Melkbelly, clockwise from upper left: James Wetzel, Bart Winters, Liam Winters, and Miranda Winters Credit: Lenny Gilmore

Melkbelly shouldn’t work so well. This Chicago four-piece yoke together musical elements that seem about as compatible as a soap bubble and a shotgun: on the one hand you’ve got simple pop structures and eerie, often delicate vocals, while on the other you’ve got feedback, noise, disjointed rhythms, and a drummer who lashes at his kit like the second coming of Lightning Bolt’s Brian Chippendale. Plus their lineup includes two brothers and a married couple—and as anybody who’s ever been in a band knows, those kinds of close relationships are vulnerable to upheavals. If this were a thought experiment and not an already thriving group, you’d scoff at it. Bury it in the basement from whence it came, you’d say. There’s no way it’s lasting longer than eight months and a split seven-inch.

A musical makeup as volatile as Melkbelly’s might doom a band of poseurs. And living together as well as playing together definitely presents its own special problems. Vocalist and guitarist Miranda Winters is married to guitarist Bart Winters, and Bart’s younger brother, Liam Winters, plays bass—only drummer James Wetzel isn’t related to anybody in the band. All four live within a half-mile radius in Pilsen, though, and they often travel in a pack. The relationships that preceded the band have produced camaraderie within it, not extra drama. It’s a family affair a la the Free Design—except Melkbelly sets fire to the sunshine pop of that late-60s group and throws it to the wolves.

This week Melkbelly drop Nothing Valley, their first album as well as the first release from Carpark subsidiary Wax Nine Records, run by Sadie Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz. After a string of dazzling EPs, it could be what finally gets them acknowledged as Chicago’s most exciting rock band—and at the very least it makes a damn good argument for more headlining sets at the Empty Bottle.

Melkbelly began modestly in fall 2013, when Bart and Miranda had the bright idea to combine Wetzel’s drumming with the songwriting the two of them were doing in minimal-pop duo Coffin Ships—the musical equivalent of forcing eggshells down a garbage disposal. “We wanted to start a loud band,” Wetzel says. “Miranda and I both jive on the Providence noise vibe.” (Miranda grew up in Providence, while Wetzel is from Kansas City and the Winters brothers hail from Beverly.) Wetzel says the Providence weirdo-rock scene—which in the mid-90s produced Lightning Bolt and Arab on Radar—played a big part in shaping him as a drummer. “With Melkbelly I’ve learned to dial it back and listen more,” he says. “Or I like to think I dial it back.”

At that point Wetzel’s most recent project was an abrasive, blown-out duo with percussionist Eric Ratzel called Ree-Yees, which he obscurely describes as “two drummers looking at each other.” He acknowledges that it took some resolve for him to adapt his flailing, reckless style to Melkbelly. “Playing in the context of a rock band with traditional instrumentation was different,” he says. “It’s still a learning process.”

Melkbelly, the Hecks, the Funs, DJ set by Meat Wave

Fri 10/13, 9 PM, Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia, sold out, 21+

Tera Melos, Speedy Ortiz, Melkbelly

Thu 10/26, 8 PM, Subterranean, 2011 W. North, $15, 17+

If you’d like to approximate the thought experiment I mentioned before, listen to Coffin Ships and Ree-Yees back to back, then try to imagine an algorithm whose input is those two bands and whose output wouldn’t sound like a wind chime in a hurricane. Melkbelly use their extraordinary chemistry to will into being a distinctive aesthetic that can hold together these unstable competing elements. You can hear the band’s style developing as far back as their first single, 2013’s catchy but weirdly structured “Hier Kommt der Krampus” (also called “A Case of the Krampus”), whose second half jogs in time with Miranda’s vocals and simple riff while Wetzel sprints around his drum set. The track is a prequel to Melkbelly’s catalog of pop hooks buried in bristling noise—before you even grasp that a melody exists, you’re bouncing along to it.

The members’ musical personalities differ, but they insist that what’s paramount in Melkbelly is their respect for one another’s tastes and resulting willingness to experiment with their own. Several of them maintain other projects—Miranda works in Grass (formerly Swampers) with Matt Engers, aka Sophagus, Ree-Yees and Coffin Ships are still sporadically active, and both Miranda and Wetzel play solo (the latter as Mode Hexe). But Melkbelly is always everyone’s center of gravity.

