If you name an alt rock/indie act from the 90s that didn’t survive their initial run, that band is either now reunited, waiting for their classic album to turn 20 to then reunite, or all members are dead. (Or in the case of Nirvana / Blind Melon / Alice in Chains, the only member that mattered is dead). In fact when you look back the album titles from the 90s we should’ve known this would happen: Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can't We? (The Cranberries), In It For The Money (Supergrass) or in the very rare case, 100% Fun (Matthew Sweet). But even with all these reunions happening, it’s possible to still get excited when one occurs with a band that called it quits way ahead of their expiry date.
A fine example is Boston’s Belly, who existed for a scant five years before their amicable split. Just months after singer Tanya Donelly left Throwing Muses—the legendary college rock band she co-founded with her step-sister Kristin Hersh—she formed Belly. (At the time she was also still a member of The Breeders, which she also co-founded with the Pixies’ Kim Deal.) And yet, Belly were quick to establish themselves as a band that didn’t need to ride any associative coattails.
Their debut album, Star, arrived via 4AD in early 1993 and wasted no time finding an audience both at home in the US (two Grammy nominations, two MTV VMA noms, 800k copies sold, and a number one Modern Rock chart spot for single “Feed the Tree”), and overseas in the UK (gold certification, number two in album charts). During their brief time together, they opened for both U2 and R.E.M., and had Radiohead and Jewel open for them. When their second album, King, dropped two years later they graced the cover of Rolling Stone—back when a Rolling Stone cover was still the Holy Grail for your average, hard working indie band. Sadly lightning didn’t strike twice for Belly, and in less than a year later, they packed it in.
Belly may not have influenced a generation of new artists like other reunited acts of their era (My Bloody Valentine, Pavement, Hole), but they left behind an impressive, if slim body of work: two albums of sparklingly produced, guitar-driven, melodic rock that have held up over the last 20 years. They got out before they even had a chance to creatively falter. And so when they return for these reunion dates there will be no eye-rolling at songs that don’t deserve to make it into the set because Belly never wrote any.
We talked to Donelly about the band being confused for the Canadian rapper of the same name, appealing to the maternity market, and why it had to be “100% Fun” for the band to reform.
Noisey: As a Canadian, I feel like I need to apologize for the rapper Belly. Reading your website I see that has caused a lot of confusion.
Tanya Donelly-Fisher: [Laughs.] We are choosing to view it with humor at this point. It’s not a big deal. I think everyone will be clear on who’s who. The fact that we represent such different niches and genres, I think there will be very little crossover. And you know, to be fair, we were out of commission while he was coming up, so he has every right to use that name, especially as it applies to his actual name and not just some band name.
What’s funny is that he’s been releasing music for years up here in Canada, but only now, right as you guys are returning, is he breaking outside of the country. Some timing.
Well, that’s just entirely down to our luck.
Another thing about your name, is that when you Google “Belly band” the maternity accessory really dominates the search. You were a doula and a lactation consultant, so it almost seems fitting.
Yeah, that’s right! We were having a laugh about that at our first practice because we all noticed that. I don’t think the belly band is just for pregnant women either. People use it for cosmetic reasons as well. But the relief that they provide when you’re pregnant is amazing.
I thought that accessory might be an idea for some new merch?
Actually, we’ve also talked about that too.
So what made you decide to reunite after 20 years apart?
It was a series of small conversations and not one big one, but Gail and I had been doing shows here and there for years, and the guys have been talking independently of us too. So then we sort of had bigger conversations about it, and I had dinner with Chris and Tom in New York, and they had also had conversations with Gail. And I’ve said this before, but Chris had said, “It’s almost now or never, because there is going to come a time when it’s not going to be viable to do this.” Our kids are old enough, we all have jobs we can put on hold, and we only have finite amount of time, so it just felt like the right time to do it.
A lot of bands from the 1990s have reunited over the past few years. Did that play any part in the decision, to demonstrate that there is all of this demand for bands from your era?
Umm, I would say that was more of a deterrent than anything. Because if we’ve been hyper aware of anything, it’s been the fact that everybody has reunited. I will say that doing a tour with Throwing Muses a few years ago was just so fun, and it made me personally feel like that greased the engine and made me want to revisit the Belly songs.
Belly wasn’t around that long. Why did the band come to an end?
