Bella's Bartok
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Bella's Bartok

Great Barrington, Massachusetts, United States | SELF

Great Barrington, Massachusetts, United States | SELF
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Of Borscht, Flaubert and Hungarian Mustache Wax:
Berkshire-grown gypsy-punk-klezmer-jazz band Bella’s Bartok ignore the hyphens and rock out with their accordions out
by Jeremy D. Goodwin on May 11, 2011

Bella’s Bartok started out as a party and became a band—albeit, one that comes with an automatic party pre-installed. Since their scrappy origins, busking in downtown Great Barrington, Mass., in the summer of 2008, the lineup of Bella’s Bartok has fluctuated in size from 10 members to a dozen or more. Their sound has expanded from a core of gypsy-punk covers into an original repertoire rooted in a frenetic, klezmer-inflected sensibility that embraces flavors of space rock, circus rock, a touch of country, and hot jazz as well.
Perhaps it’s best to simply ditch the hyphens and call it “borschtcore.”

Dixieland in the Balkans (In the Berkshires): Bella's Bartock. Photo by William Wright

Following the late-2010 release of their first album, At the Kingmakers Ball, and ever-surging momentum on the live circuit of western New England, there’s the sense that this deliciously chaotic band—with several members about to graduate college and find themselves with some extra free time—could be on the verge of that all-important transition from “weekend warrior” status to full-time rock and rollers.
On a recent Saturday night, they’ve just played their nicest venue yet: the Colonial Theatre in downtown Pittsfield. They were the openers on a long, multi-band bill, but because of the band’s size, they’ve been assigned the most generous dressing room. It’s exactly what you want the dressing room of a nice theater to look like. There are two long counters in front of mirrors lined by little lightbulbs. The walls are covered with posters from past shows at the venue. There’s a little speaker for announcements from the stage manager. And in the corner, a tall guy with a well-waxed mustache and green cardigan is singing a mid-tempo waltz with a dude on accordion wearing black-framed glasses and salmon-colored pants. The set of soul covers played by the closing band, onstage a few yards outside the closed dressing room door, is audible through the walls. Bartok’s trumpet player picks up a tambourine, its bassist starts pounding out the tempo on a trumpet case, and its trombonist, a nascent engineer who also pens complex, multi-part compositions for the band, has turned a wheeled coat rack into a jungle gym. He’s dangling from it, upside-down, and disaster seems imminent.

One gets the sense that the hour or so Bella’s Bartok spend onstage on a given night, churning out their high-energy, Dixieland-in-the-Balkans dance music, is the only context in which this crew can achieve something akin to single-minded focus.

“It’s a dance band at its core,” observes bassist Steve Torres. “It’s a house-party band that got too big, and now we don’t know what to do.”

The band started to coalesce in 2008 around two college friends, James Bill and Asher Putnam, who each shared the relative indignity of housing in freshman dorms at the University of Massachussetts at Amherst after having already lived in the real world for a few years after high school, both starting college in their early 20s. (The band’s members are all, more or less, in their early-to-mid 20s.) Bill now plays electric guitar for Bartok, and the mustachioed Putnam—who endorses Hungarian moustache wax to achieve gravity-defying curls—sings and plays acoustic. They each write songs for the band, joined by acrobatic trombone wielder Sean Klaiber.

Charismatic vocalist and accordion player Heather Fisch joined early on (later leaving the band), and Bella’s Bartok suddenly started playing everywhere, whether on a walkway off of the parking lot of Great Barrington’s Triplex Cinema, an open-air Earth Day festival thrown by that town’s co-op grocery (following the Berkshires’ own family-folk hero, David Grover), or house parties in the nearby village of Housatonic. The setlist included covers like Golem’s “Warsaw Is Kehlm” and traditional klezmer numbers.

“We learned songs because we figured it would be easier than trying to make them up every time we got together,” recalls trumpeter Amory Drennan. “We didn’t expect this band to last past the summer. I don’t think we even intended it to be a band.”

The thing is, they earned an immediate and boisterous following. What should have been a glorious mess turned out to just be kind of glorious. Their highly kinetic sound is indeed all about dancing, but the group don’t settle for woozy riffs and a backbeat. The horn players (plus Chris Kerrigan on clarinet and bass clarinet) execute cascading melodies; the rhythm section of Torres and drummer Mark Schilling go from circular circus rhythms to a Johnny Cash-like shuffle to a deep, jazz-informed place; and group vocals from Putnam, Bill and Vashti Poor (currently the band’s only woman) manage to harmonize above it all. Monte Weber also contributes violin, and Putnam’s younger brother, Jesse, joined last year primarily as a rhythm guitarist, though he’s recently added accordion to his portfolio.
They believe they could comfortably ensure a string of modest but steady bookings into the foreseeable future if they took a turn toward traditional Eastern European music and ditched the punk-edged blend they’ve created.

“Let’s deal with the elephant that’s walking around the room,” Bill says at one point, when it’s suggested that Bella’s Bartok could have a lucrative future if it toned down its musical eccentricity. “If we [just] play klezmer and play it in the Berkshires, we’d get hired a lot.”

