Shedding's Connor Bell on improvisation and doing whatever you want
The multi-faceted Louisville musician plays Thursday, August 6 at Ritual Barbers downtown.
For more than a decade, Louisville musician Connor Bell has used his solo project Shedding to unreservedly explore a range of sonic impulses, apparently not worrying about the incongruity of putting everything from solo-acoustic singer-songwriter material to field recordings under one name. Shedding’s most recent release, 4 Of 5 In 6 And 7, captures Bell’s excursions into wide-ranging modular-synth compositions, something he’ll continue to build on when he plays this Thursday, August 6 at Ritual Barbers in downtown Madison, sharing the bill with solo sets from Madison musicians Tom Wincek and Rob Lundberg.
Other good points of entry with Shedding include the gorgeous drone-pop of 2010’s Tear In The Sun, 2013’s Who Can I Be Alone With? (which documents a short-lived but rewarding try at recasting Shedding’s material in a band setting), and Plod & Play, a collection of Bell’s spontaneous electronic compositions over the years. Ahead of his Madison show, Bell talked with me about his approach to the project, the value of improvisation, and his ever-evolving live set.
Tone Madison: What’s your live setup like now? I don’t think I’ve actually seen you play live for maybe four years and I’d imagine the setup has changed with the material.
Connor Bell: Well, if if twas four years ago I was probably using the pump organ still, and basically I’ve just sort of phased that out and use a little synthesizer instead and have a modular synthesizer and a sampler. It’s pretty much purely electronic aside from the voice. With that pump organ, there were just a lot of issues with sound that got frustrating, as much as I liked the sound of it. It’s something that I’ve been thinking about revisiting but I just figured I’d simplify. I mean, it’s more complicated of a setup, but I think it’s more controlled.
Tone Madison: In other interviews, you’ve talked about the role of improvisation in your writing and recording. How does improvisation play into your live set, especially with a more electronic setup?
Connor Bell: I sort of enjoy exploring both structured, or relatively structured, songwriting, and improv. The modular synthesizer that I’ve been playing with, it’s been kind of fun to create a system and work within it, and that’s where the improv really comes from. It’s never the same. I don’t know how into that world you are, but a lot of musicians talk about it being kind of alive in some way, and I kind of feel the same—there’s this unpredictability. I add an element of randomness within that, which is kind of fun for me. I don’t like playing structured sets where every show is the same. My own personal enjoyment is definitely something I consider when I’m playing shows, and I think it just keeps me more invested and excited with a bit of improved. I have some stretches of structure and some structures of more kind of "see what happens," I guess.
Tone Madison: And especially in electronic music, everyone has their own setup that’s sort of esoteric in how it’s configured and how they’re doing. So one thing I’m curious about is, how does your setup create opportunities for improvisation or spontaneity to happen?
Connor Bell: Some of the modules in my synthesizer are specifically designed to be sort of controlled chaos, so if I use that in the set, it immediately moves in a more unpredictable direction. I also use the sampler in kind of a loose way—I mean, I try to use it more as a music concrete, like a reel-to-reel, where I kind of am just capturing snippets and playing them as sort of tape collage, and I never quite know how that’s going to turn out exactly, but it has a fun effect. It can turn into a lot of different aesthetics pretty quickly if I mess with that direction.
Tone Madison: What were some of the things you are trying to explore with 4 Of 5 In 6 And 7? Was there anything that felt different to you about making it?
Connor Bell: Largely, that’s all collage live recordings, so it’s more just a document of some of my sets from the last six months. There are two songs with names, and those are the ones that I’ve put more into trying to develop and explore. The others are just sort of little ideas that I had fun playing and they’re not anything I’m necessarily returning to again, because they’re just improvising and playing with sound.
Tone Madison: You have releases that are cohesive albums but also a lot of things that are just little experiments or variations on previous material. Do you enjoy not being tied to a certain format or schedule?
Connor Bell: Yeah, that’s kind of been a core value I’ve tried to work from ever since this started. I guess it’s been 15 years that I’ve been doing this on and off. That’s one of the more fundamental elements, is just, no limits, and whatever zone I’m in, I’m gonna do. It’s funny, because an old bandmate is going to try to write a little bio for me, and it’s hard to have an up-to-date bio when I’m constantly messing around and trying new things. We were talking, I was trying to communicate with him this idea that I hope he can capture in words because it would allow the bio to be more long-lasting possibly if he does capture it: Those are the artists I value and respect, and that’s kind of what I’m aiming for, are those people that kind of do whatever the hell they want, and there’s something compelling about it, even if you don’t like it all. The exploratory quality of the artist always kind of seeking something is something I respect about my favorite artists, and that’s why I’ve always pushed in that direction. Again, I don’t expect everyone to like everything I’m doing, obviously. There’s definitely stuff that’s more or less listenable than other stuff for certain audiences, but I would hope that people who enjoy my stuff would appreciate that about me, that I’m not staying still.
