Emotionally complex music that makes your whole life feel like a movie
Until a short time ago, I had no idea I was living next door to one of the founding members of the Lancaster-based band Bells.
I was assigned the interview, headed straight to the band’s Facebook page, clicked around and started scratching my head. (“He looks so familiar…”) Yup, I’ve definitely seen Sean Hennessey around town – introduced by a friend at Prince Street Cafe, pulling up to the curb on his skateboard, standing on his front porch as my roommates and I warn him about a potentially loud upcoming party. Our houses literally touch. My initial email to the band included a short p.s. “Also, Sean Hennessey, are you my next door neighbor??”
In 2011, Hennessey and Jon Hershey left their previous bands (This or the Apocalypse and August Burns Red, respectively) to collaborate on a new project – Bells. Joseph Terranova (of twelve.o.one/Castle Worries) and Timothy Kettering joined the group, and they all got to work writing, recording and releasing their debut album, Our Forest, Our Empire, in August of 2012. (Watch a 42-minute video of the band playing the entire album.)
Bells performed throughout 2013 in support of the album, and in March of that year they welcomed Toby Pool onboard as the full-time drummer (also of This or the Apocalypse). Since their album release, Bells has played shows with The xx, Washed Out, JoyCut, Younger Me, Kingsfoil, Marathon and Saint Sycamore. This month, they headline a benefit concert at Tellus360 on March 14, followed by an opening slot for mewithoutYou at The Depot in York on March 23.
But what about the music? I suppose that if you’ve never heard of Bells before this article, you may be waiting for that angle to emerge. To be honest, I’m putting it off because I don’t know what Bells is. Genres that continue to come up in other interviews (and PR materials from the band) include “post-rock,” “electronic-driven,” “ambient-flare,” “twinkly,” “experimental,” “instrumental” and “indie rock.” In love with what I was hearing but unable to describe it, I reached out to the band.
“How would you describe your music to someone who doesn’t know what post-rock/ambient means (hint: this person is me)?”
“Usually, I start off by explaining our music has a cinematic feel,” says Hennessey. “I can see a film playing out in my mind while writing. It’s like we’re trying to uncover the story. There is a character that emerges. I can see the plot becoming more clear as we piece together all the different sounds and textures. After I explain this abstract idea of our music and the person looks confused, I usually end up just likening the sound to a bunch of bands we’re influenced by.”
“I think our new material sounds more refined and mature,” says Hennessey. “We are playing with a lot of new sounds…leaving room for a lot more experimentation and richer songs.”
That helped. I’m a writer; storytelling makes sense to me. I went back and listened to the album for a few more days, thinking about plot and character and how the music of Bells made me feel. It’s the type of music that makes your entire life seem like a movie.
For example: Listen to Bells in a coffee shop, and suddenly the couple chatting across the room are in the middle of a dramatic break up. He’s going backpacking across Europe, and she’s barely holding back tears. Listen to Bells while you’re walking through the Museum of Modern Art, and suddenly you’re part of a quirky Wes Anderson film (and yes, you should run off to the inlet together). Listen to Bells while you’re in the bathtub, and suddenly you’re so clean that you see your skin for the first time, and it becomes obvious that the only thing to do now is to move to L.A. and become an actress.
Bells is making empowering, inspiring, emotionally complex music right in Lancaster. With growing admiration, I asked Hennessey if their music represents or is influenced by Lancaster as a place.
“Absolutely. I definitely believe in energy in people and places – not in a mystical sense, but in a very tangible way,” he says. “Lancaster has an aura of can-doers that is impossible not to rub off on you. It’s been inspiring living and working in Lancaster.
“The commuting I do every day creates a unique breeding ground for randomness. In this randomness, little melodies or phrases to be born. It could be in the pattern of someone’s footsteps as they run by, or someone humming a tune in an open window, or the various melodies from construction equipment that is erecting a new building. It seems stupid, but I think these are some of the most rewarding moments in life, when something so small and trivial can be grown into a song.”
The band is in the middle of writing for their new album, scheduled for release this fall.
“We’ve been very busy individually. Some of us have started new jobs/new business adventures/getting married,” says Hennessey. “The good news – we have also been heads-down, working on new material with multiple musical retreats and consistent writing sessions.”
When prompted to add more about these writing retreats, he tells me they usually pack up all of their gear and remove themselves from the day-to-day distractions of life in order to find inspiration.
“It’s fun waking up with your best friends, making some breakfast, going on a hike, singing tunes, bringing the guitars out around the campfire, running back inside when there is that ‘aha’ moment,” Hennessey says. “It’s sad; as we grow older, those moments are fewer and further between.”
This sense of growing up is sure to play a role in Bells’ sophomore album.
“I think our new material sounds more refined and mature,” says Hennessey. “We are playing with a lot of new sounds. Our Forest, Our Empire was a collection of ideas that we wrote over a few years and pieced them together in a way we hoped sounded like an album. Now, we’re teasing out the ideas more to fulfill them as complete pieces, which I think is leaving room for a lot more experimentation and richer songs, in general.”
Bells opens for mewithoutYou at The Depot (360 W. Cottage Pl., York) on tonight. Tickets and info here.