Most people who listened to the radio in the '90s will recall that an alt-rock band called Belly had several memorable songs that received a lot of airplay. Among them were “Gepetto,” “Super Connected,” and their biggest hit “Feed the Tree.” The hip crowd, however, knows that there was much more to the band than a handful of songs.
New England high school friends Tanya Donelly (Throwing Muses, The Breeders), Tom and Chris Gorman (Verbal Assault), and Fred Abong (Vicious Circle) produced the first Belly album, Star, in 1993. The album was full of catchy hooks, enigmatic passages, and vicious jams. Following the album’s release, Abong departed and was replaced with Gail Greenwood (Boneyard). Belly put out its second album, King, in 1995, which, despite being a solid album of great songs, was the final entry in their catalog. Shortly after its release, the band broke up.
During the band’s absence, the group has maintained a devoted fanbase. Now, Donelly, the Gormans, and Greenwood have decided to patch old wounds and get the band back together, and they are doing it themselves (without the collaboration of their former label, Sire/Reprise). Since the reunion tour started in July, Belly has been playing to packed venues of zealous fans who have been sharing a powerful musical and emotional trip with them. In advance of their stop at the Teragram Ballroom, in Los Angeles, on Aug. 24-25 (formerly one day, but another was added when the first day quickly sold out), the Weekly was able to catch up with lead singer / guitarist Donelly, bassist / vocalist Greenwood, and guitarist Tom Gorman for a bit of Q & A.
OC Weekly (Scott Feinblatt): You've said that you're very much a DIY outfit nowadays. Why did you decide to go that route?
Tanya Donelly: We wanted to keep this venture close to our chests, and focus purely on the four of us as much as possible. We've also all been running businesses for the past 20+ years, and feel very able and confident about doing this ourselves.
Tom Gorman: It seems to be the only viable way to do this nowadays. We’ve all got our own businesses of one kind or another that we’re putting on hold for this, so while we’re not doing it ‘for the money’, we also can’t afford to lose money on it. But because we all run our own small businesses, we’ve collectively got the basic skills to do what needs to be done ourselves.
Gail Greenwood: It's amazing how touring leanly is so much simpler and pure. Everything is kept in the family with complete accountability and less waste. Tanya is doing all the tour managing, travel arranging, settling, hotel booking, insurance, work visas, equipment rentals, etc., etc, herself (and then still presents a lyrically and melodically delightful and comely figure on stage every night). Tom designed and built the entire website on his own and manages all of the business accounts. He also has recorded and produced all the new demos we've done so far in his home studio. Chris has designed and engaged production on every t-shirt and poster we sell as well as manages all the accounting on that end. And as professional photographers Chris and Tom have taken all of our publicity photos to boot. For my own contribution let's just say I'm a good designated van driver (like all straight-edgers) :)
Also, in what ways are your current approaches to touring / publicity / recording more or less advantageous than touring under the wing of Reprise?
Gail: See answer to the above.
Tanya: Starting with the cons ~ obviously the experience and connectedness of pro publicity support, or the in-house PR team that comes with a label, can be extremely helpful, and we've definitely felt the absence of that at times. (Our former amazing PR person, Deb Bernardini, generously set us up with some press this time around, and we owe her. Big time.)
The pros ~ the transparency and control that come with DIY-ing the tour managing, accounting, merchandising, and general planning has been very empowering and surprisingly fun. It's also been quite nice to have decisions about writing and recording involve only those of us actually writing and recording, i.e. the band. (It should be said that we have a killer booking agency, Concerted Efforts, who have handled the booking of shows, so that takes a HUGE piece of work out of the equation.)
Tom: It’s exponentially simpler and there are no external pressures and expectations. When we first started seriously talking about doing this, Tanya said, ‘Let’s do this for us.’ And so that’s the point we started from. We all come from a kind of DIY work ethic, and while it certainly is work, it’s also a lot more fun and satisfying doing ourselves. And there’s something also really satisfying about stripping all the extraneous stuff away and just being a rock band.
