By Jacqueline Howell
Belly, the influential American band who gave the early 1990s Alternative music scene much of its patina and some of the best female-led harmonies and songs to emerge out of the decade, is back on the road together touring the US after time away from the band pursuing other career paths and other musical pursuits. The reunion of Belly was one of Step On Magazine’s biggest wish list news items when the resurgence of important early 1990s bands took off in the last few years, and we rejoiced when the announcement came of a US and UK summer tour as well as the potential of new music (the latter being a secondary concern for us.) Belly is a band that for many dedicated fans, has never left the turntable/CD player, with two solid albums Star (1993) and King (1995). The first album brought us “Feed the Tree” a gold record and multiple Grammy-nominated Number One hit on Alternative charts. King charted well in both US and UK but led to some industry and label pressures and disappointment that ended in the band calling it quits rather than being given the time to breathe and grow into more albums and take breaks. Star put the band on the map at a most interesting musical time, but for our money, the sophomore King is an album length endlessly rotated let-it-player, growing in stature over time, an increasing rarity in the years since the mid-90s and something rather rare in popular music today.
Belly’s music creates both musical and voice-driven ringing, layered harmonies atop lyrics rich with subjects from the affecting, intellectual song writing and enduring milieu of their time, which proved, ultimately, timeless; environmental concerns wrapped in timeless mythology, love and growing pains, ideas about connection and disconnection (even “super-connectedness”) the tools with which we cope with modern life and pain, frustrated and enacted sexual desire & power, and the hard questions of true adulthood. But all of this is a side dish that comes after many listening sessions with the main courses – a body of work that is addictive and rich in scope, that ought to have been as big as any male-fronted band of the time, that captured more of the bigger stages and headlines. Belly deserved more recognition, it must be said.
The musical output both before and after Belly’s two albums and early career are significant. Tanya Donelly founded Throwing Muses with step-sister Kristen Hersh, and The Breeders with Kim Deal. Post-Belly’s break up, Gail Greenwood spent years with L7 and later, Bif Naked. In a fertile time for new bands, these bands impressive output stands up today as some of the very best created in that time. Tanya Donelly has since Belly released four albums under her own name including 2016’s compilation of EPs known as The Swan Song Series. Beyond music, Gail has gone on to a career in graphic design and Chris and Tom Gorman have both gone into commercial and fine art photography in New York. These musicians are artists, all, remaining creatively connected with the world in the years since the heady early 90s when they once toured for over a year. They’ve remained rooted to causes they care about, to activism, and to their musical community. One imagines in the dawn of social media, their fans have become like extended family. It would definitely appear so from the comments, shares and photos.
The press has been keen to celebrate this music news, following the tour with both national and local coverage. The Guardian sums up the UK tour experience (Leeds) thusly: “…as a setlist including gleeful renditions of Feed the Tree, Gepetto and the rest nudges past 20 songs, it beggars belief that this band has spent years in cold storage. Belly songs are darkly beguiling fairytales that erupt into big, uplifting choruses, but otherwise run the gamut from vulnerability to intensity and exuberant pop. ”
And their reemergence on the scene in 2016 is a significant statement after so many years. It’s a very good thing for music itself. It’s nourishment, it feeds the tree we remember but younger audiences have forgotten, have not been able to see live for too long in the changing, difficult culture and landscape where rock clubs and bars are disappearing and music and the music industry is a very different world. Belly’s return reminds us, again, that music of quality lives on and is now indifferent to the industry’s whims and gatekeepers. Direct fan interaction and sharing of music has cut out the middleman and with some cooperation and guts, bands can operate on their own metrics and with their own goals and plans, reaching fans in the cities that await them with all the love that’s long been their due. It’s a time of gumption, DIY art and grassroots, again. A time for celebration for passionate fans around the globe. And it’s part of a larger wake up call to the industry about quality music, songwriting, guitars, and voices not made in laboratories or prepackaged and mimed. It’s real versus processed. It’s entirely different than what is sold as popular or fun today, but getting out there and showing audiences there is a choice is what’s most essential to listeners both long time and of a new generation. Here’s hoping the reinvigorated music festival scene in US & Canada will take notice and approach Belly for dates on 2017 bills on the strength of this wildly successful tour.
We interviewed Belly mid-tour, and were thrilled to have the chance to speak to all four members: Tanya Donelly (vocals/guitar), Thomas Gorman (guitar) Chris Gorman (drums) and Gail Greenwood (bass) in the midst of their busy touring schedule, now on the final leg of their US tour. As of this writing, upcoming stops remain in the lucky cities of Portland, Seattle, Chicago & Minneapolis.)
Step On: What are your goals for the current tour? With the UK/Ireland leg completed, how do you think US audiences or shows will be different?
Chris: We don’t have and didn’t set any real goals for this tour other than being able to hit the stage with a degree of confidence, and that we wouldn’t let our audience down. This is a total ‘seat of our pants- DIY’ sort of tour that really takes us back to very early days. No real crew (sound man) no luxury travel, no days off, no production- just a band playing shows. We won’t change much for the US, hopefully our momentum will hold and we will continue to play well. We continue to tweak our set list and we have plenty of songs so that we can switch things up.
Tom: Fundamentally I think the goal is simply for us to have fun, for the audience to have fun…the world looks to be going to hell-in-a-handbasket, so a couple hours of musical joy isn’t such a bad thing. UK/Ireland was fantastic, there was something really special happening at the shows, and we hope the US goes as well. It’s a little hard to know- it seems the music culture over there is more ‘enthusiastic’ than it tends to be here, so we’ll see, but we definitely count on the audience a lot to help generate whatever it is that makes a performance ‘special.’
