Interview with vocalist David Bello | by Renaldo Matadeen
The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die make non-conformist music that transcends the realms of indie and emo. Their 2013 full-length debut, Whenever, If Ever, was relatively straightforward, but their switch from Topshelf Records to Epitaph Records for its 2015 follow-up, Harmlessness, saw them uncaged. Now, Epitaph will release the band’s third full-length, Always Foreign, on Sept. 29. The new record represents their darkest and most real perspectives on the current sociopolitical climate in America.
The result is clearly something the people of the world need to hear. Musically, it’s yet another splendid experimental work of art with a singular philosophy. The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die believe that love won’t tear us apart—it’ll stitch us together. That concept trumps everything.
Vocalist David Bello offers some deeper insight into the band, the new record, and life in the U.S. in 2017.
This record was created when Trump was announced as president, and it seems to have politically strong themes: anti-racism, anti-xenophobia, etc. What is the main gist of Always Foreign? As a writer from the Caribbean who is half Venezuelan, it really resonates with me.
I’m half Puerto Rican and half Lebanese, so hearing that you relate to it makes me feel good, that my kind of perspective has come through there in that way. It definitely came from fear in the face of ICE, [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement]. With white supremacists getting more power in the U.S. government, we wanted to make a really direct statement that people are people and inherently deserve geographic freedom.
In our older material, we talk about “home” and feeling “at home,” but a lot of us have been living in different cities and drifting around just trying to find an affordable place to live for most of our lives. On a lot of levels, nowhere feels “home,” and being a white-passing, mixed ethnicity person who grew up lower-class in rural West Virginia, I wrote a lot of lyrics for the record in response to my own feelings of deterritorialization that came along with seeing rich racists get their win in 2016.
These messages a definitely clear on a couple songs. How does it feel making such powerful statements on tracks like these—namely “Marine Tigers” and “Fuzz Minor”? You absolutely didn’t hold back…
On a personal level, it feels very satisfying to have been able to include the ideas in these songs on our record. We all share, broadly, the same political opinions for the most part, but my own history of dealing with white supremacy has been something I didn’t really know how to confront in music until the shock of the 2016 election. My dad recently finished writing a book about his life coming from Puerto Rico to New York City called “Marine Tigers”—it’s coming out Aug. 29—and that’s where I took that phrase for the song. That was the name of the boat that brought him and a lot of people to N.Y.C. around that time.
My mother’s family came from Lebanon and eventually settled in West Virginia. Since I’ve passed as white most of my life, I grew up hearing—and continue hearing—bigots saying the shit they say when they think only white people are around. It feels extremely liberating to take some of those words and yell them during “Fuzz Minor.”
Moving away from the political spectrum and getting into the musical aspect of Always Foreign, what differentiates this record from Harmlessness and Whenever, If Ever?
Whenever, If Ever wasn’t done at Silver Bullet Studios with our guitar player Chris [Teti] doing the engineering and everything, so at this point, it feels like an experiment with our process more than anything. That record also was started before I joined the band, and that lineup change was a big part of how the album came out.
For Harmlessness, I think we found our form for how we work on a full-length, where we hole up for a month at Silver Bullet and record with it being all of our primary focus for the whole time. We streamlined that for Always Foreign by having much more peaceful and efficient communication, where we were—with some minor exceptions—all 100 percent on the same page about the material and the process of getting it to its final state every step of the way: from tiny things like “Which guitar pedal should be on this part?” to major issues like “Which YouTube fail compilation channel should we watch tonight?”
Not to dwell, but how does it feel to put out this record after fans thought it may not happen due to the recent lineup shifts? Did you reach a point where calling it quits was an option?
Nothing is ever certain, but I knew from the minute we all got in the same room together to play music again after the lineup change that we would be continuing. We took a few months off after a particularly stressful tour, then were able to use mewithoutYou’s practice space for about a week, and we ended up writing the songs from the second half of Always Foreign all in a row. They fit together in order right away as we were writing them together. After a few days of being in the same room, we all felt so good and united that we set the goal of making it into a full-length, and it came very smoothly from there.
I think people who like our band assume they have some understanding of us that doesn’t truly exist. We do things very democratically and work together collectively for the best of the group. I imagine the band still somehow continuing on in some form after nuclear war when there’s nothing left on Earth but cockroaches and maybe a cement guitar or something.
“I’ll Make Everything” is so amazing and a perfect way to open the record. What’s it about?
That’s actually an older song that I wrote myself a long time ago, in a very different configuration. It was [vocalist and guitarist] Dylan [Balliett]’s idea to adapt it for the band, and we had done that before with another song, “Chest & Shirt,” from our split 7” with Rozwell Kid. Everyone agreed it fit well as an opener, instrumentally, and the lyrics—to me—serve as an introduction—making everything look like one way while it is another. It’s meant to be a superficial kind of disguise, and I feel like that ties into how pretty we can make the songs and sounds to pair with dark lyrical topics we get to on the record later on. There’s no intent for dishonesty, though; the lyrics to “I’ll Make Everything” are a way of admitting to the sugarcoating. Like a warning that there’s a protective layer over something gruesome.
Beautiful and warm music, but with dark lyrical content—similar to the acoustic vibe of “For Robin,” which seems to have a drug theme? Would you elaborate?
A lot of us come from places where opioid addiction has taken large swaths of the population, friends and strangers, families and communities. A lot of my friends have gone because of it in one way or another, and this song was our way of wishing that they could still see us—or we could see them. Experiencing grief is always more complicated than it ever seems, and that’s another part of how this song tries to communicate that grief, in a complicated way.
Songs like “Dillon and Her Son” and “The Future” are much more poppy and accessible, so what sound would you describe this record as having? It’s all over the place—with horns, synth, etc.—but in a really good way!
Thank you! I don’t know if I can describe it any better than that—that it’s all over the place. I really value differentiation and variety and surprise in the music I listen to and learn from. I rarely listen to music if it feels like it sounds homogeneous, and if you multiply that by there being so many people in our band who also love to listen to experimental audio, creative stuff, original music, etc., we would be structurally dishonest to pick any one form and stick with it entirely for any longer than a couple minutes.
Lastly, this album is more melodic and less aggressive—any reason why? With such high-octane topics, it’s surprisingly soothing instrumentally.
We typically don’t like a lot of music or art that really beats you over the head with an idea, and we felt like going for as much subtlety as possible was a good idea—or at least juxtaposing the very obvious, unavoidable statements with more ambiguous ones. The messages are so strong and we feel so strongly about them that we didn’t want to let our guts take hold 100 percent and make something unpalatable. Confronting super heavy topics like heroin, immigration, white supremacy, etc. is difficult to get right, and we wanted to do our best to push these ideas across without getting them lumped in with anything more generic or genre-specific.
Photo by Sherwin Lainez