I think a lot of artists get caught up in worrying about how stuff will be received, and that idea of making it or whatever, but I think at a certain point, I became a lot more fulfilled with just getting back to the basics and enjoying the process of making art for myself. I think with what’s happening in the music industry, it’s been kind of a good reminder that if you’re hoping to make money or something, good luck, but it’s increasingly challenging. I would imagine you know plenty of people who get frustrated about that, the state of the industry or whatever, but it’s a good reminder to keep your eye on why you do it. That’s really helped me regain a passion for making art.
Tone Madison: And not that it’s ever been easy to be a musician, but there is kind of this upside to the Internet now where you can be really true to yourself as an artist and people are able to connect with it in a fulfilling way, even if it’s just a small number of people.
Connor Bell: Yeah, and I’ve become much more self-sufficient. For a stretch, this label Hometapes was putting my stuff out and it was great and I love them and they’re family, but it’s a lot slower when you’re working with a proper label. I used to play in a band called Parlour and I’ve been listening to their rough mixes, and they’re talking about how it’ll be 10 months before the record’s out, and that 4 Of 5 In 6 And 7, it was a few weeks and it was done. It’s not a lavish gatefold LP or anything, but there’s something to be said for small, fluid, mobile and dynamic labels. Even calling them labels is sort of misleading in some ways. It’s great because you just do what you can do on a budget and enjoy the process. I have some stuff on Bandcamp that I would love to have put out on vinyl—I had a brief phase where I was doing more of a pop band, and we put a lot into the songs and it fizzled before we really finished them, so I put a lot into trying to finish them and I’m pretty happy with them, and I’d love to share them as a physical release, but it’s like, well, why not, just throw them up. It’s not like there’s any benefit to sitting on them. It’s definitely something I’ve grappled with and I think a lot of musicians are trying to figure out their philosophies about this whole new-media era. It’s exciting. I’m 35, almost 36, so I sort of got a taste of before, and the sort of, OK, now, it’s different. I think some of the younger people who didn’t get a bit of the late ‘90s when things were still booming, I’d be curious about how they feel about all this stuff.
Tone Madison: On Who Can I Be Alone With?, from 2013, you played with a couple other guys and put the Shedding material in more of a band setting. How did that come about?
Connor Bell: I mean those are just good old friends and former bandmates in other bands. One of them is kind of the mastermind of that Parlour band that I just mentioned. We’ve always been close collaborators, and to some degree he mentored me when I started playing music. At some point, I just started writing on the guitar again, in maybe ’04, and was doing more kind of solo acoustic-guitar singer-songwriter—suddenly I had something to say lyrically again—and at a certain point, I went, why not make this a band for a while? They were just enthusiastic supporters of my songwriting and good friends, and they added a lot of ideas that I never would have considered, which was really fun. Who Can I be Alone With? is the recordings that worked out based on some demos that I tried to kind of polish. Some of those songs I’ve still played solo with the synthesizer. I don’t think I’m playing any on these [upcoming] shows. But some of them I’ve left alone ever since, because with what they added, I feel like it would have been disrespectful to try to go back to playing them alone. But yeah, it was a band for a couple of years, and it was really fun, and I love playing with others but it was also stressful and a reminder of why I like playing alone, too. It’s like you’re dating multiple people. You have to stay on the same page with, in this case, two other guys, and as adults it becomes increasingly hard to stay on the same page. At a certain point it was like, I’d rather us remain friends and it’s not as fun as it had been and I don’t want to ruin our friendships over pointless stress. It just kind of fizzled and I went back to playing guitar and synthesizers. I haven’t played the guitar as much lately. I was telling Joey, the drummer, that recently, and he said, “That’s weird,” and it is weird that I haven’t really craved it. I came up playing punk rock just like most people and it’s strange not having the urge to play, but it’ll come back.
Tone Madison: And on that band record, you did a different version of the song “Disconnect,” from Tear In The Sun. Do you enjoy the challenge of kind of iterating on your own stuff, revisiting a song and figuring out a different way to make it work?
Connor Bell: It’s great and frustrating at the same time. It’s great to try to re-explore it as if it were a standard and kind of find new meaning and explore textures and tones. The frustrating part is that I can’t finish stuff—I’ve got these songs that I’m pretty happy with, and some of those songs I’d like to re-record solo, and I guess I end up thinking, “If I just spend a little more time with it, maybe it’ll move in a direction that’s even better.” I’ve kind of caught this bug of seeking perfection, which is something I know from past bands is completely toxic.