Bart, James, Miranda, and Liam. Ten bucks says a dog just walked into the room.
Bart, James, Miranda, and Liam. Ten bucks says a dog just walked into the room.Credit: Lenny Gilmore

“There’s less arguing musically than with shit like picking out artwork, or letting you interview us,” says Liam, and laughs. “In terms of writing songs, I think that’s when we’re at our most—”

Miranda finishes for him: “Harmonious.”

“Everyone is very opinionated,” Liam continues. “We have two masters of art here who are articulate and pretty capable of taking me and Bart down.” Miranda has a master’s in art education and Wetzel an MFA, both from SAIC.

Melkbelly learned much of their willingness to experiment and collaborate in Chicago’s DIY scene. In that subculture, it’s not unusual to brainstorm a new band in the time it takes to lug an amplifier up the stairs and out into the alley after a set. Even before the members of Melkbelly all got together, they were veterans of musty basements and unlicensed gallery spaces—they’d gotten in plenty of reps at a roll call of nonvenues.

“We’d play at places like Friendzone, where the ceiling is six feet tall and Bart and Liam’s heads are sideways,” Wetzel says. “But everyone is packed in and it’s the best show. The crowd becomes one mass unit.”

Miranda elaborates: “Socially and physically, the stages we’ve played on, like at Wally’s World—having just one square foot to stand in and sweating and getting hit by the cymbal . . . you’re in such close proximity to one another, it does something to you. Like in The Mighty Ducks when they all get tied together.”

Bart laughs, perplexed. “Exactly.”

After releasing the six-song Pennsylvania in 2014 via now-defunct local imprint Automatic Recordings, Melkbelly ramped up their schedule and settled into the grind of playing show after show after show, sometimes a couple per week. (Full disclosure: I’ve seen Melkbelly approximately 300 times.) Pennsylvania—which includes the whirring, hypnotic “Doomspringa,” one of the best singles by a Chicago rock band this century—made Melkbelly a hot underground commodity. It’s a strange, often heavy trip, given its rhythmic backbone by a drummer who’s part mutant, part metronome. Miranda’s vocals slide between spirited and supernatural, and the elastic guitar melodies she creates with Bart sometimes dissolve in seconds like a strip of celluloid film held over a lit match. Melkbelly rarely said no to the gig offers that started pouring in, opting to see playing lots of shows as a way to get better at playing shows—a separate set of skills from polishing your set in a rehearsal space.

“It’s kind of a cliche, but the kids at DIY shows really have no-bullshit attitudes,” Bart says. “A lot of them have their own labels, are trying to start their own labels, print their own posters, book their own shows. They can spot a phony band.”

Miranda explains some of the other reasons Melkbelly prefer to play for crowds on the DIY circuit. “They generate the ideas we need to continue as a band,” she says. “Plus it’s usually more of an underage crowd, so they’re not jaded yet. One time Jason Balla from Ne-Hi was like, ‘You guys sure do play a lot of local shows,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah!'”

Following Pennsylvania—and in part thanks to their packed show schedule—Melkbelly began to settle into their identity. Their songs became relatively well-rounded, relying less on noise and more on coherent verse-chorus structures. “We started to feel more comfortable with our sound,” says Wetzel. The two seven-inch EPs that the band released during this period, 2015’s “Bathroom at the Beach” b/w “Piss Wizard” and 2016’s “Mount Kool Kid” b/w “Elk Mountain,” represent the results of newly confident methods of experimentation. Miranda often brought in sketches of simple pop songs, and everyone would saw away at them, eventually nailing the pieces back together into something resembling an Alexander Calder mobile made from two-by-fours.

On “Elk Mountain,” Miranda’s sing-talking morphs into a hazy, layered vocal melody that’s then steamrollered by blown-out drum rolls. The song was “a moment for us,” she says. “I think we communicated in a similar way that we did with Nothing Valley.”

The story of the new album begins in August 2015, months before any of it was recorded, when Speedy Ortiz vocalist-guitarist Sadie Dupuis discovered Melkbelly online. She’s embarrassed to admit it, but she wasn’t looking for new bands—she was checking the Google Alerts she gets for mentions of her own group. “Someone compared them to us, and usually when that happens, I’m like, ‘Who is this band? I bet they are not good,'” she says, laughing. “I think it was BrooklynVegan that premiered ‘Bathroom at the Beach,’ and I thought it was amazing. They also don’t sound like us at all. But I ordered the seven-inch and wrote about them for the Talkhouse.”

