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Smoke Bellow interview: “Making music is primarily a vehicle to allow us to engage in the conversation”

We talk to the Baltimore-based Australian outfit about their fantastic new LP, ‘Open For Business’.

Racking up the frequent flyers’ points across the Pacific Ocean during the past nine years, firstly from Australia to America, then back down under, only to then flit back over to America, it’s safe to say that Smoke Bellow’s Meredith McHugh and Christian Best are honorary Baltimoreans, finding a comfort in the city which now they call home.

Having released their 2014 debut, Blooming/Middling, following it up in 2018 with the ISOLATION 3000 EP (both via Baltimore label, Ehse Record), Smoke Bellow showcased a pair of krautrock-inspired gems, echoing all the best bits of Stereolab and the crate-digging voyages that such a world has to offer.

With the addition of new drummer, Oh Hang’s Emmanuel Nicolaidis, 2021 sees Smoke Bellow unveil their latest oeuvre, Open For Business.

The sonic explorations continue on Open For Business; an album bursting with junkyard rackets and west African rhythms which form a wild concoction of spidery jangle-pop and off-kilter post-punk.

It’s no wonder why Chicago label, Trouble In Mind, were quick take Smoke Bellow under their wing. A label that has an ear for inimitable artistic talent, Smoke Bellow are added to the plethora of left-of-centre luminaries that currently occupies the TIM stable.

We could expand on these songs, however, in truth, it wouldn’t do Smoke Bellow justice. Such as the hypnotic feeling this band’s music casts over its listeners, every time a Smoke Bellow song meets the ear there is something altered. They are the type of band you could listen to ten times over and form a different opinion each time. That, indeed, is the sign of a good band.

Earlier this week, Smoke Bellow co-founders, McHugh and Best offered some insight into the making of Open For Business.

High Tension: In Conversation with FACS’ Brian Case

Sun 13: You moved back to Baltimore from Australia in 2017. As far as music scenes go, what are the major differences between the U.S. and Australia?

Meredith McHugh: “It’s so hard to say! When we lived in Melbourne, we were not really part of the music scene, per se, and we were never really sure how we fit in to it as a whole. It more felt like we were on a two-year immobile tour (laughs). I will say that Melbourne being a bigger city meant that there was a population to support all kinds of scenes. Those scenes for the most part seemed to stick to their own.”

Christian Best: “Baltimore differs in that it is a relatively small place. This leads to cross pollination between scenes. There is no real ‘sound’ to speak of here, but there is a prevalent culture that encourages experimentation. It is also cheap to live here, and challenging. It forces you to stay politically engaged, empathic, and to keep pushing.”

S13: Also being Australian and living abroad, I find that the arts are far more appreciated here than in Australia. I’d imagine it to be similar in the U.S.?

CB: “I always say, ‘I don’t live in America, I live in Baltimore’, because my concept of what it is like to live in the USA is really only based on life in this city. Every so often I go to the airport or a baseball game, and I freak out and say, ‘Oh my god I live in America!’

“That said, in my experience, art is certainly valued here, especially music. However, in general, that does not necessarily mean the arts are well compensated monetarily. It seems it is a real hustle to get by in any arts scene.”

MM: “Also, a big difference for us is the ability to easily tour to different cities. This is especially the case living on the on the East Coast. There are so many different cities all within a few hours of us. So, it definitely feels more viable to be an active musician here than in Australia.”

S13: Before we talk about the album, how did the band come to signing with Trouble In Mind?

CB: “Pre-pandemic, we happened to play with a few TiM bands (the incredible Olden Yolk and Klaus Johann Grobe), and we were big fans of the label due to the vast number of fantastic bands they had released (Nightshift, Hecks, Naked Roommate, Parsnip, Sunwatchers, Writhing Squares, Dummy, Lithics, Omni, Melenas, En Attendant Ana, Mountain Movers, FACS, Matchess).”

MM: “Everyone we spoke with said Bill and Lisa [RoeTrouble In Mind founders] were lovely people and real music fans. So, when it came time to start sharing around our first mixes, we sent it to them first. Thirty minutes later they emailed and said they’d like to put it out! It was a charmed experience.”

Space and Time: In Conversation with Pile’s Rick Maguire

S13: Can you tell us about the writing process of Open For Business?

MM: “Half of the record we wrote as a band in a room together, the other we wrote via email. Before we started writing, we made a playlist of songs that spoke to us and used them as guides for our sketches.”

CB: “Meredith and I had been listening to a lot of post-punk and we wanted bass and drum driven foundations to build upon. We ended up pulling inspiration from all sorts of places. Other songs came out of experimenting with different synth sounds and seeing what stuck. We played with different time signatures to draw out spontaneity. We try not to have too much control over what we are doing, and we generally try to adhere to the ‘first thought best thought’ rule.”

S13: Emmanuel Nicolaidis is in the band now, too. How did that connection come about?

