Feature: Bells Atlas
May 14, 2015
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The early-May morning light pours through the vaulted ceiling windows of Geneva Harrison and Sandra Lawson-Ndu's West Oakland warehouse home. Outfitted with a treated recording booth, practice room, mixing consoles and enough equipment to keep your local gear snob at bay, the space doubles as the rehearsal space for their band, Bells Atlas. Guitarist Derek Barber and bassist/vocalist Doug Stuart arrive as Bells preps for their show later this week, a handful of blocks east at the New Parish. After a winding journey over the past 18 months, they will release their latest Hyperlust EP on June 2. The trail of Bells Atlas tracks back seven miles to the north, at Berkeley's Guerilla Cafe. "We met through the cafe, which has its own cultural, vibrant thing going on there. I associate it with a lot of the East Bay, Oakland and Berkeley. That’s how I got to know and started making music with you guys," notes Geneva, who arrived to the Bay after studying percussion at the University of Miami and living there a number of years after graduation. Doug, who studied jazz at the U of Michigan along with Derek, eventually met Sandra at Guerilla. "I was just trying to get a gig there, 'Hey I really like your cafe and I live right down the street and I play music.' Sandra was like 'You play upright bass? I’m a composer, let’s hang out!' And I agreed." "Composer? I used that word?" Sandra laughs. Prior to the Bay, she studied classical music history and theory at Connecticut's Trinity College. While Sandra is Bells' lead vocalist, surprisingly enough she did not consider herself a singer earlier on. "You did," Doug replies, "You sold it."
Sandra and Doug's meeting would manifest Bells' first show with Derek in March 2011 at Kaleidoscope, a venue in San Francisco's Mission District that no longer exists. Geneva joined the band shortly thereafter. The music Bells Atlas would craft moving forward--an EP and full-length album in 2013 and the upcoming Hyperlust EP--revolves upon a delicate balance between intelligent and accessible. They offer complex arrangements, intricate layering and polyrhythmic builds to get lost in alone. Yet they will effortlessly guide a full house party into collective, tangible grooves. It is the work of capable, skilled, technical musicians reveling in subtly and nuance who still prioritize the fact that music should feel good. One might assume this was the result of a particularly concerted effort. However Doug shares, "that was never specifically talked about. We all just like a lot of different music and are passionate about a lot of different stuff. But we never talked about a conscious direction." "It was pretty organic. We just really dug what came out naturally amongst us," Geneva adds. "Like Doug said, we all have pretty diverse tastes, and maybe we each typically bring some of those tastes to the table more often than others. We each have our own influences and it probably changes for different songs, you know? But it’s never necessarily, 'Oh let’s have this one sound like this.' There will be more general inclinations." Derek joins in, "It was definitely exciting to see how each person had a unique contribution. We’re still getting acquainted but it was pretty exciting. We’re all still listening to lots of different kinds of music so I think that’s part of the creative process." All of their diverse geographical backgrounds and musical tastes seem at home in Oakland. Each of the band members reflect on the musical kinship they've found here. "There’s so much support here and support breeds a certain kind of energy when you’re performing. In addition to loving what we’re doing, we have community," Sandra affirms. Doug describes that community as "very familial". Derek reflects on the creativity as well, "it may be a little incestuous. But what’s cool is that everyone plays in each other’s bands and everyone’s band is, to me, almost completely different than the next." Compared to the industry resources of LA or New York, the Bay may seem lacking. Yet Bells Atlas finds this refreshing in spirit. Doug pauses and says, "it’s a reflection of your surroundings. As cheesy as it sounds, the East Bay is just this tapestry of all these different cultures, and all this different music and different art. It makes sense that there’s a number of bands that come out of Oakland where you’re like 'woah! I’ve never heard anything like this.' Just traditionally, the culture has always been a pioneering one. It just has its own thing." Geneva agrees. "The Bay, in general for a long time, has been a nest for creativity. There’s always been this focus here that’s more about the creation aspect. It’s been a hub for artists trying things out for a really long time. It’s the kind of place to get weird. Not that everyone doing music here is doing weird music, but I do feel like there’s such a platform here for trying new things." "Oakland is swimming in everything we do. Whether it’s lyrical content, or how we play. It’s everywhere, because we started here," Sandra concludes.
One of the Oakland music community's resources Bells Atlas found support from is a mile south: Zoo Labs. Zoo Labs is a music incubator that offers residencies to musicians. Over a few weeks, artists are immersed in an environment that provides "time to focus on recording music as well as bringing their creative minds to their business strategies." For Bells, Zoo Labs yielded tracks that appear on Hyperlust and invigoration. "There’s a lot of positivity involved in what they’re doing. That’s what I took away from it. You learn to attribute more value to your music or art, that it’s worth something. I think that’s the increasingly opposite side of events. People are like, 'what is music even worth right now?' If you’re in that mindset, that “Oh well doesn’t matter if I get paid to do this or not,” then it’s easy to get taken advantage of. That’s their philosophy: to empower you," Derek notes. Like any young band in 2015, Bells Atlas is still searching for and experimenting with the path to creating music sustainability. Geneva and Doug are freelance musicians who rotate through gigs outside of Bells Atlas. Derek works in a local cafe, actually the cafe where his Astronauts etc bandmate Anthony Ferraro met Chaz Bundick (Toro y Moi). "It’s a weird balance. It’s hard work. It takes a lot of energy and determination, regardless of how you’re making your money, to really put as much as you need to put into making music that you love," Doug shares. That energy and determination yielded Hyperlust, a definite step forward for the band. It's a step Bells Atlas is noticeably confident in. "We went into it with more ideas on how we wanted it to feel from a sonic standpoint, rather than just having the live versions of the songs. Also we worked with different people because we liked where they were coming from and felt like we would naturally sync up on some of the creative ideas," Doug tells me. Sandra adds, "we were listening more on the production standpoint. When we released our first album, it was kind of an experiment going into the studio for the first time for some of us. And not really knowing what that meant and how to create a feeling once it was recorded." And Geneva is quick to point out, "we tried new things. We got adventurous." Derek considers Bells' path to Hyperlust. "For me it comes back to the reason I wanted to play music with these three individuals in the first place --because it’s so much fun. It’s sort of this addiction that you never get over. A really good kind of addiction, you know? There’s nothing quite like playing music and sharing these things in the moment. That moment is precious and the reason we are doing it." Bells Atlas' Hyperlust EP is out 6/2. You can pre-order it here.