Some bands are born out of boredom, others out of a producer's sleight of hand. Smoke Bellow, it seems, was born out of necessity. The core of the band, Australian emigrants Christian Best and Meredith McHugh, arrived in Baltimore two and a half years ago, not knowing a soul. To ease the transition, the couple, who met and started dating just months before moving, started playing music together. They had both been involved in music in Australia, but had never been in a project together.
"We spent a year really not knowing anyone," Best says during a break at the band's Station North practice space. (Disclosure: my band uses the same practice space.) "That was when we started playing music together, hence why we play instruments with our feet, because we didn't know anyone to play the drums, so we just started trying to take over with our legs."
Now a trio with Alex Haworth, the band creates long dirges balanced between noisy drones and psychedelic hooks. McHugh plays guitar, muted or noisy, often with reverb and other effects. Sitting down, she multitasks with a kick drum and bells on her ankles. Best's guitar is the twangy one, and he uses his feet to play a hi-hat stand with a tambourine attached. He also plays a classic Korg Polysix synthesizer. Both McHugh and Best use loopers and both sing. Haworth, the new addition, fills in the rest of the group's percussion needs with shakers, floor tom, triangle, and plastic cowbell. The trio will celebrate the tape release of a four-track album, Old Haunts, Jan. 10 at the Open Space with Laser Background, Fell Band, Believers, and Romantic States.
Smoke Bellow evolved as they grew to know Baltimore's music scene. "We both came from cities where culturally you felt a slight pressure to be a little more straight-down-the-line-not in a mainstream-accessible way but in an indie-accessible way," McHugh says. "Experimental sounds were very much in the experimental scene, and then everything else was pretty straightforward. Once we figured things out [in Baltimore], we were really blown away by how challenging everything was, and it made us feel excited because I think we both really enjoy that side of things."
Developing their aesthetic was a gradual process. "We ditched so many [early] songs," Best says. McHugh recalls earlier material that had more conventional verse-chorus structures, but then she waffles back and forth a few times, contemplating if they had ever written similar songs. Eventually she decides, "No, we didn't, that's a lie." "A disgusting lie," Best adds.
While Best and McHugh are old hands at playing in bands-check out Talons and the Rational Academy-Haworth is new to the experience. "I've been around musicians for much of my life, but besides a few spastic attempts at playing the drums in high school and college, I've always kind of been afraid to take the plunge," Haworth says. He sees his lack of experience in a positive light. "Not having been trained and not played in many bands, maybe it works to my benefit a little bit," Haworth says. "I have very few points of reference."
Haworth was also born outside of the U.S. He moved from England to Pennsylvania when he was 11. Best and McHugh moved to Baltimore in 2010, after McHugh found work as a postdoctoral fellow in drug-abuse research and brain imaging at the National Institute on Drug Abuse. At the time, their reference points for the city consisted of The Wire, Beach House, and Lungfish, for whom Best has a longstanding affinity.
"When you do a Ph.D., you're very specialized and can sort of only apply for a handful of jobs within the entire world at any one time. You don't get to really choose where you end up," McHugh says before chiming in, in near-unison with Best, "We got lucky." Immediately, Haworth asks if they felt that way initially. Best replies, "No, it was a really harsh transition, that's for sure."
Haworth and his girlfriend moved to Baltimore from the Philadelphia area around the same time as Best and McHugh. "We probably had a similar year in the wilderness, in not knowing too many people, but we became friends around the same time and they invited me to play percussion."
This year, it was time for McHugh and Best to visit home. "We knew that we were going to do a little tour in Australia, because we had to go back to visit people. So we decided earlier on in the year, let's try to write a record and then record it in five months," Best says. Old Haunts was recorded with Haworth's roommate, Jon Ehrens, in his bedroom.
The band plans on writing more material for a full-length release in the coming year. The beginning of the year will see them touring with Romantic States in January and February. "The plan for the next few years is to use our holiday time to tour more outward," McHugh says. "Explore the country, play music."