Bella’s Bartok will be performing this Friday, August 7, at Club Helsinki in Great Barrington. While the show is 21+, the band did play at Rebel Sound Records at a recent 3rd Thursdays celebration and continues their string of shows throughout the Summer with an appearance at the Berkshire Fringe Festival in Great Barrington August 17. The band combines traditional elements of folk and Klezmer sounds with more modern punk influences and speed. I recently exchanged some questions with the band at the end of July and here is the interview:
Ian Nelson: First of all, how was making it down to New York to play shows? How successful were the gigs? What were the venues like?
Mark Schilling: Our first experience in New York went splendidly. In addition to the show at the Bulgarian Bar we did a podcast for a very cool group called Big Big Radio in Manhattan. We had to carry all of our equipment through the subway system which was an interesting experience in itself but well worth it. They recorded about six live tracks plus an interview and it should be released sometime in mid August along with a bunch of photos. We ended up getting a good sized crowd for the Bulgarian Bar and seeing our name billed next to Eugene Hutz‘s (of Gogol Bordello) was a big thrill. His DJ set was unbelievable. We’re actually headed back to New York this Thursday, July 30th to play at the Alphabet Lounge.
IN: I’ve caught you playing a few times over in houses in Amherst and it’s always a fun time, and I’ve heard about the band playing alleys in Great Barrington last summer. For you, what’s the difference between playing a house show or an alley and playing an actual venue? Which is the band more comfortable with?
MS: Playing house parties is always fun because we get to play for close friends and we all love to party. The ultimate goal for Bella’s Bartok is really to have as much fun as possible and to include as many people as we can. We try and bring that same energy to all of our gigs, wherever we play. The hardest part when we play a new venue to total strangers is getting the audience to feel comfortable enough to have a good time. Any gig where we get audience members to dance is worthwhile in our eyes.
IN: When did the switch from busking the streets of Great Barrington to actually playing shows occur? How difficult was the transition?
MS: Since the inclusion of drums and trombone, the hardest part of playing is getting all of the levels right at every gig. Playing acoustic on the street with six members is simple enough, but when there are eight or nine members on an actual stage then hearing every individual member becomes a very difficult task.
IN: Who initially introduced the merging of accordion and punk rock to the band? Was it a curious experiment or was there a certain starting point of musical or otherwise artistic influences that lead you to the idea?
MS: The origins of the Bartok sound are deeply rooted in folklore and mythology, however the simple explanation is that we are all fans of alternative styles of rock and roll music. Most of us have been in bands before and well all bring something different to the table. Our signature sound comes primarily from Asher’s interest in eastern European folk music, but again we all bring something different and just try and make it work on stage.
IN: You’ve been referred to as “Xtreme Klezmer,” “Gypsy Punk,” “Accordion Punk,” and a “circus band” among other bizarre tags. Which one to you think most accurately describes your sound? What’s your favorite description of the band that you’ve heard?
MS: We’re really not sure what to call ourselves most of the time. It’s fun seeing how different people interpret our music. “Gypsy Punk” seems to be the one we identify with most.
IN: Where does the name Bella’s Bartok come from?
MS: Bela Bartok is a 20th century Hungarian composer and a pioneer in the field of ethnomusicology. Wikipedia is a good thing.
IN: Is it hard lugging around so many band members?
MS: Having so many members in one band is both a joy and a nightmare, especially since we all have a tendency to be late all the time and we all fail at communicating. Recently we made the jump into the 21st century setting up a gmail group online, though most of us are still too scared of technology to use it. The band usually tops out at nine members when Papa Fisch can grace us with his awesome presence on trumpet.
IN: I see you’re playing the Berkshire Fringe Festival. What are your thoughts on the Berkshire Fringe?
Heather Fisch: The Berkshire Fringe is an awesome locally grown arts happening just like Bella’s Bartok, so naturally I’m all about supporting it and think its an amazing little spark in the community.
IN: How’d they get in contact with you for playing a show? How do you think Bella’s Bartok fits in with Fringe’s contemporary theatre?
HF: They know about us because the organizers of the festival are Great Barrington people and have seen us play on several occasions. We’re a great match for the world of off-beat contemporary theater because we’ve got the breath of fresh air that a new band carries as well as a hint of old spice.
IN: Asher, could I get a comment on the semester in Beirut? Why’d you go in the first place?
Asher Putnam: I have been in Lebanon for the past five months and chose this country because of the cultural melting pot it represents. This area, as well as Palestine/Israel has for centuries been a link between the Asian and European landmasses. The diverse sub-cultures represented in Lebanon share many traits with those of other Mediterranean countries, yet the country is also incredibly unique, due to its shared Christian and Muslim heritage. I also feel more comfortable here than in say, Egypt, due to the relaxed social norms. Beirut city life is a bit like Paris and a bit like Southern Italy. I am currently studying Middle Eastern history and this place seemed to be the best choice due to the location, diverse culture and captivating history.
IN: Learn anything that will help the band? See any music while over there?
AP: I saw some excellent bands while I was there, ranging from traditional folk groups, to reggae and even something akin to our genre – a blend of Levantine folk music mixed with contemporary influences.
IN: I know a lot of you in the band, if not all of you, are college students. Where do you see the band in a year or two when you’re all out of school?
MS: Aside from being poor, we’ll hopefully be playing music full time in the northeast and possibly around the country and/or world. Our long term goals include getting a legitimate album recorded and producing an original theatrical piece featuring original music.
IN: What’s up next for Bella’s Bartok? Recording at all? Releasing any music?
MS: Currently we have a three song demo recorded at the Putnam residence. The CD will now include select tracks from our recent show at the Copperworks in Pittsfield.