A conversation with Richard Reed Parry
Interview by Adam McKibbin
In their early days, Bell Orchestre existed to bring movement to fuller life, serving as the musical engine for dance performances in Montreal. Over time, these collaborative improvisations led the band to seek out their own sound, which led to the gradual piecing together of Recording A Tape The Colour of The Light. Often times throughout the record, with its combinations of imposing post-rock and delicate chamber music, it sounds like the band is still creating scores, albeit now to action and drama unseen.
Almost every band struggles to find the time for all the things a band must do to release and support a record, but Bell Orchestre have faced some unexpected challenges posed by the success of multi-instrumentalist Richard Reed Parry and violinist Sarah Neufeld’s other band: The Arcade Fire. As that band prepares to take a winter of (relative) rest, Bell Orchestre are gearing up to continue their sonic explorations.
Prior to setting out for a few AF shows in South America, Parry took the time for a pleasant and far-reaching chat about Bell Orchestre’s evolution thus far, his own unusual upbringing in music, Hummer commercials, nuclear disarmament, and lots of stops in between.
Are you sick of touring yet? It seems like The Arcade Fire have been on the road forever.
Yes. (laughs) Well, yes and no. We’ve been on the road forever and we need time to not be doing that. We’re all into it; it’s just been the way that it’s gone has been so crazy that it’s been too much. I’m actually really excited to hit the road with Bell Orchestre because, for me, it’s like a new can of worms. I think if The Arcade Fire was dealing with a new can of worms, then we’d be stoked as well. But we’re dealing with the same record still, and it’s like “Oh god…no!”
Are you playing places for the first time?
Yeah. The way we did was so insane because of how people started catching on to it. We did two tours of everywhere.
And Bell Orchestre has been playing some shows with Arcade Fire, but not the ones coming up.
Yeah, those were just three shows, festival kinds of things.
I was curious about the dance productions in Bell Orchestre's early days. You were playing live along with those performances?
The songs would change night in and night out, then?
Yeah. It all came about improv-like, organically.
Listening to the new record reminded me a little of a show like Curb Your Enthusiasm, where it often feels very natural and on-the-fly, but there’s also a precision where you feel like it has to be scripted. What’s the balance with Bell Orchestre?
It’s way more scripted than not. We still generate everything by improv, and we have set improv parts of songs, and we have an improvisational spirit to everything, so things will change, but not super dramatically. We’re all comfortable enough playing with each other that we can kind of let it fall apart and still not panic—like in the kind of jazz way.
On the record, a lot wasn’t scripted in making it, and it was kind of pieced together and done in parts. Maybe something was missing something and we’d add lots of stuff really fast once the bones were already there. It’s always a process, but it felt more like a process piece than making rock records sometimes.
Because of that, was it hard to reach a finish line? Do you listen and think, “Oh, if we’d explored that part a little more…”?
No, not really, but you always hear it later and you’re like, “I wish we’d done this or this.” At this point, we’ve played this stuff live a lot, and we play it so much better; it’s a lot more nuanced and energized.
What was the timeframe? When was this record recorded?
It was kind of funny. A lot of it was during the same time as the Arcade Fire record, like over the fall and winter of 2003-2004. Then we took a break in the spring while The Arcade Fire was in high gear finishing that record. So we weren’t quite done by the end of summer, and we took a break while The Arcade Fire went on tour. We regrouped and we did this residency at an arts center in Canada in the mountains. We actually finished [the record] there, we did a few overdubs and went home and sequenced it and mastered it.
Is there a thread that runs through the album and ties everything together, or are they independent organisms?
It’s definitely tied together. We recorded way more pieces than we ended up using. We ditched a lot of songs that had previously been principal songs. We hadn’t really made a proper record before, so we asked, “How does this work as a record? How do these things fit side-by-side and add up to be something bigger?”
In the beginning, middle and end, there are sections that were recorded in a tunnel in Montreal, a tunnel that goes under a canal near where I live. There’s this loose concept running that the album is a collision between different atmospheres and different environments and different places, and that’s there a thing going through the middle of it, tying it all together, although it doesn’t always make sense right off the bat. (laughs) We were trying to get all over the map and be dynamic, but have something physically holding it together. We recorded all of the stuff in the tunnel, and I was like, “What if there was actually kind of a tunnel running through the middle of the album?” The artwork expanded on that idea, too.
