Sitting down with the reunited members of Belly in a Middletown, RI, coffee shop is a great reminder about the importance of band chemistry. My questions are frequently derailed as the group — singer/guitarist Tanya Donelly, guitarist Tom Gorman, bassist Gail Greenwood + drummer Chris Gorman — dissolves into laughter over a shared joke or surreal, salty asides. So right away you can throw out the idea that the band’s reunion after 20+ years is a nostalgia trip or a callow cash-in.
In a way, though, it’s an opportunity to rewrite history. The band, which was founded by former Throwing Muses songwriter + guitarist Tanya Donelly (she was also a co-founder of Kim Deal’s Breeders), had fairy-tale success out of the starting gate — particularly with the release of their fizzy pop masterpiece, Star, in 1993.
Star’s punchy follow-up, King, was recorded with rock producer Glyn Johns in the Bahamas and was met — unfairly, one could definitively add — with a sophomore slump-style backlash that ground the band, exhausted from endless buzz-bin touring, to a screeching halt.
You can sense how strongly they all wished for a different outcome, particularly Tanya, who began performing select King songs (and Belly songs in general) during her live sets over the past few years.
It’s hard to trace the exact moment [we decided to reunite]— suddenly we were just talking about it as if it were going to happen!” -Tanya
When I ask Tanya to recreate the lightbulb moment when she thought, “We should do this!” she demurs.
“I think it was just sort of a series of separate conversations,” she explains. “Gail and Chil [Mott, Gail’s partner-in-crime] and I had written that song together [“Tu Y Yo” from Tanya’s Swan Song series], then Tom and I had written together [“Send Me Your Next Nightmare” and “In Your Name,” also from Swan Songs]. I think Chris was the one who finally reached out to Gail and said, ‘What would you think about it?’ Because they were the two who hadn’t talked about it yet. But it’s hard to trace the exact moment — suddenly we were just talking about it as if it were going to happen!”
The band’s formal reunion announcement in early February on their brand-new website was so well-received that it shut down the servers.
Soon after, the band began rolling out a limited set of tour dates — first announcing US dates, then UK. Very quickly, their reunion took on a momentum of its own.
Since then, they’ve converged periodically on the “Rock n’ Roll Control Center” (AKA Gail and Chil’s basement) to re-learn songs they haven’t played (more or less) since the band’s quiet breakup in 1995.
Oh, and did I mention they’ve also written NEW songs?
The original idea was to release them before the tour, but the band decided to play them live first. “Nothing beats road-testing a little bit before you record,” notes Tom.
I ask if the process for writing the new songs is different at all from how they worked in the past.
“I think every song has been different so far,” says Tanya. “We’re all adding, and changing as we go.”
All of them mention how much technology has made the process of collaborating across state lines incredibly easy. Gail: “It’s amazing how you can email the files and open them up in ProTools, then email notes back and forth: ‘Try some vocals here, and I’ll try this…’”
Tanya picks up the thread: “And sometimes that works to get a song to a certain point, and then you start playing the song in rehearsal, and you’re like, ‘Let’s try this.’ When you’re playing together in a room, things can move [forward] a lot faster.”
One big difference from the heady alt-rock days: The band is doing their own website, booking their own tours, shooting their own press photos, and doing their own production work. “The production is all Tom,” explains Gail.
Tanya jokes, “As soon as I realized how proficient Tom had become on the production side, I realized I could just send him [she mimes blowing a raspberry + trills an off-key note].”
“And the next thing you know,” laughs Gail, “It’s a full production! We just sorta take it for granted that we have this amazing Glyn Johns [producer] wrapped into Tom, this poor kid who has a job and a family.”
I have to ask Tanya about her Swan Songs, which were recorded over multiple years with an astonishing range of collaborators that include novelists Mary Gaitskill, Rick Moody and Wesley Stace, as well as more familiar musician collaborators like David Narcizo (Throwing Muses), Bill Janovitz (Buffalo Tom) and Pip Everett (Coat of Arms). (The series of EPs were bundled together and released as a set this past May by American Laundromat Records.)
I wonder if the collaborative spirit engendered by that massive, ongoing project may have paved the way for the reunion.
“There’s really NO project I’ve done that hasn’t been collaborative — even the proper solo album that I did was heavily collaborative,” she explains. “When I say that Swan Song will be the last time I put my name on something, it’s because I feel weird putting my name on something that is, essentially, a series of collaborations. I think project names moving forward is more legit.”
I know when I first heard the title, Swan Song, I got worried that this was *it.*
Tanya: “And I’m a little embarrassed by that. One night I was talking to my friend Wes [Wesley Stace, who curates the Cabinet of Wonders events] and said, ‘I think I retired by mistake,’ and Wes was like, ‘Absolutely!’ And of course, naturally and obviously, [writing those songs] re-energized me…”
She emphasizes how effortless and simply FUN the reunion has been, and how vital — even if its very existence seems somewhat random.
“When I think about how it might have easily not have happened, I get this [takes sharp intake of breath] oh-my-god feeling. And that would be awful!”
It’s wonderful you feel that way, I tell her — like it’s a gift. I ask the band what’s been the most rewarding part of the reunion so far.
“I think getting back to the King songs has been my favorite,” says Tanya. “Those are the ones that I feel like everything from that point on started to move in very fast time for me… Those are the ones I’ve missed the most, too.”
For Gail, “The Star album is, to me, so beautiful. That’s when I feel like a fan, listening to another band.” She quickly adds, “But I love them both!”
Will the arrangements be any different?
“We’re doing a lot more vocals, with three of us [Tom, Gail and Tanya] at the mic,” says Gail. “We’re actually adding new stuff, new layers — a little frosting.” Everyone laughs.
With no opening band on the tour, the plan is to play nearly every song from Star and King, as well as b-sides and new songs — a deep dive into their compact catalog.
“We have a good amount of material but not TOO much,” notes Tom, who mentions the massive Cure tour where they’re apparently playing their entire back catalog.
Tanya: “Yeah, I got a text from a friend of mine who saw them in California: It was a picture of the stage and said ‘Hour 4.’”
As for Friday and Saturday’s “preview” shows at the Parlor in Newport, the band is describing them as “on-stage public rehearsals.” Should we get ready for a Cure-style marathon? Chris laughs: “We might play some of the songs 2-3 times, until we get ‘em right.”
Friday + Saturday’s low-key shows at the Parlor are sold out, but you can still catch them on their “proper” summer tour — see their website for a complete list of dates. Follow @bellytheband on Twitter.