photo from Jake Bellows' website
by Tatiana Ryckman
When I learned that Jake Bellows, formerly of Neva Dinova, had moved to LA, the part of me that is Nebraska missed the part of Nebraska that is Jake Bellows. Since moving to LA, Bellows has begun recording and playing with Whispertown — a variation on the original Whispertown 2000, still fronted by Morgan Nagler. But for fans of Bellows’ insightful if sometimes pessimistic lyrics, smooth voice and understated musical arrangements, the news gets better.
Jake Bellows is putting the finishing touches on a collection of his own songs and hopes to tour solo in the near future. I was lucky enough to talk with him about the new sound and motivation for his solo project, and if you’re in the Omaha area, you’ll be lucky enough to see him roll through with Whispertown this Sunday at The Waiting Room. The band is opening for Margot & the Nuclear So and So's starting at 9, and tickets are $12.
Jake Bellows plays with Whispertown in Austin, Texas, as part of South by Southwest. | photo by Michael Todd
Hear Nebraska: How long have you been in LA?
Jake Bellows: Oh, I guess it’ll be three years in August.
HN: That’s quite awhile. Have you been playing with Whispertown the whole time?
JB: Yeah, not the whole time but off and on. They had a band Whispertown 2000, I’ve been playing with Whispertown. I went into the studio with Morgan and Andy LeMaster and helped record and produce the Parallel EP with them. Maybe not quite a year ago, something like that.
HN: It was great to see you play with Whispertown at SXSW; what was the best thing you saw while you were in town?
JB: Band-wise? I saw a pretty cool Depressed Buttons show. Icky Blossoms, they had a really good show, I thought. Otherwise, you know, I didn’t really go to any shows. I just hang out and watched. I don’t like to fight crowds, so I didn’t see that much.
HN: If you don’t like to fight crowds, how did the move from Nebraska to LA go?
JB: It’s not like LA is so densely populated. It's like Omaha, but out for 75 miles. It’s a really dramatic example of suburban sprawl. It goes on forever, it’s not like you’re right next to everybody. But I don’t go to shows much here either actually.
HN: Why’s that?
JB: 'Cause I’m poor, and I had way more friends [in Omaha]. I don’t have that many out here. I have a few, though. It takes a long time to find them when the place is spread out over 80 miles. Where do you look for a friend? But I lucked out with a couple.
HN: I hear you’re starting on a solo project, tell me about that.
JB: I did some recording last weekend with my friend Alex, did some overdubbing for the record that I’ve been working on. Ben Brodin, Ryan Fox and Todd Fink, who’ve been pretty involved in getting this together — we’re going to do some more mixing next week, I think. So I’ll finish it off, which would be great, give me a reason to travel and share some songs.
I haven’t looked into putting it out, or a record label, or if I am going to release it myself. I guess I’d need some sort of investment. Everybody has been helping me out, and I’ve been promising them back rubs, and I don’t know, late-night rides home form the bar and whatever else I can possibly provide that isn’t money. They’ve been really generous. It’s just nice to know you’ve got a few friends who care, so I’m pretty lucky that way.
We finished mixing the record last night! Now we just have to call it something! Hmmm
— Jake Bellows (@jakebellows) April 28, 2012
HN: Do you know what the project will be called?
JB: No, I’ve been thinking of some names, and every time I think of something some band out in Iowa City or some DJ outfit somewhere has the name, so it’s kinda hard to figure something out. I don’t think it’s fair to call it Neva Dinova after all the investment everyone else made in that band. To stand on the shoulders of that time and just kind of appropriate that, that doesn't seem fair.
Not that anyone would be mad, I don’t think they would, but it’s also a different thing. The music has changed slightly. I guess you can still tell that they’re my songs. I think these guys’ influence has been really cool, I get tired of the things I know how to do, so it’s been really good to work with these talented musicians and talented minds, you know?
We finished mixing the record last night! Now we just have to call it something! Hmmm
— Jake Bellows (@jakebellows) April 28, 2012
HN: How does the music differ from Neva?
JB: Well, for one, the arrangements are not predetermined by the band. We had three guitar players and a drummer and bassist, so that’s what we always did. Occasionally, we’d bring in [Nate] Walcott for a little bit of trumpet, so in this instance we were just like, "Whatever we think the song needs."
I came in with some full songs, I sent [the guys] 32 songs to choose their favorite 15, and we would try to record the overlapping 10, so after everyone chose their favorite 15 we found that we had quite a bit of overlap, so there were like 13 songs that overlapped, I think everyone agreed on 12, and then there were a couple of songs that I really wanted to record because they were new to me and important to the vibe and the whole reason I wanted to start recording music again.
Anyway, we recorded a bunch of tunes. We ended up with 17 or 18, and we’re going to whittle it down to an album that works, hopefully. You know, recording a song can be like taking a picture. Sometimes it turns out and sometimes they don’t. Usually, it’s not necessarily the fault of the song, although people often attribute it to that.
In the lab with ryan fox, ben brodin, heath koontz, and todd fink! Making music out of magic!
— Jake Bellows (@jakebellows) November 16, 2011
HN: Do you have a sense of which songs have worked?
JB: It’s getting a lot more well-defined now, I think we’ll have 11 or 12 that work and then see if they work together. It may only be a 10-song record. And then possibly do something else, like an EP, or maybe do an EP first, I don’t know, I haven’t really put myself in that head-space to imagine how to get it into the ears of my friends. I don’t really know yet.
HN: Are you currently on tour with Whispertown?
