After Natalie Bergman was lovingly let go from her big brother Elliot Bergman’s Afrobeat outfit Nomo — founded by him ten years prior — due to creative differences, rather than ignite a family feud, the siblings decided to form their own band called Wild Belle (Belle is Natalie’s middle name). Afrobeat, synthesizers, tropicalia, reggae, rock steady and electronic music met lanky retro style, a strikingly gorgeous vocalist and her enigmatic — and equally beautiful — multi-instrumentalist brother.
Wild Belle’s hazy island-inspired single “Keep You” — with its provocative pastel coloured Kingston, Jamaica-set video (directed by Melina Matsoukas) — debuted a year later. It was all irresistibly yummy, and as the saying goes, when one door closes, Vogue calls. Eclectic genre lovers fawned over them. The fashion world clamoured for them. Their self-funded album quickly found a three-album deal with Columbia Records. But would “Keep You” be just a fantastic puff in the ear and then disappear?
Since releasing their marvellously breezy album, Isles, this past March, the duo have steered clear of the pitfalls of instant attention, avoiding over exposure, touring relentlessly to hone the band and its sound, and maintaining a degree of mystery even within the popular tyranny called social media. After performing at the Osheaga festival in Montreal, Elliot spoke to Exclaim! about discovering newness in the old, the gift of the road, and his music tribe of chiefs. Chaka V.
Are you in the U.S. right now?
I am. I’m in Chicago. We’ve got a few days at home so we’re busy assembling a new sound system this week. I’m with Eric who plays guitar and keyboards in the band right now and we just spray-painted all of our Nord keyboards black. [Chuckles] They’re sort of very obviously and famously red, I don’t know if you’re familiar with those keyboards but everyone has them so we’re trying to disguise them a little bit. So they’re all black now.
I’ve read that you like to tweak instruments to your liking.
Yeah, we definitely love instruments. We have a big collection of stuff. I’ve built a lot of instruments, sort of variations on the electric kalimba. We used those in different ways on the record and live. You can kind of treat them differently and make them sound like steel drums or church bells or like a fuzz guitar.
It’s been a little over four months since the release of Isles, and the band has received a lot of attention. Are you still excited? How’s it going?
It’s going well but we kind of have our heads down a little bit. We’re just working hard. I don’t know, the stuff, the attention — you don’t really feel it in your day-to-day life. You’re still just doing the same things. You’re going out playing shows, trying to write songs, you know, going to the flea market [laughs]. There’s nothing that feels too different to me. It’s sort of business as usual. We’re just trying to stay excited and find new ways to improve our show and improve as musicians and keep things moving forward.
You’re touring a lot. How are you coping with being on the road?
We started our tour almost a year before the record came out. So we’ve really been out for a long time. It’s just fun. I feel like we’re still getting better as a band and Natalie’s getting more comfortable and confident every show. It’s fun to be able to play the same songs every night and try to go deeper and deeper into that. And as the record moves through the world, more people are coming to the shows knowing the songs and singing along. That’s always an encouraging sign. It gives us fuel to keep going.
World music has played a big influence in Wild Belle’s sound. With all this being on the road, has it inspired new music and influences?
We’re always kind of picking up new things here and there and people are always making us mix tapes and stuff, so we’re constantly finding fun new stuff. Sometimes it’s not new, sometimes it’s old. We were just in France and we love going to the flea market there, you can find so many fun things. And sometimes you’ll go and discover something American through a different kind of lens.
We got this 45 live bootleg of CCR and at the beginning of the song John Fogerty’s singing, and he’s going, “Voulez. Voulez. Voulez. Voulez.” [Uproarious singing by Elliot]. It was just funny to hear. It’s like an old vinyl record with a handmade cover and stuff and you can hear him singing maybe the only word of French he knew at the beginning of Suzie Q. So it’s just kind of fun sometimes to rekindle a love for something you already know about by seeing it through someone else’s eyes.
[Touring] is a fun way to kind of experience the world and you’re always meeting new bands and musicians and people who spend their life in music so they always have something to share with you, which is one of the best parts of traveling.
Has there been a big difference between being part of Wild Belle and your former outfit, Nomo?
