An Orchestra of Feedback and Humidity, Courtesy of New Orleans duo Belong
Text by Gabe Soria, illustration by Arik Moonhawk Roper
Originally published in Arthur No. 23 (June 2006)
There’s a ‘round-the-clock environmental buzz everywhere in New Orleans if you’ve got the ears to hear it. It’s a deep, almost sub-sonic, earth-drone that’s especially evident during the wicked days of summer. It’s in the awesome silence of the baking, deserted streets at noontime; it’s in the deafening biological volume of the wild, tropical greenery and of bugs reproducing insanely; it’s in the groaning of the cracked sidewalks, ancient houses and crumbling cemeteries; it’s in the LSD-like intoxication produced by the common cocktail of casual drinking crossed with 100 percent humidity and three-digit thermometer readings.
October Language, the stunning debut album from New Orleans drone guitar-duo Belong, is a de facto impressionistic field recording of the ineffable and beautiful noise that permeates the city. Miles away from the jazz, funk and bounce hip-hop that defines New Orleans music to the world at large, October Language still manages to be as genius an expression of the soul of the city as Professor Longhair’s “Tipitina,” Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up,” Dr. John’s ” Right Place, Wrong Time” or Irma Thomas’s “Ruler of My Heart.” It’s the sound of sweat, hallucination and revelation, and every cat who’s made it through a couple of New Orleans summers can dig that.
Belong is comprised of New Orleans natives Turk Dietrich, 28, and Mike Jones, 27. Dietrich—lanky and gregarious, possessor of the strange New Orleans accent that sounds strangely Southern and Brooklyn-esque at the same time—is the talker of the two. Both came back to New Orleans a few weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, and both plan on staying for the forseeable future. Both are the type of guys who you want to knock back beers with all night with in a smelly bar, fellas you’d want to have on your side in a fight. Having heard snatches of their brilliant debut scant days before a second trip to his old habitat of New Orleans inside a month [the last being a Mardi Gras visit detailed last issue], your correspondent made a few phone calls and tracked Belong down to a bustling coffeehouse on Magazine Street for a quick talk. Decompressing from a recent U.S. tour with Ariel Pink and preparing to embark on a European tour, the band was eager to jaw about video games, the peculiar habit of some New Orleans residents of beginning evenings out at midnight, and plans to attend work parties to help Ms. Antoinette K-Doe repair the fire damaged Mother-in-Law Lounge. We also managed to talk about music a bit…
Arthur: Do you hear a connection between the feel of New Orleans and the music you make?
Turk: If we were brought up elsewhere, our music would sound very different, I suppose. It doesn’t have much to do with My Bloody Valentine and Fennesz like some people say; it has everything to do with our surroundings and environment.
Mike: New Orleans feels…worn. There’s a decay in the city. Things that aren’t obviously beautiful. Dissonance. [Laughter] And distortion and buzz and layering sounds. Part of the city’s visual appeal and character lies in it’s aged and worn qualities, from the degradation and decay that has occurred over time. Like many we see the beauty in this and our music incorporates this seeming contradiction.
I think that “fuzz” as an aesthetic concept is just coming back.
Turk: It’s probably a subconscious reaction to the clean, perfected recordings of nowadays. Everything’s so rigid and manicured in ProTools to sound lifeless. I think a lot of people are making shit dirty again. Bringing some color to the table, some texture you know?
Why do you think it’s so appealing?
Turk: I think a lot of people’s ears like stuff really loud. The depth, maybe, that fuzz brings? You can layer a bunch of noise, something that’s aliasing in a track, it can bury other elements of the track and it kinda makes you pay attention, to work harder as a listener to find the hook in the track. I think that’s one reason why people love bands that are totally fuzzed out and are not… it’s a way to make things less obvious, I think.
You start hearing weirder things in there.
Turk: Absolutely. It reminds me of the effect I get from some Glenn Branca stuff – it’s just like really repetitive for awhile, he’s banging on the same chord and then you start to hear different things that maybe weren’t intended to be there.