Are you writing while on the road?
Tanya: That was the plan initially, but this tour has been so tightly packed and busy that we haven't had the luxury of that time. But we have road-tested a few, and have a more clear idea of how to approach the other songs we haven't gotten to yet...
Gail: Not as much as we'd like. Unfortunately all free time on the road just evaporates somehow (See answer to #1).
Tom: These are pretty short runs, and the DIY approach means there isn’t much down-time on the road to work on stuff. But we are ‘road-testing’ a couple new tunes, and we’ve got a couple more we’ve started working on.
Has your creative process with Belly changed since the '90s?
Tanya: From my perspective, it seems like everyone is more comfortable both making and taking suggestions. We're much more committed to new material being fully collaborative.
Tom: Fundamentally it actually seems pretty similar to they way things worked back then, though emailing and laptop-based home-studios and file-sharing really helps move things along. But its playing in a room together where things really come together.
It seems like every single one of your concerts has been a mega-success with great synergy between the band and the fans. From the very first announcements you made about the reunion, you seemed surprised by the response. To what extent do you feel that time has cultivated a larger fan base? Or are most of these folks original fans who have been longing for a Belly fix for 20 years or so?
Tanya: It's been very mixed, age-wise—many original fans, some people who were too young to see us back in the day, and a surprising percentage of youngish people. I've been distracted several times by the mix, and wanted to interview the audience to find out how and when they started listening...
Gail: For me, at least, it is very emotional to think back on all that has happened during those 20 years (losing a sister, my parents, my mother-in-law, beloved dogs, etc.) Tanya's lyrics mean more to me now than they ever have and I think that's true for the fans who grew up with the band. The fact that most shows have the audience singing along to every B-side and obscure track in addition to the "hits" has me in tears every single night. They are so passionate. It would be impossible not to feel that synergy.
Tom: I’m not really sure that time necessarily ‘cultivated a larger fan base’, but I do think something sort of cemented over the 20-year absence with the folks that were original fans, and in a way that runs much deeper than I ever imagined. Playing live, to see that every single song we play has at least a portion of the audience for whom that song has real and special meaning is pretty stunning. There’s never that feeling that the crowd is enduring parts of the set just waiting for the ‘hits.’ It would be nice, however, to earn some new fans while we’re doing this!
This next one is for Tanya; most of your music since Lovesongs for Underdogs [Donelly's first post-Belly solo album] has consisted of gentler melodies and a more relaxed vibe. How does it feel to put the rock 'n roll hat back on?
Tanya: I’m going to sap out now, but it's been wonderful. And as a whole, I feel very lucky to have had all the musical experiences that I've had. It's been a good run.
The facts that the band got back together for all the right reasons and that it is using a DIY methodology is very inspiring. Do you have any words of advice for artists who have a passion to launch their own projects?
Tanya: It's difficult for me to weigh in accurately or helpfully for a new or young artist/band, because we're all relatively seasoned (old) and know what to expect and to look out for. We also all happen to be moderately savvy business-wise, and can easily handle that load in addition to the work (and joy) of music-making and artwork. So far I can only reference this tour as far as the DIY thing goes, but I will say that in terms of daily logistics and operation, we've met with nothing but overwhelming positivity regarding our streamlined operation, so the support is out there. There is homework that needs to be done to insure fair treatment, but I'd say one thing comes before all: trust your instincts and aspirations, and trust the people who are in it with you.
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Tom: Trust yourselves, communicate constantly within the band and always question the motives of those outside the band you do business with.
Gail: With the internet and the availability of all the club info, work visas and what have you available online there is no reason not to do it yourself (says the band member that lets the other 3 do it - lol!).
Do you have any other thoughts to share?
Gail: Make sure you get to the show early to see the Bear Bear and Maurice intro video!