Emerging from two years of carefully crafted buzz with a well-received debut album, Jack White protégés and Third Man Records label denizens The Black Belles are Nashville’s preeminent gothic garage rock export. Their post-Valentine’s day show at Chicago’s Empty Bottle proved that word has spread extraordinarily well about the mysterious ladies. Sandwiched between a bill consisting of local act Hollows and tour mates Bleached, The Black Belles packed the L-shaped venue to its grimy gills, drawing all types from the curious interlopers to a trio of fans dressed in signature Black Belles uniform: full ebony-hued garb and wide brim felt hats.
Because the quartet has been so hyped and buzzed about, there is always an element of surprise when such a widely-discussed act exceeds expectations. As most anyone familiar with the group knows, their aesthetics are key in their overall brand: form fitting vintage black lace and velvet dresses seemingly pulled from the Addams Family attic, pale face contrasted with black lipstick, straight black hairdos, and their distinguishable hats. These combined elements made for a looming presence on the Empty Bottle’s corner stage.
As the Belles launched into opener “Leave You With a Letter”, drummer Shelby Lynne became a blur of raven hair and fair-skinned limbs (sans hat), setting a raucous pace for Olivia Jean’s sultry, trilling vocals. The underlying rhythm burst from Ruby Rogers’ jet black bass (matching the other instruments on stage in true Third Man Records form), lighting the path for Tina NoGood’s synthy organ punctuations. The sound that emerged captivated the at-capacity crowd for the entire set. Standouts from their self-titled LP such as “Honky Tonk Horror” and “Knocking on the Wrong Door” scorched the venue with a green-flamed rockabilly tone. A few B-sides to their various seven inches worked their way into the set as well, “Miss Black Boots” and “Dead Shoe” serving up ambling, eerie tones to flesh out their live material.
One concert goer mused in between songs, “If Hell had a house band, this would be it.” A high compliment to The Black Belles, their drudge graveyard rock was precise, unrelenting, and (dare I say) bewitching. After just nine songs, the set felt wickedly short as Olivia Jean cracked a wide grin, thanked the crowd, and hustled off stage with her band mates.
While touring to support their self-titled debut, the quartet took a moment to answer our burning questions about their influences, tour rituals, and mysterious backgrounds. Always coy with their responses, the members still maintain a shroud of mystery. Their first LP, The Black Belles, is available from Third Man Records, in addition to a variety of 7’’ singles. You can also catch their spooky pipes on the theme song for Elvira’s new horror movie digest show, Movie Macabre.
With White behind the boards as producer and Queen of Rockabilly/label mate Wanda Jackson’s influence heard throughout the album, your influences go back pretty clearly. What was the listening regimen while recording The Black Belles?
Olivia: We listened to a lot of Os Mutantes and The Damned, but mainly we were completely immersed in the album and finding our own sound. We listened to our own tracks a lot.
On the subject of legends, what are some essential albums on your turntable?
Olivia: Black Monk Time by The Monks, and the B-52s debut album.
Tina: Trogglodynamite by The Troggs, Odessey and Oracle by the Zombies.
Shelby: Fire of Love by The Gun Club
Ruby: House Rockin by The Gories. Bo Diddly and Buddy Holly are also essential!
Olivia’s background cites formative years in Detroit, also home to the White Stripes. So what do you think is in the water in Detroit that give people a strange, spooky musical prowess?
Olivia: Detroit has a really open-minded music scene. It seems that cities that are downtrodden have a lot more angst, and this can come through in the music.
On your first tour this spring, what’s the pre-show ritual? Witchcraft?
Tina: We like to turn on The Cramps and have a dance party before we go on.
Olivia: Poof our hair, paint our lips, shake our hips, make some tips.
You’ve generated a cauldron-full of blog buzz and were named Vogue’s Band of the Week in November. Is the all-black wardrobe label-mandated or pulled from your personal closets?
Shelby: Our personal closets. I bought the dress I’m wearing at a garage sale for a dollar.
Ruby: We are all vintage fans, but also like the retro reproductions that are popular right now. American Gold hooked us up with some beautiful dresses and crazy bell bottoms that were inspired by vintage ’60s and ’70s styles. We love them!
What’s on the horizon after you kick off your heels and rest from the tour? Any more Colbert collaborations or the like in the future?
Olivia: We’re looking forward to touring and promoting the album. We want to head to the West Coast and Europe. No future plans with Colbert.
Tina: We’ve also got a new music video in the works.
Alright, your bios and TMR press seemed to have kept your back-stories under closely monitored enigma. Can you divulge a teeny bit of background story of the members in the band?
Ruby: We wrote our bios on the Black Belles Web site ourselves… [note: spooky excerpts below]
Shelby Lynne: “from sunny California. Unfortunately… expelled from public school for performing exorcism on fellow [unwilling] classmates.”
Ruby Rogers: “an atypical Mississippi belle…rumored to be a practitioner of witchcraft.”
Olivia Jean: “a creature native to Detroit, MI…a notorious creature that’s feared throughout the world and generally has a bad reputation of being very aggressive and highly venomous.”
Tina NoGood: “Grew up in Nashville, TN…inducted into the group during a candlelit midnight ceremony.”
Just out of curiosity, how much black eyeliner do you go through a month?
Shelby: We don’t use eyeliner, we just look like this.
Photography by Wallo Villacorta.