Gail: So far we are having the same wonderful emotional connections we felt with the unbelievable UK/Ireland fans. I don’t know how to say this without sounding corny but it truly has been a beautiful experience.
Step On: What are your current preoccupations?
Tom: Obsessing about the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it while having fun with this reunion tour.
Gail: Bear Bear and Maurice! (Ed Note: Greenwood’s trained therapy dogs who perform in libraries and nursing homes, star in Benny Sizzler videos and have been featured on the PBS Kids’ show “Martha Speaks.” – per Belly’s official website bio.)
Step On: What should people know about you?
Gail: I’m plant-powered.
Chris: As little as possible.
Tom: Only what I want them to know.
Step On: What can you tell us about your upcoming album?
Tanya: Not much at the moment! We are writing together, taking our time with it, and will eventually release a new batch of songs in some form. Hopefully sooner than later, but we are making sure we give the songs the time they need.
Tom: Somehow working out a couple new songs and saying there would be something has turned by the press/social media into promises of a new album! Whether it ends up being individual download/streaming releases, or an EP, or a full album kind of remains to be seen, and depends on so much coming into alignment with people’s jobs, families, lives, etc… But there will be something, that’s pretty certain.
Step On: What was the first record you remember loving or buying for yourself?
Chris: Everyone will have a different answer but for me the first record I ever bought was the first BOSTON album. That was during a time when i was young enough to be swayed buy the tastes of my classmates older siblings. But the first REAL music buying experience that was truly pivotal was going to Doo Wop Records in Newport, Rhode Island as a 7th grader and buying Damaged by Black Flag, and Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables by Dead Kennedys. Around that time Tom was digging into imports by The Smiths and the Jam. We were listening to a college station WSMU and suddenly music was something totally different- This was stuff you never ever saw at the mall. The discovery of a REAL RECORD STORE with a guy (we called him Jim Doo Wop I think) who curated the selection and really shaped and encouraged the tastes of a whole community was life changing.
Tom: Hmmmm. First loving was undoubtably a Beatles record my folks had, buying might have been Jim Croce, ELO or George Harrison…
Gail: Neil Diamond’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull soundtrack.
Step On: Who inspired you to take up music?
Gail: My dad played harmonica in the Pawtucket Boys Club Harmonica Band and always played “Danny Boy” whenever we asked him to. It made me so happy to see him make my mom and his mom so happy.
Tom: It wasn’t so much inspiration as inevitability. But discovering the hard-core punk-rock scene in the early ’80s was an inspiration to start performing.
Chris: Our parents started Tom and I off on piano lessons at an early age and we stuck with it right up to high school when we discovered punk rock and found a community of young kids forming bands, Tom got drafted into a project to play bass, and I bought a friends beat up old drum kit for $50.00 and that was our start.
Step On: What was your most memorable day job?
Gail: Cleaning horse stalls at the racetrack.
How do you spoil yourself?
Gail: A walk with the dogs and my “husboy” every night when home.
Step On: What is your favourite era of music?
Gail: 70s Funk.
Tom: Every era has things that are great and things I enjoy listening to, but as I age I find I listen to more Classical (Baroque, in particular) and Jazz- probably because I don’t really understand it, so it doesn’t distract me. If I’m listening to Rock, or Pop, or Country or Indie I can’t help analyzing the writing, etc. and losing focus on whatever it is I’m doing…
What is your favourite journey? Or What is your dream vacation/trip if money was no object?
Gail: My home in Little Compton, Rhode Island.
Tom: I’d love to take a few years and sail around the world, but slowly enough to stop in places long enough to get to know them. But at the same time, just being at home in upstate New York and being able to take a walk in the woods every day is a kind of dream trip.
Step On: What was the last great movie / TV show you saw?
Gail: First season of Bloodline.
Step On: What is your favourite curse word / the phrase you overuse the most?
Chris: douchebag, douchebaggery, douchyness, all the variations of dbag.
Gail: ‘In the neck!’
Step On: What is your most treasured tool or instrument?
Chris: You can’t live without a mitre saw.
Tom: My beat-up old acoustic guitar. No electricity, no amp, no effects and cords… just some wood and some wire. If I could have only one instrument that would be it.
Step On: This question is for Tanya: We are big fans of your collaboration with Catherine Wheel, “Judy Staring at the Sun”. It was such a beautiful harmonious blend of different, unique vocal styles,and was clearly the product of a true collaboration and not the mash up-never met types of guest vocals that have become common in music today. How did it come about?
Tanya: I met Rob through Gil Norton and we hit it off immediately. Belly ended up playing a couple of shows here and there with them, long before the full tour that we did, and Rob and I talked about a collaboration of some kind. When they asked me to sing backups on Judy, Rob flew to Boston to oversee the recording of my vocals at Fort Apache, and the idea to tour together came soon after. That tour was a highlight of that time for us — they are one of my favourite bands and the loveliest people.
Step On: We know about your remarkable achievements with early chart success in both US and UK with Feed the Tree / Star. What has been, personally, the most significant achievement you’ve had with your music?
Tanya: I think just the simple fact that we still find ourselves to be working musicians decades later is a pretty significant achievement. Very personally, our continued friendships, and my continued friendships with almost everyone I’ve played with, is a very rare and fortunate thing.
Gail: The amazing emotional connection between the band and the audience every night on tour this summer.
With special thanks to Gail Greenwood, Tanya Donelly, Chris Gorman and Thomas Gorman / Belly.
Belly’s official website (be sure to see the wonderful photo gallery of the band’s King cover shoot by Stephen DiRado)