Was there a conscious decision to keep the track lengths brisk? A lot of times when bands tap into their improvisational spirit, we end up with 18-minute long songs.
Yes and no. Not for the sake of being brisk, but there was a real attention to not putting in anything extraneous and trimming the fat. Especially in the genre that we’re associated with, there are a lot of sprawling albums with a lot of material that doesn’t necessarily need to be there. Not all of them. There are a few albums that I think I can relate our music to, a couple of examples that I really admire.
Do you want to give those shoutouts?
Sure. The Penguin Café Orchestra. They’re from the 70s and their records were really amazing, the first one, especially. A couple of the Rachel’s records, I think, are the exact right amount of space and concision, brevity and being able to dwell and give space to breathe.
Having started with scores, is that a place to which you’d like to return, whether it’s dance or film or whatever? Or would that seem pretty confining now to return to that?
I think it would more seem challenging than confining, now that we’ve really taken a big breather from it and gotten our own sense how to start and finish compositions. It’s not just, “Oh, it’s done because the dancer freezes.”
I think if we did a dance collaboration, we’d hopefully do it in a real collaborative sense, like making music and bringing it to the table first, and having people build dance around that, and have dance come back to us to build around, so it’d be a real exchange rather than subservience—which, in the beginning, is how it ended up happening. We’d get on board with these projects and we’d find interesting ways to work with it, but we always, at the end of the day, felt like it was the dance show.
I think we’ll probably end up doing some film stuff. That’s something we’ve wanted to do for a long time, but the right person hasn’t come along asking. We get invitations here and there to do these things, and hopefully something exciting will come our way.
With invitations, what’s the process within the band if you get an offer from, say, The O.C. or Hummer?
(laughs) We haven’t had anything really drastic like that. Mostly, it’s been really small-time, low-budget indie films—no ad campaigns. I don’t think we have a really set ideology or credo about it, but we’re all definitely pretty aware of the evils and goodnesses of the world out there. I don’t think any of us would be that willing… it depends on the thing, but I don’t think any of us really want to get into doing advertising. I don’t think we’re either/or – we lean more toward not trying to support the gross machine out there, but without being super narrow-minded about it. It’s a complicated bag of tricks. (laughs)
And there are the fans to think about, too. Fans get pretty protective of those songs.
For sure. It would break my heart to hear a Bell Orchestre song as the Hummer is driving through the mountains with autumn leaves whooshing around. I don’t want someone to hear our songs and have it conjure up a car commercial. Also, you don’t necessarily want someone to hear your songs and say, “Oh, this sounds like that movie.” I think we’ll avoid that as much as you can.
How about new material? Has that not been possible because of the constant touring?
It’s been hard, but there’s some new stuff, and there’s actually some old, pre-album stuff that we’ve brought back to develop further. We’re super excited to get composing again from the bottom up. After two weeks of touring in November, The Arcade Fire is pretty much done for a while, so it will be a winter of hibernating and being really creative. I’m really excited about it.
Is there going to be a week without music?
I think there should be! I took four days off just recently, right at the end of this last leg of Arcade Fire touring, and it was amazing. It was the only time I’ve done that in the last couple years. “Oh, wow, a silent retreat – not talking to anybody, not listening to music. This is very important.”
I’ve actually become aware lately that I don’t want to listen to music in my spare time. There’s lots of stuff that I’m really excited about—that I am listening to—but I’m not always trying to fill up the air with music like I used to. The background to my life was always a constant collage of music, but it’s not that way anymore. I really appreciate a quiet house more than I ever used to. Playing a rock show every night will do that.
I wanted to jump back to your collegiate experience. There’s a set notion sometimes in the arts that school is all about imposing rules or propagating certain mindsets, but it sounds like you had a more liberating experience. Was that the case?
Yeah, completely. I kind of made it the case. I went into a normal music school because I hadn’t really figured my shit out. (laughs) I wanted to do music, but the band stuff wasn’t really working out, and I didn’t have enough tools at my disposal.
But I went into normal music school and realized quickly that it wasn’t the right place. I didn’t want to do theory in a strict way, I didn’t want to study jazz, I didn’t really want to study classical music. I switched quite quickly into the electroacoustics program, which is more like the sound art program. It was not constricting or imposing; it’s more about creating stuff and having everybody talking about it. Instead of being told “You gotta make this and you gotta make this,” it was, “You gotta make something.”
