Rebecca Marx. Photo/Video Credit Jason Narverud
j.Bell & the Lazy Susan Band are a large band with a BIG sound. On the cusp of releasing their fifth record Underneath a Minnesota Moon, they have decided to throw away all labels. In essence they would like to be known for their brand of “Genre Resistant Rock”. I caught up with j. Bell to find out what that even means.
For those of us who have never heard the term “Genre Resistant Rock” before, what does it actually mean?
It’s a term I’m trying to coin (trademark pending!) because it gets so frustrating to describe what kind of band we are. We think of ourselves as simply Rock & Roll, but we get called everything from blues, to folk rock, to hard rock to alt country and none of that really describes us. Some of our songs lean towards bluegrass, some harder, some softer – but it’s all roots based, song centric Rock & Roll to us. Although, I just saw a comment online calling Dangerous “the trippiest country song in a while”…and I liked that☺
Would you call it a goal of yours to promote your music as “Genre Resistant Rock”?
I’d consider it a goal to have more people recognize what that means. My favorite band (Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers) became my favorite band when I read an article where they described themselves this way: “this ain’t country like Steve Earle & Lyle Lovett ain’t country”. That spoke to me on several levels: First, I love Steve Earle & Lyle Lovett and don’t feel like I can tell people that I like country music, because I don’t like what most people call country music. Second, because it sounded like they too had trouble describing their music.
Is the act of defying a neatly packaged, easy to find musical label an act of rock n roll rebellion? An attempt to “liberate yourself from male white corporate oppression” (nod to Kim Gordon)?
Not to me. I’d much rather have a handy descriptor to use. It would make things easier. Plus, when people hear “male white corporate oppression”, they probably picture a group that looks like us!
I can see how it could be freeing as an artist to not feel boxed into a particular sound or description. Do you think that lacking said labels could make it more difficult to reach the typical music consumer as they navigate the wealth of music out there?
Absolutely. There are so many cool avenues to share your music using the internet, but almost all of them have “genre” boxes to check. Some have “sub-genres” as well. It’s especially difficult when songs on the same album are radically different from one another. We’ve gotten comments and messages from people pointing out that one song doesn’t fit the genre we were listed in. Brian even got a note back from a radio show that said “why would you think this would fit our program?” Because the guy got a link to the entire album instead of the song(s) that would specifically fit that audience.
Having said all of that, my favorite albums of all time have songs on them that don’t belong on the same album. I’m a HUGE Soul Asylum fan (I got While You Were Out on cassette in 1987 and listened to it over and over again until the tape broke because I couldn’t figure out what was happening on that album) and I remind myself that “Caged Rat” & “To My Own Devices” are on the same SA album. I don’t know who signed off on that, but I love it.
I just realized how this is difficult for me as a music writer because I want to tie it up all neatly, and explain to the good people out there what you all sound like. Normally, I’d throw is some alt country, bluegrass, rock n roll, Americana in there, but I guess I am going to have to hand it back to you j. Bell to explain….With that as a jumping off point, what about this album! You sure went about it in an about-face way as compared to your last album–$80 Whiskey. On that album, you wrote every song, played every instrument, sang every note, and self recorded, engineered and produced it. Why take that all on, and I want to ask in jest if you have trust issues?
