By Alex Hudson
VANCOUVER – In 2013, Belle Game were in the perfect position to achieve a commercial breakthrough. Their debut album Ritual Tradition Habit garnered positive attention from mainstream publications like Pitchfork and Rolling Stone, they struck up a relationship with Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew during a residency at thein Banff Centre for the Arts, and they even landed on Much’s list of the 100 greatest music videos ever. It seemed that they were being embraced by the establishment.
But instead of capitalizing by quickly churning out a follow-up album, they retreated within themselves in the name of art.
“It’s been cocooning period,” singer Andrea Lo explains while sharing a bag of mini-donuts with BeatRoute at a downtown Toronto coffee shop. “It’s almost as if the past four4 years have been like a caterpillar going into a cocoon and becoming the chrysalis. It essentially just dissolves its own body, which is fucked up, and then emerges as something different.”
During this period, they whittled their sound down to its bare essentials. When drummer Rob Chursinoff left the group in 2014, they opted not to replace himself. Instead, guitarist Alex Andrew moved over to drums, and guitarists Adam Nanji and Katrina Jones ventured into a sonic direction mixing echoing post-rock with serene synth drift and towering vocal hooks. It’s a far cry from the folk leanings of their earliest work.
“We went from this band where there were six people at the minimum—at the minimum, I’m going to stress that—to a group now that’s just four people, and we’re constantly obsessed with downsizing our gear,” Lo observes. “There’s more space for exploration.”
Belle Game became so fixated on decluttering that they even dropped the “the” from their band name. “It’s more simple, concise, clear,” Lo says of the slight name change. “It’s more aligned with what we want to be doing and who we are as people. It’s funny how one word can make the difference in that. “
Throughout the past four years, Belle Game worked on the material that now makes up their sophomore full-length, Fear/Nothing. Their buddy Kevin Drew, who Lo describes as their “spirit animal,” served as executive producer, while producer Dave Hamelin handled day-to-day duties behind the boards. At several points during the process, the band thought the album was finished before once again deciding to re-enter the studio.
All the while, Belle Game moved away from the cerebral compositions of their previous incarnation and towards a sound driven by emotion. Lo credits their mentor with guiding this change. “Kevin was such a huge catalyst in us moving from logic to feeling,” she says. “He’s really important in keeping our authenticity in check. He really pushed us to make real music until we could do it on our own.”
Drew also helped the band land a new record deal with Arts & Crafts, and the label released Fear/Nothing in September. The 10-track collection builds on the atmospheric strengths of Ritual Tradition Habit while venturing into a more electronic direction with an added emphasis on ambient synth textures and electronic beats. Opener “Shine” begins with LP with Twin Peaks-esque keyboards and gauzy vocal processing before shifting into the buoyant synth-pop strut” of “Spirit.” The latter track features some particularly impressive high-pitched vocals from Lo during the whale-song choruses, while Drew lends his instantly-recognizable singing to the bridge.
Lo’s powerhouse pipes carry many of the record’s most memorable moments. Her big-voiced belting soars over the juddering jackhammer beats of “Yuh,” and she evokes the gleeful dream-pop gibberish of Cocteau Twins during the wordless howls of “Oh I” before kicking things up a notch with an acrobatic octave leap.
Many of the songs featuring minimal lyrics and largely rely on repeated refrains. The is particularly effective on the impassioned “Bring Me,” while features a seething chorus of “Bring me shame / Bring me pain / Fuck me the same.” Of her mantra-like lyrics, Lo says, “That’s the way my mind works a lot—this obsessive nature of repetition to really drive a point home. I personally like listening to a lot of instrumental music that can be repetitive, but I find there’s a sort of meditation in that delivery.”
Lo hasn’t always been confident in her forceful vocals. In Belle Game’s early days, she would get so nervous that she would throw up before shows and intentionally held the microphone away from her mouth. Her bandmates have encouraged her to take the spotlight, however, and although she still sometimes battles with self-doubt, she describes it as a “personal exorcism” when she performs her soaring vocal parts.
This increased sense of confidence is conveyed by Fear/Nothing’s empowering name—although the titular backslash hints as a deeper meaning beyond the self-affirming encouragement to “fear nothing.”
As Lo explains, “It’s not necessary about diving into things and being fearless. It’s about fear and nothingness and all things coinciding with each other and existing simultaneously.”
She describes the concept of “nothingness” as being about finding a sense of serenity amidst the chaotic static of life. Pointing down at the table in front of us, she says, “As if this round black table opened up into a void and you and I dived in and we were just floating there. In the past few years that we were writing the album, that’s what I really wanted to experience—quiet amongst the noise. Just nothingness.”
Ironically, Fear/Nothing isn’t likely to provide Belle Game with much peace or quiet, since they havethe group having mapped out a fall tour in support of the record. Most of these U.S. and Canadian dates are with Broken Social Scene, including both of their performances at Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom.
It’s going to be busy, but luckily Lo will go through all this with her bandmates at her side. Having evolved artistically alongside her collaborators for close to a decade, the four-piece’s rapport is closer than ever. The frontwoman says. “We have a lot of transparency between us, which is tough at times. It’s so weird—it’s like having a relationship with three other people. . But no one sleeps together.” Pausing, she adds with a laugh, “Except for maybe Katrina and Adam, because they’re engaged.”
It’s this musical intimacy that has allowed Belle Game to create the best material of their career to date. “We’ve been stripping away at ourselves to create more honestly,” Lo reflects. “I’m more comfortable with just being naked.”
Belle Game will play at the Commodore Ballroom on October 20 and 21 with Broken Social Scene.Belle Game, cover story