Oliver Kalb has been making music under the name Bellows since 2011. He released Bellows’ first album, the understated indie-folk-pop masterwork, As If To Say I Hate Daylight, while attending Bard College in 2011. That release, as well as 2014’s Blue Breath—an album recorded while in search for a place to call home after graduating—established Kalb’s skill as a lyricist and as an arranger. His most recent release, last year’s Fist and Palm, is Bellows at its best, channeling new electronic influences into Kalb’s intimate acoustics. Never one to shy away from self-criticism (as is perhaps most evident on Fist and Palm) it is no surprise that Kalb was willing to reveal his five favorite and five least favorite tracks of the many he has penned in Bellows’ six-year history. Read on for Kalb’s own thoughts on the process, and be sure to grab tickets to Bellows’ July 15 show at Baby’s All Right.
Oliver Kalb: I’ve been writing and self-recording music as Bellows for the last seven years. Recording is a pretty intense and life-consuming black hole process for me. When I’m recording an album, I listen to each of the songs obsessively, trying to iron out all the lyrical flaws and dips of the production, bouncing new mixes and walking around alone trying to imagine how each song can expand and develop in its recorded world. Sometimes this makes for really cool experiments, and songs I feel really proud of — when a lot of work goes into a song and it pays off, it’s cool to listen back years later, and hear the product of long periods of intense anxiety and labor live and breathe in a finished state. But other times, when I listen back to my own records, I’ll shudder at certain tracks. There are some songs I’ve released that I just totally hate, songs that make me feel really embarrassed when I hear them.
In the myopic world of self-recording, sometimes flaws that would be really obvious to someone listening with an untrained ear won’t be apparent to the actual person making the music. It’s very easy to get tunnel-vision when you’re working on an album, and think you’ve stumbled upon a really interesting and weird experiment, that to anyone else listening just sounds like a bunch of convoluted nonsense. I can hear some of my own songs, in hindsight, as really ugly kinks that might’ve been ironed out if I’d given myself some distance from the project. Years down the line from some of the records I’ve made, I’m able to see a little more clearly which experiments were successful and which were just kind of bad or confusing ideas, in need of an editor. So I decided to use this spot to explore what I think are my 5 best songs, and why I still respond to them after so many years, and then also what I think are my 5 worst songs, and why they’re bad, or at least why I don’t consider them good vehicles for conveying the ideas or feelings I hoped they would.
THE FIVE BEST BELLOWS SONGS
5. “Am I? Or Was I? Because I” from As If To Say I Hate Daylight
I spent the summer after my freshman year in college working as a food vendor in the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Vendors had a huge amount of down-time at that job, and I would spend my breaks walking around the paths in the park and plotting arrangements for songs I’d written that summer, the songs that would come out later as the first Bellows record As If To Say I Hate Daylight. I wrote “Am I? Or Was I? Because I” as the very last song of that bunch, and it connects very strongly in my memory to those evening walks around Central Park, just sort of aimlessly wandering around. I liked the loping, steady quality of the track and how it felt brooding and evil but also somehow open-wide, leaving room for meandering thoughts to grow around the two chords and simple melody. The lyrics hover around some sort of unnamed conflict where I am both a victim and an aggressor: feeling at once like goose being hunted for sport, and then immediately after like somebody’s dad waiting to berate them for a petty wrongdoing. I like that it’s never clear exactly what happened, but it circles around this unnamed central conflict only by emotionally orbiting around it, but never actually describing what took place. Sometimes songs that don’t reveal their central subject just feel overly abstract, and fail to really connect, but I feel like “Am I? Or Was I? Because I” works precisely because it doesn’t reveal too much about itself.
There are songs that just for whatever reason retain the exact feeling of being at a certain time and place my life, songs that I haven’t had a chance to ruin or run into the ground by overplaying them. I like “Am I? Or Was I? Because I?” so much because I responded to it instinctually; I wrote it very quickly on one of those walks and knew right away that it was a simple linking force—an understated, quiet connecting piece that tied together this weird array of songs I was working on at that time. After I wrote it, I had the sense that the album was finished, and kind of just put the finishing touches on things quickly and released the album on bandcamp unmastered a few weeks later. That sort of healthy, automatic response to a song is something I yearn for when I make music—to not overthink, but to just allow the songs to show you the way they’d like to be heard.
