words by Eamon Whalen
photo appears courtesy of Wild Belle
Raised outside of Chicago in a music-centric family where as much Paul Simon was played as Sun-Ra, Elliot and Natalie Bergman fused their parents’ music influences with their own modern pop sensibility to create Wild Belle. With Natalie singing tales of broken hearts and Elliot as the do-everything producer programming drum machines, playing keys and the ubiquitous baritone sax, their explicitly reggae-influenced debut album Isle has taken them across the U.S. and Europe and secured them a multi-album deal with Columbia Records.
GR: Elliot, you took Natalie on tour with your former band Nomo when she was a teenager - what was that like?
E: It was a natural thing. Natalie was musically gifted at such a young age and our band was sort of open and free-wheeling. Natalie was free one summer , school wasn’t in session, so we all hopped in the van. It ended up being a really fun summer, we played a bunch of festivals like the Montreal Jazz Festival and Pitchfork Festival in Chicago. It was just a great way to start collaborating in a looser way, she definitely got used to the rhythms of being on the road.
GR: You two have a lot of old-school influences but you’re making modern pop music. How do you balance those creative forces?
E: You don’t want to try and recreate what somebody else has done because it will never be as good. This is what we love and this is what we are inspired by but we have to do our own thing. We’re both drawn to the dirty and dusty sound of how old records were recorded so how we record is pretty simple. We usually record drums with just a few mics. We like that old-school approach to making a record, but also work with modern tools like drum machines and synthesizers to try and create sounds that people haven’t heard before. Pull from the past while always looking toward the future; that’s the line we try to walk.
GR: Elliot, you’re coming from a band with more of a free-wheeling style, to now making pop songs, how is that change in structure been?
E: The last band was much more open - free jazz, all rhythmically based and open to improvisation. [With Wild Belle] These are pop songs, and you kind of have to fill in around that structure. It’s much harder to be in Wild Belle for me [laughs]. In Nomo I could do whatever I wanted and no one would get mad at me, in Wild Belle if I ever try to change anything it’s a major disaster [laughs].
GR: How does it differ from what you were doing before, Natalie?
N: It’s really just what I’ve been writing my whole life and then enhanced in a way that I wouldn’t have ever imagined. I brought a bunch of demos to the studio and we dissected them and added layer after layer to the songs - synthesizers, Chamberlain strings, beat machines. At the core there are still my little pop demos but just enhanced and made crazy, [laughs] into a party!
GR: You guys are both well-traveled and take influences from around the world, but come from a city with a rich musical history. How has Chicago influenced the sound of Wild Belle?
E: We grew up listening to this great Chess Records Blues box set - that was always stuck in the car tape deck.
N: Howlin’ Wolf, Etta James [both released records through Chess]. You put on her record and I just can’t help but sing along to it. People are probably like “alright, let’s listen to Etta James now.” [Laughs] I just need to sing every single word. I go into this dream land when I listen to her. She and Sam Cooke are two artists that I’ll hear their music and I’ll picture myself in this old film. I’ll zone out and be in this romantic love scene where I’m simultaneously singing the music, but also dancing to it you know?
E: Theres also an amazing Jazz tradition, the AACM or the Jazz Ensemble of Chicago, and even now there is a great experimental Jazz scene in Chicago, so that’s just part of the community that we came out of. It’s very progressive and supportive of experimental music and there are all these great spots around Chicago where that’s that what they do.