If you look only at the title of the most recent album by Brooklyn outfit Bellows, you might expect to hear some of frontperson Oliver Kalb’s more stripped down, primitive tracks. On the contrary, The Rose Gardener is Kalb’s most dynamic work thus far, and it’s the fullest the five-piece has ever sounded.
Sitting in EAV bar and venue, 529, amongst residual cigarette smoke and the sounds of opening band Another Michael, I talked to Oliver about his new album, his path to Bellows’ more complex sound, and the process of coming to terms with bouts of misanthropy and the changing New York DIY scene.
Sad Girl Co.: Looking back at your first LP, does it feel like the same band to you? How do you feel like you’ve evolved?
Oliver Kalb: I was thinking about that album recently — I made it when I was 18 and had never self-recorded before. It was something I learned how to do over the last few years or so. I still respect the challenge that I put myself through for that album, which was to make an album without any electronics or synthesizers and see how full I could make it. It’s definitely not where I’m at sonically anymore or how I’d make it now, but it’s fun to look back at it and see what mistakes I made that led me to where I am now.
SGC: When I listen to that album versus The Rose Gardener it’s two different moods for sure. You mentioned that you never typically record in a studio, was that the same for this album?
OK: None of the Bellows albums have been recorded in a studio. It’s kind of my way of controlling things sonically. Our second record took a really long time because there were certain sonic ideas that I wasn’t entirely sure how to orchestrate. I didn’t necessarily have the means to accomplish these ideas; it felt like there were sort of insurmountable obstacles that I couldn’t get over, so I was constantly troubleshooting. Now, those are things that would be more or less easy for me, so it’s interesting to hear the difference.
SGC: How did you decide that you’d solely self-record your music?
OK: It’s pretty boring, but I got a MacBook that had Garage Band on it, and I started screwing around on it, got a USB microphone, and literally recorded on a USB microphone and it would sound — at least at a time — incredibly crisp. Hearing my own recorded music really led me to want to do more with it.
SGC: The Rose Gardener to me seems to have a more diverse sound than your previous releases. How did you make those sonic choices?
OK: Yeah, I think that when we made Fist & Palm, there were certain ideas that I was trying to accomplish that I was a beginner at. I’m really proud of the songs on that album, but when I listen back to the recordings I think, “I could’ve done this better.” I feel like with The Rose Gardener I kind of wanted to vindicate certain ideas that I couldn’t get across on Fist & Palm. I think of The Rose Gardener as a more developed cousin of Fist & Palm.
SGC: Thematically, the album seems to express both anger and resilience. What were you thinking when you made the album?
OK: I made this album during a paranoid and angry period of my life. I felt bitterly disconnected from the New York music scene that seemed to have been overrun with power grabs and petty people. It felt kind of gross and I felt lonely and misanthropic. I didn’t feel like I could trust anyone in my community. I think I worked through that in writing the album, but at the time it felt like an emergency. I felt like I was done with the world that I’d just poured 6 years of my life into. I turned to the album to express the things I didn’t feel like I could say out loud.
SGC: What’s your personal favorite track on The Rose Gardener?
OK: I think my favorite song on the album is “Count ‘Em Down.” I felt like that was one where I compositionally pushed me to a place I’d never gone before. But I think my favorite song to play live is “What Can I Tell You About The World?” I think that’s one of our most un-fussy songs, and that song in particular feels like it can channel a mood that’s a bit higher than some of the other songs on the album that fall into an angsty genre.
SGC: As far as your album art goes, do you create it yourself?
OK: I create all of our album art. This one is definitely the one I’m most proud of. I initially wanted to draw a full folding rose bush with plants curving around little scenes from the album, but I’m not an illustrator and my album covers are usually done in the most naive way. I found I wasn’t great at drawing plants.
I think I was on Tumblr or Pinterest or something, and found a weird medieval screed that was a prophecy of the antichrist, and it was extremely creepy and had roman numerals in these little boxes. There was something about it that was so obsessive and demonic. I wanted to synthesize the prophetic, demonic quality of it into something more pertinent to the album. I envisioned it as a grid with different pieces of the album throughout. I used a lot of sort of disparate imagery that together formed a feeling of unease or chaos that I think underlies the album.
One of 2019’s most sonically diverse releases, The Rose Gardener swings from bedroom pop to folk to synth-pop, and shows Kalb’s developing mastery of DIY production.
Just as it was for Kalb himself, the album is a powerful tool for resolving one’s own anger and resentment, and acknowledging that it’s OK to feel those emotions. The modern world often lends itself to misanthropy and, like Kalb, we can all fall into pits of bitterness from time to time. This LP is the what you should press play on when you’re ready to face those feelings head-on.
The Rose Gardener is out everywhere to stream and purchase, and Bellows is currently on tour with Chicago-based band Another Michael.