“We could quit our day jobs,” Schilling chimes in.

Though that is indeed the shared goal, no one seems to want to pursue it through that method. There are too many musical influences that need to be crammed in there, somewhere.
“If we were online dating,” says Poor in reference to their various musical interests, “we’d have never met.”

Putnam notes that “gypsy punk is fun, but none of us are gypsies.” And though they can be loud and even abrasive (Torres is quick to make inflammatory declarations about punk’s impurity post-1977), no one is terribly punk, either. The mutton-chopped bassist adds, perhaps with a hint of disappointment, “We are not a hipster band.”

“The best thing about Bella’s Bartok for me is that we’re all the biggest fucking nerds. None of us are too cool for school, none of us are . . .” Torres declares, pausing several seconds to find the right word before landing simply on “cool.” Later, as if seeking to prove the point, Putnam notes that he is wearing his green, “going-out” cardigan. “I have a brown one for home,” he clarifies dryly.
In the span of about 90 minutes, Jesse Putnam calls on his acoustic guitar to summon versions of Danzig’s “Mother,” a slowed-down twist on Bella’s Bartok’s “Strigoi Waltz,” and (on accordion) a subconsciously emerging riff that leads him to an old French song. (Later that night, at a Pittsfield bar, he manages to sing along to not only the chorus, but some of the verses, of A-Ha’s “Take On Me.” When Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” comes on, there’s a small riot as everyone starts vigorously popping out; rather than playing air guitar, Poor pantomimes having enormous shoulder pads under her blazer.)

The younger Putnam, an intellectually curious fellow given to casual classical references and prone to read Flaubert at the bar, is excited because the band recently received their “first hater,” a griping sourpuss who complained in an online forum about Bartok’s presence on the bill that night at the Colonial.

“That’s great! It means we’re getting somewhere,” he exclaims.
Poor, who along with Asher Putnam tends to handle bookings and media requests, notes that they “recently started to use the ‘no’ word for the first time. Until recently, we hadn’t made any plans to control our destiny. Every gig we got, somebody invited us.”
The trouble is, now that they’ve made great inroads in the Berkshires and the neighboring Pioneer Valley (including Northampton, the live-music mecca of Western Massachusetts), perhaps saturating those markets, they run the risk of cementing the prefix “local” to the band.
“At this point we could stay local heroes and probably do OK [just] playing locally,” observes Schiller, but no one seems interested in that.

Poor and Bill are booked to join in the evening-closing jam on Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready.” They head for the stage, and though standing amid a dozen or more musicians, they each get solo spots during the song. Asher Putnam watches from the wings, appearing impressed and pleased at the whole situation.

Perhaps it’s the grandiose setting of the gig, or even the long interview, but on this night the members of Bella’s Bartok seem particularly concerned with what their future might bring. Back at the bar, someone asks Asher when they’ll be able to quit their day jobs. He looks into the middle distance with a contemplative gaze, and softly says one word.

“Soon.”





- Metroland (Albany, NY)




