Nathan Bell: Post-Punk Banjoist Pursues Color Through Sound

Nathan Bell: ColorsNathan Bell: Colors (Lancashire and Somerset, 4/1/11)

Nathan Bell: “Pilgrim…”

Banjo impresario and multi-instrumentalist Nathan Bell’s interest in color isn’t a typical one. He’s not a painter or a designer searching for the perfect palette to represent something physical or tangible. Instead, his attraction to color is based on its relationship to sound.

Bell has undertaken a unique and daunting project, one with no external inspiration and no guide for how to draw conclusions, wherein he and friends Peter Townsend (drums), Kate Porter (cello), and Liz Merideth (viola and violin) wrote songs based on a series of colors. The resultant album is the aptly named Colors, released in 2011 by the British label Lancashire and Somerset.

Bell says that the concept of color as sound isn’t as abstract and unnatural as it seems. Music naturally evokes images in the mind of the listener, so colors aren’t much of a stretch. Different sounds naturally fit with certain colors, while others are combinations that may shake the listener’s perspective and emotions.

“Color is sound as sound is color,” Bell says from his new home-away-from-home in Brazil, where he has been playing and recording with one of his bands, Brassa Bell. “And as one color is made from many colors, each song reserves its place on the palette. The imagery of color in combination of sound provokes a three-dimensional perspective on the album.

Nathan Bell: Colors

“The compositions and instruments are merely the tools used to guide these sounds and colors into a full circle of movements. Instrumental pieces seem to fit together nicely when capturing human emotions. Colors have an immense influence or representation of our human emotions, so all in all, it’s another attempt of achieving a full circle.”

Bell started his musical life playing in punk bands around his native Virginia. He made the transition from punk rocker to folk experimentalist over a long period after playing bass in the seminal trance-inducing rock band Lungfish from 1996 to 2003. Even then, he says, the grit and twang of the indigenous music of the Maryland backwoods was seeping into his psyche.

“Growing up in rural Virginia, my father always had an interest in banjo music,” says Bell, who now resides in Baltimore. “He gave me his banjo, but due to an introduction to punk and hardcore music in the early ’80s, I swayed more towards playing cheap electric guitars with way too much distortion rather than pursuing the folk music of banjo.”

It wasn’t until later in the ’90s that Bell began to find the call of his unique heritage overwhelming. Having recorded with more than a dozen disparate bands, including P.W. Long, Miighty Flashlight, and Television Hill, Bell says that he became enthralled with all facets of folk music, both domestic and foreign.

“As far as the style in which I write,” Bell says, “the influence first came to me when my father took me to the house of a superb banjo player in Pennsylvania. To my surprise, he was an expert on classical music on a five-string banjo.”

The experience of seeing a talented musician stepping outside the normal confines of his instrument had an immense and lasting effect on the young Bell.

“This completely justified my frustrations of not being able to pick the Scruggs manner (a three-finger picking style) and to just ride down the river in my own raft of writing,” he says.

Bell’s education took another twist when he became friends with Peter Ross, a renowned builder and player of gourd banjos, a primitive instrument first made by slaves who formed the body of the banjo from a gourd. Ross has painstakingly researched both the construction and playing techniques associated with these once-forgotten but historically important instruments.

“It was from Pete that I learned the technique of frailing, otherwise known as the Clawhammer technique,” Bell says.

Nathan Bell

Unlike the more widely used Scruggs picking style, the Clawhammer uses a primarily downward picking motion. The hand, clenched into a claw, with the strumming index or middle finger kept stiff, strums the strings with a wrist motion rather than the flicking of the fingers. It’s an extremely rhythmic technique, and one that Bell employs to great effect in Brassa Bell, which combines his electric banjo with Brazilian rhythms and background electronics.

Colors finds Bell returning to the sultry, down-tempo feel of his early solo works and the haunting, beautiful Human Bell, a project he created with fellow multi-instrumentalist Dave Heumann. The tunes on Colors amble sleepily along, conjuring images of lazy trips down placid waterways and, of course, the colors of a still fall afternoon. This link between what we hear and what we see or imagine is what Bell hopes to explicate with Colors.

“I find the balance to the palette of colors as being a simple understanding in life,” Bell says. “I’ve imagined life with no colors and found it to be quite a sad place yet crucial to the understanding of color. But these thoughts are quick to subside when I think of a person blind from birth. How do colors represent themselves to them? Maybe music might be an understanding for them. And maybe through a lifetime pursuit of ‘color through sound,’ I might be able to discover something useful for all.”

Perhaps ironically, Bell says that his favorite color is grey. Most of the imagery surrounding him and his bands is stark, black and white. But even these apparently minimalist images tell part of a story according to Bell.

“I like grey because it can’t really be defined,” he says.

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