Machine Music's Albums of the Decade: An Interview with Eight Bells
This is the SIXTH installment of the Albums of the Decade series of interviews. For the rest of the series go HERE.]
Artist: Eight Bells
Label: Battleground Records
Favorite Song: "Touch Me"
The Bare Bones: The second full-length from Portland-based doom/rock/prog/black/you-name-it band Eight Bells, Landless is a landmark of moody, atmospheric and elusive rock/metal. It is also the last album before the band went through a dramatic reshuffle as well as something of a break following the injury of founder and guitarist, Melynda Jackson.
The Beating Heart: In the rich, evolving field of contemporary doom(ish), prog(ish), metal(esque) music, Landless stands out in its bright clarity, emotional expanse, and artistic completeness. Continuing with the band's ongoing fascination with everything oceanic, the band's second LP finds them firmly within their identity, supported by luscious productions and vocals harmonies, while also displaying the band's penchant for starkly morbid and violent sections bordering on outright black metal.
So, in honor of the inclusion of this beautiful work of art into the now six-episode strong Albums of the Decade series, below please find a correspondence between myself and band leader Melynda Jackson in a conversation about finding new music in the pre-internet age, women in metal, and the beauty of weaving different genres into one cohesive whole. If you like what you see in this posts and posts like it and feel like supporting the website, then please feel free to read the previous entries in this landing page, follow the blog's hyperactive Facebook page, or even consider supporting us on our spanking new Patreon page where you'll get exclusive access to more content, merch, and more even cooler stuff down the road. And now, to the interview with Melynda. Enjoy.
Was there a moment you remember as a younger person or as a kid that you would call a watershed or eureka moment you had with music? A song, an album cover, a performance that completely changed how you viewed music and its role in your life?
I have loved music for as long as I can remember. Before words. I am not sure if I have ever heard of a kid who was not moved by music. I feel like life beats that love and wonder out of people as they grow up, unless it is cultivated. I have never understood folks who will tune in a radio station and just be satisfied with that. My household, growing up, was not particularly musical or artistic. We were very working class. One of my earliest memories of music listening though, was of listening to the radio and counting and subdividing and understanding phrasing and kind of tripping out on the different ways to understand it. I listened to “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” over and over as a child. My parents had parties where they listened to 50s rock and danced in the living room with their friends. As a young teen I enjoyed Scorpions, Night Ranger, Deep Purple, and whatever else was available on the radio because in rural Texas there wasn’t really a way to find out about underground music unless maybe there was a college nearby that ran a radio station- the internet didn’t really exist at that point. A bit later I heard the Sonic Youth self titled EP and wanted to get a guitar, so I would say that hearing that could have been pivotal- to me it was other worldly music and so emotional- in a creepy way. Magic is real.
Can you say now what it was about that Sonic Youth album that so attracted you?
I was a young adult when I first heard them, but I was not yet playing music so what they did sounded so different than pretty much everything else that was happening. I was very into Deathrock/Goth at that time, and I felt like Sonic Youth captured a lot of that contemplative heavy feel, but with way different sounds. When I started to play music, I began to understand effects having much to do with that, as well as alternate turnings and discordance sort of setting an uneasy tone that would sort of morph into pop or straight up noisescapes. I would say they are really pretty important when I think of music that inspires me.
Prior to Landless the band put out a demo as well as a short album, with Landless being on the relatively short side. I know also that the album was recorded quite quickly, in little over a week. What goes into the decision to release succinct albums and go about it as fast as you can? Is it a lack of desire to pad on with filler, the fleeting nature of the artistic process?
The demo was Isosceles and had songs that would later be on The Captain’s Daughter. We spent four days tracking live and four days mixing The Captain’s Daughter. No overdubs and a small budget created a pretty succinct album. Landless we tracked live for four days, but we spent a few weeks overdubbing and mixing. We had a little bit more money for the recording and that little bit made a huge difference in that we could get closer to what we were really trying to share, we had a larger color palette.
I used to have this idea that an album had to be recorded live, no overdubbing with single takes for each song. Somehow I felt anything else was lying. I did that in my previous band, SubArachnoid Space. But that band was very different in that it was mostly improvised, and meant to be the sort of ״magic of that particular moment captured״ type of project with exploration of the fleeting quality of that type of music. I think this is something that is often captured with improvisation, but I became more interested in creating a feeling over and over toward the end of SubArachnoid space. This became the focus of Eight Bells.
I would say that The Captain’s Daughter was sort of a partial continuation of that old aesthetic because most of the material there was unfinished SubArachnoid Space ideas. I would say that Landless is how it is because of a better budget, and more practice collaborating with the members involved at that time. With Landless, Eight Bells came into its own entity or identity. That is not to say that it will never change or grow, because it is changing and growing.
Despite perhaps sharing length and a certain thematic preoccupation with the ocean with the previous album, Landless seems miles ahead in terms of production and a much more pronounced vocal presence. Where The Captain’s Daughter is almost lo-fi at times, Landless has that bright 70s organic sheen. Is this just a change in money spent or a conscious effort to pay attention to detail or a chance of atmosphere?