April 14, 2011
Section: 413
Article ID: 041411D01_art_6.xml
Page: D01

BELLA'S
BARTOK
'Circus-themed electric art rock' band

Derek Gentile
Berkshire Eagle Staff
PITTSFIELD

There is no cozy genre in which to place Bella's Bartok, and that appears to suit its members well.
Bella's Bartok will be the opening act in this year's version of " Guitar Jam," to be held at the Colonial Theatre on May 7.
The 10-member band consists of Asher Putnam, 26, on guitar and vocals; Vashti Poor, 40, vocals, harmonica; James Bill, 28, vocals, lead guitar; Steve Torres, 23, bass; Mark Schilling, 22, drums; Amory Drennan, 23, trumpet; Monte Weber, 20, violin; Jesse Putnam, 23, guitar and vocals; Sean Klaiber, 23, trombone; and Chris Kerrigan, 23, clarinet and bass clarinet.
The band is largely local. The Putnam brothers, Torres, Drennan and Weber are from Great Barrington; Poor is from Sheffield; Bill is from West Stockbridge; and Schilling is a Pittsfield native. Klaiber is from Northborough and Kerrigan is from Marshfield.
They have been known to Great Barrington residents since 2008, when the Putnams and other band members began playing music in alleys, private parties and on street corners.
" Bella's Bartok" is derived from the name of Hungarianborn composer Bela Bartok, considered one of that country's most important songwriters and one of the founders of ethnomusicology.
The band will comprise nine members on May 7; Weber will be out of town on that date.
Poor and Bill spoke in a telephone interview with The Eagle recently about the band's origins, its influences and how the members of the band see themselves.
EAGLE: The first question probably is the obvious one: Where did the name come from?
BILL: It's difficult to come up with a name that everybody's happy with. We wanted to reflect our Eastern European, sort of Gypsy influence, and we were coming up with Ivana and the Terribles, Vlada and the Impalers, stuff like that, before we came up with Bella's Bartok.
EAGLE: Who writes the songs?
POOR: Everyone contributes, but there are three main songwriters: James, Asher Putnam and Sean Klaiber.
EAGLE: How does that work? Do you all write together, or do the three of you come up with complete songs?
BILL: It varies. Sean is an example of someone who comes in with a song with all its parts. Asher comes up with pieces of a song and we all come up with other parts. And I'm somewhere in the middle.
POOR: The lyrics have been collaborative. Sometimes the song comes in as a rock ballad and ends up as a Bohemian samba.
EAGLE: With 10 musicians and three songwriters, it seems as though there might be some conflict at times.
Does that ever happen?
POOR: It's amazing how little of that we have. I've been in bands with three people who don't talk to each other.
We all get along pretty well.
EAGLE: Describe your influences.
BILL: I grew up playing classical guitar, but my more contemporary influences would probably be Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins, and Jimi Hendrix and Albert King.
POOR: I'm a huge [David] Bowie fan, but I studied cabaret music in college, and I'm also a fan of [English composer] Benjamin Britten. And Nirvana, as well. Nirvana represents to me the "do it yourself" ethic of this band.
EAGLE: This is a band that has been variously described as " Gypsy punk," " bohemian folk- punk" and most famously, perhaps, as " circus- themed electric art rock." How do the members of Bella's Bartok see it?
POOR: That's very difficult to answer. We have a lot of influences. The best thing I can say is that when Bella's Bartok plays a song, we sound like Bella's Bartok.
To reach Derek Gentile: dgentile@berkshireeagle.com
Bella's Bartok vocalist Vashti Poor studied cabaret music in college and says she is a big fan of David Bowie, Nirvana and classical composer Benjamin Britten.
Courtesy photo
Vashti Poor, center, performs with Asher Putnam of Bella's Bartok. They will lead off the Guitar Jam III lineup at the Colonial Theatre on May 7.
Courtesy photo

(c) 2011 The Berkshire Eagle. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Media NewsGroup - Berkshire Eagle (Pittsfield, MA)


Feast fit for a King
Submitted by Abby Wood on November 29, 2010 - 6:42pm


While most of us gorged ourselves on turkey and stuffing this past weekend, the city of Pittsfield offered me something a little different to get stuffed on.

After many hours and miles spent commuting south down Route 7 (or sometimes 8, depending on my mood), the time has finally come for this North County girl to make the move to the big city—of the Berkshires, that is. Yes, I am now an official habitant of Pittsfield, Mass. In the midst of a crazy whirlwind of holiday feasting, family reunions, packing, and moving furniture, this burgeoning city didn’t waste any time making me feel right at home with a weekend’s-worth of awesome local music...

After such a heaping helping of Barefoot Truth, I wasn’t sure I had room for any more. But dessert proved to be even sweeter than anticipated; I just couldn’t resist a little taste—and before I knew it, I was diving headfirst into a decadent piece of Bella’s Bartok.
The dimly lit, intimate space at the NEW STAGE Performing Arts Center was like walking into a late-night jazz café (not that I’ve ever been to one, although I imagine this was what it might look like). The entire evening had an Oriole theme to it, in celebration of Bartok’s new album, At the Kingmaker’s Ball, complete with paper golden crowns for everyone to wear.

The eleven-piece band took up the entire tiny stage with their instruments and jumping around. They started the night off with “Satan’s Song,” which starts out slow and easy only to explode into a full-on rumpus—perfect for getting people out of their seats. Like Barefoot Truth, Bella’s Bartok had everybody grooving and shaking by the end of the night, although this was a very different kind of dancing—instead of the twirling, hip-swaying dance of the night before, this crowd was jumping, kicking, skanking (slang for a type of dance to ska music), and one couple was even waltzing.
The sound could have been much better (the band told me in an interview last week that it is often difficult to avoid creating a “wall of sound” with such a large ensemble, especially in small performing spaces)–it was nearly impossible to make out what the lyrics were or to discern whether the lead guitar was playing a solo or not. Despite this setback, the band rocked on through the night, with the horn section (featuring trombone, trumpet, and clarinet) blasting out Dixieland music, oom-pah’s, and circus themes.
The night continued with happy-go-lucky sing-along tunes like those of Polyphonic Spree, and angry shout-along numbers reminiscent of the Decemberists–both also large bands. There’s just something about large bands that seems to blur the divide between performers and audience–heck, when the horn section came out into the audience to dance and play, there wasn’t any divide left to blur! The gypsy-circus-parade had come to town, and we were all invited to join.
And so it was that this small-town girl was inducted to her new and exciting life as a hip Pittsfield professional. And with an introductory weekend like this, I will gladly jump on that bandwagon. - Berkshire Living Magazine