JB: We start in May. Right now, though, I’m just in LA. I played a show last night I guess, but for the most part, I haven’t been playing out much. I’d like to put together a band in Los Angeles, but it’s tough because all the musicians that are good are trying to make that their living and I don’t have any money to offer them, so even if they like the project or the music it’s hard to expect anyone to turn down paying gigs to be a part of an idea.
HN: When you get around to touring, will you tour by yourself or will you need a band?
JB: Well, I’m trying to be practical about it, gas is so expensive and I’m not really a hot commodity; I say, ‘Hey I’m coming to your town,’ and they say, ‘So what? How does that help us?’ There’s a lot of that going on when it comes to promoting shows, and there’s not a lot of money in it for anybody.
I imagine I’m going to have to just go out and play the songs, go on tour by myself, and if we find that there’s an audience that wants to hear this music, and they’re willing to come out and support the music they want to hear, then I’ll be able to decide if I can afford to bring help, which I’d love to.
But going on the road with a full band and losing a ton of money is a good way to kill a band. Which kind of happened to Neva in 2009, so that lesson is fresh in my mind. I’m going to try to keep from poisoning this project with overextension.
HN: So there are a lot of unknowns.
JB: Yeah, well, I sold a guitar to buy a vehicle I could tour in, and then the motor exploded on the Datsun truck I got. So I’m screwed really. I basically threw a guitar in the river, and now I’ve had a piece of shit in the driveway for the last six months or something.
datsun sans motor :) twitter.com/jakebellows/st…
— Jake Bellows (@jakebellows) April 8, 2012
But my friend yesterday found a motor for my truck and picked it up, we’re getting ready to pull the motor out of my truck this weekend and put a fresh motor in there. I think that may facilitate me going on the road sometime, which doesn’t necessarily have to coincide with a record release, but it’s just real hard.
Most people aren’t that interested if you don’t have something to support. But I expect to get on the road this year, I hope. My point of making music has really changed a lot. I just want to share music, see where it goes, see if anyone is interested in these ideas.
HN: What color is your Datsun?
JB: Well, it’s gray and green, and red, and a little yellow and some rust. It’s got many colors. It’s not necessarily a paint job. It’s more like someone decided to give it a paint job one day and tried to take the other paint off and primer it, and kind of half-assed it. It’s a lot of colors. It’s a Technicolor Datsun.
The fresh blue datsun block! twitter.com/jakebellows/st…
— Jake Bellows (@jakebellows) April 16, 2012
HN: Better than yellow?*
JB: No, I mean I still love the yellow Datsun, that fucker was great.
From Neva Dinova's "Yellow Datsun"
"Here comes my ride,
It's not that fast and I know why
'Cause my friends don't drive the Benz
They drive them yellow Datsun"
HN: So you’re headed to Omaha with Whispertown soon. Is there anything you have to do while you’re there, or just see people?
JB: For sure, just my family and pack of friends I can’t wait to see. I try to get back as often as I can, but it’s not as often as I’d like. There was a time when I was getting back every few months, but now it’s been a little while.
Jake Bellows experienced an unlucky handful of days around the day of Whispertown's CD release show. A word of warning: The clip contains fleeting profanity.
HN: You’ve mentioned that the point of making music has changed for you, can you elaborate?
JB: The reason that I decided to start making music again, and to get out there and share it is because I was studying this book by Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, where he draws parallels between human mythology from around the globe, different ancient myths and religions.
So I was studying this and I was also interested in electricity, I mean, I learned everything I know about electricity when I was 3 years old, so I started studying the science ... and it led me down this wormhole of information about science that I wasn’t aware of. Like the fact that if you were to turn up the frequency of a sound eventually you can’t hear it, but it’s still there, and if you turn it up some more at a certain point it makes a transition into light. It turns into light.
Basically, what that means is that [sound and light are] made of the same thing, basically vibrations, or frequency. That idea blew my mind. I was studying mythology at the same time and I was looking at these genesis stories, of these different religions and myths, and they almost consistently would talk about the voice of God, or this sound being the genesis of existence — the beginning of time with sound. The way I define a sound at this point is: putting order to frequency. So, the fabric of the universe is this vibration idea.
So I was like, wait a second, the only thing I really know how to do is make music, which is basically putting sounds in order and therefore, putting order to frequency, which means to me that it’s the only tool the universe has given us to create simultaneously with the universe that exists.
I find it to be really important for the arts. You still have to have a sincere motivation. If your goal is to make music that people like or that people will buy then you’re kind of corrupting the idea of creating a better universe. The idea is bigger than I am. The idea is not mine anyway, it’s just an idea, one that is based on teamwork and caring about people, and so I believe that through sound and light this is the only way to change things.
Anyway, I guess the idea is just that we should be living in a better place, and music is the only way I can think of to help. I’m just doing my best. I don’t think I have it figured out, but I’m trying to do this. It’s the reason I want to make music now, so I guess it’s less important to try to get money to get from place to place — but it’s still important in the sense that you need to be able to share the music.
HN: Do you feel like this is affecting your lyrics or the music itself, or is it mostly the motivation?
JB: I do believe that intention is powerful, and some of the lyrics are definitely attempting to bridge some of the information as I understand it. But some of the other stuff is just ... through the limitations of my brain, they’re just kind of songs, but at least they’re sincere and deal with the commonality of the human experience. Which I think is a bonding experience.
If the goal is to make the world a better place through music, I think you’d hard-pressed to find a better guy to do it. Bellows’ genuine heart is evident in his lyrics — as realist as they may be — and through his endlessly open demeanor. To see for yourself, check out Whispertown this week at The Waiting Room on Sunday, May 13.
Tatiana Ryckman is a Hear Nebraska contributor. She lives in Austin, Texas, but loves Nebraska like you wouldn't believe. Reach her at email@example.com.