Ha! Maybe. None of your business… No, it was an odd time. The LSB was supposed to be done after our 2006 Album “Something Else Entirely” – that record was hard to write and hard to make and my life was not in a good spot; hands down the toughest and worst stretch I’ve had. The band agreed to release the record, promote it for a year and then trail off into the sunset. What’s worse is that I hit a 7 year dry spell of writer’s block where I couldn’t write anything. It sucked and I didn’t feel right, and didn’t feel like myself. I used to try and force writing songs and ended up with some of the worst ideas ever captured on tape or in a notebook. During that time I started producing other artists and singer/songwriter Sarah VanValkenburg was kind enough to let me produce her first record when neither of us knew what we were doing. By the time I had tricked her into letting me produce her second record, I was a much better producer and she was a much better writer and performer. We were getting these great sounding songs and although I was then and still am now, very proud of that record (Guitar Picks & Bottle Caps), I was insanely jealous of her. I felt like she was getting better and better as a writer and I was either getting worse, or was just done with that altogether. That was the kick in the a$$ I needed to try something I’ve always wanted to do: produce a record myself where I wrote, played and sang everything. I didn’t know what to do with it when I was done, so I gave it to the guys in the Lazy Susan Band. They suggested that we put it out as an LSB record and that got everything back and running again. I’ve always considered that the deal was: we’d make another record and it would be a band made record. And Underneath a Minnesota Moon was exactly that. I gave the band a bunch of songs and they took it from there. Sometimes not in the direction I would have…or even the songs I would have chosen, but that what this one is. And we are very proud of it.
So you completed $80 Whiskey and presented it to the Lazy Susan Band who embraced it as their own. Now, this follow up album Underneath a Minnesota Moon is completely its antithesis, a full band experience from top to bottom. Were there certain lessons that you learned from that undertaking (having done $80 Whiskey alone) that shaped how you wanted the next j. Bell & the Lazy Susan Band album to be done?
I learned that I need some checks and balances! The band shaped these songs in ways that I would not have, and for the better. Also, Jonathan Earl (engineer/co-producer) also pushed me in directions that I needed. The influence from outside of my head was great and helpful…if you can give up some of that control☺
What do you think are the benefits to letting go of control–especially in the control room?
We did 2006’s “Something Else Entirely” with Jonathan Earl and I wanted to do that again. I’ve known Earl since…well since he was 16; and we’ve talked about making records and songwriting for many, many years. He is incredibly talented as a musician, writer and producer. Even when I did $80 Whiskey by myself, there were hundreds of late night calls to Earl. I’d send him mixes and he would send me notes and lessons on recording and mixing. Sometimes making fun of me until I stopped doing something…ugh, the horrible reverb on the kick drum incident. The drums on this record sound great and that’s partially because Earl insisted that we take the time to get great sounds up front. We tuned the drums the night before we started tracking and focused on drum tones very carefully. I think it paid off.
Earl & I planned this out for over a year. I remember in December of 2015, being older, more mature artists and family men we met over breakfast to discuss the recording schedule. As I was leaving I shouted to my wife “Leaving to meet Earl for breakfast…” she replied
“Don’t try and keep up with him!”
“It’s 9:30 in the morning and we are having breakfast.”
“I know, don’t try and keep up with him.”
Earl is great. One of my favorite human beings and I wouldn’t have made half the records I’ve made if we weren’t friends.
I joked about “trust issues” earlier, but you have fifteen years in with this band. How much of a family are you all? Does everyone at this point know their “role’, or is that something that has evolved through time?
It’s definitely evolved, as has the lineup. The other thing that got the Lazy Susan spinnin’ again (see what I did there?) was adding $2 Bill Turner on B3 Organ and Piano. I started playing duo shows with $2 a few years ago and he had none of the baggage that the rest of us who have played in bands our whole lives have. He was excited for every show, every new song, just to be in the band. I’d forgotten what that was like and I started to have so much more fun with him around, that it makes the mundane and challenging stuff easier.
Brian (aka BPZMAG) has been my musical partner for 20+ years. Together we are Doc’s Kids, a melodic comedy pop band. Although he’s played with the LSB at times since the beginning, this new chapter started with me insisting that he just join the band full time. For me, making music in any way is just better with Brian. When he wasn’t around, I’d be talking to him about everything anyway. I just decided that I was done doing anything music related without him, because it just wasn’t worth it for me. Fortunately, he was into it. I like to describe his role in the LSB as “a roots rock hype man, like a pasty Flava Flav in western wear.”
Ha! I love that…
Tom Adams is the longest serving member of the band. He’s been playing bass and rhythm guitar with us for a little over 10 years. He’s our musical rock and his knowledge of popular music is astounding.
