I have a confession to make: I live in Austin and somehow I’ve never managed to see The Bellfuries perform live. This is something I’m actually a little ashamed about since they are one of this town’s most talented groups, and have become one of my favorites since first hearing them. Plus, they play all the time in local clubs. The group was formed by songwriter and singer Joey Simeone in 1998. I’ve heard their name in passing, but it wasn’t until I was catching a set by the talented Oklahoman artist JD McPherson at this year’s Old Settler’s Music Festival that I became intrigued by the Bellfuries. McPherson – whose blend of soul, rockabilly, and doo-wop has earned him the respect of critics and fans alike – announced he was going to play his version of “Your Love,” and made a point to say it was a cover of one of his favorite bands, The Bellfuries. He first covered the song on his 2012 debut Signs and Signifiers. I was hooked.
It was after looking them up that I found out The Bellfuries had a brand new album coming, Workingman’s Bellfuries, which will be released via Hi-Style Records on August 21. The album sees the band working with longtime JD McPherson collaborator Jimmy Sutton to create a sound that what I would call country soul-billy. However, there is far more depth to Joey Simeone’s songwriting and the band’s instrumentation than your typical rockabilly or soul revival band. Each of the album’s 11 tracks is catchier than the next, with the harmonies and danceable grooves standing front and center of it all. Summer is almost over, but Workingman’s Bellfuries gives the listener the aural experience of a care-free summer night dancing in a red-lit club. One of the standout tracks is the charming “Bad Seed Sown”, which we are excited to premiere on Glide. To give you more insight into just what makes The Bellfuries so special, we talked with Joey Simeone about the new album.
It’s been quite some time since your last album – how do you look at these songs differently from when you first started on them to where they are now?
Some of these songs have been around for a while and since we already had decent demos recorded, I was actually looking forward to seeing what a producer would do with them. I respected [producer] Jimmy [Sutton’s] opinion and knew that we would end up with something cool no matter the push and pull. Most of the skeletons stayed intact, but tempos, keys, etc. were altered or completely changed. There were a few bridges and verses that were a bit painful to let go of, but ultimately it was refreshing, and I believe important, to go in as if there were no set arrangements. It needs to sound fresh and not too rehearsed. The demos are always there and usually make their way online sooner or later for anybody who cares to listen.
What type of record would you describe Workingman’s Bellfuries as? What records from your listening past would you also categorize in a similar way and what do you hope the listener to get out of this record?
Those questions are perhaps better answered by the listener. What type of record?…hopefully the kind that has hooks that get in your head, and “groofs” that make you wanna get off your ass and move! I think there is a strong Everly Brothers influence on this record. I love two-part harmony, and naturally go there almost every time I write a song. The songs with the strongest harmony work always tend to be my favorites. We didn’t want anything too arrangement-heavy on this one. It’s a pop-rock-n-roll-Americana record to my ears, but what the hell do I know!
How did you come up with the title for the LP? Is there any connection to The Grateful Dead’s Workingman’s Dead? Are you fans of the band and have you taken anything particular from them and stamped it as your own?
We were listening to a lot of Grateful Dead on the drives up to Chicago and that title popped up. We are all fans of The Dead. I suppose some of the improvisation at the live shows could be perceived as an influence, but that’s about as far as it goes. I’m a fan of short pop songs, so my favorite Dead songs are the least noodly ones. I love “Attics of My Life,” goddamn that’s a pretty song! You’d have to be on a pretty groovy LSD trip to find the Dead influence on this record, but of course you can find a Dead influence on any record if you are on groovy LSD!
Give a listen to our EXCLUSIVE PREMIERE of “Bad Seed Sown”:
Can you talk about the band’s connection with JD McPherson?
I’ve known JD for about 15 yrs. He used to come see us play at this Bowling Alley in [Oklahoma City]. We would touch base every so often over the years. We connected on so many different types of music, and were willing to admit it (!), which is kind of odd for people that are into “roots” or “rockabilly.” God forbid you were ever into anything else, especially that whiny Morrissey! We would be talking about Billy Bragg, then move to Iron Maiden, then The Smiths, then Hank Williams. We still do that now. He has such a great voice and instinct for songwriting and art in general, and when they called to ask about covering “Your Love,” I knew it was gonna be good. He’s truly become one of my best friends, more like a family member now. When JD tours through Cleveland, those guys usually stay at my brother Anthony’s place. It’s a family operation.
How has your live show grown from its beginnings to what you have going now? What are some of your more memorable live performances to date?
Well, in the beginning I think we sucked. I don’t think we suck now. Some of the European shows have been fantastic. There’s a place called Rosi’s in Dresden that’s always great. Whenever we play at The Rockabilly Rave (UK), it’s a soulful experience for me. Everybody is singing the songs and having a good time. We had some cool shows when we toured with Imelda May last year. A lot of the people there had never heard of us and it was fun to go out and (hopefully) win them over. C-Boys is my favorite place to play in Austin. -Neil Ferguson
Would you describe The Bellfuries as an Austin band, and do you feel connected to a scene there or play any type of venue regularly?
I don’t really see this band as an Austin band. That distinction, at least in my mind, is saved for bands or solo artists that have had long-standing residencies here. The “Hey, are we going to see ‘The Austins’ for ‘Austin Tuesdays’ at ‘The So and So bar'” type of bands. This is such a great town, but it can be, and usually is, VERY humbling with regards to gigging and trying to make a living. You can see a ton of great players and bands, and a ton of garbage as well, on every single night of the week. I think that is both exhilarating and disheartening at the same time. It’s very easy to get lost in a sea of choices here, but it’s also super cool to even have those choices at all. I will say that if it wasn’t for this town, it’s highly likely that I may have never had the courage to step out of the bedroom and onto a stage. This city welcomed me with open arms and I will love it forever. All things considered, in my opinion it’s the best city in the world. Having said that, I’m moving back to Cleveland after I get married next year!
Interview by Shane Handler and Neil Ferguson.