More about: Belly
Such is the breezy and easy-going demeanour of Tanya Donelly that it becomes easy to forget her position as one of the most crucial figures in the lineage of indie rock. Lest we forget, she was in the eye of the 80s hurricane that blew in with Throwing Muses, the band helmed by her stepsister, Kristin Hersh. Along with touring partners Pixies, they not only helped pave the way for the explosion that was to occur Stateside and then globally in the early 90s, but also transformed the 4AD label from the home of ethereal, gothic rock into the next phase of its life cycle.
And while most musicians would count themselves fortunate to be part of one influential band, Donelly then formed The Breeders with Pixies bassist and close friend Kim Deal. Though they only made the one record together, 1990’s Pod, the album made a significant impact on one Kurt Cobain, who would later be fulsome in his praise and the effect that it made upon Nirvana’s music.
Donelly took centre stage when she formed Belly with guitarist Tom Gorman and his drummer brother, Chris, and former Throwing Muses bassist Fred Abong in late 1991. Following the recording of their debut album, Star, in 1993, the force of nature that is Gail Greenwood replaced Abong, and Belly’s classic line-up was in place.
The record made a considerable splash, not least in the UK where it peaked at Number 2 in the UK album charts, an impressive feat for a record made up of angular and off-kilter rock, best displayed by the hit single, ‘Feed The Tree’, its predecessor, ‘Gepetto’ and deep cuts such as the haunting ‘Low Red Moon’.
1995's follow-up, King, failed to meet the success of Belly’s debut. A period of intense touring followed, which included a support slot on REM’s European tour as well an epic US jaunt with shoegazers Catherine Wheel. And then they fell apart and split.
“Our break up is such a boring story,” laughs Donelly as she recalls Belly’s demise. “We were tired after 18 months of touring with a zero personal life. We were always together. We never said, ‘No,’ to anything and we were made to feel like, if we sat down, then it was over. We didn’t really understand that that wasn’t true.”
And now Belly are back again with their first new album in 23 years, DOVE. Having reformed in 2016 with a successful tour and the Belly Noise EP, the original idea was to record another EP. However, such was the wealth of ideas between the band’s members that they realised that an album would be the only way forward. The resulting statement is some of the most joyous, moving and melodic music that the band has ever recorded. Though some of their more eccentric moves have dialed backed, DOVE is an album that plugs back into their initial appeal with a convincing and seductive dynamic.
To give this some kind of context, the idea of a band reforming after an absence of two decades when Belly last released music would’ve been almost unimaginable. Of course, The Velvet Underground tried it in 1993 but, bar two very slight additions to their groundbreaking back catalogue in the form of a nursery rhyme and ‘Coyote’, they shied away from making any new music. Which, given Lou Reed’s dreadful syncopation and the internecine fighting that resurfaced, was probably for the best. But did the gap of 23 years feel like a burden or liberation to Belly?
“Oh, it was totally liberating,” affirms Donelly. “This is going to sound like a fib, but we really didn’t factor in how the album was going to be received until it was completely finished. Of course, once it was done, we then questioned the viability of it.
“For the first time since we started playing in 1991, there was no external influence, which was lovely. It was just the four of us in a room facing each other and it was fun, funny and really exciting.”
DOVE is the band’s first fully collaborative effort. With no record company interference and a considerable songwriting weight lifted from Tanya Donelly’s shoulders, Belly set about exchanging ideas at their own pace to allow the songs to grow organically as opposed to meeting any deadlines.
“There were four people throwing music at each other,” she says of DOVE’s origins. “As a result, we had a lot of material to choose from, and that gave us the luxury of focusing on the pearls. But we’re living in different times now. Songs stand on their own in a way that they didn’t before. Cynical decisions were made in the past, but that just wasn’t the case here. We gave the songs the time that was needed.”
With the band members scattered across different locations in the north east of the United States, initial ideas for the songs were exchanged via filesharing: “We would send out 30-second snippets to each other and we developed each others’ ideas. And from that fragmented process we got together for real and worked on everything.”
At a time when non-permission based data gathering, fake news and the destructive nature of social media is dominating the news headlines, listening to Tanya Donelly speak of the value of digital media when it comes to the positive effect it’s had on Belly’s music makes for a refreshing change. This is a band harnessing existing and new technology to its own advantage. Moreover, with DOVE being the result of crowdfunding rather than a record company advance, she’s noticed some of the tangible and positive outcomes that the internet has afforded Belly.
“The biggest benefit is more direct communication with the fans, to the point where the word ‘fan’ is almost obsolete, which I love,“ she enthuses. “I’ve always felt that the fan dynamic is very corrosive and there’s no healthy way of communicating with someone if you have that distance.”
