Standard Sounds

Music as Weapon: The Sounds of Wild Belle

Elliot and Natalie Bergman of Wild Belle are more than just musicians, they’re makers. The brother-sister duo are about to release their sophomore record, Dreamland, and they did a lot more than just write and play the songs on it. Inspired by the historical use of bells in making weapons during times of war, Elliot made a series of bells out of melted down guns confiscated in the Chicago area where he lives. These bells, and a message against the gun violence that is so prevalent in the area, are the basis for Dreamland’s first single, “Throw Down Your Guns.” The rest of the album is a sonic tapestry of the band’s influences, from jazz to reggae to classic rock, taking the listener through the depths of heartbreak and out the other side. We sat down with the band to talk bells, breakups, and everything in between. 
THE STANDARD: Can you tell us a little bit about where this whole idea for the bells came from?
ELLIOT BERGMAN: I've always been interested in making instruments and it became a focus of mine in the last year. There's this historical thing where militaries and governments would take all the church bells down and make artillery out of them, so we thought it would be cool to reverse that process and take a bunch of guns and bullet casings and create things to make music.

Did something in particular inspire you to take this more political stance?
E.B.: We live in Chicago and gun violence is just always around us. It's such a prevalent problem right now. I think that went into the thought of the bells—it’s a metaphor of trying to make something, but also to have some sort of position on what's going on around us.

Natalie what's your take on the project’s relationship to Chicago and gun violence in general?
NATALIE BERGMAN: I think Elliot did a great job of explaining it. The song is also a look into my own heart, but now it feels like all these problems within the city of Chicago are coming closer to us. It is the message that we’re trying to send. We are literally saying "Throw down your guns." 

Elliot, can you tell us a little bit more about how you got into making bells?  

E.B.: I started taking classes in community college a few years ago to learn about it. I started making these electric kalimbas and that was how I got into instrument building. But bronze casting is a completely different world and process. You’re melting and pouring liquid metal into these ceramic forms. It's pretty involved in terms of figuring out, like, who can melt guns, how do you get guns that have been destroyed, what type of alloys are going to flow, what's going to sound good, what's going to look good.

How do you get guns that have been confiscated?
E.B.:  I can't tell [laughs].

It's a secret?
E.B.: No, we actually partnered with a woman named Jessica Mindich who has this collection of jewelry called the Caliber Collection. She's established relationships with various police departments around the country and she's been using the stuff in jewelry and art projects. When we reached out to her she was excited about the project and just hooked us up with a bunch of stuff that had already been cut up. She was very generous in terms of helping us source guns that had been either confiscated or bought through buy-back programs.  
Natalie, you make art as well, right?
N.B.: Yes, a different form of art. I like collages and I’ve been doing it my whole life. I just started sort of playing with magazines and cutting them out. You know, gluing different universes together and making entirely different worlds. It's a good way of working through whatever's going on in my brain because sometimes there's a lot of pressure and a lot going on in our world and it helps me sort through all the bullshit. It's a good form of meditation.

Do either of you find that your artistic mediums inform your process with the band?
N.B.: I mean, for me, making music is completely like a collage, and so is editing videos, which are two things that I love doing. I've been recording music in GarageBand since I first had access to a computer and, you know, just cutting things up, layering sound over drum loops.

I'd sit in my closet and make these little demos. And so that's a very similar process to collaging, just trying to figure out which sounds fit together. The world is a collage—you have to figure out which pieces fit together, even if they don't even come from the same palette. You bring them into the same family.

"The world is a collage—you have to figure out which pieces fit together, even if they don't even come from the same palette. You bring them into the same family."

You can definitely hear that on the record. There are so many different influences and it is like a collage, a really nice textured mix of various sounds.
E.B. We're always looking for unusual sounds or something that you haven't necessarily heard before or heard in that context. We're drawn to things that are kind of rough around the edges and hand-made and, you know, dented and distorted and fuzzy. It’s always fun to make an instrument because the imperfections are sometimes where a song can live. Doc McKinney, one of our producers on the record, called me yesterday to tell me about this guitar he just bought. He's like "I love this guitar so much, there's like eight new songs in this guitar."

N.B.: [laughs]

E.B.: That's genuinely how it feels sometimes when you're playing an instrument or when you make a new instrument or when you're listening to something in a new way. We're always looking for ways of combining things that are exciting to us, or unusual, or surprising.

Is there an example on the record that you think represents that?
E.B.: The song “Rock & Roll Angels” is this kind of dusty country ballad. But then Natalie's playing this strange bass kalimba that I built and I'm playing what effectively sounds like pedal steel guitar, but it's also an electric kalimba. Then there's these really nice string arrangements over the top of it and Natalie singing through the noisiest microphone we’ve ever recorded on but it was just perfect for the song. So it's all sorts of unusual things where you're like ‘Okay, this mic is totally broken, but it sounds great and we're using electric kalimbas to play some sort of weird country music.’ 
There are a lot of Jamaican influences on the album and I'm curious about when you guys first went there and how that musical culture has affected your sound?
N.B.: Well, I love Jamaican music and we spent a lot of time there. I first went when I was very young and I just sort of fell in love with the country and the music that came out of the people. Elliot would give me Jamaican records when I was younger and the sound of the country just took over my brain and my, like, vision. All I could really think about was Jamaican music from the sixties and seventies. All of the music that was recorded at Studio One—we love those recordings. Lee Scratch Perry is a genius. Alton Ellis, Delroy Wilson, Della Humphrey, Jackie Mittoo, you name it. When you listen to the music you feel like you're invited into this small universe of powerful, big sound. I mean, we also grew up with jazz and soul music, and I studied jazz in school, Elliot studied jazz. So naturally we put all of our sounds together and then out of that came Wild Belle.

As far the lyrical content, there's definitely a breakup vibe. Can you tell us a little bit more about where those lyrics came from and how the lyrical process evolved?
N.B.: It's kind of like every song you write is about a shitty situation and then you're just trying to overcome that. We've made about three records and all the songs about heartache ended up on this one. That breakup was so long ago I almost forgot about it [laughs].

E.B.: We sent Natalie right back to the dark place. But you know, the record is called Dreamland and there's this notion that we all have dreams, we're all looking for something. I think you see ways in which we haven't really fulfilled our dream, whether as people or as brothers and sisters or as family or as a community or a country. So there's all these ways in which things kind of run off the track. I think it's an important time right now to rearticulate what some of those dreams are and what things we should really be working towards. Love is a central theme of this record and losing love is obviously a painful thing, but we try to find ways to make love the center of everything we’re doing, whether it's writing a song or making a bell or making a collage. Trying to put love into the materials and into the sounds and into the thoughts and words. I think that's important right now and that's needed in the world. Hopefully Dreamland points at some of that.

We’ve read that you don't see this as an overtly political record, but do you think, given the climate right now, that the vision of love on the record is in some ways political?
E.B.: Loving people right now is a political act because there's so much hate being spewed by people in positions of power with huge audiences. It really does end up being the only thing that you can do. It's unfortunate that it seems like a radical thing. We get asked all the time what it's like working with your brother or your sister, and in a weird way we all need to be able to love people like a brother or a sister.  

One of the things that music has the power to do is bring people together. Whether that's coming together in dance, or singing, or just being in a shared space and enjoying something. Sound has that ability to heal and hopefully that intention is realized in our music. It's something that we aspire to. 


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