Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Jake Bellows (Neva Dinova) Interview

Jake Bellows and Morgan Meyn (Whispertown) rode in to Denver on a motorcycle to see Tom Petty and play a show with Pearly Gate Music. Before the show, and for a little while afterwards, we discussed early Wailers recordings, Omaha and Edward Norton.

How did Neva Dinova get started?

In high school, Heath [Koontz] and I decided to be in a battle of the bands, but neither one of us really played and instrument, or made music. We just thought it would be fun. So, his grandpa loaned us some instruments and we made up some songs. Then, we entered the battle of the bands, but for some reason we weren’t allowed to perform. But that kind of made us want to really try to make music, so we got some more traditional instruments. We had had a banjo and an electric mandolin at the time, so we had to learn to play those. I wasn’t very good at the banjo.

Where does the name Neva Dinova come from?

It was my grandma’s name. About the same time we were getting the band going, she died of cancer. So, I thought, we’ll just name the band after her and keep her around as long as we can.

What was it like coming up in the now-famous Omaha scene?

Hard to say. I don’t really have anything to compare it to. Its like playing music in a small town that’s saturated with bands, and a lot of them are pretty good. There’s not a lot else going on, so there are a lot of young bands. Now, these days there are a ton of cool bands in Omaha that I go out and see when I can. I imagine it isn’t so different than anywhere else, except that in Omaha the bands would kind of help one another out; any band would play with any fucking band, anywhere. Metal bands, country bands, indie- rock bands, punk rocks bands, whatever, it didn’t matter. There was always a good underground scene. So, if you were a younger band then you’d always play out at the Cog Factory, or the Ranch Bowl would give you a show. You’d just play anywhere; Sokol Underground, a lot of bands played there too. Bell Hall. There were a lot of places and a lot of bands, but there weren’t any rivalries or anything, which you do find, especially in bigger cities; I think it’s partially the promoter's fault, because they make bands compete for these spots to be able to play. Then, they just keep lowering the price and see which bands will play for nothing, bring in people, then they make money and go “OK, well if you want the next gig then you got it, because your price is right”. I think it really has an adverse effect on both the music and the bands within the musical community. I think promoters have a lot to do with the general disregard and disrespect for the arts.

Cheap labor…

Ya. Its just, I don’t know, they sit back and make their money. They own a bar where these kids are working for nothing washing dishes and shit, and then go in there and play for free, while they just make money off of everyone.

Do you think your musical progression was influenced by being around people like Todd Fink [The Faint], Tim Kasher [Cursive, The Good Life], Conor Oberst [Bright Eyes, The Mystic Valley Band] or Simon Joyner?

Ya, I mean, all of those guys I have a ton of respect for, and I find them all to be inspirational. Some of them for specific musical things, others for the way they look at the world and what they see when they look at the same thing I’m looking at. Todd’s got a really unique perspective, and he’s a good friend of mine. In terms of influence, ya it was there. I mean, when I first heard Room Temperature, the Simon Joyner album, I was just blown away that anyone other than, like, Leonard Cohen could encompass these poetic themes into song so easily, and so effectively. And, really, that’s kind of true of all of those guys. Where that comes from, I’m not sure.

One Jug of Wine, Two Vessels, your collaboration with Bright Eyes, was recently re-released so I kind of have to ask: how did that come about in the first place?

Well, it’s basically that Conor and I have been friends for a long time. And then, we didn’t really get to hang out much because he was out working a ton, on the road all the time. So, since we didn’t get to see each other much, we just kind of made up an excuse to see each other and make some music. Also, I think, in the back of his mind, because hes a very shrewd and benevolent human being, he maybe liked our music and kind of wanted to share some of his audience with us. And it helped us quite a bit; we were able to reach a lot more people, a lot more people were aware of our bands existence because of that gift. It came about through pretty conventional means, we were just friends and wanted to hang out and make music, so we just played a few of our songs for each other, and then we each picked a few of the other guy’s songs that were going to go on it. So, we were like, “OK, you do these three” and then we were each going to trade one that the other guy would sing. He was originally supposed to sing “Tripped”, but he mixed his vocals out of it while we were on the road, kind of tricky style. He said he liked the way I sang it better, so it stayed. But, “Spring Cleaning” is hands down my favorite song on there.

I Agree. It’s an incredible song, by far my favorite.

Ya, it’s a beautiful song. I think he’s an excellent songwriter. It was my favorite of his. All of songs are great, but that one just kind of struck a chord.

Do you think you guys will work together again in the future?

I don’t think either of us would ever hesitate to work together again, if the occasion ever came up where we were in the same place and both had some time. It was close on one of his albums, I think Cassadaga, I almost went down there to record with him, but it didn’t work out like we’d hoped. I’m sure at some point we’ll get another chance.

Not to side track about Conor Oberst, but you mentioned his benevolence and, well, I had seen him at this little solo show in a tiny record store in NYC, and I had gotten stuck in the back. But, that’s where the exit was, and so when he came by I kind of thrust out my hand and all I could muster to say was “thank you” and tell him how much it meant to me. And then he broke out in a smile and thanked me for thanking him. And, this was way after he’d blown up, so, I don’t know, it just really stuck a major chord with me, and really meant a lot.