Donelly continues: “I know there are plenty of people my age who don’t like the new digital world, but I really do. I think it breaks down stigma and you end up focusing on the music once the cult of personality has been drained. That has been 100% positive, and that includes the connection through social media. Fan forums are now less about adoration and much more about connection. That was the one thing that got up my spine back in the day. Now it’s no longer a thing. I feel that in some ways, a boil has been lanced.”
She adds with a laugh: “It’s ugly having an infection but it has to be washed out.”
Another major change that has worked in Belly’s favour is that the band is no longer a full-time concern. All four members have day jobs, which means that the process of making and playing music becomes its own reward. With the pressures of planning long term gone, the band is left to enjoy what they do within an agreed time frame.
“We’re really smart about how do this now,” says Donelly. “Two weeks is the longest we’ll step out on tour. Everything is very different now.”
With the band’s members having gone through a life well lived, she also credits the their cumulative life experiences with helping in getting their priorities right.
“This is a massive generalization that I’m about to make, but with people of my age, our perspective is healthier,” she considers. “And all four us, throughout our lives, have been with people that are good for us. And so, when we get back together, it’s coming from a place of individual help and strength. There’s more humour and it’s a very different ball game.”
As for those day jobs, outside of her musical interests Tanya Donelly works as a post-partum doula, where she provides new parents with emotional and physical support after the baby is born. How did she come to work in this field?
“It was something that I became very interested in after my second daughter was born,” she explains. “I started reading more about it and I had a friend who was doing it and her work really inspired me. Initially I was going to do birth work but that’s harder to manage when you have a family.”
And while this is not a job you might expect from a one-time MTV star and alt.rock figurehead, it’s a role that Donelly finds particularly rewarding and fulfilling.
“It probably would’ve been more of a culture shock if I’d have found work in the music industry,” she reasons as she ponders the move from rock music to social care. “That would’ve been more odd to me. With the current job, it’s nice to be supporting and that’s something that appeals to me. Being helpful is really good for the soul and it’s made me a better person. I think I was attracted to work that was about something other than me. After years of talking about myself, it was great to say, ‘This is all about you!’”
But what’s also apparent is that, in common with several other bands who broke through in the 90s to wider audience, then broke up and have since reformed – and yes, Dinosaur Jr, Afghan Whigs and Veruca Salt, we’re looking at you among others – Belly are making some of the best music of their career. How come that’s the case?
With Belly, it’s because the individual members of the band never really stopped making music – especially Tanya Donelly. Harnessing the power of direct communication via the internet, Donelly self-released the Swan Song Series of EPs via Bandcamp. Each of the releases found her collaborating with a variety of musicians and writers.
“I think I’m writing some of my best music because we all still play here,” reasons Donelly. “We play in town together, or we play on our own or we’re guesting on each other’s records; no one stopped here. It became more local, but I love that.”
By a strange coincidence, the release of DOVE comes just days after the 30th anniversary of when Throwing Muses played London’s The Town & County Club (now known as the Forum in Kentish Town), a gig widely held as one of those pivotal moments when the baton is handed down from generation to the next. With the likes of Hüsker Dü – one of the most important American underground bands of the 80s – imploding, Throwing Muses and Pixies were pointing the way forward with rock music that was startlingly original and impactful despite being snubbed by the majority of broadcast media. But for anyone listening and paying attention, this was a double header where rock music refused to kowtow to the naysayers proclaiming the form’s death. Something was definitely in the air.
So what are Tanya Donelly’s memories of Throwing Muses and Pixies much vaunted tour of 1988?
“It was an extremely exciting time,” recalls Donelly. “It really was a halcyon moment in my life. We loved each other musically and personally. I made one of the most important friendships of my life on that tour, which was with Kim Deal. It was a good moment for all of us.”
And were she and her touring partners aware at the time of the ramifications of their work?
“It felt like the start of something new, which is unusual because the perspective of musicians and those looking in don’t usually line up,” she laughs. “I look upon those days affectionately. And I think that with age, all the old complaints fall away.”
Tanya Donelly also cuts a modest and endearing figure when she tries to put her cultural contributions into some kind of perspective.
“The furthest I’ll go in the direction of praise is that I’ll say that I was part of a continuum. I’m very proud of everything that I’ve done, and the very fortunate trajectory that I’ve been part of. But to be honest, it’s been about playing music with people that I’ve loved in the right place and the right time.”
And with DOVE, Belly have got their timing right once again.
09 - Portsmouth, Wedgewood Rooms
10 - Bristol, SWX
11 - Cardiff, Glee Club
12 - Manchester, The Ritz
13 - Leeds, Beckett
14 - Whitley Bay, Playhouse
16 - Glasgow, O2ABC
17 - Sheffield, Leadmill
18 - Nottingham, Rescue Rooms
19 - Brighton, Concorde 2
20 - London, Shepherd's Bush Empire
More about: Belly