NAME: The Van Allen Belt
LOCATION: Pittsburgh, PA
MAIN GENRE: Pop
TRAINING: University of Pittsburgh Jazz Ensemble, Civic Light Opera, Pittsburgh Opera Theater, Pittsburgh Filmmakers, Carnegie Mellon University School of Music, Professional Film Production
BIO: The Van Allen Belt began recording mainly as a Pittsburgh trio in 2007 making skewed psychedelic 60s pop songs with a lavish lo-fi debut album entitled Meal Ticket To Purgatory. The album was greeted with high acclaim and led to a tour with the fiercely independent London based group Sterolab and Bradford Cox’ solo project Atlas Sound.
Unable to find a label who would take on further endeavors, The Van Allen Belt decided to self release their sophomore album Superpowerfragilis: Or How I Learned To Stop Caring And Love The Drug as well as the simultaneously released EP Vancouver And All The Reasons Why. The album’s “soaringly epiphanic and euphoric post-everything meditations on 21st century America succeed mostly by deploying umpteen orchestral themes sampled from the country’s glorious postwar Golden Age” (Julian Cope).
Superpowerfragilis took the group’s production to a new level of refinement, focusing on clarity of expression while maintaining the psychedelic experimantalish elements of the group’s debut. Vancouver, on the other hand, includes live and improvised versions of previously recorded songs as well as some truly standout originals as per the classic style of EP.
As of 2011, The Van Allen Belt consists of 4 members. The songwriter and producer Benjamin K. Ferris continues these roles with the group and plays keyboard in live performances, controlling the harmonic vocals of the illustrious Tamar Kamin whose abilities take influence from a long and diverse education in many music styles. Atop the angelic backdrop of both effected and originally recorded vocals, she uses her expansive range to improvise quotes, trills, into the satiating lyrical runs creating a bombastic lead vocal.
Together with bassist Tom Altes, the framework of The Van Allen Belt is holds a delicate balance. Bass lines are quite atypical and often dwell in higher registers so that between the “bass” and vocals is a melodic web unique to each live performance. The mix of electronic music is a climactic and swelling backdrop for lyrics that can affect quite an opposite experience. Some songs are unabashedly political in nature and take on darker and more introspective opinions.
The critical nature of the subject matter is marketed in the cocoon of sonic brilliance executed and embellished by sound designer Scott Taylor who precisely controls a wide array of instrumental effects as well as the sonic presence and identity of the live performance. Throughout the experience are the miniscule hidden gems of pun and whimsy that secretly pop in and out of the climactic yet prosaic sonic experience like a ninja.
LATEST WORKS: Superpower fragilis: Or How I Learned To Stop Caring And Love The Drug, Vancouver And All The Reasons Why (EP), Music Video “Lovely In Akron”
Please describe your artistic themes
We try to create sounds and imagery that are striking to viewers using dramatic and climactic styles. In order to exploit some of our more risqué themes, we try to comfort audiences using a very deliberate selection of quotes reminiscent from past styles and in doing this we attempt to challenge listeners to dissect the tableau and hopefully relate to some of the content or at least have an opinion about it. There is a fine balance between stacking layers of instruments and sound effects while giving space in which to deliver something that sounds spectacular and we think that our method is an allegory for advice on how to work successfully and respectfully within all the social situations of which we are familiar. We take many influences from current affairs, art, music, film, literature, science, technology, and all general “arts” categories.
Please describe your creative process
Ben Ferris is the songwriter and producer for The Van Allen Belt and while much of the magic of the final musical product is his responsibility, we feel that as a team we are all equally important to what we make and how we make it. Improvisation is a huge part of the recording process. We record music in a similar fashion to the way photos are taken: several takes recorded in many different ways that are later sorted through in production and picked through for qualities that fit best within the arrangement and stand out in quality. Sometimes themes are developed in this process and songs are re-recorded in entirely different ways as is evident on our EP. We feel that many majestic artworks and songs have been forgotten to today’s society that cowers to commonality within genres and quantity over quality and we try to oppose this in an intellectual and provocative way. We are happy to stand out in quality and we enjoy making musical and visual references to what we love and have been inspired by. It’s an educational approach
What are your artistic goals?
We would like our style to reach a wider audience and hopefully to gain more clout and recognition with those who groove our style and with styles we appreciate as well. Community is a huge part of being an artist and should be a goal for all of those within it. We would like the ability to have a live performance with more supporting members and creative freedom. We have many ideas in place and we are working on acquiring the resources necessary to turn our live performance into a visually stunning experience
What are your views on the industry?
The Van Allen Belt by default have taken entrepreneurial approach to the industry and continue to grow through our contacts with other artists, organizations, and industry professionals as well as, most importantly, fans, viewers and audiences. Many indie labels began with this in mind and developed their own companies, some successful, some not, but being a musician is not only about being discovered by someone who will make all of your dreams come true. This scenario is highly unlikely and certainly has its restrictions and downfalls associated.
From the popularized opinion of reality television, it seems like insincere encouragement to tell people that they have a chance to make careers out of their talent alone, not top mention how blatantly exploitative it really is to the artist. The concept of “talent” is really just senseless flattery and is not a basket in which to keep all of one’s eggs. Hard work is the only thing that pays off in any profession and this is also true in the entertainment industry. The work is often degrading, uncomfortable, unappreciated and those with the least experience will make the most mistakes. If they start at the top of the food chain (i.e. major labels) they get hit the hardest by the Corporate Powerball. This industry moves very quickly and tries to play catch-up with its more creative, less publicized neighbors. They schlep artists through an antiquated and creatively stagnant rigmarole in order to maximize their capital.
Hearing this should not make the self promoting artist angry or discouraged however, on the contrary, it should help those with less experience to set goals for themselves and to keep changing them in order to maximize their own successes. Every artist follows a different path and there are so many different industries within “The Industry” that I doubt if anyone today could possibly say they had the same experience as someone else. It’s an ongoing process and encouragement is never guaranteed. Negativity, and passive aggressive attitudes are really the artist’s greatest enemies, not the record labels that took more than one lifetime to develop.
What advice would you give to emerging artists?
All artists are simply artists and should work as hard as they can. A true artist rejects money, comfort, and settlement and thus, every one of them has a story involving suffering in some way. Educate yourselves on whatever you can find off or on the beaten path. I won’t downplay formal education here but everyone should know that it is definitely not enough on it’s own unless you have a ton of money or are the most popular kid in the class. Often inspiration will come from the unlikeliest of places.
Keep a positive attitude! There are many geniuses out there with an amazing amount of talent and creativity that will make works of prestigious caliber and be happy surrounded with their own creations, thinking what could’ve been. This is selfish pursuit and this attitude belongs to a hobbyist, not an artist because it lacks drive. An artist will never reach a level of personal success without including the art and its development in life’s equation and this requires experience in the outside world dealing with what it takes to move forward, grow, and change.