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Interview: Melynda Jackson (Eight Bells)

Alyssa Herrman/Foto  Phortress
Alyssa Herrman/Foto Phortress

It’s been quite the year for psych/doom band Eight Bells. After they released the massive Landless in February, they embarked on a US jaunt with Vektor and Voivod. Things went as smoothly as could be expected, until founder and guitarist/vocalist Melynda Jackson was injured in a freak accident at one of the shows. After going to the hospital and learning the extent of the damage, Jackson decided to stick it out on the road regardless, finishing the tour but needing long term rehabilitation for her injuries.

Though the output of any band lives forever, the actual lifespan of any line up is always quite finite. Shortly after the band returned home to Portland, Eight Bells decided to move on without long time bassist/vocalist Haley Westeiner. Jackson was able to find some kindred spirits to bring in, and allow for Eight Bells to join their friends in Subrosa for some upcoming shows in the PNW. We checked in with her to see what she had to say about all of the above and more.

Matt Schmahl

What was your vision for Landless when you were making it, and has it lived up to said vision?

For me, it was an attempt to make something less ‘out there’ without making something utterly boring. There were a lot of firsts for me on Landless–having my voice recorded would be the one that I think of first. I have always written about my feelings and observances, and had a journal. This was the first time I was interested in making them song lyrics. It is a pretty vulnerable thing to do, and I was afraid for a long time. Getting older makes women fearless.

You went on tour shortly after, with the legendary Voivod, during which you had a mishap involving an audience member. Can you tell us what happened, and how you’re doing now?

Oh, I was pretty much tackled by three dudes side stage. I didn’t even see it coming. Injuries to my knee were pretty severe, and I have had surgery since. I was not in the pit, but rather taking video of Away side stage when it happened. This was at the Atlanta show. Still rehabbing it. I get sad about it sometimes, more damage to my outer shell.

After the tour ended, the band went through some personnel changes somewhat abruptly. Was this something that was expected?

It might have seemed abrupt, but there was nothing abrupt about our lineup change. This was something that I agonized over for at least a couple of years and had hoped to avoid. That said, I could not be more pleased about the folks involved now, Melynda Amann on vocals and keyboard, and Dan Barone [formerly of SubArachnoid Space album, also featuring Jackson] on bass. Going to practice now feels like a fun and fulfilling activity, and not a chore or exercise in unpredictability.

What do you look for from a musician when you need to find a new member? Is it just chops or is there a personality or worldview that needs to fit too?

They have to be able to do the music and have an interest in mixing up styles. There needs to be a depth of emotion there, as Eight Bells music is pure emotion. It isn’t about fun, and it certainly isn’t about getting famous. Also I need folks who are fun to hang out with. I like to think of creating music, and collaborating as a source of joy, even if the subject matter expressed is bleak. I suppose most people I have had the best of times with have been working class folks.

My preference is for there to be a lack of pretense. Nothing is more annoying than a poser or faker. Honesty and pragmatism. Healthy egos and realism. It is also good to play with people who realize they still have something to learn. It seems like a person who thinks they are never wrong and never fuck up can never improve and it destroys the creative process which for me, tends to involve a bit of failure and imperfection. The process of feeling that reality and honesty of being flawed clears the way for creation.

Do songs and ideas hit you out of nowhere fully formed while eating breakfast or driving, or do you have a more methodical structure for songwriting?

Usually for me what happens is I start to hear something in my head. It will stick there for a while before I really notice that it is actually not something I already know, but rather something I am making up. Typically, it won’t be the whole ‘song’ but rather a melodic idea. Playing it helps, and using a loop pedal to hear it while trying other parts works too. Because I am self-taught, and have no musical education, I have to listen and do some trial and error to come up with song parts. Jamming helps. Recording it as a voice memo for later investigation is another thing I do because these things sort of come to me when I don’t have time to work them out, like at work, or at a show, etc. Also jamming it out with bandmates helps give shape, and also adds ideas because after all, it is rare that a song entirely made up by one person with no input from others is very interesting.

