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Worlds of Sound: Bells Atlas Explores New Musical Frontiers

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Bells Atlas is, in bassist Doug Stuart's words, a "very democratic band." Each of its members—Stuart, lead singer Sandra Lawson-Ndu, guitarist Derek Barber, drummer Geneva Harrison and keyboardist Steve Blum—take an active role in creating songs. Stuart feels that this helps keep their music fresh.

"It's always happened naturally for us," he told Boise Weekly, "because the process is never really limited to one person or even two people. And I think because of that, and because we're all pretty diplomatic, we end up surprising ourselves."

The Oakland, California-based band's latest release, Salt and Soap (Tender Loving Empire, 2018), is a good case in point. The foundation for the EP's four tracks came from recordings on Harrison's phone.

"There was a period of time where Geneva traveled to New York for a few months to do a gig," Stuart explained. "We hadn't been writing too much prior to that—we'd just come out of a cycle of playing a lot of live shows. Anyway, before she left, she was like, 'Here's this folder of a bunch of beats that I just played in my practice space. If you guys feel uninspired, you should check 'em out.'"

Harrison's bandmates found inspiration in more than her angular, funky drum beats.

"The phone recording itself was kind of inspiring," Stuart said, "because it gave us this grainy, distorted, interesting sound on top of her unique playing. ... Sandra and I started a handful of [songs] from there. And then when [Harrison] got back from her gig, she got in on the process and Derek was roped in throughout. It was a new process for us for sure."

Listeners and critics have taken note of Bells Atlas' unique blend of R&B, African music, pop and psychedelia. Afropunk.com, the online hub of the festival and cultural movement of the same name, praised the band's music as "a sumptuous feast for the ears." Impose declared that "no two-bit adjectives can contain their infectious sound, [which] draws influences from all corners and unexpected places the world over."

Boise music fans can hear that unique sound on Tuesday, Oct. 16, when Bells Atlas plays Neurolux. Local electronica act Up is the Down is the will open.

When Stuart and Lawson-Ndu formed the group in 2011, they called it simply "Bells." Recruiting Harrison and Barber, they played under that name for almost two years before they discovered a problem.

"We were about to release our first album and [realized] just how challenging it was to find us on the internet with just the name 'Bells,'" Stuart recalled with a chuckle. "So that was kind of the inspiration to augment it."

The bandmates came up with a variety of alternate names but finally settled on Bells Atlas.

"I don't know, it was the only one that we all agreed on," Stuart said. "I think because it's not very confining. It's expansive and could apply to a lot of different worlds and a lot of different influences."

Befitting its name, the group draws upon a wide range of genres. Lawson-Ndu, a Nigerian-American, grew up listening to highlife, a combination of jazz, calypso and West African music. Stuart and Barber studied jazz together at the University of Michigan. Harrison attended the University of Miami's Frost School of Music and played in a range of settings, like orchestras, rock bands, jazz ensembles and salsa groups.

Blending so many types of music makes categorizing Bells Atlas difficult.

"I feel like our music is very hard to put in a box, which can be challenging at times," Stuart said. "But at the same time, it's nice for that reason because I think it appeals to a lot of different people who tend to be in a different thing. I think that [is reflected] in the audience we usually attract. Also, the kinds of bands that we can bill with is pretty diverse."

To date, those bands have included Canadian jazz fusion group Badbadnotgood, Australian "future soul" group Hiatus Kaiyote and Oakland-based hip-hop band The Coup. In a 2015 interview with SF Weekly, Coup frontman Boots Riley expressed his admiration for Bells Atlas.

"Rarely, someone comes around that is influenced by so many things but is looking for a new way to do something," he said. "You can't really put any particular category on it. Bells Atlas is like that."

Bells Atlas' members will put out more category-defying music soon. During the winter, they'll work on various solo projects and might start writing new band material. Then, the group will release its sophomore LP next spring and begin touring.

Whatever Stuart and company do next, they should bear out the rest of Riley's comment: "It is possible to be experimental and creative in a way that makes you excited about what they're doing and about life."