He’s just a really cool, genuine and sincere person. You know, I don’t stay friends with him because he’s famous or rich, but because he’s awesome.

You recently posted up some new tracks on your site. Are those Neva Dinova tracks, or some solo work?

Well, they were songs that haven’t been recorded before. Heath played bass on “Should You Ever Change Your Mind”, which was recorded in my living room. The other one, I went in and Clark Beckman played drums and Mike Mogis played bass and laid down that wicked guitar solo, while I played guitar and sang. We just sort of put together a band just for those songs, which is kind of what I intend to do for the next batch that comes. I wouldn’t call them solo, but they’re not Neva tracks either. So, I’ve just been trying to put together the people that I think would be most effective for whatever given song.

Jake Bellows & Friends…

(laughs) Ya. I’ve been trying not to call it that, but right now I don’t really have any idea what to call it. I’m just trying to continue making music. But, I haven’t been doing it the same way, like, I haven’t been doing any touring or anything. The fact that I’m playing here tonight is really more of a surprise than anything.

Ya, how did this show come about?

Just randomly. I was coming out to catch that [Tom...obviously] Petty show and so we thought it would be a good idea to pick up a couple of shows just to help with gas money and stuff. And, in the meantime, I haven’t really played out at all in a while.

How was that Petty show, by the way?

It was fucking awesome, man.

How’s he holding up after all these years?

Killing it. I mean, The Heartbreakers are amazing, and Petty was just fucking letter-perfect. Super cool and super gracious as a performer. He really appreciated the audience, and the audience loved him right back.

He played with Joe Cocker didn’t he? How was Cocker?

I didn’t catch all of his set, but Cocker was knocking it out. He did “With A Little Help From My Friends” as his closer, and it was an epic rendition; just massive emotion, looking around seeing people screaming along with tears streaming down their faces and shit. It was…evocative.

So, with these not-solo tracks, do you think an album will come out of that?

Ya, at some point I intend to put them on a recording and put it out.

So, what have you been listening to these days?

Um… I just discovered that song “Thirteen” by Big Star, so I listened to that a bunch of times in a row. I’ve been listening to Hortense Ellis, who Nick White turned me on to; she's awesome.I’ve also been listening to some old Wailers recordings; there’s a song “It Hurts to Be Alone”.

No Way!

You know that one?

Yes! I love that song. And, that was before Bob was singing.

Ya. It’s a girl singing.

Actually, it’s a guy with a really high voice.


Ya, man.

Fuck, man. That song, and that recording, is like the best thing ever. I did this radio show over in London and they wanted me to pull a couple songs out, so I pulled that one. And, just to hear it on the radio, and this guy had never heard the song before… That song is mind blowing to me; its so simple, and plaintive, its like a 4 year old sang the truest shit you’ve ever heard and felt. It’s awesome.

I can’t believe you just pulled that shit out. That’s one of my secret favorite songs ever, and I didn’t know anyone else knew it existed.

It found me, man.

The way it breaks…

(Begins singing) “After he… breaks your heart…”

(I can't help but join in with my lack of a singing-voice) “...and then you’ll be sad,”

(we both laugh) “and the tear drops start…”

The lyrics are so simple, but it’s the passion in the delivery.

Ya, seriously.

Last question, so we don’t miss Morgan (Whispertown). I’m beginning to hate this question, but it’s sort of my clutch closer. Do you think that music is more powerful to the musician, as its being written and played, or to the listener as its being received and interpreted?

Hm… I guess I’m going to go ahead and say the listener. I think that often times, in the purest forms of music, I don’t think the people writing even know what the fuck they’re talking about, or what it’s about, or have any idea what effect it might have. I think it would be pretty presumptuous to assume that they’re some kind of all-knowing being; like, they wrote the song so of course they know how you feel. So I would say it’s a listener’s game, not a writer’s. But, at the same time, I think that the most palpable poisons for a writer is to pay attention to what the listeners say.

After Morgan’s (Whispertown) interview, the three of us were sitting in the backstage room of the Hi-Dive, with my recorder still running, and I couldn’t help but ask:

Jake, has anyone ever told you that you resemble Edward Norton?

Morgan: (laughs) Yes, me.

Jake: Funny story. One time Todd [Fink, of The Faint] was doing some big show in L.A. and there were a bunch of cool, Hollywood-types sitting backstage, and he saw some guy sitting across from him. So, he went around and he thought the guy was me… but it was Edward Norton. (laughs) I said “that’s god damn hilarious”. The one time Edward Norton was told he looks like Jake Bellows!

Thats a great story.

Morgan: I know! (laughs)

Jake: Ya, he said “he was kind of dressed like you, and he looked just like you, so I was like ‘Fuck ya! You’re at the show!’”. (laughs) So he ran over like, Lets hang out… and it was Edward Norton. He was disappointed. Not because Edward Norton isn’t cool, I don’t know the dude, but just because we’re friends.

Morgan: I love that Edward Norton thought it was a fan running up until he started yelling “Jake!”

That is fucking hilarious.

--Zane St. James, June 5th 2010

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