Bell Orchestre

Montreal’s Bell Orchestre make a comeback with House Music

Richard Reed Parry told us about his other band’s new album.

Though he may be known for being part of Arcade Fire since 2003, Richard Reed Parry has been making music with Bell Orchestre for even longer. Today, the instrumental six-piece released their fourth album, House Music

Completed pre-pandemic, the group’s first LP since 2009’s As Seen Through Windows is the byproduct of mostly one single improvised session that was recorded live before being edited, modified and divided into 10 separate movements. Essentially, the album is one long piece of music with elements of classical, electronic and experimental jazz sprinkled throughout.

House Music was initially meant for a 2020 release, but was delayed due to the uncertainty of the pandemic’s future during its onset. Although it’s their first full-length in 12 years, Bell Orchestre never took an official break. Instead, the band — comprised of Parry, Sarah Neufeld (also of Arcade Fire), Pietro Amato (of the Luyas and Torngat), Kaveh Nabatian (also a film director), Mike Feuerstack (aka Snailhouse), and Stefan Schneider (also of the Luyas) — continued making music together amid other life commitments, while convening five years ago for a handful of sessions to improvise and record music over the course of a year.

The album was recorded on separate floors of Neufeld’s home in Vermont. With each of the six members split in groups of two, the group would spend a week to 10 days at a time recording. Initially, they’d be playing for an hour and a half without breaks, though this became looser as time went on — for example, some members might be making music, while others are busy going for walks or having lunch.

“There starts to be this social ecosystem where not everyone is on the exact same schedule all the time, and that’s fine,” Parry says, speaking via Zoom. “You find great musical ideas when working in pairs. It’s where the magic happens, and where the juice comes from.”

After Parry brought a single harmonic loop as a starting point, this loop became the album’s centrepiece. For 90 minutes, the band played to that same, single-tempo loop — one that the multi-instrumentalist, composer and producer describes as “open, but focused, and really gentle” — and found themselves making plenty of music off of a single idea, even though the loop itself comes in and out of the record.

“It was really useful creatively, because it means you can run with things as far as you want, and the whole thing will still have a centre to it, even if you don’t hear that centre,” he adds.

Despite its title looking ostensibly like a pandemic reference (with Parry adding that it took on a “whole new resonance” in the context of quarantine), House Music was named for being recorded literally inside Neufeld’s house in rural Vermont. The title also doubles as an allusion to the influence of the house music genre on the making of the record, since it is one single 45-minute piece played at the same tempo throughout.

“DJs beat-match things so that there can be this endless stream of music at the same tempo,” he says. “That’s a standard way for house music to be listened to. The fact that we had done that — albeit accidentally, at first — and decided, ‘Okay, this is what we’re doing: we’re releasing this record that’s all at the same BPM the whole time,’ felt like a cool inter-genre relationship.”

The group’s first album on Erased Tapes is also one with musical touchpoints that didn’t shy away from heavy improvisation: Talk Talk, Ennio Morricone, the Orb’s Live 93, and Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew — particularly since the latter album’s creative approach was similar to that of House Music.

“There are these compositional ideas [on Bitches Brew] that were really distinct, but used in a very loose, explorative fashion. You hear that exploration and that group hive-mind going to work on these simple but really interesting, ideas,” he says. “You hear that happening live in real time. They’re just improvising like crazy.”

Although the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on everyone in some form, Parry has been grateful to have a long stretch of time away from the touring grind — and one involving arenas and headlining festivals, at that.

“I’m very lucky in that I make my living in fits and starts, anyway,” he says. “I’ll make a couple of records and go on tour full-time for a year, finish that, and then not work for another year or two, because I’ll have just lived away from home from full-on touring.”

Even if it would seem like quarantine isn’t exactly conducive to finding musical inspiration, Parry says lockdown has been treating him well, adding that it’s been a “creatively fertile” period for him. While not going cross-country skiing in his spare time, Parry has been busy writing and recording new music for many of his musical projects — including Arcade Fire, who he linked up with for a month to work on the follow-up to 2017’s Everything Now

“We’re going to do that again for a month soon, in the spring or maybe the summer, depending on how stuff goes,” he says. “We can’t just be together hanging out all the time. We all live in different cities, so that’s been severely limited.”

In the meantime, Parry is readying the release of House Music. Under normal circumstances, he says the album would’ve already come out, and Bell Orchestre would’ve already toured and played shows with orchestras. Post-vaccination, they intend on performing House Music in its entirety with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra this fall, should concerts be able to safely resume by then.

Disappointing as it was to miss out on certain opportunities, Parry appreciates how his life as an artist has allowed him to see quarantine as an opportunity to create music while being more or less left alone by the world. 

“It’s no big deal for me to only live in my studio for a long time and work on the stuff that I like to work on,” he says. “You have this creative wellspring that is actually inside of you, that’s like, ‘I want to just be left alone to create stuff, write music, record and do these things. And loving to do them.’”

For more about Bell Orchestre and House Music, please visit the band’s website.

For more Montreal music coverage, please visit the Music section.