Call it a supergroup
An Interview with Lifted Bells
With three phenomenal EP’s, math-rock group Lifted Bells have patiently paved their way into the Chicago music scene. Featuring members of Their/They’re/There, Braid, and Stay Ahead of the Weather, the band unleashes a hypnotic wave of past and present emo. Guitarists Matthew Frank and Matt Jordan create prickly guitar riffs that provide a sonic landscape for Bob Nanna’s frantic vocals. Kyle Geib and Seth Engel round out the five-piece, building hummable grooves that are thick and knotty.
The band recently signed with Run for Cover Records, who released their last EP, Overreactor. With debut LP Minor Tantrums slated for release on March 30th, Lifted Bells are preparing for a release show at Beat Kitchen and subsequent tour. Minor Tantrums serves as a perfect introduction to the Chicago band’s dynamic brew of mathy instrumentals and poetic emotion and insight.
Bob Nanna and Matthew Frank sat down to discuss the new record over Old Style and shots of tequila:
Love the new album, it maintains the same frenetic aesthetic as your previous EP’s, yet it carries so much more weight. Can you talk a little bit about the creative process behind it?
Bob Nanna: Well, we recorded the album last February, so we probably spent most of 2016 finishing all the songs that were going to be on it.
Matthew Frank: Yeah, we actually started writing the record before the last EP even came out.
BN: That’s true. And we didn’t play that many shows, but they helped me shape some of the vocal and musical choices.
Did you build it as a five-piece, or does each song have a primary writer?
MF: It’s pretty much between Matt [Jordan] and me, and we’ll do it pretty similarly. We’ll come in with a handful of riffs that’ll all make sense, like in a linear fashion. And we’ll bring it to the room and kind of play around for a while. And we work off it from there. We’re all writing collaboratively, in the room together.
BN: And I’m instantly singing a little bit to it. What comes in my head for a vocal melody. And then I’ll go from there.
MF: That’s what’s super helpful, Matt and I show up with these instrumental pieces, and to have Bob in the room with us while we’re writing, just observing and thinking about it – to say that’s going to be the verse if we extend this two more bars, or cut that down and it’ll be the bridge to the final chorus – it helps, because I’m not thinking that kind of way.
BN: It helps that all five of us have been doing it so long in bands and we’ve played every single role in a band, whether it’s primary songwriter or guitarist or drummer.
MF: You know, I’ve never thought of it that way.
How did you discover the album title, Minor Tantrums?
MF: Bob, that’s on you.
BN: You say that like it’s a bad thing. [Laughs]
MF: No, no, I like it, I just saw it when you wrote it out.
BN: Yeah, I liked it too, because the songs are a little frenetic in terms of the mood of the lyrics. But ‘tantrums’ is a little tongue-in-cheek, obviously, because it’s basically things to get off your chest, but they’re just minor, you know? I’m not gonna, like, rage-flip a table. They’re therapeutic in some ways. So it made sense to me because the songs feel cathartic.
You recorded the album at Russian Recordings in Bloomington, Indiana. Can you share a little bit about that experience?
MF: It was so fun. It was super fun.
BN: And the fact that we were able to go out of town and stay there. We could all focus and hang out.
MF: No distractions.
How long were you out there?
MF: For nine or ten days. And [Russian Recordings] had been on my radar for a long time. I’d known and visited Bloomington a few times, but I’d follow that studio and see what new gear they’d get, and finally it’s like, we can afford this, let’s go there! It’s not too far away but it’s far enough away. We can just stay there and focus.
On the record, I love the delicate balance between the guitar riffs and Bob’s poetic verses. How do you navigate music over lyrics, and vice versa?
BN: Matt and Matt are great at complementing each other and not playing over each other, they’re both so good and have such good ideas.
MF: Aw, thank you.
BN: They don’t step over each other, because it’d just be chaos on stage. That’s what I think is great about the band, we all write parts that compliment each other. And I want to compliment it, too. I don’t want to mask it or bury it because it’s important. The band is really good at that, just working together. And I think that’s another testament to us being in so many other bands for so long. You just have to work as a team.
It’s fair to call this band a supergroup. You all are involved with so many other brilliant projects. When do you decide a song you create is right for Lifted Bells as opposed to another band?
BN: If you want to call it a supergroup, I’m not going to say don’t. But any band can be full of people that are in a ton of other bands.
MF: Yeah. And I don’t think I’ve talked about this with you guys…
BN: Oh, this is going to be good! [Laughs]
MF: It might be good. So this record in particular, I actually wrote some of the songs originally for another record that ended up not happening with another band. And I was like, I spent all this time writing these crazy songs, and I have this other band that’s equally as good, if not better, why don’t I put this towards that? But when I’m writing outside of that particular situation, there’s not really a defined time. It’s kind of like, who has written the most stuff?
BN: As for me, when the time came to start really getting serious about writing the new record, anything that I came up with was going to be on there. Like from this point forward, anything I do – vocally melody or otherwise – is going to be on the Lifted Bells album. That’s how I process it. And it could be anything.
You signed with Run for Cover in 2016. Digging them as a label?
MF: Yeah! They give us money and they give us freedom.
BN: Yeah, and they did the Hey Mercedes reissue, too. They did a really good job with that.
MF: They let us do what we want to do. There’s no pressure or pullback. We’re kind of like the fun band. The odd one out.
The record release show is at Beat Kitchen on April 6th. Any plans to tour after that?
MF: We’re going to do a little East Coast run in May, for like a week. We’ve all done it separately, but we’ve never done that in a van together.
BN: Yeah, it’s important for us to play New York and Philly, we’re playing Montreal and Toronto.
Getting back to the album, there’s a frenzied heaviness to Minor Tantrums, yet it still remains optimistic. Can you talk a little about how you dance that fine line?
MF: [To Bob] Oh, you dance well, motherfucker.
BN: I can dance, but I don’t know if I dance well. [Laughs] The thing is, I’m always aware of not wanting to be a complainer. And I’m very aware of not wanting to be insular, as in, “No one can relate to this because it’s my point of view.” I thematically want the record to be positive and optimistic. That’s important to me. And the music is joyous, it’s really fun. I don’t want to be in a band that is a drag, ever. I don’t want to go quietly dirge into the night. Lifted Bells affords me that opportunity and I’m not going to waste it.
You both exude Chicago and the punk rock / emo scene thriving within it.
BN: We do?
Yeah, in my opinion! What is it about this town that keeps you here?
MF: I mean, I know a lot of people in other cities, and I like a lot of other cities. But there’s not enough for me to go there. There’s way more creative opportunities and outlets here that make sense for me. The fundamentals of what I like to do, what I’m good at, and what I’m able to do regularly is in Chicago.
BN: Yeah, Chicago is perfect. I’ve lived here my whole life, so I’m a diehard. I can’t imagine being anywhere else. And I’ve been to a lot of places. I’ve toured a lot of places. It’s just the perfect amount of big city. There’s no oversaturation. You can always find people to play with. No one is pretentious. In terms of being in a band, it’s just perfect for me. I mean, Lifted Bells just fell into my lap. It’s just a great community here.
What’s next for the two of you?
MF: I’m still recording bands, full-time. I’ve got a couple of LPs that I’m working on this year. I’m working on a record with Evan [Weiss] right now. Some local favorites, some staples.
BN: For me, I have my website Downwrite, so I’ve been writing a bunch of songs for that. But with Lifted Bells, I’m full blast, full steam ahead for the record release, for the tour. I just want to push this really hard, because I’m super proud of it. I’m not going to squander the opportunity of being part of something exciting. And that’s it. Everything else is pretty much else on hold.