Older, Wiser, Stronger: The Return of Sasha Bell and the Essex Green

Photo: Amy Donovan

A fixture on the indie pop/psych scene for years on her own and as part of the Essex Green and Ladybug Transistor, Sasha Bell was highly regarded by critics and fans. Then, she all but disappeared from music. Now, she and the Essex Green are poised for a comeback. What took so long?

For about 10 years, indie pop/psych doyenne Sasha Bell was one of the busiest women in music. Part of the bands Ladybug Transistor, the Sixth Great Lake, Guppyboy and the Essex Green, she also released a well-received solo album under the name the Finishing School. After the Essex Green’s 2006 critically acclaimed The Cannibal Sea, though, she all but disappeared from music.

Now, in a surprise to many, Bell included, she and her two bandmates in the Essex Green -- Jeff Baron and Chris Ziter -- are recording a new album. She also has enough solo tracks to help fill out a second Essex Green album, or to release under her own name. In addition, she’s been playing music again with a new version of the Sasha Bell Band.

What took so long?

Turns out, like life, the answer isn’t straightforward. A number of factors, including a period where she couldn’t even bring herself to listen to music, sidelined her. At the root of much of it was the stalled Essex Green. Bell reflects, “There are three of us that are the core of the band and we each probably have a different take on what happened. Cannibal Sea was a huge success and we toured on it for a year and probably could have kept going, then I got pregnant which slowed things down, but I don’t think any of us ever expected that things would just stop completely. So after I had my daughter, we got together a few times, but by that point we were all living in different places, so that was also a tricky thing. We had all moved out of New York. I was in San Francisco, Jeff was in Pittsburgh and Chris was in Burlington, VT, so getting together was logistically challenging.”

Talking to Sasha Bell, and listening to her sing, one gets the impression she’s a generally cheerful, upbeat person. Yet, she was at a low point when it seemed the Essex Green wasn’t getting back together anytime soon. “Playing music was the biggest thing in my life and I can’t imagine not playing music," she says, “but I think I was really deeply grieving subconsciously for the loss of the band and I really couldn’t listen to music for a couple of years. I listened to talk radio religiously; it was absolutely painful for me to listen to music, especially contemporary music. And I didn’t play music for two years.” Being in the unfamiliar environs of San Francisco didn’t help. “I just wasn’t meeting people… I knew a handful of people from playing music over the years, but I was really busy and no one really lived close by. It was a very confusing time, trying to figure out how to play.”

A multi-instrumentalist since childhood, Bell started classical piano lessons while in kindergarten, and played flute in her elementary and high school bands. She also plays guitar. And, as it was, taking up a new instrument was what saved her. “I had to do something, so I took up the dulcimer, and it actually ended up being the perfect solution because I bumped into a friend of mine at one point who was a promoter in San Francisco. And he invited me to play his Christmas extravaganza, and I went and I played a couple of songs on the dulcimer and then I met a musician named Matthew Edwards, of Matthew Edwards and the Unfortunates, and he invited me to play with his band and that just really got the ball rolling again. I was able to write songs again -- I had had writer’s block for a couple of years in addition to everything else.”

Meanwhile, her primary love, the Essex Green, was still in limbo. In fact, at this point, the band’s website simply pictured a hibernating bear on the main page. Jeff Baron was playing with a variety of Pittsburgh bands and Chris Ziter was now married with two stepchildren and a new baby, and was starting his own tech company. The band was not on their radar.

On the other side of the country, however, a newly reinvigorated Bell wrote an album’s worth of songs and initiated a Kickstarter project to fund their recording. Unfortunately, there were some new bumps in the road ahead. “What happened was that we got all the tracks done in San Francisco and then went to a studio outside of Dallas to mix. It was not a cheap endeavor. It was a very nice studio, which used the remainder of the budget. We were there for a week and got something like four songs done and I just wasn’t happy with the mixes when I got back. So here I was with this project I’d worked so hard on and I was really unhappy with the mixes. It wasn’t something I felt comfortable releasing and I was out of money, and I’d only mixed four out of nine songs. It was horrifying, you know? So I kind of sat on it and then I moved to Montana.”