4. “Funny Things” from Blue Breath
I feel a special affinity for second-to-last tracks. They’re probably my favorite songs to write when I’m making an album, because I feel like they’re allowed to be very emotionally straightforward, almost simple. They play an important, visceral, concluding role, establishing the terms on which an album will end. Most of my favorite albums ease slowly into their endings, and rather than using the very last track as the definitive climactic moment, they allow the last two or three tracks to lead the listener out of the world of the album a little bit more gradually, with more breathing room and less in-your-face conclusiveness. (some of my favorite examples of this type of ending are that last three tracks of The Microphones’ The Glow, Pt. 2, “I Felt Your Shape”, “Samurai Sword”, and “My Warm Blood”, and Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s last two tracks “Lost in the World” into “Who Will Survive in America?” — actually this morning I was listening to David Bowie’s Hunky Dory, which has the exact track-progression I’m talking about, from the fast sassy rock song “Queen Bitch” into the kind of understated, quieter “The Bewlay Brothers”; I read those two tracks are a pair, the rock song shoring up an angrier spirit on Hunky Dory, and “The Bewlay Brothers” kind of ushering the listener out of the album contemplatively and without too much pomp and circumstance).
I try to use the second-to-last tracks on my albums to be resolution moments. I like these tracks to be intense, straightforward and serious songs that use simpler language to bring together the disparate ideas on an album. “Funny Things” is definitely an almost ridiculously self-serious song, a song where I think if you aren’t fully immersed in the drama of the record, might just come off as too much. I like that it’s very demanding, reminiscent of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in its loud minor chords, its boldfaced melodrama and intensity. The whole album Blue Breath is very high-stakes, dealing with death and self-hatred and conflict among friends; there’s not really a low-intensity moment on the album, and I feel like “Funny Things” emerges as a really important moment of catharsis and release, like the album somehow needed a really loud and fist-pumping rock song to counterbalance its neediness and urgency. Blue Breath felt like it called for a really bold and physical moment here, I wanted the track to feeling like it provided some solace from the album’s forbidding landscape.
“Funny Things” is also just a fun song to play live and I like that you can respond to it physically, as a loud rock song. I’m proud of the lyrics too – I see the song as a rumination on fakeness and the desire for real intimacy with the ones you love. “You see that I’m naked, I see a pose” is a lyric about the facades and semblances of intimacy songwriters pose with in order to excel in the music world, about how weird it is that the world of art is full of so many thousands of artists trying to sell you their own brand of canned familiarity and openness, a lot of which just feels like a well-packaged product, a commodification of emotion that doesn’t bear much resemblance to real human feelings. “Funny Things” is a bitter and emotionally wrecked song, but I like how unapologetically over-the-top it is. Either you’re in or you’re out!
3. “Bummer Swells” from Fist & Palm
The steady stream of lyrics and ambling, ascent/descent melody line in this song just feel good to me in a way that’s hard to describe. It feels like chanting. There’s a swell and a regression; the dynamics just slowly move forward without the expectation of a climax; it’s basically the same music the whole time & instruments naturally fade in and out. I like that this song feels so dynamically different from other Bellows songs. It’s meditative and at peace, sort of non-insistent about its own existence. I think it’s more powerful than other songs because it doesn’t hammer its point in too much or make a big fuss.
2. “See Bright, Be Fine” from Blue Breath
I wrote this song trying to emulate a song I listened to a lot in 2011 called “Water You” by Sunnybrook. “Water You” is an synth-and-drum-machine based pop song about being proud to see a friend grow older and acknowledging your part in “watering” them like a plant, or helping them to blossom and grow up into a cool and interesting person. I liked both the sound and sentiment of that track a lot, and tried to imitate the feeling of it a bit when I composed the syncopated guitar picking pattern over steady four-on-the-floor pulse that became the foundation of the song. “See Bright, Be Fine” was the first song I ever wrote that used synths and electronic drums (all of As If To Say I Hate Daylight was recorded with acoustic instruments, and I deliberately didn’t use any MIDI or synth sounds on it at all), and I went into it wanting to write a song that would just feel really good in a bodily way, just trying to write something that someone would want to move their body to. “See Bright, Be Fine” is about rising above depression or calamity in your life and finding some small amount of light, or some unlikely way to maintain dignity and composure and “fine”-ness even when everything seems to be ruined. I still find myself needing to remember that mantra a lot, and the song still resonates with me six years later.