CB: “Every record, we typically collaborate with a different third member. We had been fans of Manny for ages! Meredith had worked with him twice before, once was performing Steve Reich’s Four Organs at a music festival, and the other time was as a Monks cover band called The Skunks. His band with Steve Santillan called Oh Hang is incredible too.”

MM: “He is just such an interesting, elemental, unique drummer. We had no idea how it was going to work out, but we knew it would be interesting and push us all into some place new.”

S13: The thing I love about the record is that your style is so hard to pin down; there are so many influences and so much going on. It feels like you’re having a lot of fun, which is the whole point when making music. Did it feel like that when you were recording?

MM: “Thanks for noticing! We are above all, music fans. Making music is primarily a vehicle to allow us to engage in the conversation, which is incredibly fun. We are a little older, and all have busy lives outside of this band, so this project is a way of taking time for ourselves, for catharsis and expression. What could be more fun than that? In the studio we do try to have a good time, however, we are very much under time/budget constraints, which tends to get quite stressful!”

Smoke Bellow - Open For Business

S13: The instrumentation to Fee Fee reminds me of Bone Machine-era Tom Waits. How did this one come about?

CB: “That’s interesting! Like Bone Machine, we are attracted to that clangy, tin can percussion that bands like Faust, The Flying Lizards, and early Hunters and Collectors (The Fireman’s Curse is such an underrated record) used. When we were recording Fee Fee, it evolved toward that as we refined the arrangement. It was the last song we pinned down for the record, and it only really solidified in the studio. Manny wound up overdubbing tinny cymbals and rim taps just to fill the space we had left. These parts really glued the song together.”

S13: On Anniversary and Furry Computer 2, sonically at least, it feels like you’ve tightened up your sound whilst still maintaining that atmospheric krautrock aesthetic which was on display with Blooming/Middling. Was that something you were thinking about when writing the album?

MM: “I think with Blooming/Middling, we were still developing our musical vocabulary. We were wiping the slate clean from our previous bands and learning new ways to play our instruments. On this record, we really tried to be conscious of optimal song arrangement and of sounds occupying specific sonic space. This led to us being much more deliberate this time around. We imposed rules, to leave space for the songs to breathe.”

CB: “The thing I love about krautrock (I am talking about Harmonia, Faust, Cluster, Wolfgang Reichmann, Can, Eno etc.), are the textures, sounds and atmospheres. This stems from both the instrumentation and the production. We wanted to retain that attention toward texture, while refining the song propping those sounds up!”

S13: There’s some spoken word, too (Night Light), which I think works great. Did you always intend to produce that song this way, or did things just fall into place?

CB: “We include one spoken word song on every record. There is something so magical about the spoken word set to music. Both the words and music seem to melt into each other and lend each other meaning. We were inspired by David Byrne/ Robert Wilson’s The Knee Plays, as well as Laurie Anderson.”

MM: “For Night Light, we reached out to a fellow Australian living in the USA, Daniel Stephensen. He wrote this beautiful piece that incorporated feminist science fiction and some Baltimore landmarks. When we play it live we get a different friend to read with us. It’s a fun way to include our friends.”

13 Questions with Guardian Singles

S13: The term ‘Fuck On’ made me laugh! What inspired this song?

CB: “Ex-Smoke Bellow member, Jesse Hughes wrote ‘Fuck off, Fuck on’ next to the switch on her fancy power strip we took on tour during the ISOLATION 3000 tour. It also made me laugh a lot! I guess the phrase ‘Fuck On’ it is a subversion of the harshest thing you can say to someone.”

MM: “The song was written during the last presidency when things were feeling especially dire. It is a song about resilience and resistance, and about subverting the negative into positive, so the title seemed to fit.”

S13: The artwork struck me straight away. Simple yet so effective. Can you tell us the ideas behind it?

CB: “Every one of our releases features a photo by our photographer and author friend, Victoria Hannan. A few years ago, Meredith, Victoria and I went on a trip to Malta, and the photo is of a house not too far from the village my family are from. The architecture of the island is so beautiful, super robust and dusty and built from rocks excavated from the island. The buildings kind of blend into the landscape in this interesting way, but also have these wild splashes of flaky pastel paint.”

S13: Can you name some bands from Baltimore we should be checking out?

CB & MM: “Wume, Hamerkop, Oh Hang, Zomes, Ed Schrader’s Music Beat, Steve Santillan, Hellp, Horse Lords, Abdu Ali, Chiffon, Ami Dang, Tarotplane, Alex Silva, A.M. Tango, John Hoegberg, Herald, Giant Wave.”

S13: COVID pending, are there any immediate plans to tour the album?

MM: “We certainly want to! We have a few shows booked here in Baltimore and in Philadelphia in the immediate future. We would love to tour Europe above all else (someone?), but just playing it by ear as the delta plays out for now.”

Open For Business is out now via Trouble In Mind. Purchase from Bandcamp.

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