Bell’s husband had a job offer in Missoula and the family decamped to the mountain college town. “When I moved here people I knew were just perplexed [as to why], but it’s truly a special place. There’s a great music scene and a great art community.” She continues, “A lot of the people I meet grew up here and they either go away and come back or they never really left because they love it so much. People come here for a reason and they stay here for a reason: the quality of life is so high. It’s beautiful; good schools, and your access to the outdoors is just instantaneous. It’s really cool because I’m used to hanging out with musicians who aren’t really into the outdoors, or who don’t like to hike, but it seems like here all manner of people love the outdoors in some way.”

Once settled in her new home, the creative momentum continued, and she formed a new version of the Sasha Bell Band. “I was walking past [Missoula’s] Ear Candy record store in my Essex Green t-shirt one day and the owner was there and he said ‘Oh, I love that band!’, and I was like ‘That’s my band!’ and he said if you’re ever looking to play music and you need a bass player I play bass, so he got the band together for me and it’s great. We’re really busy right now, actually we’ve been playing about once a month… you kind of run out of venues [here] pretty quickly [laughing], but that’s okay.”

On the backburner were the Kickstarter tracks, gathering dust but not forgotten. Working with engineer Ryan “Schmedly” Maynes at his Missoula studio Club Schmed, they were remixed and all of Bell’s vocals were re-recorded. While that was proceeding, fate intervened and the three members of the Essex Green were finally able to coordinate and commit to making a new album. Baron had moved back to Burlington, Vermont by this time which helped, as Ziter was still there. The band’s roots run deep in Burlington, where they originally formed as Guppyboy. As such, Vermont was a big part of the band’s early identity, even down to their name – generated in a van brainstorming session on the way to a show, with “Essex” referencing Ziter’s hometown of Essex, VT and “Green” an oblique nod to Vermont’s Green Mountains.

Even though they’re still in different parts of the country, technology has helped overcome the geographical challenges. “I’ve flown to Vermont a few times, which makes things a lot easier. And they’ve got a bunch of gear, recording themselves at home. We share files online, and we all have Pro Tools," says Bell. Drum and bass duties were always rotated on previous albums, and for the new music Lowell Thompson sits in on bass and harmony vocals, while drum duties are being shared by Jeremy Frederick and Steve Hadeka.

Bell’s backlog of songs are finding a home now as well. “I was kind of at the point in my project where everything was really close to final mix and then we decided I would take the best of what I’d already recorded and we’d apply that to the Essex Green record. Since there’s more new material than can fit on one album, we may release a second album soon after the first, and the rest of my Kickstarter sponsored recordings would go on that. If that timeline becomes unrealistic, I have enough material recorded to release a solo album.” Those songs, she says, “are really of a family, of a piece, and I’m really proud of them and I think they go well together. All of my ‘weirder’ songs were left out of the Essex project, which I liked because I would love to just group them all together.”

The new band music promises to pick up nicely where they left off 10 years ago, and, Bell says that apart from a bit less of a '60s pop influence in the songs, there won’t be a drastic change in style. That said, we can still expect a bit of a departure in some places. “Some of my songs are odd, or dark, or different in ways I haven’t heard before on other Essex Green records.” She adds, “I’d be curious to hear if we hadn’t stopped playing together all those years if we would sound different, if the record would sound different than it will, but I’m still excited about it. Jeff’s an amazing guitar player – he started when he was 11 and has never really put it down, he’s always playing. The guitar tracks are the best I’ve ever heard him do, and Chris’ vocals sound super powerful.”

Work continues on the new album, with a projected fall release. But first, the band stuck its toes back in the water with a reunion show in May and will jet off in July to the Egersund Visefestival in Norway with an accompanying Scandinavian tour.

That hibernating bear from the website has finally woken up, and the time away may have done a bit of good after all. As Bell says, “I love singing, and actually I think my voice is stronger now than it’s ever been, and I’m happy with that. I think we’re better musicians and I think it’s gonna show. That’s one of the major things I’ve come to realize about this new record. We’re older, wiser, and stronger.”

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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