1. “Beauty” from Fist & Palm
To this day, I still don’t know whether I ripped this song off from somewhere. I was sitting in a restaurant in Cobble Hill and I started to hear a melody coming from an adjacent building, an ambling major scale riff behind some kind of dance beat — it must have been some kind of DJ mix or something because the beat just kept going on and on around these notes, the 3-4-5 in the major scale, and I just started kind of singing my own thing over it. The notes for the central guitar riff in “Beauty” were written singing along to that DJ mix I was hearing faintly in a public place, but how similar my song ended up being to that original beat I was hearing will I guess always be a mystery (unless somebody finds me and sues me for jacking their riff) but I find with things like this (writing a song along to another song you’re hearing) you usually end up having written something pretty far from the influencing force, even when you think you’ve blatantly ripped somebody off.
In any case, I worked really hard on this song. Sometimes my songwriting falls too far into the realm of obscurity and the storytelling becomes hard to follow. I’m proud of how down to earth and straightforward the verses are, and then how lofty and melodramatic the choruses are. It feels like the perfect marriage of the two instincts of Bellows as a music project — to tell clear, full stories of conflicts in life but then also to rise above those conflicts to find some kind of higher understanding and resolution — alternating between the prosaic and poetic, I guess. I’m proud of this song because the story ends in a really different place than where it started – it morphs from a story about self-destruction into a conversation between friends in a car at night, making some kind of vain attempt to identify the problem that’s driven the two of them apart. I feel like the movement of the song is kind of a microcosm of the journey of the record. It took a lot of time and re-writes to get it right and I still feel like it’s a more powerful and focused set of lyrics than I’ve written on any other song.
THE FIVE WORST BELLOWS SONGS
5. “Change by Night” from Blue Breath
This song could have been really cool. It has an intensity to it, and I think the descending minor rock riff in the verse is still pretty sweet. But I think it’s also a good example of how a Bellows song can fail. “We are not the ones who fear your bite” is a pretty loaded, hair-metal sort of lyric. In “Change by Night”, I can hear myself trying to use an overblown, anthemic sort of lyrical voice, speaking with some kind of commanding authority that might feel unexpected in a “bedroom pop” record (I put term that in quotes because I’m not sure it really describes Bellows well, and it’s become an un-descriptive, beside-the-point name for a genre in the year 2017, when even big pop stars record on laptops). I think that unexpectedness was what made that opening line attractive to me when I wrote the song. With some distance though, I think that the lyrics in this song are just kind of sloppy, and have an inconsistent message. The song opens with this statement of rebel defiance against an apparent foe, but then switches gears immediately and becomes a break up song.
“Change by Night” was supposed to be a vision of a spoiled relationship, a creepy silent watcher wondering if he or his loved one simply “changed by night” into some kind of unrecognizable beast. I like the position of the narrative voice, the sleepless voyeur in this evil meditation chant about some kind of weird witchcraft transformation, but I don’t like how the song starts and ends with these lines of defiance against an enemy: “we are not the ones who fear your bite, and though we live this pale, bitter, wicked, jealous, stupid, false, with dirty feathers empty, broken, small, we want to live them all.” That lyric turns the song into this comradely sing-a-long about overcoming some kind of obstacle, when really the rest of the song is a mood-piece about a dark vision of private life between two people who have changed, and don’t trust each other anymore.
If I could rewrite the song, I would center it more closely on the middle section (the chanted lyric overlapping section “one of us would change by night”) because I think that the best idea in the song is in that middle section of lyrics, the vision of objects in a bedroom signifying a loveless relationship. But with the beginning and ending rock-anthem sections, the whole song’s tone is fucked up and cloying, like it’s reaching for a false optimism in a world where all other evidence really only supports doubt and mystery.
4. “Blew the Roof Off” from As If To Say I Hate Daylight
The trick of recycling the same melody or guitar line over and over again in a song is one of my favorite songwriting tricks—I think of it as dynamic repetition, using the same exact melodic notes over and over again but presenting them in different contexts throughout a recording, and employing a constantly shifting arrangement of instruments to provide new context for the recurring melody each time it appears. Some of the best Bellows songs are written this way: “Orange Juice”, “Bummer Swells”, “Am I? Or Was I? Because I”, “White Sheet”—those songs all have just one single melody going through the whole song that re-states itself each time it appears with a slight instrumental variation, so that the melody feels new each time you hear it. “Blew the Roof Off” is kind of the turkey of that bunch of songs, a musical idea that just wasn’t really strong enough to carry a whole 4-minute song.
