The Italians are members of Dada Swing, a band straight out of Rome that is embarking on its second American tour. The guy speaking English is Kansas City native Christopher Tolle. He met Swing in Italy a few years back, and the Italian art-punk band has made the trek to record three songs in one day collaborative numbers that will appear on a future Dada Swing album at Tolle's little clapboard house. In Kansas. Just down the street from the neighborhood QuikTrip. Welcome to the wide world of the Belles.
The Belles are a Kansas City act that, as its name indicates, makes ridiculously pretty music. The Belles' songs could be a dessert recipe: smooth, creamy harmonies topped off with languid, delicate melodies, similar to the soft, near-lazy approach audible in songs by Arab Strap or Elliott Smith. At the same time, the songs possess enough indie-pop pickup that you're not in danger of being lulled to sleep or annoyed by long, overdramatic overtures and drawn-out choruses.
But describing the band's sound is the only easy part of defining the Belles. Things get more complicated when you try to pin down who exactly is in the band.
The Belles are a two-piece act. Sort of. There are two static members: singer-songwriter Tolle and drummer Jake Cardwell. Beyond that, the band is a continually morphing cast of local and international musicians who come and go with some regularity. Or not. So, in the interest of keeping things as simple as possible, let's start with their chronology.
Amid the massive hodgepodge of musical equipment in Tolle's basement studio, Tolle and Cardwell sit down with the Pitch and begin the complex task of explaining just what in tarnation has been going with the Belles since the band spawned in Lawrence, sometime in 2002.
"It was a real organic get-together kind of thing on Tuesdays," Tolle says. "Basically, I had a bunch of songs I'd written and catalogued. I try to record what I can [guitar, bass and keyboards], but I can't play a lick of drums. I'd met Jake in KC before, and I needed a drummer who would play the parts without trying to change and fill everything. I'm kind of a control freak when it comes to the writing of my songs, and Jake is the perfect fit for a songwriter he's a good enough drummer that he doesn't need to show off."
Six months after meeting, Tolle and Cardwell had a nearly completed demo on their hands.
"We were signed and our record was coming out before we ever played a show," Cardwell explains. "We'd been playing for a bit, and just because Jake and I had been in other bands [Cardwell in Reflector and Tolle in the Creature Comforts] and had toured, we knew other bands all over," Tolle adds. "So we recorded and said, 'Here's the new thing we're doing,' to the same friends we always give demos to, and really shortly after that, we got contacted. And it was like, OK, well, now we're a band."
That first album, Omertá, was released on California's Lakeshore Records in 2002. While on tour in America with bassist Brian Everard and guitarist Andrew Ashby in support of Omertá and its breakout single, "Never Said Anything," the Belles were picked up internationally.
"An English label rep was in New York for the CMJ Festival and saw a review of Omertá in Time Out. He bought it, liked it, got ahold of the California label and licensed it in Great Britain through Eat Sleep Records, a London-based label for European distribution. That's where the overseas stuff started," Tolle says.
"And they [Eat Sleep] were too cheap to send over four or even three of us, so it was just me and Chris that went to Europe," Cardwell adds.
The tour went well. The two spent time playing several European countries, including England, Scotland and Italy. "We spent a lot of time in England, doing a shitload of radio promos and stuff a real whirlwind of press," Tolle says. "And basically, it was struggling through hangover after hangover every morning.
"There were these surreal moments where I'm literally shaking because I haven't slept," Tolle continues, "and I'm like, oh, wait a minute! I'm on live radio with BBC 6! And the guy asking me a question has a big mic in front of him, and I can't really hear what he just said, and I can't look at his lips which is what deaf people and band people do, is look at the lips and I have no idea what he is saying, and it's going out on the radio and I'm like, huh? Well, all right, I'm just going to start playing."
Italy proved to be a breeding ground for future Belles songs. Appearances on MTV Italy and chance introductions to various Italian musicians made for new musical collaborations. "We met Alessandro Franceo [of the Italian band GoodMorningBoy] in Italy, and then later we ended up sending him tracks for the new album for him to write parts to," Tolle says.
"But he couldn't speak shit for English," Cardwell adds.
"Yeah, when we met him in Italy, we couldn't really communicate with him unless there was someone to translate, so we just threw out band names like the Replacements and Big Star so we knew what he was into, and we knew what instruments he played after seeing him live and [through] pantomiming various instruments. So we sent him stuff that we were just like, 'Yeah, just track some stuff.'"
This resulted in Franceo contributing piano and lap-steel parts to two songs on the Belles' yet-to-be-released album Misery Loves Industry.
After their European tour, the Belles returned home and recorded Misery for Eat Sleep. To their dismay, the label was not happy with it.
"They thought we were going to put out a lot of acoustic, pretty pop songs an album full of 'Never Said Anything's," Cardwell says. "We delivered the record to them, and they wanted more singles. And we didn't want to jump through hoops we liked the record."
"We didn't want to make any of the changes they wanted to make," Tolle says, "and that's a typical music industry thing they'll tell you what you want to hear, and then as you're doing just that, they basically say the opposite. It's almost never not been like that. Second Nature's the only good label I've ever worked with. And they've got Idle Acres.
Idle Acres is the latest Belles release, licensed to hometown label Second Nature and available for purchase from Secondnaturerecordings.com and iTunes.
"Misery Loves Industry hasn't been released yet, and it's a year old," Tolle continues. "We agreed to disagree with the label in the end. After a year of holding our album hostage, they let us have it back. We sat still for a year, thinking it was going to be released any day, and it never was. I wrote them a letter full of fire and venom, and then they finally released it to us."
So now, post-tour and post-international label, and with the ironically titled Misery waiting to be picked up, what's the plan? Besides, that is, hanging out with Doug the cat and writing tracks with Italian noisemongers?
For one thing, expect to see the Belles playing around town a bit more with an expanded lineup.
According to Tolle, it's a case of "once a Belle, always a Belle." The band's rotating bench includes Andrew Ashby and former Gadjits keyboardist Ehren Starks, and they've recently added String and Return bassist Dan Weber and Olympic Size singer Kirsten Paludan, both of whom are playing upcoming Belles engagements at the Record Bar and Jilly's.
"Kansas City has a great music community," Tolle says. "And thankfully, I think people around here understand that I'm a control freak about writing my songs, which is why Jake is the only permanent member. But I surrender that control when we play live that's why every show is different, with different musicians. No two shows are the same."
Somehow, that's not hard to believe.