Belly, Going Up

Back in 1991, Gail Greenwood was among the capacity audience that had packed a small club in Newport, Rhode Island, to see the much-hyped debut performance of a group called Belly. Much of the buzz about the Newport pop band was centered around frontwoman Tanya Donelly, who had left an almost decade-long career as lead guitarist with the Throwing Muses to start her own band. Donelly co-founded Belly with old Newport friends Tom and Chris Gorman -- Belly's guitarist and drummer, respectively -- brothers who were best known for their hard-core group Verbal Assault; Donelly had rounded out the band's original lineup by recruiting ex-Throwing Muse Fred Abong as its bassist.

A professional illustrator as well as a veteran "hobby musician" of the Rhode Island scene who was, at the time, lead guitarist for a local punk outfit, Greenwood fondly recalls Belly's first outing as "sloppy and tentative, but they had something there ... even me and my 'metal' sensibilities could appreciate what's going on in something that was a little more ... literary. Let's put it that way."

Warner Bros. was similarly impressed; the company was quick to sign Belly to its Sire/Reprise Records label; almost as quick was the departure of bassist Abong, who bowed out after Belly had finished recording their 1993 debut album Star. It was then -- at the club where Belly had debuted -- that Chris Gorman approached Greenwood about playing bass for the band. Gorman was acquainted with Greenwood through the small "punk rock/skate/surfing scene" in Rhode Island. Still, despite that connection, Greenwood had reservations about the offer. She was still interested in playing lead guitar, and had designs on starting an all-girl metal band. Nevertheless, Gorman gave her a pre-release tape of Star, which Greenwood listened to on her way home that evening.

"I fell in love with the tape," Greenwood says now, scrambling to find a few minutes on the road, where she and Belly have been touring in support of their latest release, King. "It attracted me because the guitars were really heavy. I thought maybe it might be too pop for me, and it might be too fey, too ethereal, too arty ... but it was really kickin' balls guitar. I fell in love with Tanya's voice, and I was like, 'Yikes, these kids have something here!' And at that point, I was like, 'Yeah, sure, I hope I pass that audition!'"

Greenwood passed all right, and after just a few days of practicing with the band, she and her new bandmates hit the road for an almost yearlong Star tour.

With its instant number one "Feed the Tree" and follow-up success "Gepetto," Star put Belly on the map, garnering the band both Grammy and MTV Music Award nominations in 1993 as well as doting coverage by critics. The debut album was essentially Donelly's show, a "catharsis" of sorts consisting of songs that she'd saved up; it established Belly's unique sound -- a blend of melodic pop coupled with abstract lyrics enshrouded by Donelly's dreamy vocals. The lyrics were so oblique, in fact, that many listeners missed the allusion to death in "Feed the Tree," believing the song instead to be about some warm, fuzzy feeling.

Coming up with the material for Belly's much-anticipated second album, this year's King, was more of a collaborative effort. "Tanya writes all the lyrics," explains Greenwood, "and if you'd bring in music, she would either incorporate it into something she's working on or write to it." She and Donelly co-wrote "Puberty" and "Super-Connected," the latter of which was performed recently on David Letterman's Late Show. Tom Gorman and Donelly co-wrote four of King's tracks, including "Red," a song with a beautiful transition from a waltzy pace to full-on pop tune done in sync with a lyrical story of a neglected boy who eventually gets taken away from his sad existence by aliens. Or at least that's what the song appears to be about.

Rather than the studio sound that marked Star -- a sound with liberal use of overdubbing and other technical embellishments -- King has more of a live sound, due mostly to the album's producer, a Brit named Glyn Johns who's worked with fellow countrymen such as, oh, the Rolling Stones, the Who and the Clash.

Greenwood describes recording King with Johns at Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas as "a great working experience. Occasionally, you'd catch a glare from him and knew that you'd fucked up, but there was a lot of mutual respect ... and he would impart little pearls of wisdom, too, which had such a historical significance like," Greenwood affects a snooty English accent, "'Well, Wymie would play it as if it were a feather!' Y'know, referring to Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones, how he would play a certain bass part. And you're like, 'Ohhh, Bill Wyyyman.' You realize some of the great people that he's worked with, you realize that this human being can give you a lot of insight on how to make records."

Though caught in the whirlwind of Belly's King tour -- a whirlwind that's included sleeping in their bus due to bad weather, missing appointments with journalists and generally making their publicists earn their pay -- Greenwood's pretty happy with her band's current level of success. "It's really cool to play every night, and that's really a luxury to be in a band that is actually able to do shows every night," she says, while also confessing that Belly's hectic schedule leaves them "hard pressed to find time to do laundry."

If fortune continues to be as good as it has been, that laundry situation shouldn't be a problem. They can simply have new clothes bought for them instead of washing their dirty ones; it's sure likely that Bill Wyman would.

Belly plays Friday, May 5 at Numbers. Polara opens. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $14. Call 526-6551 for info.

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Joe Hon