Mike: There are alternate tunings and the strings are banging against each other…
October Language was recorded before Katrina. Did you feel any different about the record after the storm? Were you thinking that it was, like, some weird relic of some other time or you were you like, “We’re still going to put this record out. It doesn’t matter.”
Turk: I can see how maybe people can make that connection, but I don’t know if it has a deeper meaning than it did before it was done. The record still definitely resonates with me, but having been on tour, I’ve heard the record so much that I can’t really be objective about it right now. I’m sure four or five months from now it might have a more profound effect on me when I can distance myself more.
Why would you stay there when another hurricane season is upon you? What keeps you in New Orleans?
Mike: My family has never lived anywhere else. Our roots in the area go way back. My family’s lived here quite a while, some parts for over a 120 years. As far as the threat of another hurricane, it is not enough to make us move. Living in New Orleans, you deal with the possibility of a hurricane hitting every year.
Turk: Besides the beautiful architecture, culture, and food, each of which you could go on about endlessly, the people are another reason to stay.
What keeps you here, musically?
Turk: Having lived in Chicago, you can’t get away from the music scene there. Someone’s talking about their music all the time. In New Orleans, you can mind your business. It’s off the charts. There’s a motivation to the isolation, but you’re not doing it to impress anybody. No one cares.
Mike: There’s no social ladder to climb. There’s no reason to be cool or put on airs. You don’t have to talk to people about what you do. They don’t care. I don’t know if it’s an advantage, but I like it. A lot of people here are content with just talking about forming a band at a bar. They’d rather drink and hang out.
Turk: I think that over time New Orleans bands haven’t gotten recognized, so when bands form now they have low expectations. They have their period when they learn their songs and feel like they’re good, they do a few shows and then they don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel so the bands just sort of fizzle away. As opposed to, say, New York. You could play to a hundred, hundred and fifty kids every night. You’re constantly getting this feedback on your music. Whereas in New Orleans…
After a while, here you’re going be seeing the same people.
Turk: Yeah, the same 20 people.
Mike: If they even come.
Turk: Hopefully, people will see what we did. They’ll see that you can do shit in your house, you can record it, you can get a good quality album together and you can push it out there having never played a live show and you can get signed. It’s different from 20 years ago. From the day we decided to get together [in August 2002] we’ve gotten together twice a week in my house, usually around ten o’clock at night and we work until four, five, five thirty in the morning. We’re in the studio. We’re trying to produce and finish tracks. We’re not even thinking about a live show. It’s a totally different mind set than what bands would normally do. We have a nice collection of pre-amps, a ton of effects and whatnot. It’s not a four-track. We have nice set-up for a bedroom studio. It’s not Abbey Road, but it gets the job done
Do you guys make any of your own pedals?
Turk: I wish I that engineering savvy, but I don’t. [Laughter]
So what are you guys going to do next? Is there anybody you’d love to work with in the future? Any filmmaker you’d like to work with?
Mike: I’ve never given thought to that kind of stuff. Here in New Orleans you feel kinda isolated from everywhere else, so that even happening seems like a long shot. But I would do a David Gordon Green movie.
Turk: I would not turn down Wong-Kar Wai. There’s no way. That’s off the top of my dome. If he called us up and said, “I want y’all to do two pieces for the film,” we’d be like, “Yeah! For free?”
You must have stacks of tracks ready for a second album.
Turk: Yeah, we have a lot a stuff that’ll probably never get used. A lot of hard drive space filled with stuff that I don’t want to go back and listen to. [Laughter] The next thing we’re going to do, we’re going to do an EP for Very Friendly, which is a UK record label. The way I’m looking at it, it’ll maybe be a warm-up-slash-foreshadowing of the second album.
Will the second album sound a lot like the first?
Mike: I don’t think we have to make a conscious decision. I mean, especially since we recorded it in 2004.
Turk: It’s OLD now. When we get into the studio, we have more gear to play with now…
Mike: New interests.
Turk: There will definitely be new things in the mix that you may not think we would do.
Mike: Get Juvenile on it.
Turk: If we could get Juvey on it, we’d get him in a slick minute.