Nathan Bell: Post-Punk Banjo

Brassa Bell marks a departure for Bell, whose music has heretofore been derived largely from his immediate surroundings — like his work on the instrumental folk-rock project Human Bell with multi-instrumentalist David Heumann.

“With Human Bell, it was quite a natural openness for me to work with David Heumann’s writing on guitar,” Bell says. “We both share a similar love for the underlying minor notes in musical expressions.”

Indeed, the group’s sole recorded output, the self-titled full-length released on Thrill Jockey in 2008, sways from song to song between noodly minor-key blues picking and humid atmospheric numbers — not exactly blues, not country or strict Americana, but a tasteful and fulfilling amalgam of all. There is minimal percussion, with tunes waxing and waning of their own accord. Rhythm, it seems, is an afterthought with Human Bell, but it’s the life force behind Brassa Bell.

“Brassa Bell brings out a more rhythmic value, therefore creating a strong and unique base to work with,” Bell says. “For example, the combination of the historic African frailing technique with Brazilian rhythm — you just can’t go wrong with that.”

Despite his affinity for the history and genesis of musical forms and instruments, Bell is not a man lost in the past. His interest isn’t in simply recapturing old and lost sound but in continually building upon them.

“Brassa Bell actually has been experimenting with adding electronic sounds in the background,” he says. “On the tour in Brazil, we were using an album of vocal gospel singing between songs. Recently, I have played a few solo shows where I experimented with playing on top of an audio score of sounds.”

Moving from a purely folk construct to a more modern one hasn’t been entirely easy, Bell admits, but he says that it has been rewarding.

“It’s a tough decision when you’re from a school of thinking [that says] music might sound its best when it’s an instrument being played,” he says. “I go through it in my head back and forth and keep ending up with the thinking that a tool is just a tool and it depends really on how one chooses to use it.”

Besides his ongoing work with Brassa Bell, Bell recently finished an album called Colors. Recorded alone at his home, Colors is about as far from primitive or simplistic folk music as it gets.

“The theme of this album is the collaging of audio sounds together with music interwoven through it,” Bell says, “a good example of this being the recognition of sounds of children playing as a musical entity entirely unto itself.”

Still, Bell isn’t grandiose in his description of his music. Whether he’s plucking out a mournful, lone lament or ripping furiously through a rhythmic cacophony with a stage full of musicians, it’s all the same to Bell.

“I share the attitude that folk music cannot be defined in one certain music genre,” he says. “For folk music is simply music by the folks.”

– Oakland L. Childers

Leave a Comment