Oakland band Bells Atlas formed over two years ago, honing a sound that mixes influences of jazz, soul, hip-hop and west African music to create an ensemble somewhere between the realms of Erykah Badu and Battles. They aren’t afraid to push the envelope—or open the envelope, explore its contents, recreate it, reseal it and send it forward. Its members have brought a range of inspiration from around the world. Singer Sandra Lawson-Ndu grew up to the sounds of Nigerian Highlife, while guitarist Derek Barber and bassist Doug Stuart met studying jazz at the University of Michigan. We caught up with the 4th member and rhythmic backbone, drummer Geneva Harrison to talk about what’s in store for Bells Atlas and living in Oakland.
Bells Atlas perform at the Rickshaw Stop on August 29.
How did Bells Atlas come about?
It started with Sandra and Doug, they had been playing music in another group and started collaborating. They eventually asked Derek to play with them for their first show as a trio in SF. I had just moved to the Bay not long before and met Sandra at a café in Berkeley. She invited me to the show and they, only had like five songs at the time, but I was totally blown away by what they were doing. What initially grabbed me was that there was something really unique about the music rhythmically, harmonically and there was something really special about sandra’s voice and I was like, “Why the hell isn’t there a drummer up there?”
It sounds like things moved pretty quickly for you after moving to the Bay Area?
I moved from Miami, where I lived for a little over seven years. I spent time going to shows and getting my feet wet in the scene, trying figure out what the hell I was doing out here. I hadn’t been here long and had been playing with other people loosely, but at that moment this trio’s music was the most amazing thing I’d heard since I moved here. It just spoke to me. Joining the band happened pretty quickly … There was a lot of chemistry between everyone.
Having instant chemistry is definitely a rare occurrence.
We’re all good buddies; we’re a family. It’s hilarious what that entails sometimes. It’s something unique, we all come from different places, at least musically speaking, but we all share a connection in very distinct ways. It’s interesting because we gel and we form these unique pockets of sound. It’s not easy to find the right people to play with, or cool people AND great musicians that are fun to make good music with. I’ve played with tons of different people and sometimes the combination isn’t complete.
Your music is diverse with lots of evident influences, yet it flows very cohesively. Do you each bring a different influence to the table or all you all sort of inspired by the same eclectic tastes?
I think we’re all influenced by different music. There’s a lot of afro-centric rhythm stuff that’s present, music that’s sprung from the African diaspora, whether it’s Cuban or Nigerian highlife. Doug and I have a big affinity for soul and hip-hop groove. When I lived in Miami I played a ton of Cuban and Brazilian music. There’s also this element of pop and post rock, and a lot of that comes from Derek, who played in punk and rock bands. He has his own project of 90’s alt rock inspired music called Perhapsy.
Where do you see yourselves moving forward?
Compositionally, one goal, aside from pushing the bar, is that we want to hit a little harder. That’s a weird way of saying it, but we don’t want to play it safe. We want to be able to just bring more of an edge and an upbeat thing to what we’re doing. We have a lot of tunes where you can groove, but a lot of them are mid tempo, chill tunes, so we’re trying to heighten and diversify the experience a little more.
You have an array of instrumentation on your first self-titled album creating a very authentic feel. What were some of the instruments, or things, you experimented with? For example, the track “Jyeah” sounds like you used pots and pans.
There are no boundaries where to get sounds from, especially for recording. I think on that track it was probably filtered cowbell, and there might have been a couple random pieces. I have a lot of metal percussions and Sandra recorded that loop on the beginning of the tune. There’ s a sea of things to hit out there and there’s absolutely no limit and everyone’s pretty on board with whatever. A lot of the percussion in the band and the sound in the beginning, cames from Sandra because her sense of rhythm is out of this world!
That reminds me of a band from Oakland called Sleepy Time Gorilla Museum who mixed metal saw blades and garbage cans and other random junk with their percussion.
It’s funny you say that. I was looking for a bunch of junk percussion a few months ago and Moe Staino (of Sleepy Time Gorilla Museum) hit me up and was like, “Hey man, I’ve got stuff at my parent’s house,” and he gave me all this amazing junk metal.
Oakland seems to be a very exciting place to live these days, with the A’s dominating baseball, some of the greatest restaurants in the bay, and a very up and coming arts/music scene. How would you describe the current vibe?
I moved here right at a time when things hadn’t really started blowing up as far as the exodus as everyone coming over from San Francisco. It’s been interesting to see in such a short period of time where it was then and where it is now. It’s hard to grasp the change and see where it’s going, but it’s becoming a pretty big hub for an established and strong music scene.
There’s a focus that’s leaning toward music but it’s not a big music town like New York, Nashville and Austin yet. It’s kind of expanding like Baltimore’s scene did a number of years ago. They had a really amazing niche of artists like Dan Deacon, and Wham City, Ponytail, Animal Collective…and I feel like Oakland is on its way to becoming that.
Bells Atlas performs at Rickshaw Stop on August 29. More info.