I also have very long periods of nothingness, where I wonder if I even like music, or why I do music, or how do I do it, knowing nothing really about music. This whole way of thinking makes me sad, then at some point, an idea comes, even though my fear is that I will never have another idea again. I don’t feel that I am completely in control of my process, rather it is in control of me.

Sometimes if I play the same part over and over, another idea will reveal itself. This was something I did more of in SubArachnoid Space – all of that material was composed on the spot with all of the band participating – with very few exceptions.

How much of your practice time is taken up by experimenting with pedals and effects? Do you already know what the sound is you are looking for, or do you find it by trial and error?

I pretty much have my setup set. I use pedals for dynamics and variety, and have managed to sort of create my own sound. Of course there is always the never ending search for the perfect dirt box. But in general, I don’t really spend a ton of time tweaking knobs, and I don’t really use pedals that are sort of like ‘one trick pony’ type pedals. I guess a good example of a one trick pony pedal would be a flanger. I mean you can only use that once a set if you want to be tasteful and not wear a listener out on the same very specific effect. I am trying to back off the delay a little bit these days but I love it so much. Probably need to join a 12 step program for delay abuse. I beat my wah addiction in the 90s, thank baby jeebus.

Who or what have you been listening to recently, and who do you consider your influences for Eight Bells?

I am in one of those phases where I am not listening to much music. I find myself sitting or working in silence a lot. I am feeling a little sick of all of the music I know so well – looking for something new to grab me. Synth pop can be nice. I got stoked at the recent Gojira show. I am currently seeking inspiration if you have any ideas.

Landless continues the nautical themes that your previous output had. Where did your interest in that come from, and why is it so important to the band?

Well apparently this is a ‘thing’ in heavy music. The obsession with the ocean or the sea. I had no idea. I just am really obsessed with the idea that the ocean is timeless, and seems to never go away. It is always there. It is vast. Like the sun, or the moon. Everything else is transient, temporary, still. It seems like a really cool sort of illustration of the obvious vs what is hidden. Outer and inner worlds. One day it will swallow up everything. Even after we destroy it completely. I was really struck by the ocean scenes in the movie adaptation of ‘The Road’. I am afraid of this eventuality. Maybe it is time to land. I am not entirely sure.

You started your musical career with SubArachnoid Space in San Francisco. As a Portland resident now, what are some glaring differences between the two cities in their respective music communities? Do you miss SF?

I missed SF in some ways when I first arrived nine years ago, yes. In SF people had more competition and as a result, higher standards. It was shocking to me when I first got here, how ‘casual’ everyone was about their music/projects. It seemed like everyone wanted to be in several half-assed projects rather than put real effort into any one. There is an intense ‘never sell out’ mentality here, but I am never sure what level of success determines that a musician sells out. It seems like most often the term is applied when one person perceives that another person has a lot of notoriety or power or privilege, asks a favor of that person and is refused. That means they are a sell out, I guess.

I don’t miss the bay area now. Well maybe the landscape. San Francisco is not a place I would ever want to live, and Portland is well on its way to being the same type of place, and when I am forced to leave here, I will miss this landscape, though I picture myself moving to the sticks around these parts rather than moving to another state.

Eight Bells is playing some shows with SubRosa in November, and the different takes on psych/doom that both bands present are quite unique. Have there been talks about a full tour, or is that not something that is possible?

We are very excited about these shows, as they will be the first live shows since tour and even better doing them with supportive friends both in Eight Bells, and in SubRosa. I would totally do a full tour with them given the chance. They are some of my favorite people. The Subrosans are genuine, no pretense, no bullshit.

What is the future for Eight Bells?

I am anxious to write new material that is more representative of the current lineup. Landless songs will always be meaningful and fun to play, but I am ready to be free of that material for a bit and bring on the next chapter. I might have to leave the ocean concept at this point, if I am able. I sometimes imagine making an album that is joyous and triumphant and then I remember that I probably can’t do it. But knowing that kinda makes me want to try.

Eight Bells is going on tour with Subrosa

11/16/2016 Mississippi Studios – Portland, OR w/ SubRosa, Jamais Jamais
11/17/2016 Cobalt – Vancouver BC w/ SubRosa
11/18/2016 Highline – Seattle, WA w/ SubRosa

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