Photo: Lenny Gilmore

Break It Down and Put It Back Together with Melkbelly

Melkbelly splices insanely supercharged punk energy with noise-band drums and super catchy pop melodies. It's a bewildering, intoxicating sound which has caught the attention of underground Chicago audiences. We ask singer Miranda Winters how it works.

Nothing Valley
Wax Nine

“I’ve always, I guess, struggled to decide what kind of music I wanted to play, something sort of abrasive and loud or something sort of pop and folky. I would bounce back and forth between the two,” says Miranda Winters, the dynamic singer who careens between pretty girl pop croons and banshee wails in the course of, really, almost any song in the Melkbelly catalog. “When we first started Melkbelly, the goal was to figure out how to make them work together, but I don’t know that we actually knew that it would work when we started.”

Melkbelly is a tightly knit juggernaut, formed around an interlinked core of husband and wife Miranda and Bart Winters, Bart’s brother Liam Winters and the incandescent drummer James Wetzel, who met Miranda while at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Their first recording, The Pennsylvania EP, came out less than a year after they started playing together in 2014 — and before the band had fully defined its sound. “We did a lot of recording in our practice space, then spent time listening to them to see what worked,” says Winters. “That first EP that we recorded, that was just like us dumping all the songs that we had to dump, listening to that and then kind of deciding that ‘Oh these three songs are maybe the way we want to go.'”

Trial and error, sure, but it worked. The Chicago Reader‘s Kevin Warwick heard the Pennsylvania EP and called Melkbelly “one of the most exciting new sounds out of Chicago”.

Tour dates with Speedy Ortiz, Built to Spill and Magik Marker ensued, and Melkbelly continued to learn to funnel its fire hose blast of energy. “It was definitely an evolution. I think in the beginning we would write songs that would be heavily one way or the other. Like either super noisy and not hooky or super hooky without enough noise,” says Winters. But with this year’s Nothing Valley, the band has hit a sweet — though manic — spot. “Now when I bring in a melody, or I bring in a song, it’s a faster process to break it down and put it back together as something that’s more Melkbelly.”

Noisy But Not Noise

Winters says that Melkbelly’s influences are diverse and perhaps not the ones you’d expect. A recent 36-hour drive to the West Coast to start a tour with the Breeders found the four Chicagoans listening to Ethiopian drumming and Joni Mitchell. “You’d probably have to smash three or four bands together to come up with a good comparison,” Winters ventures, and indeed, smashing several outfits together, in the best possible way, is exactly what Nothing Valley sounds like.

In his review of Nothing Valley for PopMatters, Ian King got at the band’s unsettled, every-which-way dynamic by observing that, “The Chicago band make noisy rock, but not quite noise rock. Too many hooks unspoil the static broth. Melkbelly is abrasive, but not antisocial.”

Bart Winters, who plays guitar, is the key to Melkbelly’s off-kilter alchemy, his wife says. “It has a lot to do with Bart’s understanding of space within a song,” Miranda Winters explains. “He makes that connection between this pop sound and then what needs to happen to it for these kinds of drums to make the most sense. If you bring him a chord progression that’s sort of an expected chord progression, he’ll say let’s do this with this chord, add this dissonance and then that kind of opens it up to be maybe something that you can layer more, you can add more stuff.”

Good Things Take Time

Nothing Valley took far longer than the Pennsylvania EP to record, which for Winters, was an adjustment. “To me, it was a little frustrating, the amount of time that we took,” says Winters. “But I think it was ultimately the best recording experience to have that amount of space.”

“This album is way more considered, you know,” she says, contrasting it with the earlier EP. “To have three months stretched out to record songs was unlike anything we had done before.”

For instance, she says, “We never had to be conscious, until this recording, of the process of making sure that when you’re done with a set of songs, that they have the same room sound, or at least they have some sort of thread that runs through them. We like to consider an album as opposed to just songs, song to song.”

While not a concept album, by any stretch, the record does have a common theme. Written during Melkbelly’s last West Coast tour, they reflect a warmer, lusher landscape glimpsed through tour van windows and between shows. “To a person from the Midwest, where it’s flat and cold, it was different,” says Winters.

Speedy Connections

Nothing Valley launches the Wax Nine imprint at Car Park Records, a label overseen by Speedy Ortiz’s Sadie Dupuis. Certainly, you could draw lines between the math-y, female-empowered punk-pop of Dupuis’ outfit and the teeth-rattlingly percussioned pop songs that Melkbelly plays. Winters says the label deal happened almost by chance.

The two bands played a show together in Champaign Urbana, Illinois, and kept in touch. Dupuis became a vocal supporter and picked Melkbelly as one of her favorite Bandcamp bands, writing, “They’re technically precise, but also quite aloof, and they very much have their own sound. At times they remind me of the Microphones, sometimes The Breeders, and there’s, like, an undeniable stoner metal streak mixed in with all of this as well. I don’t know any other bands who sound quite like them.”

Dupuis was in the throes of launching her new label when her first band dropped out. “When we told her that we were looking for someone to help us with this record, she essentially started the record label to put out our album,” says Winters.

Tone and Effect

Melkbelly worked again with Dave Vettraino at Public House to record Nothing Valley. “His input is really important for us,” says Winters. “Anytime there’s a guitar tone that we’re talking about what we want, he’s knowledgeable enough to find it. We can reference bands, and he’ll be able to say, ‘Let’s try this.’ And he’s patient enough to try it long enough that somebody says, ‘Yeah, that’s it.'”

Vettraino also helped shape the drum sounds for the album, added Melkbelly percussionist James Wetzel, when asked about the striking, nearly metallic-sounding drums in “Twin Looking Motherfucker”. “Dave has this old vintage console that has really nice pre-amps on it. He likes to roast instruments through it. We use a little bit of that on pretty much all of the tracks, just to try to mix it into the drum sounds,” says Wetzel.

“I’m recording my own drums a lot, and we’re always looking for different ways to distort them or burn them out. I’m always trying to figure out ways to bring out the snare sound, to make it ring, to have a resonance to it,” he adds, “So that was one of his ways of creating that snare sound without having it too heavy in the mix. Having it distorted kind of buries it in the guitars a little bit but it still has it cut.”

The album’s colorful artwork is also Chicago-grown, drawn by Melkbelly friends Ben Marcus and Dave Krueger. “Dave Krueger does the Arts of Life, an arts studio that employs people with developmental disabilities. So he makes comics, totally crazy, colorful comics,” says Winters. “So when he and Ben get together, like, he works with Dave, and they’ll come up with dialogue, and then they go back and forth with tracing and the color and so forth. We sent them the music and had them listen to it, and said, could you draw something to go with it, and that was how they did. Then the back image and the poster inside are just Ben Marcus on his own.”

Winters says she likes “Middle Of” the best of all the album tracks, for its crazy, happy, uncontrollable energy; it’s a fun song to sing and scream, she says. The songs she admires, she says, are mostly short ones, hooky ones, ones she wants to hear again right away and that move her bodily. “A great song doesn’t necessarily have to be loud but something that lets you escape, that you can get totally lost in and you can have a physical reaction to, like dancing,” she says. “It gives you some energy that you didn’t know you had to release.”