It’s always a party whenever Bella’s Bartok plays, but this time there’s even more reason to celebrate, as the raucous, rollicking band—whose music is described variously as “Balkan Rockabilly” or “Circus Rock”— throws itself a release party for its debut album, At the Kingmaker’s Ball. The band will perform the album in its entirety during this grand ball-themed evening, along with new, unreleased material and traditional favorites that fit into their orchestral waltz-punk/glam rock mode. Doors open at 8:30; given the band’s rabid following, we suggest you arrive early, and don’t forget your dancing shoes. - Rural Intelligence


Bella's Bartok was declared the winner of the "battle of the bands" at last night's 'Paper Jam' held in Southwest. The event, one of the first of Southwest Week 2010, was hosted by the Daily Collegian and the Southwest Area Government. It was judged by Sweet Baby Lou & The Reverends of Funk and emceed by Solo Sexx. - masslive.com


WordPress • RSS Feed • Umbrella Digital • Pittsfield, MA

With the subtle rage of a caged beast, cruel Bartok made most with what was least, decided upon two quarter swirls, he haunted the tripping scenster girls, so light in movement, yet heavy at heart, his baven soul would but gleam in dark, by the grotto of Scandanavian name, primeval Bartok came. Obscure? This article in the Valley Advocate should clear things up. Still confounded? Check out this man’s experience of Bella’s Bartok

Ok, so Bella’s Bartok loves to goof and joke – but this band is no joke at all. They headline this killer evening at PittsfieldContemporary.com’s space 305 North - wordxword festival, Pittsfield, ma


Behind the Beat: From Street to Stage
Comments (0)
Thursday, April 01, 2010
By Matthew Dube
Photo Courtesy of Bella's Bartok
Bella's Bartok comes from the streets—literally. Its members were busking in Great Barrington in the summer of 2008 when they were asked to put together a band to appear at a local festival.

"This promoter fellow approached me two summers ago about getting in on a slot at Shire Fest," says guitarist and vocalist James Bill. "Some of the guys had been busking on the streets of Great Barrington, but there was no real band at the time. He said, 'Whatever, if you've got a band, or even classical guitar [you can play],' and I literally thought, 'Wow! We could play in front of people!' So I asked Asher [Putnam, vocals, guitar] if he wanted to get something together since he had had the vision for an Eastern Euro/Gypsy oom-pah band kicking around in his head. He saw it as and opportunity to get that off the ground. It came together far quicker and was far more fun and likeable than either of us could have imagined. Oddly enough, Shire Fest never happened."

The band, now based in Amherst, has blossomed since that fateful invitation. In addition to Bill and Putnam, the group counts among its active ranks Vashti Poor on vocals, glockenspiel, and harmonica; Steve Torres on bass viol; Mark Schilling on drums; Sean Klaiber on trombone; Amory Drennan on trumpet; Tony Barone on sax; violinist Monte Weber; and on accordion, Doug Wright.

Bella's Bartok sounds like a carnival blowing through town. The group colorfully labels its music as anything from acoustic Gypsy punk circus to Gypsy Balkan rockabilly fusion and, as weird as it might sound, they are pretty apt descriptors.

Audiences are responding enthusiastically to the band's music. "Mass confusion, hysteria and tears," jokes Putnam. "There is always a lot of tears. Then after a few minutes of shock and psychiatric help, dancing ensues."

"They bop up and down, often smiling," Bill adds. "When we used to busk on the street, people would stop and smile as if to say 'Geez, this is cute. This is wild.' We are less of a novelty these days."

One of the band's main objectives appears to be the use of its music as a unifying force to bring people together. Is this altruism really the case, or is that reading too much into things?

"Well, with a bit of a blush, I guess I would say that [is] correct," says Bill. "Bella's Bartok wants to get people up and moving to the music. We want to have a good time and we want our audience to have a good time. We are a 10-piece band and so we are basically our own party wherever we go. We are a party cluster of party cells whose raison d'etre is to assimilate and multiply. We also want to get older folks in the mood. We are pretty sure that we have saved a few marriages. We are like the Balkan rockabilly equivalent of Marvin Gaye in that regard."

"We are a cultural party revolutionary whose sole goal in this life is to wreak havoc upon the dance floor," adds Putnam. "We epitomize the Balkan Booty Drop."

Bella's Bartok plays Northampton's Iron Horse May 15, 10 p.m., www.myspace.com/bellasbartok.
- Valley Advocate, Northampton, Ma


Bella's Bartok In Concert: Folk-punk lets loose

By Jeremy D. Goodwin, Special to the Eagle
Updated: 12/01/2010 07:42:38 AM EST

Members of the Berkshires-born Gypsy-punk band, Bella’s Bartok, in concert... (Courtesy photo)

Wednesday December 1, 2010
PITTSFIELD -- The penultimate tune on Bella's Bartok's debut album, released Tuesday, is called "The Party Song." One wonders how this particular number earned the title; it seems to fit for almost anything in the band's repertoire.

The sprawling, 11-member ensemble sounds surprisingly precise on its very good recorded debut, "At the Kingmaker's Ball." But in concert, this Berkshire-born Gypsy-punk juggernaut is delightfully imprecise.