That, in itself, was pretty liberating, but I even realized that just being in the music department was kind of constrictive, so I did my last year in the dance department. I ended up getting this patchy education, but being really creative and getting to kind of do what I wanted—and getting a diploma for it. (laughs)
Yeah, and that workshop environment, as frustrating as it can be, is something that’s easy to miss once you even get a foot into the business side of things.
Right, it becomes really product-oriented more than process-oriented.
Did you have a musical upbringing? Was it a love from the beginning?
Yeah, for sure—no training, really, except for some piano lessons when I was little. I tried playing a bunch of different instruments. I grew up in kind of an expat British folk scene in Toronto. There wasn’t really pop music around me somehow, so I didn’t really do the math that there was pop music on the radio. I grew up with CBC and some piano lessons, and then at the parties that my parents would go to or have, people would sing old songs, so I grew up with this oral tradition of learning things by ear and everybody singing harmonies and singing together.
I had a couple of bands when I was really little, and I kept flirting around and having different bands along the way while dabbling in lessons. It was all over the map, but nothing really stuck except that I was always doing music. When I was doing piano lessons, I didn’t really take to sight readings very well, but my teacher would play a piece and I would ask her to play it again and then do a pretty good job of memorizing it in my brain. Then I’d just come back pretending to have practiced the piece and play it back until I remembered her playing it. She’d say, “Oh, but you invented all these parts. What’s going on here?” (laughs) And I’d be staring at the sheet, pretending I was doing the work. I guess I’m still kind of the same way. I’ve avoided the responsible part of music and gone for the fun part.
Do you listen to your records after they’re done, or are you more likely to just finish and move on the next thing to create?
It’s really a balance of both. I like listening for a lot of different things. I’m sure in a few years, once we’ve got a few more records under our belt, it will be really interesting to go back and listen to this first record. It’s nice to learn retroactively about what you were doing or trying to do or what things work and what things don’t. Sonically, you can just keep learning about the art of recording by listening back to what you were doing.
I know when I’m an old man, I’ll look back at this Bell Orchestre record and…I really think it is a unique thing, and I think I’ll still think that in a long time, regardless of whether I still like it.
Changing topics drastically and briefly before we wrap up… As you’ve been traveling around, has there been a cause that you’ve discovered that you wish more people would be exposed to?
Actually, a friend of mine is doing some work around the anniversary of Hiroshima called The Shadow Project. It’s an awareness and art project where they kind of run around painting stencils of shadows onto the ground, in honor of the victims of Hiroshima. It’s a beautiful image of these scorched shadows of people who are no longer alive.
She’s working on a thing called Mayors for Peace, getting mayors from all over the world to become really proactive about pushing for nuclear disarmament by the year 2020. In terms of pet causes, it’s really important if the cause itself is a move toward something far bigger. The idea of these people dismantling all the nuclear weapons by 2020 is really great—not only is the immediate move a great one, but to do it requires a paradigm shift in human thinking. The move would be toward not thinking that the other guy isn’t out to get you, and making all your political and financial and social decisions out of fear. Dismantling bombs would be a really big, symbolic thing about what has to do with people’s thinking in order for humans to start doing a better job.
I was just reading another article about how that disarmament ball has been dropped—continually, but also especially post-9/11.
Yeah. I saw this really interesting quote from somebody – I guess the U.N. had done some cultural survey over a long period of time and the general thinking in the West is that Western civilization peaked in 1976. Up until then, everything was getting better, generally, and people don’t feel that since then the general movement has been a good one. Maybe globalization is screwing more things up than making things better. So that’s an interesting and sort of funny and sort of alarming thing to think about.
It’s been all downhill the whole time I’ve been alive.
(laughs) Yeah. Right when I was born, that’s so sad—but so interesting. People think back nostalgically about the feeling in the air, about the 60s and 70s being so full of love or whatever, but then it’s, “Oh, according to everybody, that’s when Western civilization peaked.” It’s sort of terrifying. Sort of hard to know what to do next, really.
Yes, it is. Well…you know, I think that’s a good place to turn off the tape recorder and wish our readers luck.