I’m not going to get into the personal stuff because it’s a) very boring and b) personal, but if I could go back and say there one was this one thing, it would be that excuse of exhaustion. We just worked and worked and worked, and from the very beginning we didn’t take much time off at all, which, you know, is who we are as people. We’re pretty blue collar in our approach to work, and I value that; it’s a huge part of our entire DNA. But it was 18-month tours and then right into the studio with songs we were still forming. It’s like we just burned out. We’re all extremely strong willed people, which is good for bonding where we are right now, but it can also be tricky.
I noticed you had Gail and Tom involved with your recent Swan Song Series project. Was that before or after the decision was made to reform Belly?
That was before. The act of writing with them again made me miss our dynamic. Some of my favorite songs that I’ve written were done with those people.
Is there one record you’re more proud of or think holds up over the other?
I actually don’t because they’re both so different—at least to me. Somebody else might not feel that way. To be honest with you I really like the comps. I like Sweet Ride, the Belly “best of,” which is hilarious because we only had two albums. It’s a compilation of the singles and B-sides, all of the stuff I’m really proud of from that band. It’s hard to choose an album of anything from my life because I put so many personal experiences into it. So when I think about the album it’s hard for me to step back and think about it without thinking about what was happening at the time.
So in rehearsals are you dividing the albums down the middle?
We’re opening for ourselves so we’re playing almost everything. We’re rehearsing a lot, like 30 songs. Some of those I’m guessing will fall by the way side, and some will change, but for the most part we’re trying to play everything, including new songs.
There is a reissue of Star on the way. I’m guessing that idea came after the reunion?
Yes, it was Beggars’ idea… Actually no, it was originally my booking agent Chris Colbourn, who’s in Buffalo Tom. That seed came from him, and he contacted Beggars about it, and then they contacted us.
Aside from the reissue, has there been any dialogue with 4AD about working with the label again?
I’m not sure. At the moment we’re sort of sitting on the new songs and working on them slowly. We want to road test some of them. The original idea was to record them remotely in pieces and cover them all together, but a few of the songs aren’t being well served that way. We don’t really know what we’re going to do with the new music. We’re not making any decisions about it until we have enough that we’re happy with to move forward with it. Ideally, though, that would be great.
And it’s no longer the album-driven industry it was back when Belly was originally around. For example, Lush, who just reunited and were also on 4AD in the 1990s, just self-released an EP.
Yeah, and I love EPs! The EP is probably my favorite format, actually. I like six songs. [Laughs]. It’s not an attention span thing as much as decision-making and the quality of the songs for me. Six strong songs is a great amount of music.
I’ve always felt the EP doesn’t get the respect it deserves.
I know. There was a time briefly when bands were putting out 10” records, and it wasn’t really an EP and it wasn’t really an album, it was like seven or eight songs. That was a great format. I really like it visually, the tactile side of it. I liked holding it and the size of it. Because I’ve always been focused on album art and inserts—I love that stuff. So you’ve got all of that without the filler tracks on an album.
Maybe that’s the answer then.
Yeah, I’d love to do that. 4AD and other labels used to do them a lot more, and not just as a special release. It was just part of the deal. Actually, my teenage daughter, who listens pretty much to vinyl only, just requested something to play cassettes on, so there’s also that.
What does your daughter think about mom’s old band getting back together?
Oh, she’s very excited about it. I wouldn’t say she’s a fan of all the bands that I’ve been in, but she’s a fan of 90s music. She has a pretty exhaustive range of music. It’s pretty timeless. Like, she and her friends don’t really separate things by decade the way a lot of people do. It’s more, “Do I like that? Or don’t I?”
Belly Tour Dates:
7/15 – The Garage, Glasgow
7/16 – Stylus, Leeds University Union
7/17 – The Ritz, Manchester
7/18 – The Waterfront, Norwich
7/19 – Rock City, Nottingham
7/20 – The Academy, Bristol
7/21 – The Forum, London
7/23 – The Academy, Dublin
8/9 – Royale Nightclub, Boston, MA
8/10 – Bowery Ballroom, New York, NY
8/11 – Bowery Ballroom, New York, NY
8/12 – Royale Nightclub, Boston, MA
8/13 – 9:30 CLUB, Washington DC
8/14 – Union Transfer, Philadelphia, PA
8/24 – Teragram Ballroom, Los Angeles, CA
8/25 – Teragram Ballroom, Los Angeles, CA
8/26 – Great American Music Hall, San Francisco, CA
8/27 – Revolution Hall, Portland, OR
8/28 – Neptune Theater, Seattle, WA
9/17 – Vic Theatre, Chicago, IL
9/18 – First Avenue, Minneapolis, MN