Bells≥ is not what you think. Headed up by drummer Zach Barocas, who spent the mid-’90s holding Jawbox together with a peculiar style and intimidating precision, the quartet plays extended, intricate instrumental jams. Bells≥ also features Adam Riser, formerly the bassist of Oxford Collapse, and zero vocalists. The expansive songs on the band’s self-released EP, There Are Crashes, benefit from that choice. Arts Desk hit up Barocas to talk about the group’s slow but steady progression, his newfound appreciation for critic Alex Ross, and why he hasn’t played D.C. since 2000. Catch Bells≥’s D.C. debut tonight at 8 p.m. at St. Stephens with Office of Future Plans (that’d be the band of Barocas’ former Jawbox bandmate J. Robbins) and More Humans for a Positive Force benefit to fight spinal muscular atrophy. $5.
Washington City Paper: How long has Bells≥ been active now?
Zach Barocas: We formed in November of 2008. We recorded in May 2009 with [J. Robbins]. Our first show was in September of 2010.
WCP: That seems like an awfully slow progression. How come?
ZB: I’m slow, so I don’t worry about it too much. My last band that had a record out, The Up On In, took even longer. Part of it is just that if you’re starting from scratch, it can take a while to work out. The kind of music we’re trying to play can get fairly complicated fairly quickly. Trying to make that palatable takes some time. Also, it’s an egalitarian band, so a lot gets thrown out. If any of us doesn’t like something, it gets thrown out. But, all four of us are always excited to be in this band, which is great.
WCP: Who is playing with you these days, and how’d you meet?
ZB: On guitar, it’s Chris Ernst and Steve Shodin. Steve was in some bands up here over the years, including Coup Fourre. Adam Riser was also in Coup Fourre. Both Chris and I had taken long stretches off from playing altogether, but Steve is always doing something. Adam also played bass in the Oxford Collapse. The band was basically formed out of some kind of locus of friendships; Adam and Steve are old friends, and Chris grew up with Drew O’Doherty [who briefly played in Ted Leo and the Pharmacists] who sang in my wedding. One night back in 2000, I told Steve we should start a band. So we did; it just took 10 years.
All of us were just more excited about playing music than the other stuff that people get excited about when starting a band. Basically, I had to get a practice space for the Jawbox reunion on Fallon, and I thought if I was getting a practice space, I might as well get a band together. Really, it was that simple.
WCP: How often do you play?
ZB: A couple times a week, give or take. We have four finished songs not on the record and a barrel full of half-baked parts. The fantasy is to get down and record with J. again in September.
WCP: Do you always want to record with J. Robbins, or are you ever curious how a record might turn out with someone else at the helm?
ZB: I mean, I have a friend up in Boston with a studio called Old Colony, which is mostly a mastering place now. Me and Chris recorded some of Drew’s songs there. A guy here in town, Matt LeMay, offered to record us for free. But really I’d rather record with J. under any circumstances. I haven’t made or finished or released a record without him. He recorded The Up On In and Bells≥. I don’t think I’ve made a record without him since 1990. He understands my playing better than anyone I know, and I think we’re all fans of J.’s. It’s nice to get out of New York and hide out in Baltimore.
WCP: This is your first D.C. show with Bells≥, right?
ZB: Yeah, first show in D.C. We played Baltimore with Office of Future Plans back in September. We used Gordon [Withers, from Office of Future Plans] on cello on the record, and he’s come up and played with us here a couple times. He’ll play with us on Friday. The last tune on the record has a second drum kit. Darren Zentek [Office of Future Plans, Channels] played that with us before, and he’ll play on Friday. There’s a certain kind of ambition that we don’t really have as a group. We’d much rather play with friends than get on a bill that’s somehow “good for us.”
WCP: Is the writing collaborative?
ZB: We tend to write out of jams, and that’s always been my preferred mode. Adam might just start playing a bassline and we’ll go from there. Some numbers will start with a guitar part someone brings in, but we all enter rehearsals with the understanding that if you think you have a finished song to bring to the band, we’re going to ruin it. By the time everyone gets their two cents in, it’s going to be a totally different thing. We’re never sure how something is going to end up, but once we get parts, we nail it down pretty tight. Though, it’s looser than other bands I’ve been in. Some parts don’t have a fixed duration—-if it’s going well we keep going, if not, we get out. Coming out of Jawbox—-that band was wired. Those were concrete arrangements. It’s nice to have a little room to breathe and not feel bound to what we did last time. Since no one has heard of us and only 20 people care about us, we’re free to do what we want. It’s nice to have enough talent and love in the group to be able to do that.
WCP: Does the band have a pool of shared influences?
ZB: One of the things that’s cool is that Jawbox is common ground. They were all Jawbox fans, so that saves me a lot of trouble because I never have to explain what I’m going for. Chris has a background in a lot of instrumental music, but this is the first band Adam and Steve have been in without a singer. When I started The Up On In, I didn’t want to mess around with singers, but I didn’t necessarily know what I was doing. Chris actually studied with Tony Conrad, so he’s coming from a left-field position. But I’ve never known a guitar player that doesn’t eventually at practice start playing “Back In Black”; it’s the horrifying reality of the kind of music we play.
I’ve been on a classical kick lately. I’ve been reading this book by Alex Ross called The Rest Is Noise, and it’s been a total revelation for me. Outside of the punk rock canon—-which is, you know, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Charles Ives, and [Arnold] Schoenberg—-I didn’t know any of this shit. I’ve spent the past couple months just flipping out for Olivier Messiaen and John Adams, those two especially. It’s been terrifically exciting. That’s not music with beats, it’s not a thing I immediately understand, so some of that’s come into play.
WCP: When is the last time you played in D.C.?
ZB: Oh man. In January of 2000, The Up On End played with Burning Airlines, and I think later that year we player somewhere else in D.C. Metro Cafe, I think.
WCP: Is it nostalgic to come back to play D.C. after so long?
ZB: I’ve grown up to be a relatively non-nostalgic dude. I came down to see J. do Story/Stereo, and I came down to see Office of Future Plans open for the Dismemberment Plan reunion show. I’ve caught up with anyone I used to know who will still talk to me. [laughs] The last few years have been sort of a restoration for me. It’s always good to see friends at shows, and it’s cool to see new people too. I’m still of the mindset that if there’s 20 people at a show, that’s good. I think my father and his wife will be at the show; it’s the first time they will have seen me play in ten years.