Dupuis had been talking with her label at the time, Carpark Records, about starting her own imprint—something it had already done for Chaz Bundick of Toro y Moi (Company Records) and Animal Collective (Paw Tracks). “I only wanted to do it if it was for a band that I loved and felt passionately about,” she says.

To write her Talkhouse piece, Dupuis had e-mailed Miranda for the lyrics to “Bathroom at the Beach,” and they stayed in touch. Speedy Ortiz and Melkbelly occasionally shared a bill when the stars aligned, and in spring 2017 Miranda sent Dupuis early mixes from Nothing Valley. “I was immediately hounding Carpark again, like, ‘Let’s talk about that imprint,'” Dupuis says. She finally launched Wax Nine specifically to release Melkbelly.

Nothing Valley was recorded in early 2016 with Dave Vettraino at Public House Sound Recordings in Chicago. The band spread the sessions out over three or four months, recording two or three songs at a time and then taking a couple weeks off to “let our ears breathe a bit,” as Wetzel puts it. Vettraino was technically the engineer but also worked sort of like a producer, helping the band with the fraction of the album they wrote in the studio. Melkbelly reworked some of the song endings over and over again, perhaps trying to figure out how to wrap them up without the extravagant spontaneous jams they like to use as finales onstage. “With Pennsylvania the process was the opposite,” Miranda says. “We vomited that record out. It was done in three days.”

Where Pennsylvania captures Melkbelly learning the quirks of their own cacophonous sound, Nothing Valley shows them working its sweet spot. The album hardly does away with the usual screeds of guitar feedback and noise, or with the stretches where Wetzel works his drums like a speed bag, but overall it’s more cohesive—it harnesses the band’s idiosyncrasies instead of letting them steer. The five-plus-minute “R.O.R.O.B.,” one of the belts that drives the record’s engine, is a creeping slow burn, with Miranda’s ominous, seance-ready vocals leading the instrumentation right up to the edge of the cliff—and it stays focused and purposeful, even during its last two minutes when it falls off that cliff and shreds apart.

“Twin Lookin Motherfucker” and lead single “Kid Kreative” are simpler and more straightforward than “R.O.R.O.B.,” but they’re tense in their own ways, pulled taut by rapid single-string guitar picking, galloping rhythms, and Miranda’s often whirling vocal melodies. The strange anxiety she can summon with her singing gives much of Nothing Valley its foundational emotional color.

“The name springs from lyrics relating the geography of the United States with the awkward geography of the body,” Miranda explains. “‘Nothing Valley’ is both a physical and mental space.”

The album is also a testament to how far Melkbelly have come since their first show in 2013, when they performed as a Brian Eno cover band at long-lost Logan Square DIY venue Animal Kingdom. Now that Nothing Valley is out, the group will start touring to support it: ten days as a headliner this month, eight shows with the Breeders in November, and nine dates with Bully in February and March.

YouTube video

Melkbelly started out with just one objective—to be loud—but they’ve grown to understand who they are in a more thorough and thoughtful way. They commissioned the colorful art for Nothing Valley themselves, hiring Arts of Life painter Dave Krueger to make the cover with comic-book artist Ben Marcus. And though they use outside directors for their playful, irreverent music videos (for songs such as “Kid Kreative” and the thrumming “Middle Of”), many of the ideas come from the band.

Melkbelly’s response to a mishap during the sessions for Nothing Valley demonstrates just how sure of themselves they are now. The Public House studio is in a basement that gets chilly in the winter, and they’d set up a small army of space heaters while they worked. During the recording of “Cawthra,” they tripped a circuit breaker or blew a fuse, leaving them in the dark with the song chopped off short. They could’ve redone it, but in the end they decided not to—they put the incomplete take on the album, hard cut and all.

Dupuis figured her role as a label head would mean she’d have to work extensively with Melkbelly to get Nothing Valley ready for its close-up. She was mistaken. “I kind of thought I’d have to do more,” she says. “They have such a precise creative vision. They don’t see anything as a chore, which I think is so cool for a rock band.”  v