Yeah, it’s very different. The music is obviously very different, you know. And it’s a different way of connecting with an audience because in Nomo, it was sort of like if the audience wasn’t dancing it felt like we were failing because it’s sort of a dance party band. In Wild Belle, you can dance to it but it’s not so obviously dance music and people are really trying to connect with the lyrics, so it’s a little bit more subtle. You don’t necessarily see a bunch of people jumping up and down and freaking out. You see people singing along and having a different experience with the music. For me that’s been a little bit of an adjustment because I still do kind of have that “I gotta get people to dance” impulse so you kind of have to find different ways to connect with each other and the music when you’re performing.
“Happy Home” and “June” are quite personal. Which stage do you find the most vulnerable period when creating music, the production/ songwriting phase or performing it in front of an audience for the first time?
I think that being on stage is definitely the most vulnerable because you’re just there in front of people and you’re hoping to connect with them, it’s sort of your petition to them to meet you on some common ground. Obviously there are some risks involved when you’re recording but that’s a little bit more of a private process. When you bring it out into the world that’s the forum where you can meet people and people can come together. It’s great when people come together around your music, that feels really good and positive. That’s what we hope for as we’re traveling all the time.
If you could put together your own musical tribe who would be part of it? Your dream band.
Ah, let’s see. How many tribe members?
Five [Laughs]. I guess you would just have to go with the chiefs. You would just have to go with a tribe of only chiefs. [Laughs] So that would be like Fela [Kuti]. Bob Marley. Jimi Hendrix. Bob Dylan and Miles Davis. Did I say Miles already?
No, you didn’t.
Maybe. [John] Coltrane. Okay!
Wow, I like it. Which contemporary artists do you listen to? Are you fans of any new artists?
Yeah. We just started a few shows with our friend’s band Sinkane, in Spain and they’re great. And we’re fans of this guy called Kindness, a British guy. We kind of like the new Justin Timberlake stuff. [Laughing]
Me too. “Tunnel Vision”?
No, “Mirrors.” I guess it’s not that new but it’s like everywhere on the radio in the U.S. right now. I know all the words [laughs].
And there’s a guy name Jai Paul, he’s on XL. He has a really cool track that we’ve been listening to. Also, our friends Icona Pop, we’ve known them for a couple years and had a few really fun late night charade games with them in London. We’re so happy for them. They’re the sweetest girls and they’re so funny and cool and now they’re like mega pop stars.
They are getting mega attention. Talking about attention, considering the attention you’ve received in such a short period of time, you don’t seem obsessed with social media/constantly tweeting/Facebook, especially for a new band. How do you restrain yourself from feeling the need to be everywhere at all times?
We have the world’s most boring twitter. We just don’t use it very much. It’s not something either Natalie or I naturally do. We’re both kind of private in a way. When we’re going to a festival we can have some fun with it. We’ve had a few little bouts of productivity on Twitter. When we were playing Coachella we spent the entire van ride there coming up with cow jokes, like Cowchella. [Their clever cattle inspired tweets included: Wildbulle. Moo-Tang Clan. Major Grazer. Janelle Moonae, Red Hot Chili Heifers and New Udder! Or is it Moo Order?] That was sort of our high point — embarrassing and best moment — on twitter, our cowchella jokes. There’s some really good ones.
So I have to bring up the fashion because I’m obsessed with your style, and the pictures. I love the textures and the ethnic and retro stuff you mix together. Were you kind of clear about your visual presentation when you were coming out or did it kind of fall together “naturally”?
We definitely didn’t have an agenda or anything, we just wanted to do things that we liked. So if you’re going to take a picture you might as well sit as much information, color and texture and feeling into it as you can. Most of our photos are kind of collage, Natalie loves to collage and so we try to have a little of that influence in the photos that we do. But yeah, it’s always evolving too. We’re still feeling our way around things.
Is Natalie behind a lot of the images and art work or do you collaborate with another photographer or someone in the band who has an eye for it?
Ah, we do a lot of it together. She’s kind of the driving force behind it. She’s a great photographer and a great designer so she’s just always taking pictures, and a lot of it is just iPhone stuff. But we’ve bought a nicer camera this year and we also have some vintage SLR cameras that we use. Neither of us are trained photographers but it’s something that we, by necessity, have been digging into a little bit more lately. And it’s fun to be able to document stuff. We do these “Postcards from the Road” videos, they’re sort of home videos. They give you a feel of what life on the road is like for us.
How important are live shows for the band?
It’s huge. It’s the best way to connect with people, that’s why we’ve been on the road so much and will continue to do so. It’s our favourite way to realize the music and people can kind of get the best sense of who we are and feel the music that way, which is better than sitting at home listening to the iPod or whatever.