To cut myself a break for a second, I think the recording of this song is cool, and I still like the drums and keyboard line in the second verse a lot, and how the gusting wind sounds in the outro, a storm blowing right into “Rain of July 7th, 2011”. I like the way these two songs set a mood for this point in the album, leading into an empty space that clears the palate for the songs after it (especially “From Outer Space”, which felt to me like it wanted a little bit of breathing room before it began). So I guess I see “Blew the Roof Off” as a nice moment in the sequencing of the album, but just not as a very good song. It has kind of an ugly melody and lyrics that gesture toward an evocative image (the roof blown off a house from the album cover) but don’t probe deeply, or carry a ton of beauty at face value. I think this song might’ve been re-done in an interesting way with a more noise-rock arrangement, leaning into that dissonant chord that appears at the end of each phrase of the chorus. If the song had been more intentional about its use of dissonance, it could have made for some interesting variation in the music on the album. But instead, it’s just another acoustic song with a similar arrangement to the rest of As If To Say I Hate Daylight, and suffers because it isn’t doesn’t have enough in the way of beauty or anger to get by on either front.
3. “Believe it!” from Blue Breath
This song and its song-spouse “Hate Yourself” were a weird flight of fancy. Both songs are less that two minutes long, they’re basically interlude tracks on Blue Breath, but for whatever reason I put them right next to each other on the album. “Believe it!” is a mean-spirited, accusatory lament that blossoms out of some cool chimes and descends back into a high pitched drone for another even shorter bout of crankiness called “Hate Yourself”. Both songs have this stinky bad-vibe feeling to them. When I was writing Blue Breath, I wanted to include some moments of really contemptible lyrics to establish myself, the narrator of the album, as villainous and crude. There’s a lot of anger and malice in the narrative voice on Blue Breath, some of which feels right, like it’s a tool to express guilt and culpability that make the drama and arc of the album make more sense. Other times, like in the case of “Believe it!”, the whole idea of writing from such a “wrong” perspective seems ill founded.
I think that sometimes, maybe because I work within a palate of fairly traditional indie folk sounds, I try too hard to figure out ways to make my music not sound precious or overly sentimental. When I was writing Blue Breath, it felt like there was this disconnect in my mind between the pretty, melodic folk songs I’d been writing, and a desire I had to write an angry record about loss and distrust. Songs like “Believe it!” came out of that feeling that the album was too precious or easy to listen to, but when all the chips are down, this song was a little bit too on-the-nose in terms of its intentional bad-vibing of the listener. The album may have been better if I had left these two interludes off and written a single, more focused song to establish this menacing feeling I wanted to have on the first side of the album.
2. “Hate Yourself” from Blue Breath
I admire this song as a weird experiment. It ultimately just sounds kind of ugly and has an ugly sentiment. At the time, it felt like an interesting interlude on the record, but now I feel like it just muddies the waters with a whole bunch of vitriol and cacophonous deep voices crowding around each other.
1. “Tiny or Tall?” from As If To Say I Hate Daylight
A close friend of mine told me that this song makes the first Bellows album “a long album”. I think I agree with him. It’s not that the song itself is all that long—it’s less than 5 minutes—but it kind of takes the oxygen out of the movement of the record. The preceding song “Yanguang” is a big climactic moment on the album, and the song after it is “You are Not”, which feels to me like a long awaited melodic & accessible moment on a sort of noisy and dark album. Inserting this weird despairing track between those two songs expects a lot of the listener — do you have the patience for such a slow dirge with such obscure lyrics? Protracting the album’s ending doesn’t make the release of the final tracks feel more well-earned, and it doesn’t shed much light on those last three tracks either, it just kind of makes you wait too long to get to the end of the album. It tests your patience for no reason.
I think when I wrote this song I got a little too involved in that slow waltzy riff at the end, which I thought of at the time as a deliberate reference to Xiu Xiu’s “Sad Pony Guerilla Girl”, but which I now see as just sort of a bad rip-off of that song’s very beautiful central riff. For some reason, I just got really attached to that musical moment—I thought it sounded eerie or haunted somehow—and couldn’t see clearly enough to realize the song was basically boring and way too long. There’s really not much to be said in the defense of this track.