The cover of Fist & Palm, Oliver Kalb’s third full-length as Bellows, features a chain of elevated mountain peaks adorned with eleven track titles. The songs were shaped by a tectonic shift: the fight that ended one of Kalb’s closest friendships. The record, says the Brooklyn artist, is an “anti-narrative,” beginning and ending in the backyard where the fight happened. On every song, Kalb obsesses over that argument, heaping as much blame on himself as he does his unnamed target. “I try to just be honest in my music and tell a full and complete story, which sometimes means writing things that don’t feel so good,” he says.
Throughout the record, he variously admits to “becoming what [he] never wanted to” (“Orange Juice”) and feeling like he “was nothing more than a bully” (“Bully”). He self-flagellates the most on “Beauty,” remembering watching his friend cry in the corner of an apartment while Kalb, drunk and angry, could muster only a shrug in response.
Writing these songs offered Kalb catharsis, he says — often through admitting his part in the relationship’s collapse. “It was important to me that this record [wasn’t], ‘You hurt me and that’s the end of the story and my voice is the only one that matters here.’ It was very much about, ‘Let’s look at all the sides of this issue and see what happened.’ ” Felix Walworth, who performs as Told Slant and collaborates often with Kalb, says, “Oliver’s songwriting manages to be analytical and emotionally urgent at the same time.”
The majority of the album was written in October 2014, when Kalb joined a song-a-day challenge, organized by his musician friend David Combs, during which Kalb wrote seven of the album’s eleven tracks. For the following year, he toured with Eskimeaux and Told Slant, two bands that, like Bellows, are part of the Epoch, a Brooklyn-based art collective. Each group functions as a member’s solo project, but as the Epoch’s motto states, “We were grown together, and are growing still.”
When these projects leave the confines of their creators’ bedrooms, collective members fill out one another’s live bands. Bellows comprises Kalb, Walworth, Gabrielle Smith (Eskimeaux), and Henry Crawford (Small Wonder). They state their ethos not as DIY but DIT – do it together. “I think the Epoch shaped Oliver’s voice just by nature of what the Epoch is,” Jack Greenleaf, of Sharpless, wrote in an email. “We’re a group of friends who help, discuss, critique, and support each other’s work. I think all of us feel equally shaped by Oliver.”
After the Eskimeaux and Told Slant tours, Kalb finished his record up quickly. He handed off the tracks to Eskimeaux’s Smith, who wrote string and choral arrangements. “Oliver has pretty fully realized ideas that we all try to fall into,” she says. “Obviously, every person in the band has their specific flavor that they can’t help but add, but I think that we all try to arrest our egos for the time being so that it can be Oliver’s project fully.”
The tracks headed next to producer James Chase Wilcox, another Epoch member, who’s into hip-hop and added drum sampling. Finally, Greenleaf mixed and polished the record. So many hands touching one self-released album is unusual, but Epoch members specialize in helping one another realize their fullest potential.
In Kalb’s case, that’s his ability to communicate emotional urgency. There’s a desperation in his voice coming from a place of deep hurt. But, he says, it’s not so dire for him anymore. “The actual story in my life has a happier ending than the record does,” he says. “I think ultimately it was very positive.”
Bellows play a record release show for Fist & Palm on September 30 at Shea Stadium BK.