Its sound, described by the band as ranging from "bohemian folk-punk" to "circus-themed electric art rock," is informed by Eastern European folk music, suffused with the energy of punk rock, and tinted with a Dixieland inflection. The music is often delivered at full volume, and even the waltzes come at breakneck speed. It is getaway music for horse-drawn, peddler caravan. Call it borschtcore.

This was all on glorious, tattered display over th weekend at the band's breathless two-set stomper in Pittsfield's New Stage performance space. The gig marked the imminent release of the album (copies were not yet available); though the band is only two years old, it already feels like it's becoming the house band of Berkshire County.

Bella's Bartok exudes an informal, seat-of-the-pants vibe that might distract the listener from the impressive musicianship at the heart of the enterprise. Inevitable sound challenges notwithstanding, it's no mean feat to throw 11 (mostly young) musicians on a tiny stage and end up with something other than exuberant cacophony. Yet the un-micked horn/wind section of Amory Drennan (trumpet), Sean Klaiber (trombone) and a hyperkinetic Chris Kerrigan (clarinet) provided delicious, muscular themes. Drummer Mark Schilling ably juggled circular, circus inflections with punk-waltz and the occasional rock beat and affable bassist Steve Torres provided the Gorilla Glue to hold it all together (though he's unfortunately switched from the acoustic upright on which he particularly excels to an electric).

If anything, lead vocalists Asher Putnam (sporting a Django Reinhart moustache) and Vashti Poor seemed a bit less boisterous than expected; the impact of the band comes from the improbably successful blending of its many voices (both instrumental and vocal) rather than any singular charisma.

There was a bit of sameness reflected in the song selection, though definite peaks were found on blistering first-set-closer "Warsaw is Khelm" (by the contemporary klezmer band Golem) and the title track from "At the Kingmaker's Ball," a clear standout that benefits from an unexpectedly infectious pop melody and a typically winning horn-led theme. By the time the horn players meandered into the audience for the last few choruses of the song, the sweaty audience and sweatier musicians all seemed part of the same effort.

Some songs did benefit from the dynamics achieved by leaving some more musical space open; one fast waltz even -- somehow -- recalled the proto-metal coda of The Beatles' "I Want You (She's So Heavy)."

There was a time when it seemed one could scarcely walk around Great Barrington on a summer evening without seeing Bella's Bartok, in one formation or another, attracting an impromptu crowd as it honed its chops for passersby and friends. Whether it was the summer solstice fair and concert thrown by the Berkshire Co-op, or, simply, certain house parties in Housatonic, it felt like Bella's Bartok was everywhere (anywhere but a "proper" show, that is).

As it releases its first album and starts to garner more press attention, this caravan is gaining momentum. Even the small stage -- and, on this night, open dance floor -- of New Stage suited the ensemble very well.

Bella's Bartok will close out its productive year with a New Year's Eve gig at Northampton's Pearl Street Nightclub. It's safe to expect a noisy party.
- The Berkshire Eagle


Bella's Bartok: Straight Shire
Submitted by Abby Wood on November 24, 2010 - 3:56pm


Bella’s Bartok is a band that defies definition. They’ve been labeled as gypsy-punk, Balkan rockabilly, and circus rock. But the effort to pin down their sound is trivial. You could call them an eleven-piece cacophony parade for all they care. Their goal is to spread the electrifyingly good time they’re having on stage out into the audience, until every last person is out of breath…in a good way. They’re here to have fun.


Having just recorded their first album, At the
Kingmaker’s Ball, Bella’s Bartok will be performing an album release ball at the NEW STAGE Performing Arts Center in Pittsfield, Mass., on November 27 at 8:30. Seven members of the band (Asher Putnam—vocals, acoustic guitar; Vashti Poor—vocals; James Bill—lead guitar; Steve Torres—bass; Mark Schillin—drums, Amory Drennan—trumpet and banjo; and Sean Klaiber—trombone) sat down with me at Dottie’s Coffee Lounge on a recent Sunday afternoon to discuss the woes of recording an album and the lessons they learned, the pros and cons of playing in a large band, loyalty to the Berkshires, and what the future holds. What ensued was an hour-long conversation full of sarcasm, hilarious stories, sing-alongs, philosophical discussions, inside jokes, and overall shenanigans. Somehow I also managed to get some questions answered in between.

BL: The first thing I want to hear about is your new album: what was the process like, how long were you working on it, and what is it all about?

Vashti: About 5 minutes [everyone laughs].
James: It was done really quickly.
Steve: In about three days....three twelve-hour days.
Vashti: It’s kind of more a compilation of two years of Bella’s Bartok originals. It’s not like a theme-based album; it’s really documentation of an evolution.
James: ...of our existence as a whole.

BL: So there are a lot of fan favorites on there?

Steve: They’re all fan favorites.—there’s no other choice.

BL: How did the decision to record come about, did you just say one day ‘Hey, let’s make an album!’?
James: We’ve been saying that for like 2 years.
Vashti: People have been yelling at us [to record one].
Asher: We should give some background: this is our third itineration, essentially. We were at first just primarily a street band and pretty much a cover band...then we got Sean and Mark…And he and James are pretty much our primary songwriters [several members interject, “and Asher!”]...and me.


