Chicago’s Wild Belle is fronted by Elliot and Natalie Bergman, siblings whose first album, Isles, was released in 2013. Since playing Gabe’s in 2016, the group has released a second album, Dreamland, and has continued to tour while working on a third. Wild Belle returns to Gabe’s on Sept. 23 at 9 p.m., with Fred Thomas opening. Tickets are $15-17.
I spoke with Elliot a few days before the show.
What are the main musical influences that speak to you?
I started by being interested in jazz, and that’s what captivated my imagination — [Ornette] Coleman, [Stan] Getz, [Miles] Davis, [John] Coltrane. I played the saxophone, and that’s what I was obsessed with as a kid. After that, I get into Weather Report, Herbie Hancock and then Fela. I worked in a record store in Ann Arbor called Encore Recordings — it was my parallel education, traveling with my mind through records.
I started getting interested in African music and other things from around the world and the sounds that can come out of instruments made from elemental things — wood and metal. There’s an infinite variety of frequencies and sounds made from earth-based technologies. That captivated me, and it extends into all the music I do now. I make a lot of instruments — casting bronze and steel. I like the tactile sensibility with music. I like making things with my hands. I like touching things. I try to get that quality into the music — I hope that it comes through.
How has your musicianship evolved as you’ve spent more time with Wild Belle? What is your creative process like, as a band?
We work on the Wild Belle records together. The songs come in different waves, but often with rhythm — a kalimba loop, for example. Or from a droning 808 beat, or a more standard chord progression on an organ. My job is to create textures that Natalie wants to write lyrics to and gets excited about. It’s about setting up different atmospheres and sonic environments, but can also work in the context of a pop song. Most of the stuff I did before Wild Belle was instrumental, and I do my own experimental stuff alongside Wild Belle.
What kind of solo stuff have you been doing?
I’m working on new stuff with NOMO, and we just did a series of shows last month — that was fun, just to be back together and playing that music again. We spent a week in the studio and have a jump on the new record, and I have things that have been doing in between. There’s Metal Tongues, which focuses on my kalimba loops. I’ve also been making bells for the last few years and I want to do something with them. There’s a lot of things that are always informing each other and related but don’t see the light in chronological order.
Last time you were at Gabe’s, you closed the show with “Throw Down your Guns,” which became a track on Dreamland. Given the current political context how do you feel that your music responds to today?
The new record is more politically leaning than what we’ve done before. We’re trying to figure out how to respond to what’s going on, but also make something that has love at the center of it. Love is the antidote to the hatred and fear mongering and prejudice — the stuff that comes at lightning speed from Twitter and the President and has a weird direct channel to everyone’s mental capacity, dominating the airwaves. As artists, we have to push back against that and offer something else: What about love? What about beauty?
It’s hard: We live in a society that’s almost — People don’t want to hear more words. They don’t want more speeches, more anger. As artists, we have to reach for the deeper truths that can’t be explained by a commentator or politician. That’s our territory and responsibility — to explore that, and keep love in the material.
We also want to figure out how to release material faster than the album system allows — we’re self-releasing. We have a song, “Hurricane,” that we’re putting out in a few weeks, putting out some 7” and will hope to do some hurricane relief for families that have lost their homes. We’re up against it now: We have to push back a little bit and try to make art that isn’t preachy, but still deals with the material that contextualizes what we see and comment.
What do you hear in old jazz as a model for what you want to do now, like from Coltrane or Davis?
Coltrane and Davis are different. Coltrane went off on his own path — it’s why people consider him almost a saint. He took a spiritual path not motivated by any commercialism. He was a true searcher, and wanted music as prayer, as praise, as direct communion with the divine. It’s a different motivation than what we see in music today. To me, it’s a monolithic talent, but he has seriousness about him and a discipline, and a quest that he was on.
And that’s something very powerful to me. That’s the thing that exists and you can’t not deal with that. It’s a convicting thing — it’s fearless music, it’s free music and some of the most beautiful music. A Love Supreme was one of my most important albums growing up, and I still listen to it all the time. I wish there were more people making that serious level of commitment to their music, spirituality and art and seeking in that way. It’s something that I’m trying to do more and more.
Playing festivals, you realize that every inch of space is being bought up by corporations trying to sell you something, and all the space in our minds is bought and sold with marketing dollars that exploit the weakest parts of humanity: lust, greed, envy and cars, burgers, women. As a musician, you’re working in a social forum. There’s people who will want to exploit you in that way and put you into that system, so you have to be pretty eyes wide open but still protective of yourself and your art so that you’re not preyed upon.
But everyone has to eat and have a place to live, so you understand and don’t want to disparage people who have commercial success. A lot of people who have been successful are also generous. That’s the thing. People who make the best music are on a spiritual quest or a social movement — it’s music that’s more exciting. Fela’s music is politically charged. Marley is a social warrior. Lennon had that strand in his music, too. They’re people who can get free of their own emoting and self-absorption.
Given a spiritual quest vs. social content, which kind of music is better?
You need both — and we need love songs. We need satire. Dylan can write a song like “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “I Shall Be Released” or “The Times, They are a Changin'” — they were potent anthems of the movement — but also Blood on the Tracks is great, the best break up album of all time, and there are times when I listen to it on repeat for days. For me, Blood on the Tracks speaks on a level that nobody else has, as a therapist and counselor. I don’t know how many millions of people connect with it in a deep way … and that’s the power of music, to see yourself in the other and say, “That’s me.” That’s the power of art, it connects us on the deeper level of empathy. It’s a humanizing thing. “I understand you. I see you.” And, on a more existential level, “I am you.” That’s a way people can love each other — is through that shared experience.
What’s coming new on this tour?
We’re testing new material on the road, so we have four to five new songs. I’ve been playing with some of these guys for 15 years. Natalie keeps growing as a performer. In some ways, the band is an outmoded orchestration at this point in the industry. Kids are used to seeing a guy with the laptop and a singer, so there’s something I like with getting on the stage with five or seven people and playing with songs. There’s a ceremonial aspect to it. We drive around, unload the speakers every night; we play together. It is life affirming and powerful. I’ve been appreciating all the musicians in the band so much lately. I think it comes through — people can see the difference.
We’re excited to be in Gabe’s on a Saturday night, and Gabe’s is one of our favorite places to play. Hopefully people come out!