Kent Mortimer is the newest member on drums. He joined about 2 years ago and has really breathed new life into everything. Dude just loves music. My favorite Kent moment: we finished a set at the Fine Line this summer and after us there was a DJ for the rest of the night. We finished the final note of our hour plus long set and Kent jumped off his drum throne, ran onto the dance floor and white guy danced until they shut the club down. Dude just loves music. Plus, when he briefly moved out of MN, the mayor of MPLS declared “Kent Mortimer Day” for all of his contributions to the music scene. Does YOUR drummer have a day in MPLS?
In particular as you said, you have an extremely close friendship with bandmate Brian Zirngible (trombone, vox, percussion). The two of you are in a musical duo called Doc’s kids, as well as co-owning the wedding/event entertainment services business Cookies & Cognac together. That’s a lot of togetherness, how do you make it work?
Z gets me. We joke that we are each other’s first wives and my wife refers to Brian as her “Brother wife”, because we were here first and we had dibs. He’s my best friend and musical partner.
Speaking of relationships, what a boon that you are a longtime friend of the famed Gospel singer Kim Brown from Sound of Blackness! I was thrilled to hear her in the gospel quartet that you collaborated with on the album. How intimidating was it to record with her?
Oh man, was that awesome!!! I know Kim through my other career and we’d gotten to know each other a bit and talked about music a bunch. I asked her if she would sing on the record and she said yes. Then I shared the track with her and described what I wanted and she assembled and brought a quartet of Gospel singers to my house! It was amazing. They were total pros. They were like, arranging in real time non-verbally, just by looking at each other. It was bananas. The song they sing on is called “Fade” and it is particularly dark for the LSB. It’s about violence and social tensions and the song didn’t sound fully complete until they sang on it. At one point during the session in the control room Earl said to me “How are we supposed to mix this much soul into your white boy country rock?” and Odies (Turner-one of the singers) said “we can hear you guys in the headphones!”
Interested parties want to know if the Gospel Quartet will be at your release show at the Whiskey Junction on October 21st?
That would be rad. But I can’t confirm it at this point. I am also one of those interested parties!
Back to the music! I was really drawn into the truth that seemed to run through the country alt rock song “Dangerous”, was it your personal truth?
A little bit my truth and a little bit me observing others. We’ve all had to cut people out of our lives and we like to assume that they will never get over us. When they do, seeing that can be hard.
In the spirit to getting your truth out there, is there a message in the song “Don’t Take a Breath”?
Yes. I started writing that song the day David Bowie died and I finished it the day that Prince died. We all have a limited time, and if you have something to say, something to share…don’t pause, get it out there. If you have the unique ability, you have a responsibility to share it. And sometimes it’s not about making a statement, it’s about posing the right question. What if Bowie or Prince would have waited (paused, taken a breath) while they tried to figure out what genre they fit into, or how to make their material sound cohesive? We’d have much less of their work. And that would suck. There already isn’t enough.
Hold up–one last thing! I’ve noticed a pattern here, Cognac…Whiskey…in the spirit of responsible journalism and drinking, I want to ask what that is about, and I’ve heard rumors that a certain agave derived alcohol will be served to those of age at the album release show. Just what kind of a time is the j. Bell & the Lazy Susan Band going to be showing the crowd at the Whiskey Junction for the dual release show with Upscale Swill on Friday, October 21st?
We are a fun band for sure! We are super excited that Mexican Moonshine Tequila is sponsoring the release show with 100% Organic Agave, Triple Distilled goodness all night long. Tasting, margarita, etc… Mexican Moonshine was started by my songwriting hero Roger Clyne (of the Peacemakers and the Refreshments) and it is embraced by a wonderful community that we all belong to…a tequila famila, that celebrates life and music every day. A better group of people, you won’t find. And they can party, so join us at Whiskey Junction on Oct 21st! Doors at 7- NO COVER!