Band To Watch: Melkbelly
There’s an intense alchemy to everything that Melkbelly does. The band sounds like they’re being constantly pulled in four directions at once, like a rubber band that’s about ready to snap, which makes sense considering each of its four members come from completely different backgrounds. Between them, their past projects range from poppy folk to crisp indie-rock to harsh experimental noise, and all of those elements fuse together into Melkbelly’s mix of domineering hooks and coolly-controlled chaos.
Formed in Chicago toward the end of 2013, Melkbelly is, in part, a family affair. Miranda Winters is the charismatic center on vocals and guitar alongside husband Bart (also guitar) and his brother Liam (bass); they recruited drummer James Wetzel, who holds their patchwork sound together with a remarkable fluidity. Over an EP (2014’s Pennsylvania) and a series of increasingly tighter 7″‘s, they’ve honed their sound and found the band’s delicate balance, a process that took time and patience. “I think it’s easier to write the kinds of songs we want to be writing now that we know each other better,” Miranda says. “At first, we were all pretty timid, and being timid in combination with the fact that we all have such different tastes in music made things a bit difficult.” But you can get a sense of just how far they’ve come on the pair of singles they put out last year — “Mount Kool Kid” and “Elk Mountain” — which settle into interlocking grooves that ricochet off each other with impressive skill.
All their experimentation has led to their upcoming debut full-length, Nothing Valley, a teetering work that always feels like it’s on the verge of running off the rails but never does. It’s the inaugural release for Wax Nine, a new sister label of Carpark Records that’s run by Speedy Ortiz’s Sadie Dupuis, who was first turned on to the band by their 2015 7″ (“Bathroom At The Beach” b/w “Piss Wizard“). “It’s always wonderful to make friends with other musicians that are kind, supportive, and passionate, but it’s especially great when that person is a woman that does the kind of stuff that Sadie does,” Miranda says.
“Kid Kreative,” the album’s first single (which you can listen to above), feeds into the frustration of having to participate in a male-dominated music industry. “It was a song that I wrote when I was really mad,” Miranda explains. “It’s about having your aesthetic hijacked by someone else. Specifically, as a woman that plays rock ‘n’ roll, having your aesthetic hijacked by a man and them easily capitalizing on that.” The track is addressed to someone who takes everything — with “no work required,” as Miranda sneers at one point — and it breaks out into a noisy and inescapable hook: “Called him Kid Kreative, called him Kid Kreative!” The song comes attached to a video that was directed by Marty Schousboe (from a concept by members Bart and Liam), and it features a gluttonous central figure who gets handed everything for free, in this case an alarming amount of food that soon becomes terrifying and out-of-control. The video plays around with the idea of excess, much like the band’s sound itself.
Melkbelly’s first release, the Pennsylvania EP, was done in one huge burst — a day for recording and a day for mixing — and the band deliberately wanted to go slower this time around for Nothing Valley. “When we went into the studio for this album, we knew that it would maybe take a couple of months,” drummer James Wetzel explains. So they brought in a few songs at a time and worked with what they had, and then took some time off to write in response to what they had already created. “It was a slow process,” he says. “But we had to let ourselves catch up with our ideas.”
They recorded the album earlier this year with Dave Vettraino — who they worked with on last year’s 7″ — and half the songs were formed in the studio, culled from tapes of the band practicing. “We’ll record our practices to tape and then listen to the tapes and pull pieces of that out and then write the songs together,” Miranda says. The result is an album that feels improvisational and hard to pin down, a mess of noise and blocky puzzle pieces that intentionally don’t always fit together. “We write riffs that are not supposed to be in the same song initially, but we make them work,” Wetzel says. “It’s a challenge but it’s fun to work that way. It makes the songs more interesting.”
Nothing Valley is often a textural experience, with Miranda’s lyrics taking a backseat to the careening rhythms of the rest of the band. But the words are important, a mix of freewriting and stream-of-consciousness that translates into a lot of short, pointed phrases that serve as necessary anchors for the songs. The content of the album was primarily inspired by the band’s experience touring the West Coast last year: “I was trying to do a lot of relating emotional terrain with the geography of the land,” she explains. One song in particular, “Middle Of,” captures the anxiety that can come with being confronted with the wide open spaces that the vast American landscape provides: “This is your anonymous digital dump/ See what he sees to know what she saw,” she sings at the beginning of that one. “Bumping across the whole hilled nation/ Hemming and hawing, piss and then sleep.”
And while her words sometimes get overpowered by the machinery behind her, Miranda does a good job of pushing back against that, especially live. “As I’ve grown with Melkbelly, I’ve learned to deal with that by the way the lyrics are performed,” she says. “Screaming or whispering something, the way I move my body when I’m singing… I feel like that’s translating the same emotion. It just works.” The band’s live shows are visceral and engaging, and there’s a physicality to them that’s expressed in the band’s recorded output as well.
“We always try to use shows as opportunities,” Wetzel explains. “We see them as extensions of practice. We try to break down the barrier between practice and shows by taking a few risks with each show where we’re playing something that’s totally new or a song that we don’t all see eye-to-eye on so we can figure out how the ending should go or how long we should play a certain section.” That’s not a process unique to this band, of course, but it is indicative of the creative ping-ponging that makes Melkbelly such a dynamic group. It’s like you’re constantly watching them evolve in real time, a friction that’s as exciting and exhausting and occasionally overwhelming as it sounds.
01 “Off The Lot”
02 “Kid Kreative”
04 “Greedy Gull”
06 “Middle Of”
07 “Twin Lookin Motherfucker”
09/06 Pittsburgh, PA @ Cattivo *
09/07 Baltimore, MD @ Metro Gallery *
09/07-10 Raleigh, NC @ Hopscotch Festival
09/09 Asheville, NC @ Mothlight *
09/10 Cincinnati, OH @ Northside Yacht Club *
10/13 Chicago, IL @ The Hideout (Record Release Show)
* w/ Protomartyr