BL: What’s the song-creating process like?

Amory: It depends. Everyone has sort of like a different writing style–like Sean will have a very clear idea of what’s going into a song in an arrangement/composition way, while James has a pretty clear idea and let’s us sort of write along...
Vashti: Whereas Sean does not allow that.
Sean: I don’t’ allow people to change what I have.
Amory: ...and Asher is a little bit more open-ended.
Asher: I usually just bring like the basic chords and song structure and lyrics, and then I have everyone else write their parts because I’m lazy.
Steve: Essentially we’re improvising all the time. It’s an eleven-piece band so technically everything should be orchestrated and written out in charts, but…

BL: But it’s not?

Steve: It’s not.
Sean: We’ve developed lines and that sort of thing. We used to do a lot more improvising and not really having clear arrangements, necessarily, but we’ve really worked on that a lot in the last half a year or so.
James: It’s been one of the big goals, I think, is to actually harness all of the instruments as opposed to just letting it all…
Mark: Avoid a wall of sound, which happens often actually.
Sean: We’re really good at the wall of sound.
Steve: And that gets into the recording thing—we did it in Hudson at Henry Hirsch’s studio, I don’t know what it’s called…
All: The Waterfront.
Steve: So he had never seen us before, and we went in there, and presented him with eleven people ready to make a ruckus, and his goal was to make it so that you could actually hear everybody.
Asher: He was such a pro, and he looks like Ben Folds.
Vashti: And it’s a converted church from the late 1800s, and it’s amazing, he designed it after Studio B of Abbey Road. And we figured if there’s anybody who can help us hear ourselves, it would be him.
Steve: Coincidentally, we designed all of our songs to be exactly like the Beatles.

BL: What was the recording process like for you?

Vashti: I think one of the challenges of us recording was that this band is not the kind of band that you could put eleven of us in your living room and record to your computer and have it sound like anything less than crap.
Asher: We tried that once.
Vashti: We tried that again and again and it’s just really hard to achieve that. There’s all these duos out that we’re sort of jealous of because they can do that, and this required something a little bit more serious in terms of microphones and acoustics. And even so, I think we learned from this experience that we even need to be more arranged before we get into this process because it’s just a lot instruments—it’s an orchestra more than it is a rock band.

BL: So you guys jumped into this process completely unaware of what was going to happen?

James: We booked two days. Not surprisingly, we realized that we had taken on way too much. We were like, "Let’s book two days, we’ll just bang out twelve songs, we’ll put it all on analog tape, transfer it, have it mixed and mastered in two days...," and somehow we thought that would work.
Steve: Incidentally, it takes an entire day to transfer an album.
Vashti: And it takes a half a day to set up microphones for a band this size…so, next time we’ll probably do it a different way!

BL: Well, you got it done, so you must be really happy about that.

James: It was an adventure.
Vashti: The mixing-down process took weeks, and the guy that mixed it is a Grammy-winner, he did Lauren Hill’s Miseducation of Lauren Hill.
Asher: He was actually very patient with us, there’s a lot of us and we were kind of…
Vashti: Awful?
Asher: Well, we weren’t awful, there’s just a lot of us, and we didn’t know what we were doing. But it was cool. I mean, I don’t know about you guys, but I’d like to be able to work with him again, maybe on an EP instead of 90 songs.
[Everyone agrees]
Vashti: We raised all the money to do the recording in about two months, all from gigs this summer, and…it’s kind of incredible, because this is a real recording studio…it’s a really cool process. I knew there would be a first time and it was gonna be rough—the first time is always rough! [laughs], no matter what. So, I’m glad that our first time was with [Waterfront Studio], because they were pros and really they kind of lead us through it and they were teachers too.
Asher: Patient, patient people. I don’t think I could emphasize that enough.

BL: I’m sure they saw you guys walking in the door and thought, “Oh, shit.”

Vashti: Yeah. In their typical work schedule, they’ll do an album in like six to eight months there. So, this was not their normal process, but they were totally up for it.

BL: You have a pretty long history together as a band—what was your first big gig like?

Steve: Our first real gig was—Olu Dara was supposed to play at Club Helsinki in Great Barrington when it was still around, and he cancelled. Olu Dara is [rapper] Nas’s dad, he’s a famous jazz trumpet player, he’s like big shit, and he cancelled. So they were scrambling for a gig, and somebody who worked there—my old roommate—knew that we had this band. And so all of a sudden we’re at Helsinki on a Friday night, and everybody thinks Olu Dara’s playing, and we were like, “What are we doing here?” But we did it, we pulled it off, and then we were like “Oh, we’re a band.”

BL: I’ve read and heard so many different descriptions of your music, from gypsy-punk to Balkan Rockabilly, but I want to hear straight from the horse’s mouth: How did your sound develop and how would you describe it?

