Mittenfest: The Belle Isles
The Belle Isles is a new band years in the making. The quartet features guitar, drums, bass and baritone sax, and is a fascinating conglomeration of long-time Detroit area musicians who combined have played in more than 20 bands, including the Detroit Cobras, Saturday Looks Good to Me, Viv Akauldren, Gore Gore Girls, Outrageous Cherry, Detroit Party Marching Band, and more.
The group’s sound is somewhere between gritty garage rock and grimy Detroit R&B, all played with the sort of party-rocking joie de vivre that will make for a great close to the first night of Mittenfest.
Pulp spoke with Richard Wohlfeil, The Belle Isle’s founder, lead singer, and guitarist about how The Belle Isles came to be, their plans for the future, and how Detroit has influenced their sound.
Q: The Belle Isles are a fairly new band. Can you give us some background on the members and how you all came together and started playing music?
A: We've been a band for just under a year. We came together rather quickly while at the same time taking years to come together, if that makes any sense. I started working on these songs/ideas back in 2009 or so, [and] even grabbed the Bandcamp page a few years before I even uploaded a song. I remember a Saturday Looks Good to Me tour about five years ago where I was on drums and Fred [Thomas, the lead singer of Saturday] asked if he could borrow my guitar for the tour, so we brought it, and before and after gigs on the road back then I would work out and practice some Isles tunes.
Fast forward to last year, a little while after I recorded a solo album [by] my buddy Connor Dodson -- we were talking and he said something along the lines of "When you gonna start your own band?" and I was like, “Well, I want to but ....” And he said, “But what? What do you need to play your songs out?" and I was like, “Just bass and drums ... maybe a baritone saxophone?” [Played by Nicole McUmber] And he goes, "Great, I'll play bass. Who do you want on drums?" I told him my favorite drummer ever was Deb Agolli, but I didn't know if she'd ever want to play with me and he goes, "Whaddya got to lose? Call her and ask her!" So I called her up and she goes, "Yeah! But what the hell am I gonna play? You're the drummer!” “Naw,” I told her, “I'm gonna play guitar and sing, you're playin' drums!” And that was that.
We booked a show a few weeks after our second practice, which forced us to come up with seven songs real quick for a set ... now almost a year later we’ve got just over 20 songs!
Q: How would you describe the sound and the feel of The Belle Isles?
A: That's a great question. I just want us to sound like a pile of my favorite 45 rpm records while at the same time providing a really good vibe for my friends and folks at our gigs. I love the “feel” of things that remind us of summer and of warmer vibes while we're stuck in the winter, and I love music I can dance to -- so those are the two paths in the band's sound, two paths that I worried might become divergent, but they're converging beautifully when mixed. We’re actively trying for that fine-line found somewhere between rhythm and blues, soul, and garage rock ‘n’ roll ... all the while never taking ourselves too seriously. It should always be fun -- keep it a party.
Q: How is being based in Detroit influenced the sound of your music?
A: Can I just check a box that says "all the above" for this answer? Not only is being in the city influential with its musical history, but the city's social and historical context down to the physical landscapes and architectures of Detroit and Hamtramck have some kind of influence on our sound and content. Some of the covers we do have some significance, even if they're just good old Detroit party records. Some of the originals I write range from commentaries on gentrification to strange tributes in honor of a specific vacant apartment building. Of course, some are just dumb break-up songs, but each has some context amongst us and our friends and expresses some aspect of our lives in the city.
And there's the lineage and influence aspect too -- the goal is to develop our own voice while participating healthily in the city's musical exchange -- be influenced by the bands around you, be it what TO DO or what NOT TO DO, current or past sounds and style, be influenced by the bands before you and try to find your place down the lineage of those you love, and most of all be reciprocal -- “You go to my show, I'll go to yours” -- and "patron the scene, man." Engage and be a part of your community while respecting and finding your place in it -- don't be no colonialist. You may be here, but here is not you -- here is all.
Q: You’ve released some demos. Are there plans to release an album at some point? Where is the band hoping to go from here?
A: Well, I made up all these nutty rules for the band which sort of work as guides, like parameters establishing ethos while developing an aesthetic. Regarding releases, we just want to release 45 rpm records -- every once in awhile we'll do a tape of demos here and there or something, some digital stuff whatever, but the goal is 45s. We also want to let anyone who wants to release a 45 of our band the opportunity to do so insofar as they follow a few rules: black vinyl only, large center hole, and other "traditional" sets. And we only want to release albums when we have enough singles to fill one up, like a "singles collection." What are most bars you go to? Singles collections. Bad joke.
Q: The sheer number of bands that play at Mittenfest makes for limited stage time for each one. What do you guys like about playing a short set like the ones at Mittenfest? How do you get into the atmosphere of the show in such a limited amount of time?
A: Back to those "nutty rules" of mine ... but this one might work in our favor if all goes according to plan. We have no preference about playing long or short sets, but we do have a couple rules about staging. We don't play stages. We've consented to play some in the past, but not anymore. We also bring our own PA. Our setup is small but effective. We're a party band and by virtue of this, we need to be able to play anywhere. So, hopefully, there's a spot off in the corner or the back of the room at Mittenfest where we can tuck into and play -- if I remember there was no "stage" but a floor last year, and we like that. That's our style. How long they want us to play is up to them; we're groovy with whatever. And as far as atmosphere goes, the scene is cool at Mittenfest, so chances are the atmosphere will already be "inviting" before we even show up.
Q: Mittenfest is a benefit for 826michigan, an organization that works with young people on writing and creative skills. Were there any organizations or mentors early in your music career that encouraged or influenced you?
A: I'm reminded of Rod Hicks. He was the bass player who, with George Davidson, backed up a bunch of Motown and other soul and rhythm ‘n’ blues artists on the road back in the '60s and '70s -- Rod played behind Paul Butterfield at Woodstock in '69. I was working sound for a Butterfield tribute night at Cliff Bell's the first year or so that place opened about 10 years ago. In between sets I was sitting at the bar, getting a drink, and Rod walked up to me outta nowhere and said, "Man, you can get real good playing in yer basement, you could be a real bad dude, but you ain't shit until you out playin' in front of people." I was freaked out and was like, "How do you know I play in my basement?!" and he goes, "Cuz I can tell, man. But you need to get out. You see, music is a PERFORMING art, and you ain't really gon' know what you doin' until you out PERFORMING."
It was a trip because I had never met this dude and somehow he knew that I had been making music for years secretly, privately, and never having the guts to play out, even when asked, either thinking I wasn't good enough or what I was doing might sound lame to people at a "cool" show -- but sure as shit, the next time I got asked by a friend to play out (and it was opening a show at a crummy bar with literally less than ten people in the audience) I said, "YES." And it was my buddy Jeff Fournier who asked me to open for his band Heroes & Villains just days after meeting Rod. Jeff had been an older brother and mentor to me since I was a teenager. Somehow they both knew what was needed to get me outta my shell ... whether they were working together, conspiring like angels to break a spell, or just a couple bass players looking for a good drummer -- either way they found me and provided a necessary step in bringing me right here to you.
Elizabeth Pearce is a Library Technician at the Ann Arbor District Library.
Mittenfest XI takes place December 29-31 at Bona Sera, 200 W Michigan Ave, Ypsilanti, MI, 48197. Music starts at 8:00pm every evening. $10 cover benefits 826michigan. The Belle Isles will play opening night of the festival at 11:45pm.