We just had a better budget but I would also venture that we had honed the concept more fully between the release of The Captain’s Daughter and writing Landless. The Captain’s Daughter was at first an instrumental album. Our bass player at that time [Haley Westeiner] actually showed up and surprised us with lyrics and vocals for the one track, “Fate and Technology.” We didn’t know that was going to happen until it did, and we were pretty excited about it. The only vocal utterances on that album from me are with a contact mic in my mouth and through a bunch of effects. Wailing and the like. I was inspired to write lyrics and sing on Landless, and so I did. I had already written some things, journaling, and adapted them to songs. The lyrics and vocal melodies for “Touch Me,” “Hating,” and “Landless” all came from my journal along with half of “Hold My Breath.” Singing and playing at the same time was a challenge for me – still is.
There seems to be a double standard in American music when it comes to the active participation of women in loud, underground, often abrasive music. There are moments that seem all-inclusive, like the early days of punk maybe, and moments where it’s apparent, say with the shift into hardcore, that the scene is very much a boys’ club, and that anything outside that circle is made to feel alien and different. What has been your experience as both a woman as well as a member of a mostly-female band? Has it been that of acceptance or of being made to stay on the outside looking in?
When I first started playing and touring it was much more rare to see other women players at fests, as well on a given show. Often It was assumed I was a band member's girlfriend, or the merch person, or the bass player, or that I only sang. Once I had a guy feel my fingertips for calluses and tell me that I wasn’t a ‘real’ guitar player. I feel like women are held to a higher standard than men in terms of technical prowess and musical ‘correctness’ as well, and are scrutinized in ways that men are not in making the determination if a band is good or not. I don’t think about this stuff very much though, because I find a lot of support from men and women alike in the scene here on the west coast. Way more support from the Metal scene than any other. My projects have existed just on the outside of any ‘scene’ more because of the type of music it is, or maybe the difficulty of defining that music. I think blaming it solely on gender issues is an oversimplification. I will say that indie rock types from the 90s were way more pig like than most metalheads I encounter.
Regardless, I don’t have time to waste on being upset about this type of thing or trying to change someone’s mind about me or women in music in general. I have to write them off to focus on the folks who do appreciate and enjoy what I do. Ultimately I want to make art for myself and my bandmates and it isn’t really about the final product or reaction to it, but rather about the actual doing of it. For me, this is the only way to stay inspired: Let go of results as much as possible, and refocus on what is important which is emotional expression and authenticity. My statement about what women can do is made by my being here and fucking doing it. When you are made to feel unwelcome, you learn not to need to feel welcomed in order to function and you enjoy it all the more when kindness and belonging is actually extended to you.
I know talking genres can get boring, but I do think at least some of what Eight Bells does is influenced by doom or that 70s vibe that is associated with doom. And it’s been my experience that doom artists don’t necessarily just get up and decide to be doom, whatever that means. Instead they seem to describe a process of self expression that just finds its form in what other people identify as doom (clean vocals, slow riffs, and so on). Has that been your experience? That the genre is the result of your expression, as opposed to the other way around?
Eight Bells never set out to be any one genre. The previous band I had kept getting heavier and I liked that so when I started Eight Bells I wanted to continue in that direction. I especially enjoy mixing genres together, but I also try not to think too much about being any particular thing,or not being any particular thing. I want it to be honest, not contrived.
From social media and interviews you conducted at the time it seemed that the injury you suffered to your leg during the Vektor/Voivod tour had a huge effect on you. Obviously a debilitating experience for anyone, especially perhaps a musician, do you feel that experience is fueling or informing the kind of material you’ve written for (what is hopefully) you new album?
It was pretty traumatic. We also returned and the band sort of imploded for a bit there – something that was actually a long time coming. I lost my mobility for a bit. I also lost a collaborator in a necessary lineup change. I felt largely uninspired, and that is rare and frightening for me. All that was left was to work on rehabbing my injury – and though it will never be the same it is better than it was (three years later). I had to ask for help, and leaned heavily on my loved ones to get through all of that – if anything I am more stubborn than ever. At Psycho Las Vegas we bumped into the Voivod crew in the cafeteria and the first thing Chewy [Voivod guitarist Dan Mongrain] said was “Melynda, you are a warrior!” I suppose he was surprised to see me haha -not the first time someone has called me that. I just am not ready to give up creating music and playing shows. Although bad morale and bad performances did some damage to my confidence and momentum. These days things are feeling good, and comfortable on stage again. Nothing makes me happier than making music. Everyone else can go dangle.
Landless came at a critical moment for the band, providing perhaps the biggest moment of exposure but also coming just before a major lineup shift. Despite all those things that perhaps date that album for you personally, is there anything that you’re especially proud of when you look back at that?
I am super proud of those songs and how hard we worked to make them available. When I say ״we,״ I mean the band of course, but also Billy Anderson, our producer as well as David and Micky from Battleground. Listening to it is not something I do much of, really with any album I have been involved with. Usually I never need to hear something again after spending so much effort mixing and making it come to life. I had to go through the masters to make sure all was set for upcoming reissues (not at liberty to elaborate here), and all I can say is Landless is bittersweet, and I am thankful that we were given the opportunity and inspiration to make it, and that people are still enjoying it after what it took to get it done. It was not easy, but I would not change anything about it.