Sean: I guess Asher started doing a bunch of a traditional stuff and more gypsy-punk-wave stuff, and then there are ten of us, and no one really listens to that music, so we sort of tried to keep on that whim, but you know, develop ourselves a little better…
Asher: What we play now is…it’s like Vaudevillian circus, we’ve got New Orleans feel in there, we have blues, kind of a more Latin beat…
Steve: It’s post-modern pastiche.

BL: So is it an ever-evolving sound, with everyone throwing in their own ideas?

Asher: Yeah, whatever someone is listening to….
Amory: I think also a lot of us tend to not be terribly flexible in our musical styles, so we don’t really have any choice but to sound like us. We’re not going to be able to sound like a traditional band because we don’t know how to play like that. We know how to play how we know how to play.

BL: Your upcoming album release ball is at the NEW STAGE, an awesome new space in Pittsfield. Do you have an idea of what your performance will be like in that space?

Vashti: We’re doing two sets…and they’re actually making the stage bigger in order to fit us….the great thing is we’re relatively close to the same level as the audience so there’ll be great dancing in that space.
James: It has the feel of a club as opposed to the theater.
Steve: We play living rooms, we play fields, we play dingy clubs, we play nice clubs…we play cardboard boxes. We do it all. And it’s impossible to know what is going to sound good with a band this big. It’s just like having ten boom boxes all going at once.

BL: Would you say the space makes the performance?

Steve: We make the performance.
Mark: It’s how we handle the space, because some spaces really kick our ass.
Vashti: Yeah, there are some places that are just too small for the amount of sound we put out.
Mark: There’s never really an excuse, but some places are hard to play.
Vashti: We’re learning to play more softly when necessary…As our set has been getting longer and longer—for a long time we did just one set—I’m noticing that people are actually getting tired sometimes, like “Phew!” [She pantomimes wiping her forehead], and we’re still going, and so this show I think we’re going to do two sets.
Asher: We’re in shape. We had 18 songs last week, but I cut two because the audience was so [breathless]…people were tired because we just played straight through all these really fast-paced songs…
[Meanwhile Sean and Steve are lip-syncing to “Killing Me Softly” and distracting everyone]
…and then we played some slow songs.

BL: Like this one [Killing Me Softly]?

Vashti: As there are more originals, fewer traditionals and fewer covers have been in circulation….[Sean and Steve are still singing] I don’t mean to interrupt you guys, you can keep going.
Sean: This is one of the few songs I have to sing every time I hear it, no matter where.

BL: So what’s the plan for the future?

Steve: Sell out as quickly as possible.
James: I think actually we do want to start getting our—this is another thing we’ve been talking about for like three years—actually getting together proper press material and starting to expand our sphere of influence, start playing outside of the Berkshires. Because right now we actually play a lot, but probably most of the gigs we get are gigs that are offered to us.
Vashti: We’ve actually never successfully said, “Hey, I’d like to play at this place,” and then have it happen. We just get invited, and this has been perpetuating itself just from doing nothing. So, if we did something we could actually have a say in what happens with our destiny…Definitely playing in more places where more people haven’t heard us before is a goal for us, because even when we play in New York—and it’s not always the best gig in the world—but there’s still this thrill with people hearing you and they’re like, sometimes you see people hearing it and going, “What is this? I like it, do you like it?,” and it’s exciting.

BL: It is great that you guys have kept your Berkshire roots though.

Steve: Dude…[Pulls up his shirt to reveal a big “413” tattoo on his right side, after which Asher shows a matching one on his back right shoulder]…We roll deep.

BL: Hey, born and raised right here, I’m all about the Berkshire pride. Tell me why people should want to come to this show?

Steve: It’s the best band you’ve ever heard in your life. I’m not trying to be crazy but, Bella’s Bartok has something that everybody wants to hear.
Vashti: Yeah—you, your grandmother, and your teenage daughter—we’ll get them off their ass and dancing.
Steven: We’re not beholden to the past, and, it’s like Amory said, we can’t help but sound like ourselves. And we’re not a folk-band from the foothills; we’re straight Shire to the bone.
Vashti: That’s going to be our new t-shirt, I’m going to make it right now.
Steve: We don’t need to cater to anybody, you know, we know that our shit is the best, straight up.
Mark: We bring the party. We will double the size of the party just by playing.
Vashti: We are the party! - Berkshire Living Magazine


Discography

At the Kingmakers Ball (2010)

These Are Our Arms (2011)

In August, 2011, Bella's Bartok recorded a new album at More Sound Studio in Syracuse, NY. The album was co-produced by Bella's Bartok, and Shaun Sutkus and Ian Hersey of Rubblebucket, and will be available in December.

Photos

Bio

Bella’s Bartok is a theatrical indie dance band from Western Massachusetts whose infectious sound is sometimes described as “Balkan Rockabilly” or “Circus Rock”.

