The Van Allen Belt has, in the six years since its first release, grown into a Pittsburgh band with an out-of-Pittsburgh reputation, a band that's toured the West Coast and plays as much out of town as it does in. But it started out as a pretty cerebral project — a filmmaker's quest to make music while applying techniques from film.
"While I was in film school, I started recording a lot of music," says primary songwriter Ben Ferris. "I recorded solo albums, and I started doing soundtrack work. I was really into Guy Maddin's movies, and I wanted to make music that was the audio equivalent of that. I was also really into White Noise's An Electric Storm, and saw that splicing samples could be used in a way that's far more creative than how they're generally used.
"Reconceptualizing samples — I'd say that's still really the basis of our band."
Tamar Kamin, a classically trained vocalist, began working with Ferris on his soundtrack work, and it was as a duo that they released their first album as The Van Allen Belt, 2007's Meal Ticket to Purgatory. Ferris's film-school friend Scott Taylor would join as a sound engineer and drummer. ("He graduated; I'm a film-school dropout," Ferris says with a laugh.) Bassist Tom Altes rounds out the band's lineup.
Meal Ticket is a psychedelic sound-collage anchored by Kamin's friendly vocals; the simple, almost childlike melodies and the innocence of Kamin's delivery are offset by the unsettling samples and discordant notes in a way that simultaneously recalls Olivia Tremor Control, Stereolab and Brazilian psych-rock.
On the tails of Meal Ticket, the band did a bit of touring, including some dates opening for Stereolab and Atlas Sound. In 2010, the follow-up full-length Superfragilis appeared — in some ways more traditional in its sound, but still full of topsy-turvy samples and synths. It also more directly showcases Kamin's jazz vocals.
The Van Allen Belt's latest is a 7-inch vinyl release called "Songs," named for the eponymous B-side tune. It's a collection of three songs from the same sessions that gave rise to the band's forthcoming full-length, to be issued later this year.
While Ferris started his writing for The Van Allen Belt with sampling and editing as his M.O., the songs are crafted first in a pretty classic manner.
"I write everything on piano and guitar," Ferris explains. "Everything starts out in a pretty traditional way; the sampling is used to fill in the space. They're not complete until they're recorded; they're planned in how they'll play out, but the arrangement is always a surprise. It never comes out sounding how it did in your head. Which I enjoy."
That makes studio work more complicated than it is for many bands.
"A lot of bands just show up to a studio, play the song a few times and take a couple of takes," says Ferris. "This is more like making a movie: You're editing — scene by scene, frame by frame, measure by measure."
"We also got to a point," says bassist Taylor, "where the gear caught up with the concept. Originally, I had hardware samplers and drum machines; eventually we got to the point where we have multi-track recording equipment."
Even what would seem the most organic parts of the songs — the vocals — are put together through editing. Kamin records parts, which Ferris then loops and layers to fit.
The A-side to the "Songs" 7-inch features two tunes: "Humanist Hymns" and "Taste." The former is a piano tune with string and percussion samples and increasingly complex layering of Kamin's vocals in harmony; it's reminiscent of contemporary psych-pop outfits like Secret Cities. "Taste" is more Stereolab-style, with lots of synths and dreamy, wavering vocals.
The title track, clocking in at just under five minutes, is a sprawling beauty. The pace, key and general melody remain the same throughout, but change comes often in the form of new samples and shifts in the instrumentation. One moment, it's bassy synthetic drumbeats; the next, it's nothing but piano. Kamin's vocals here are matter-of-fact, barely singing as much as precise, tuneful talk.
The new material also represents something of a shift in the band's execution. While Ferris insists he still thinks of The Van Allen Belt as by and large a studio band, the band's approach is changing.
"This is the first album where we've performed the songs live before we released them," Ferris says. "The songs on the 7-inch and on the full-length that's coming, we've been playing some of them out for a year."
"Some songs can be more difficult to approach than others," Kamin says. "And when we play live, it's a whole different level. The songs are different, obviously, than on the recordings."
"I've always thought that it should be different," says Ferris. "If you want to hear it as it sounds on the album, to buy the album and play it. If you see us live, you're going to hear a different version of the music."