Interview: Bella’s Bartok on breaking dance floors, preserving Klezmer folk, and life in Northampton
Tonight by the water in Rhode Island there will be a party going on, and it’ll be a time unlike any other. There will be a lot of dancing, and maybe, if you’re lucky, a little bit of romancing. The night will feature no DJs, but rather a live band with blaring horns accented with the feverish strumming of guitars that guarantee to make you jump out of your seat and get to the movin’ and groovin’. It might get a tad crazy, but the rhythms should sooth that sensation in various ways.
Taking the stage at what should be a raucous affair at The Wheel House, nestled in the Port of Galilee in Narragansett, Northampton bohemian dance punks Bella’s Bartok throw it down with Rhode Island-bred Brooklyn indie band Silverteeth. Vanyaland recently had a chat with Bella’s Bartok frontman Asher Putnam about the inspirations behind the band’s sound, fitting into the music scene in Northampton, getting weird on the dance floor, the life of on an independent touring band, and Bella’s Bartok’s plans for the days ahead.
Rob Duguay: Bella’s Bartok has a distinct gypsy influence in their sound that has a rhythmic quality. Was listening to that type of music part of your growing up or did you get into the genre later into your adolescence?
Asher Putnam: A bunch of us have grandparents that are Hungarian and Romanian who grew up with that music so a few of us always had it around but most of us didn’t get into it until we were between 17 and 18 years old. I went to school and minored in ethnomusicology and stuff like that so during that time a few of us did some traveling around in southeastern Europe and eastern Europe, places like Lebanon in the near east and it kind of grew from there.
Who were some of the first artists you started listening to in that genre?
Taraf De Haidouk, who are an actual Romanian band, obviously Django Reinhardt. Goran Bregovic is also very interesting, I wouldn’t call what we do gypsy music per say. There’s definitely some of what we do that comes from Eastern European folk music but most of us are Jewish so we take more of a klezmer influence than the gypsy styles.
Being a band from Northampton, the city for years has been known as a haven for alternative rock with acts like the Pixies and Buffalo Tom starting out there and more recently with bands like Speedy Ortiz and Potty Mouth creating a buzz. For a band that has a different style than their local contemporaries, did you have any trouble fitting in at first or do you just not care about that?
I think we kind of did our own thing. We’ve always been trying to build a community, we are big fans of a lot of other bands in Northampton. We’ve played shows with Speedy Ortiz, they’ve played my house before. And The Kids are super great too, we just try to build a community as much as we can. We do sound a lot more different than a lot of folks but I think that our sense of community and just hanging out and playing music together is what makes the scene special.
You can definitely see that with a lot of small cities nowadays where you have an artistic community where everyone knows each other and different bands are playing together. One thing Bella’s Bartok has been known for with their live performances is that you guys always have a habit of making people dance. Rarely you’ll see people in their chairs at a Bella’s Bartok show, so what’s the craziest thing you’ve ever seen on the dance floor while you’re performing?
Definitely the dance floor breaking. It’s happened a few times, it happened at one venue recently in March I believe and we’ve done it to a few houses, my own included.
Sounds pretty gnarly.
Well it didn’t break terribly, it’s just that all the support beams broke. They’ve been reinforced so you can quote me on that but the hinge was bending a lot, it was like the floor was liquid. It’s been reinforced twice since then, which is cool.
How strenuous can life be for an independent touring band like yourselves?
Fortunately we just signed on with the Simon Says booking agency so they handle the gigging aspect and they handle it so well. They point us in a direction and they say “go there” and then we do it. Honestly it’s hard coming back and becoming a person again. We spend a lot of time together in a van and we have a lot of weird inside jokes so when we’re off tour it’s a little more different.
Bella’s Bartok’s latest release was the Don’t Be Yourself EP that came out a little over a year ago. Have you guys been in the studio working on a full length or are we going to have to be patient and just wait a little while?
We are working on a full length. I don’t know when it’s going to be released, I hope in the winter time. We just finished tracking the rhythm section and accordion so guitar, bass, drums, accordion and mandolin are done. We still have to add horns, vocals and all the backing vocal stuff we do but it’s coming along.
Does it have a title or you guys haven’t come up with one yet?
It has a name but I don’t think I can talk about it just yet. I will though, like in a few weeks. I promise.
BELLA’S BARTOK + SILVERTEETH :: Friday, August 28 at the Wheel House, 294 Great Island Road in Narragansett, RI :: 9 p.m., 21-plus, $5 :: Facebook event page :: For Bella’s Bartok’s full tour itinerary, see below