As one reviewer put it;

“Its sound, described by the band as ranging from ‘bohemian folk-punk’ to ‘circus-themed electric art rock’, is informed by Eastern European folk music, suffused with the energy of punk rock, and tinted with a Dixieland inflection. The music is often delivered at full volume, and even the waltzes come at breakneck speed. It is getaway music for horse-drawn, peddler caravan. Call it borschtcore.”

-Jeremy Goodwin, Berkshire Eagle, December 1, 2010

Born in the summer of 2008, this Berkshire-grown group first became known for busking in the back alleyways of small-town Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Their full-throttle sound, wild theatricality, and eccentric costume began to attract enormous crowds. A sudden and fortuitous cancellation by Olu Dara at local venue, Club Helsinki, led to the Bellas' first proper gig. Quickly becoming known for indefatigable, sweat-drenched performances and a ferocious stage presence drawing from punk, cabaret, performance art, and operatic traditions, it was not long before their wild sold-out shows at local venues were becoming legendary.

It's safe to say that this hodgepodge of talented musicians is difficult to classify. The three main writers of the band, Asher Putnam, James Bill, and Sean Klaiber seamlessly fuse elements of punk-rock, pop, folk and classical, to serve up hooky, deliciously danceable compositions that seem completely fresh. One of the biggest creative challenges seems to be that Putnam, Bill and Klaiber are so independently prolific, the band simply cannot learn new songs as fast as they can write them.

This backlog of new material not withstanding, in the summer of 2010, Bella’s Bartok completed their first recording, At the Kingmakers Ball, in a whirlwind 3-day session at Henry Hirsch’s Waterfront Studio in Hudson, New York. A collection of their earliest works, At the Kingmakers Ball possess a charming eclecticism that sweeps from Eastern European folk-inspired two-steps to orchestral waltz-punk, to glam rock and back again.

July, 2011, Bella's Bartok completed their second album, at More Sound Studio in Syracuse, NY. Co-produced by Bella's Bartok, Shaun Sutkus and Ian Hersey of Rubblebucket, "These Are Our Arms" is chock full of ambitious arrangements and dynamic performances. The collection shows a noticable evolution in song-writing; distinct influences are less identifiable as the band has begun to fuse their sound into a cohesive style that is purely Bella's Bartok. "These Are Our Arms" will be released in December.

Venues we’ve played…

Alphabet Lounge, NY, NY
Amherst Coffee, Amherst, MA
ArtsBlock Music Factory, Greenfield, MA
Basilica Industria, Hudson, NY
Bishop’s Lounge, Northampton, Ma
Blue Plate Restaurant, Chatham, NY
Brick House, Housatonic, MA
Bulgarian Bar NY, NY
Cinemart Space 17, New York, NY
Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield, MA
Club Helsinki, Great Barrington, MA
Club Helsinki, Hudson, NY
Club Oberon, Cambridge, MA
Copperworks, Pittsfield, MA
Down County Social Club, Sheffield, MA
Dream Away Lodge, Becket, MA
Elevens, Northampton, MA
Elf Parlor, North Adams, MA
Freddy’s Backroom, Brooklyn, NY
Guthrie Center, Great Barrington, MA
Gypsy Joynt, Great Barrington, MA
Ironhorse Music Hall, Northampton, MA
Mission Bar, Pittsfield, MA
National Underground, NY, NY
New Stage Performing Arts Center, Pittsfield, MA
O’Brien’s Pub, Allston, MA
PA’s, Somerville, MA
Pangaea, West Springfield, MA
Pearl St. Ballroom, Northampton, MA
Pioneer Arts Center, Easthampton, MA
Public Assembly, Brooklyn, NY
Red Square, Albany, NY
Rendez-Vous, Turner’s Fall’s, MA
Risingdale, Housatonic, MA
Room at Rebel Sounds Records, Pittsfield, MA
Spike Hill, Brooklyn, NY
Sierra Grille, Northampton, MA
Spotty Dog, Hudson, NY
Valentine’s, Albany, NY
The Well, Great Barrington, MA
Waterfront Tavern, Holyoke, MA

Festivals:
2010 Hudson Harbor Fest, Hudson, NY
Berkshire Fringe Festival, Great Barrington, MA
Extravaganja, Amherst MA
FoolsFest, Pittsfield, MA
Green River Festival, Greenfield, MA
Peskeomskut Park Music and Arts Festival, Turner’s Falls, MA
The Let It Roll Festival, Ghent, NY
WordXWord Festival, Pittsfield, MA 2010,2011

Colleges:
Hampshire College Spring Jam
Simon’s Rock College of Bard
UMass Amherst
Wheaton College Spring Weekend

Benefits/Events:
Colombia County Land Conservancy Fair, Chatham NY
Crissey Farms Midwinter Party, Great Barrington, MA
Hudson Arts Walk, Hudson NY
Third Thursdays, Pittsfield, MA
Zucchini Festival, West Stockbridge, MA

Quotes/Notes from the Band:

"This is the band that is going to save Balkan Rockabilly from itself."

"It's a simple tale really. Boy meets guitar, boy meets boy with string bass, meets boys with guitar and banjo, meets girl with accordion, me