albini or big name producers since you’re in Chicago and you have your calling card out there in the world?

James: We’ve got a great thing going with Dave Vettraino.

Bart: Doug Malone just took over this nice studio called Jam Deck. I would like to go there with Dave because we [initially] recorded in Dave’s basement, but Dave moved and now he doesn’t have  basement. So we have to go to a studio.  

James: I think that’s the plan at this point. In December or January, something within that at Jam Deck.

Bart: At Dave’s place the power would go out in the winter because we were running too many heaters. That’s the reason why that song “Cawthra” cuts off abruptly, because the power went out and we just decided to keep it that way.

James: Yeah, he bounces everything to tape live, so that the tape is still perfectly intact.

DP: That’s funny because the first time I listened to that song I looked at my computer and thought “Oh shit, is everything alright?” Apparently, everything wasn’t!

Bart: We went back and did it again, but then we liked the other one better.

Miranda: Yeah, it definitely sounded better.

DP: There is something about  having the power go out in the recording itself that makes the song feel more tactile and more live.

Band: Yeah.

melkbelly cover.jpg

DP: I wanna switch gears slightly for a moment and ask about the artwork for the album. Where did the artwork come from?

Miranda: Oooo. Well the artwork comes from a collaboration between comic book artists Ben Marcus, from Chicago, and then another artist named Dave Kruger, who is an employee at the Arts of Life. That’s an organization that employs adult artists with developmental disabilities.  They do a lot of collaborative comic book work. And then Ben did the back by himself and did the poster by himself.

DP: Awesome. I’m actually the type of person who is huge on album artwork. It can sometimes make or break a record, as silly as that might sound. I love the artwork for Nothing Valley and I’m curious how you all think it informs the content of the album.

James: I think [the art] was kind of a perfect fit. These guys have been talking about wanting to work with Ben Marcus for a while, just because he has a really great and playful aesthetic. Then I learned about his collaboration with Dave Kruger and it's just a really nice combination of this refined drawing style that Ben has and the the really expressive, kinda raw style of Dave Kruger’s. It’s just very immediate and bold and bright and also kinda distorted and hard to understand. The wording is kind of weird.

DP: The dialogue on the cover seems really melancholy and the art seems really bright in contrast to that.

James: Yeah, we sent them the record and Dave came up with idea for the dialogue, basically.  They made a pencil for it really quickly and sent it back to us. We were all in love with it immediately. [It] worked so well. I don’t even know if they listened to the record. Maybe they were just kinda responding to…

Miranda: The title?

James: The title.

Bart: Seeing that picture and the dialogue I was just like “This is it! This is perfect!”

James: He kind of sent it back to us and just asked “what do you think of this?” and I was just said “this is great.” We were so in love with it that they made a couple of different versions, but were thought the first one was great. So there’s actually another version of it with the same text and everything that we didn’t use. It just worked out perfectly and Dave Kruger is the best. He has a really positive spirit and [the artwork] works really well with the sound too.

DP: The artwork is really playful and there’s also something a little creepy too, right?

Band: Definitely.

DP: As a Pennsylvanian I have to ask, what’s the deal with the title of the Pennsylvania EP?

Miranda: [laughter] I dunno. I think that, well, one of the songs that we wrote that’s on that album - “Highway Meats” - I wrote a lot of the lyrics while we were on tour on the East Coast.  We saw a tremendous amount of roadkill in Pennsylvania. I dunno. When I think of Pennsylvania I get some sort of weird melancholy nostalgic feel. That was one thing.  

James: I think a lot of our inspiring force is navigating terrain and us as a group have done a lot of navigating the U.S. together, which is where a lot of Nothing Valley came from. So Pennsylvania was maybe an initial kernel of what Nothing Valley became in terms of inspiring geography.

DP: Haha, so Pennsylvania has a weird vibe, eh? I can’t blame you for thinking that.

Liam: There was a time where the roadkill was insane on the one tour. There was just deer after deer, mile after mile.

DP: Well there is definitely a creepy vibe to the record. Maybe it’s the music within, maybe it’s titles like “Hellaween,” maybe it’s the cover art, but when I listen to it I can’t help but feel the ambiance of October and Halloween. Is that something that’s done really deliberately?

