INTERVIEW: JOHN BELLOWS
John Bellows, a former choir boy hailing from the rural landscapes of Western Kentucky, embarked on a unique musical journey that seamlessly transitioned from his roots in the Grand Ole Opry to the alluring specter of rock and roll. This introduced him to new experiences, including the world of marijuana, courtesy of his metalhead friends. The unexpected amalgamation of stoned, backwoods adventures and obsessive tape recordings served as an apt prologue to the enigmatic tale Bellows would meticulously script over the next two decades.
Bellows' latest album, 'Certain Demise,' is a sonic and lyrical exploration that delves into themes of regeneration, perseverance, and the ever-present shroud of confusion. According to John, "It's a concept album about those scary thresholds everyone has to walk through." Crossing these thresholds signifies the transition into a life of deeper meaning and significance, while refusal to embrace change leaves one in a state of limbo, trapped in the stasis of existence. These opportunities, both big and small, collectively shape our understanding of the world and our place within it.
We sat down with John talk through his album, the essence of his sound and much, much more exclusively for FLEX. Check it out below!
Hey John, welcome to FLEX! How are you doing?
Doing well! I love the fall season. It's like the sweet ripeness of death in nature conjures up an appreciation for life. I always get so nostalgic and contemplative in October.
When did you first begin creating music and how has your artistry evolved to where it is today?
I picked up a guitar and started learning Nirvana songs by ear the summer before starting high school. I feel like the "Alternative" music on MTV and the lo-fi indie music of the early 90s had an "anyone can do this" vibe. I started writing songs right away. I remember the varieties of ways we'd record in high school. In Instrumental Music class, my friends and I would tape record our irreverent song improvisations. With my personal songs I would multi-track by recording guitar and voice on a tape recorder, then play that tape directly next to another tape recorder while singing and playing guitar licks along with it. It had an overdriven scrappiness that I loved. Lots of gain and natural distortion are still elements I employ. I feel like I'm always trying to replicate the liveliness of those high school recordings!
How would you describe the essence of your sound?
A lot of my sound is still growing off of those formative years. Beck, Ween, and Pavement were hopping around different genres and using various instrumentation. Early on I was also listening to lots of my dad's old country records, checking out depression-era blues records from the library, and learning deep indie cuts by ear. I was really exploring the expanse of American songwriters! Much of it was coming from individuals, whether it was John Frusciante, Roy Acuff, or Son House. The idea of an individual's sole vision was appealing to me. I suppose an amalgamation of all these heroes is a facet of the John Bellows sound.
How does your work in Western Kentucky impact your artistry?
I'm from a super small town, but hanging out with friends in high school felt like a scene as much as anywhere else. As a group of buds we were all exploring and making music that seemed psychedelic and forward thinking, even in a podunk county. We would record 90 minutes worth of jams where we were maniacally improvising, and we would also record legit worked out songs with each other on 4 track and 8 track machines. Music was an important and bonding element in our relationship that pushed our creative edge. I always want music to be that way!
After a 10-year hiatus, how does it feel to be releasing a new body of work again?
I moved to San Juan Island in December of 2013. After that I actually did continue to tour occasionally and released a tape of dark fingerpicked tunes recorded mostly in Chicago called l o n g. But there was a life/cultural shift happening. My partner and I were "young farmers" for a bit (we were already nearing our mid-thirties), setting up market gardens, running our own CSA called The Soil Underground, and selling produce at farmers markets. It was a beautiful time, but a few years in I started teaching music on the island. This helped reinvigorate my artistic process and once I settled into the job and a steady living situation, which took years, I began putting effort into recording this concept album. It feels like an accomplishment. And it sounds exactly the way I'd like it to be!
Tell us about ‘Certain Demise’, what was the recording and writing process like for it?
I feel like all albums I do are concept albums. Though my initial idea always changes over time, and some new songs are born during the ongoing process. I've always been a fan of portastudio tape machines, so I started on that like usual. They are all from the early 90s so they need a lot of maintenance and can be fussy. I got a Tascam DP-32 (basically a digital version of the old cassette portastudios) to relieve headaches, but in the interim I also used a reel to reel and even cellphones during the pandemic. I've always been a "home recorder", but the home in the past several years has been very temporary, making for a make-shift recording process.
Current favourite single on the record?
I really like Dying Words. It was not vivid, but I had always imagined that song with a certain type of instrumentation. We acquired an upright piano winter of 2019. I'm not really a piano player, but I wrote and diligently practised the piano part for this song for months until I could record it in its entirety. There is somehow a lot of subtlety and harmonics that have a beautiful presence in this song as well. The lyrics tap into a personal, social, and mythological division that is inherent to our collected psyche. This song runs deep! And when we perform it just right we can get tears in the room.
You say this is a concept album, where did this inspiration come from?
I think resistance to change is the biggest theme in "Certain Demise". Fear and an unwillingness to transition can play out in so many different ways. It's an essential struggle we are all encountering. The decisions we make or do not make, make us who we are! But is it always appropriate to power through? When is it appropriate to actually retreat and let go? And how can we be forgiven if we can't forgive ourselves?
You transpire the indie folk genre and make it entirely your own in ‘Certain Demise’, who are your biggest influences as an artist?
There are lots of great mainstream and indie artists that taught me the basics of songwriting and style in the 90s, but I was deep in the Chicago DIY scene in the early 2000s, and that's where I really cut my teeth. Bands I toured and played with consisted of Bird Names, Coughs, Time and Temperature, Caethua, Angel Olsen, Mines, Bret Koontz, Secular Pets, The Christmas Bride, Health and Beauty, Ryley Walker, Mayor Daley... the list goes on.
And finally, what are your plans for promoting this album?
I am an amateur at promotion. I know the DIY methods of local promotion and working within touring networks, but the paradigm of social media, blogospheres, and streaming platforms is new territory. Wish me luck!
Listen to 'Certain Demise' in full here: