Brought together by friendship, chance, and Craigslist, The Belle Game have developed into one of Canada’s rising independent bands. Adam Nanji, Andrea Lo, Alex Andrew, Katrina Jones, and Rob Chursinoff have transformed The Belle Game from a folk-roots oriented band from their early EPs to the soaring, orchestral pop that permeates on their first full-length album, Ritual Tradition.
The album is full of songs that are at times dreamy and at other times make you want to get up and dance. “Wait Up for You” is a show-stopping number that will recalll Siouxsie and the Banshees. “Wasted Light” is a groovy pop tune reminiscent of Local Natives. “River” is a beautifully haunting tune that showcases Andrea Lo’s tremendous vocal range and the band at its best in writing a hypnotic song.
While they are still honing their craft as live performers, the Vancouver-based band have an undeniable presence on stage. They are lively and engaging, filling the room with their raw energy, the power of Lo’s voice, and the intoxicating rhythms and beats of the band. Their bill with Bear Mountain (who will be the subject of next week’s conversation) at The Black Sheep Inn in Wakefield, Quebec, was outstanding and among my top-3 shows of the year.
Prior to The Belle Game taking the stage, I sat down with them over dinner to talk about the band’s formation and progression, their time working with Kevin Drew and Charles Spearin of Broken Social Scene, and their career ambitions.
B: You started off as a folk band but have evolved to an “orchestral pop” sounding band. Can you please share with me your evolution as a band.
ANDREA: When we first started out, we were operating as fans of music rather than being musicians. In building our EPs to albums, it’s been a process of incoperating our own tastes rather than being fans of the type of music we liked at that time, which was mostly folk music.
ALEX: Absolutely agree.
ROB: I wasn’t there for the first EPs, so I’ll remain silent for now. (laughter)
B: Did Rob completely change your sound? (laughter)
ALEX: Well, he sort of did. Rob joined us about a year after we started the band. When we first started, Adam, Andrea, and I got together because it was Adam’s brainchild at the beginning. He had these songs that he was working on for a long time and piecing them together. Then one day, he asked Andrea and I to play a show with him, so we wrote these songs off from what Adam had started and collaborated on them. Then we went to the studio right away within three weeks of playing together.
ANDREA: It was really kind because Adam was in the process of finishing a full album for himself, a solo album. In playing with us, the idea of being a band was entirely unexpected. We thought it would be just one night playing with friends, but he offered to make an EP with us instead.
B: How and when did Katrina, Rob, and Marcus join?
ALEX: Adam met Katrina in the November of the same year we started. Adam went back to McGill to study and when he went back he wanted to keep playing music and keep the momentum going. So he put a request on Craigslist for a female vocalist to sing alongside when Andrea couldn’t be there. Katrina actually responded to it, and they found out they actually knew each other because Adam use to eat at the restaurant that Kat was a waitress. Once Katrina joined us, we haven’t looked back.
B: And Rob?
ALEX: Rob was also a result of a Craigslist post. We were looking for a drummer the year after we started the band. By this time, Katrina was with us for a while and we put out a Craigslist ad. I guess one of Rob’s friends saw it and said to Rob that he might be interested and he should check us out. By the way, Rob use to play with Tegan and Sara. Rob connected with us and played with us, and we’ve been together ever since.
B: And Marcus?
ALEX: Marcus, on the other hand, is a bassist we play with every once awhile. When he can’t be there, we play with another bassist Erica. He’s a “rent-a-bassist” as he says, and he’s a really good guy.
B: Take me through the process of writing the LP. Was it very organic? How much of the songwriting was collaborative?
ANDREA: I think the idea manifested as a result of our process. It was, moreso, looking back that there was a common theme running throughout our music.
ALEX: It was really a long process. We actually took about 2 years to write the record. It was the result of writing and recording 16 songs and then throwing them all out and starting all over again. We wrote another 12 and kept those ones.
ADAM: It definitely was not organic.
ANDREA: Definitely not.
B: What was the first song to stick for the LP?
ANDREA: Was it “Wasted Light”?
ADAM / ALEX: I think so.
ANDREA: We actually recorded that in Montreal. (Looking at Katrina and Adam) Was that while you two were still living in Montreal?
ALEX: It would actually be two years before we recorded the whole record.
ANDREA: Yeah, we recorded half the album in Montreal and then proceeded to finish the rest of it in Vancouver after many, many months.
B: Who is the ringleader of the troupe?
ANDREA, ALEX, AND ROB: Adam and Katrina.
ANDREA: They rule with an iron fist.
ROB: They tell us where to go to eat burgers. (laughter)
B: When you did the first EP, what direction were you thinking at the time and where do you see yourselves going?
ADAM: The EP was interesting because it did turn out really folky, which was something we were kind of into. But at the same time, I think the intention was for us to sound like what we do now. We can look at it either as a failed attempt or an alternate route to the same thing.
ANDREA: I think with writing the album we had more time to nurture our sound and really find out how to write with each another. We also learned more about our personal tastes and how to join our interests together. In writing the two EPs, we were really cramped on time, so it had a big effect on what we could put out.
B: For you Rob, since you were with Tegan and Sara, how is this different and what are some similarities as you watch this band grow?
ROB: Well, initially, I had to settle into being with the band. I wanted at first for the band to be “there” already. Then I realized that I needed to chill out, sit back, and participate in coming up with them together. Sometimes when we’re on the road, I would think, “Man, I use to be on a bus and sleeping on a bus. Now I’m back in a cramped van again.”
ALEX: Tough shit man. (laughter)
ROB: I was hanging out with Sara in NY and she said, “I could never go back and do what you are doing.” You know, they tour with 4 or 5 buses now, but I like it here. I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t. With this band, everyone is ambitious and really talented. Plus, no one is drug addict or an alcoholic.
ADAM: All except for Alex. (laughter)
ALEX: Yeah me. I’m not talented and the least into the program. (laughter)
B: Has Rob been a “godfather” figure for the band?
ANDREA: Nooooo! (laughter)
ALEX: Rob brings out the youth in us.
B: How so?
ANDREA: Rob is really funny.
ADAM: Rob knows how to live the rock ‘n roll lifestyle.
KATRINA: Rob is the most rock ‘n roll out of all of us.
ANDREA: Rob is the one who always wants to go out after we play while the rest of us want to chill.
KATRINA: I want to find deals on Hotwire at the next place we’re going to play. (laughter)
ADAM: It’s really important to have fun and bond on the road. That’s what Rob is always telling us.
ANDREA: Yeah, he’s really good at keeping us together and keeping us in check.
ROB: I’ve gone through this and I know you need to have fun in the process. I keep reminding the band that it’s not all business.
B: Rob, do you share stories or advice with the band?
ALEX: Oh shit yeah! There are some good ones.
ROB: Sometimes they’re not even relevant! (laughter) Sometimes I think they are, and they are not. I try to impart whatever I’ve learned on the road, but I don’t know if they’ve helped or not but I share them anyway?
B: Have the stories helped?
ADAM: I definitely think so.
ALEX: There are a lot of times where you need that wisdom, especially on a tour like we’re doing now. There have been a few times where Rob has told us something, and we’re like, “Oh yeah, that makes sense.” There are also times where Rob has told us something, and we’ll be like, “No. That’s absolutely wrong. There’s no way that works.”
B: What’s the one piece of wisdom that Rob has given you that has stuck to this day?
ANDREA: Rob told me to stop being so sensitive. (laughter)
B: Rob, what did you mean by that?
ROB: I don’t know. I probably said it a bunch of times.
B: Andrea, how did you take it?
ROB: She took it “sensitively”. (laughter)
ALEX: She took a lot of offence to it, too.
ANDREA: Of course!
ADAM (looking at Alex): The plane ticket one. You always quote it.
ALEX: Yeah. There’s a quote that I live by for this band. The Belle Game has afforded us a lot of opportunities and we’ve met some awesome people, but there’s always some stuff that doesn’t pan out. With all the opportunities that been provided for us, it’s easy to get your hopes up on every single thing that comes your way. When some of the stuff doesn’t pan out, it has a tendency to bring you down.
I remember one day when we really had a really good opportunity – but I can’t remember what it was – but when it didn’t happen, we were upset. I remember when we told Rob, he was really indifferent about it. We’re all freaking out and like, “This is the greatest thing ever! But Rob, why aren’t you saying anything or doing anything?” He’s like, “You’re not going anywhere until you have the plane ticket in your hand.” Since then, that quote has stuck with me. Now, I’m not that person, but the rest are still like, “That’s so cool!”
ROB: I got that saying from my friend, Sean Ashby, who use to play in Sarah McLaughlin’s band, so I’m just passing it along. But even me, I still get excited at stuff and I do get bummed when things don’t happen.
ADAM: We do get excited easily, and I think that’s true for any young band with any good opportunity. I think it’s been a great lesson for us. It’s good to have a goal in mind and to keep your mind focused on that goal. If things come in on the side, it’s great if it works out and you can take that path, too. But it’s better to keep your head down and keep working on what you want than to rely on something that you’ve been offered that you don’t know what’s going to happen.
B: You were at CMJ. How was the experience?
ADAM: It was crazy because there were like a million bands playing.
ANDREA: It was absolutely hectic.
ADAM: The places were always packed. When we played Pianos, we had to carry our gear through the crowd, and it was packed inside. The whole experience was an adventure.
ALEX: It was basically go, go, go because the shows were packed back-to-back with bands. You would rush on stage to get ready, then you had to play right away, and then get off stage as fast as you can.
ROB: And not everything was suitable for performing. The house drum kit was a bit of a wreck. I think it was held together by a drum stick.
ADAM: We also played a second show at the Rockwood Music Hall. We thought we were playing in a large music hall, but we didn’t realize there were three rooms and the one we were playing in was tiny. It wasn’t much bigger than this room.
ALEX: It’s a music hall, so we were expecting to play in a large venue.
ADAM: Yeah, but instead we played in this room that was so small we couldn’t fit the entire band on the stage. The stage wasn’t very high, fortunately, but I think Rob, Marcus, and Alex had to set up on the floor. And the soundboard was hovering over the stage. That’s how small the place was. The sound was excellent, though, so they knew what they were doing.
B: Before you headed to CMJ you spent some time in Banff to write some new material. How were the sessions?
ANDREA: We booked the Banff Centre for two weeks and just focused on writing new songs. Having Kevin Drew and Charles Spearin of Broken Social Scene there with us was incredibly helpful and enlightening.
ADAM: The time at Banff was extremely rewarding and necessary. We had been touring basically non-stop since the start of the year, so we appreciated having some time to recharge and write some music. The whole place gave us space and peace. Unlike this LP, where we rushed to write two songs to complete the album, we are under no pressure to produce anything, so we just focused on writing music and creating ideas.
ANDREA: Yeah, I think at the end of the experience we became hippies. It’s difficult to not be in awe of your surroundings when in Banff. It was absolutely beautiful. And in being in that setting, we were able to let go. We have this really bad habit as a band of overanalyzing our music, but in Banff we were able to relax.
ALEX: It also helped to have windows where we were recording instead of the little, dark studio at Adam’s.
ADAM: Yeah, and in a place that didn’t have mold.
ANDREA: Our view everyday was of the mountains. It was really inspiring and refreshing for us.
KATRINA: But then there was Kevin. He really brought us back down to earth and focused on the music. He always had something to say.
ADAM: Kevin was awfully honest. I don’t think he liked much of what we wrote. We would be working on songs all day, working 12 to 16 hours. I remember one day that we worked hard on one song, and we thought we nailed it. We played it for Kevin and he didn’t like.
KATRINA: Kevin had this way where he would put his head on his arm, face down on the table. That was never a good sign, and you know what you had written was bad.
ADAM: I remember seeing Kevin the next day in the gym, and he said, “Adam, I really fucking hate that song.”
ALEX: I think he said that to all of us because I saw him at the pool and he said and I quote, “That song. It’s fucking bad!” (laughing)
ANDREA: But Kevin did really help us a lot, and we came out of the sessions much closer and tighter as a band.
ROB: Kevin would say it was the spirits at work…
EVERYONE: …or the elders!
KATRINA: He was like a guide or a guru for us, giving us advice from high above.
B: I have this image of Kevin on top of a mountain.
Katrina: Like on Mount Rushmore?
Except carved in snow and dressed like the Dalai Lama. (laughter)
B: So, when can fans expect a new album?
ADAM: Like I said, we’re not in any rush to put something out.
ANDREA: After what we have experienced, we want to get this right. So, eventually, we’ll have something.
ROB: While we’re in no rush, we can’t quite say there’s not a timeframe. Maybe in the next couple of years.
B: As you look back over the past few years, for each of you, how would you say you’ve grown as a band and as individuals?
KATRINA: I think as a band, we’ve become more cohesive. We know each other’s interests and talents, which allows us to perform better and write music. In terms of myself, I think I’ve become a lot more confident in my abilities and being on stage. I wasn’t always like that in the beginning.
ALEX: I agree with Katrina on being a more cohesive band, but I would also add that we now truly collaborate. In the past, Adam, Katrina, and Andrea would usually come to us with pretty much fully developed songs. But in Banff, we wrote songs together as a band. I feel like I can now make suggestions and input to the development of the songs. Myself as a musician, I would say I’ve learned to be more disciplined. Before, I just wanted to hammer on the guitar, but now I’m learning to be a better guitar player.
ANDREA: As a band, and I know this is kind of silly, the Banff experience really sticks out in my mind and it has brought us much closer together. It allowed us to let go, like I said earlier, and allow the creative process to unfold. We’ve also learned how to handle the pressure a lot better and to not to put so much pressure on ourselves. Not to say there isn’t any pressure, but it’s a healthier form of pressure. And so, we’re also a lot nicer to each other. This whole process is a lot less painful. We still work at it and it’s still something we’re trying to change, the habit of trying to control things.
For myself personally, one of the major reasons why I decided to stick with music is that it’s helped me grow and challenged me to go outside of my comfort zone. Basically, taking on a completely different identity that I never would have imagined taking on earlier in my life, but it’s been really rewarding to be more open and more vulnerable.
ADAM: For myself as a musician, the biggest difference has been trying to quit wanting to be like other musicians. Every kid wants to be a rock star at some point. A lot of the band, especially when writing the first album, was like, “I really want to do something like this because it’s like this band” or “if we do this it would be really cool and we would be cool”. But in the last year, especially more so since we got back from Banff, I’ve been working on just doing my own thing and adding it to the band. Overall, I’ve been trying to be less controlling of the whole creative process and just nurture what the five of us create together as the sound for the whole band instead of saying, “We can’t do that because the bands that we want to be like don’t do that.” I think there’s just more freedom.
As a band, it’s difficult for me to not think about Andrea because she’s come so far in the last year or even few months. Andrea is becoming more of a bandleader in her own right, especially when she’s singing on stage. I feel like I can put my head down because she’s going to nail it no matter what, which is really nice to have someone in the band that can deliver and connect with the audience and carry us when we’re having a difficult time. I think everyone in the band can do that as well, but Andrea has really grown into that role.
ROB: Personally, I’ve learned to chill out more. I’m the type of person who wants to get to the destination without enjoying the journey. When I joined this band, I was like, “There’s all this potential and promise”, so I wanted this band to be at a certain level already. So yeah, it’s been a good lesson for me to chill out and enjoy what we have. At first, these guys would laugh and talk so much, and they still do have so much camaraderie, but I would want some peace and silence. But I’ve realized that this youthful enthusiasm is good for me. That’s another thing that I’ve learned.
ALEX: You’re welcome! (Everyone laughing)
ROB: Yeah, without you, I would be in an old age home. Anyway, this is like the 18th band that I’ve been in, and I’ve seen bands reach certain levels and some not go anywhere. It’s just been really nice to be on this ride. We’re working really hard, but I don’t think they even realize how effortlessly things are happening for us and doors are being opened.
It’s been fun to be part of a process where we have a unified vision and because of that things are happening for us. I’ve been in a lot of bands where one guy isn’t sure if he wants to go to school and another guy’s girlfriend is pulling him in a different direction. The music may be good, but if there isn’t that unified vision the universe won’t give back to the band and things don’t happen. And that hasn’t been the case for this band.
B: What’s on your rider?
ALEX: Chips and salsa.
ADAM: Bottle of red wine
ALEX: Domestic and imported beer – a six pack of each.
ROB: When did you put together a rider? How come I didn’t know about this?
ALEX: Well the chips and salsa are for you.
ADAM: And the V8!
KATRINA: But basically, our rider is kind of boring. Some beer, wine, some snacks, water, towels.
ADAM: We don’t like to be fussy. We do ask for organic stuff, but not much else.
B: What venue do you want to play at?
KATRINA: I’m really excited to go to Europe, specifically at Silencio in Paris. This is the craziest gig ever, where we’ll be playing at David Lynch’s private night club.
ALEX: It’s the coolest club anyone could ever go to.
ADAM: They probably won’t even let us in. (everyone laughing)
ROB: I want to play anywhere in South America one day.
ALEX: I want to go Pink Floyd style and play in the craziest venue. I want us to play at the top of Machu Pichu. That would be cool.
ADAM: That would be our “Live at Pompeii”!
ANDREA: That would be really cool to re-enact “Live at Pompeii”.
ALEX: Oh, I also want us to be the first band to play in Antarctica.
ANDREA: On a Disney cruise? (laughter)
ALEX: Not so much. Aren’t there villages there?
B: Not exactly; there are research centres.
ALEX: Well, the researchers need a break, too.
ANDREA: What’s the Gaudi cathedral in Barcelona?
B: La Sagrada Familia, but it won’t be ready until something like 2025.
ANDREA: Yeah, but it would be really cool. So, we’ll be there!
ADAM: I want love to do a tour in India. I know Tegan and Sara did it. I think people there just want to be see live music, and it would be a great experience.
B: Who were your musical idols growing up?
ROB: John Bonham
KATRINA: Mariah Carey
ADAM: Jimi Hendrix. That is what turned me on to guitar.
ALEX: Dallas Green of City in Colour.
ANDREA: I don’t know. I really like a band named The Avalanches.
ADAM: But they’re a band without a singer! (laughter) When you were growing up, who did you want to be?
ANDREA: I wanted to be Jane Goodall.
ADAM: And I wanted to be Michael Jordan. (laughter)
ANDREA: I also really wanted to be work at the aquarium and train the belugas.
ALEX: I think Andrea is ashamed to say who she idolized.
ANDREA: No, I really wanted to be these things.
B: What’s your favourite album of all-time?
ROB: “London Calling” by The Clash
ADAM: “A Ghost is Born” by Wilco because it’s darker than their other albums.
ALEX: The one that I go back to a lot is Local Natives’ first album, “Gorilla Manor”.
ANDREA: The first album to get me really interested in music was The Yeah Yeah Yeah’s “Fever to Tell”.
KATRINA: “Tragic Kingdom” by No Doubt. I wanted to be Gwen Stefani so bad. I took my sister’s tank tops and cut them up. I would borrow her pants, too, and sing in front of the mirror.
B: If there was a movie about the band, which movie star would you want to play you?
ROB: Tom Cruise! (laughter)
ADAM: Alec Baldwin should play Rob.
ALEX: Who did you guys say who should play me? The guy from “Napoleon Dynamite”.
KATRINA: Jon Heder. There definitely is a resemblance.
ALEX: Well, if I could choose someone, it would be Ryan Gosling.
ANDREA: Can I have Michael Cera play me?
KATRINA: I feel like in real life, someone like Katie Holmes or Anne Hathaway would play me, but who I would want to play me is Larry David. (laughter)
B: Ten years from now, where do you see yourselves?
ROB: On a remote island in the Caribbean! (laughter)
ADAM: I would like everyone in the band living comfortably, and everyone having a role to play in our own business, like our own record company. That’s my ultimate goal for the band – to control every part of our music. Oh, and to be touring on a bus. That would be cool.
ALEX: I agree – living comfortably off the band, being self-sufficient. I don’t want us to worry about the things we worry about now, like getting time off work. That’s my worst nightmare, but fortunately they’ve been good about them.
KATRINA: Yeah, just be comfortable and to have achieved some level of success. My measuring stick is that we can all walk into Whole Foods and buy anything we want.
The Belle Game have just completed an extensive cross continental tour, but they will be back in Ottawa on February 7, 2014, performing at the National Arts Centre. Tickets can be purchased here.
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