Miranda: We love Halloween and we love creepy things.

Bart: We’re navigating dark times!

James: [“Helloween”] is actually one of the lighter songs on the record. [But] I dunno. We all like October. We all like Halloween.

DP: I say keep it up. If you keep incorporating Halloween into your records, I’m there every time.

James: Well, these guys, Bart and Liam, for years have run this event called the 24 hour horror film fest at an art space and collective that they used to run called Roxy Boxing, so I feel like that’s been a big community thing that they’ve been involved with. I shouldn’t be talking about this though…

Bart: Yeah, I forgot about it. I didn’t even think about it. This is the first year that we can’t do it in full form because we’re in this damn band.

Liam: Well, the album cover and the songs were all written and recorded before the election and I think that maybe Miranda could speak more to this, anxiety is a big lyrical theme, but it’s also big in the music. When we get together it’s really kinetic and  anxious. It’s not like it’s a dark album, but it’s definitely an undercurrent of the whole thing.

Miranda: Yeah, I think it’s our default melodically and lyrically. We all have different styles, but then we also kind of meet on that level. What’s that tone called?

James: Ohhhh. It’s called... what is it called? It’s the Shepherd’s tone! It’s an oscillation that’s constantly rising...

Miranda: Like a trick of the ear.

James: ...but it just keeps on resetting, so it’s constantly... it never peaks, but your anxiety does.

Miranda: It’s just like [makes anxious gasping noises]. Maybe the record does feel a little doomy, but not maybe Halloween creepy to me, but I think Shepherd’s Tone-doomy.

James: Number one inspiration!

Miranda: Number one.

DP: James, a lot has been said about your particular drumming style and actually, fellow Post-Trash writer and cousin, Bobby Cleveland, wants to know how your jazz training has informed your playing in this band?

James: Big time! I was playing a gig once a week for four hours all through college and that totally changed the way I approach the drums. I was basically learning how to improvise and solo and not be afraid of making stuff up on the spot. So trying to build that into a more traditional framework, like a rock four-piece - two guitars, bass, and drums - is a context that I’d always wanted to play in, but I was always doing either a two-drum set noise rock band along with doing a jazz-combo where we were writing our own arrangements and just kind of making stuff up as we went along. There was always this loose framework and trying to hone those improvisational skills in this band has been a lot of fun because it’s allowed me to harness that energy, but create parts that are necessary for the song and try to not overdo it.

DP: Yeah, it doesn’t feel masturbatory at all.

James: Yeah, it’s trying to exercise restraint and learn from Miranda’s songwriting process and learn from [the band’s] musical tastes and be able to just listen. That’s what jazz is so much about, listening and being able to play silence.

DP: How many snares you have in rotation live?

James: Two, right now. Well, three, but two that I bring with me to a show. It goes back and forth. One is just the opposite of the other one. I used to have two of the exact same snares, but one would be like cranked to the point where the head couldn’t get any tighter and the other would be the direct opposite to the point that the head was kinda wavy. Now I got another one that’s still dead, but it’s really loud.

DP: Well, I think you all have to get over to the show soon, but I just have one more question for you: is there anything you are excited about coming up in the tour? Other than the end of the tour, of course.

Liam: This tour or the end of The Breeders tour?

DP: I guess the end of this entire cycle.

James: I’m super excited about the West Coast. That’s two days in San Francisco?  That’s gonna be awesome.

Miranda: Also, touring with The Breeders in general.

James: it’s gonna be... like day after day it’s going to progressively be the biggest show we ever played.

Miranda: We get to spend everyday together, all day!

Liam: It will be interesting to see how this transitions with this set. We’re used to playing these small sets. We played one time at Thalia Hall in Chicago, which was nice, but I don’t know how the sound translated.

DP: How many shows do you have with The Breeders?

Band: Five.

Post-Trash: What’s the biggest venue you’re playing?

James: 1100?

Liam: Seattle?

James: Yeah, it’s twice as large as any show we have ever played.

DP: Well, that’s awesome. Best of luck to you all and thanks again for sitting down with me.