Any musician will tell you that the road is a punishing place. It can break up bands, shatter people and destroy careers. Luckily, Vancouver’s The Belle Game, which will be making its triumphant return to the Vogue on Nov. 9, is having no such experience.
When I catch up with lead vocalist Andrea Lo, the five-piece and its touring members are cozied up with electro-dance act Bear Mountain somewhere on a highway between Detroit and Chicago with bass player Marcus Abramzik at the wheel.
They’ve opened for Gotye and Karkwa and done some forays into Western Canada. But this is The Belle Game’s first “big kid tour,” and Lo says they’ve been weathering the romp around Central Canada and into the U.S. distance just fine.
Of course, it helps that they spent two weeks of the tour holed up in the relative luxury of The Banff Centre, an internationally acclaimed artist residency nestled in the heart of the Rocky Mountains.
There, surrounded by fresh mountain air, with a vein of rose quartz under their feet opening their heart chakras, the band took part in a uniquely Canadian musical experiment: an indie music mentorship with faculty that included Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew and Do Make Say Think founding member Charles Spearin.
“Initially we’d just thought it would be a place to do some writing,” Lo says. “But when you put artists in an environment like Banff, which has a very special energy around it, it’s going to nurture whatever’s inside of us and bring it all out.”
Drew’s high-spirited presence was a particularly transformative influence.
“It was huge for us to learn to let go,” she says. “We’re usually very structured. We tend to talk and analyze quite a lot, as opposed to just playing music. Kevin would sometimes intervene and say, ‘You guys are talking too much! Just play!’”
The Game has come a long way in their two years together. Their first full-length album Ritual Tradition Habit has earned some kind words from the indie music gatekeepers at Exclaim! and Pitchfork. Lo’s impressive, almost bluesy, vocals whisper and wail over a solid underpinning of dark, layered guitars.
Kheaven Lewandowski’s video for the album’s second single, River, renders the song’s simple, pleading chorus, “Take a little more/take a little more from me” into the heart-rending story of a Japanese rent boy, following him from the brutal spiral of megacity nightlife to new hope in the countryside.
But they learned in Banff that it takes more than buzz to keep an act together through the turmoil of the creative process. “Sometimes when you work so closely with these people, and they’re like your family, you bring up an idea and people will just shrug it off,” Lo explains. “You introduce an authority figure that everyone respects and admires, and it contains everything.”
“Kevin Drew played our dad,” she jokes. “He told us to stop bickering and trying to strangle a song.”
To keep the Canadian indie rock love family alive, Drew even jumped onstage during their performance at the Drake in Toronto to help play one of the three as yet untitled tracks they wrote under his tutelage.
Aside from mentorship, Banff gave the band a chance to work closely with musicians and artists across genres. One night, a few members might improvise behind a poetry reading. Another, they’d find themselves on stage with one of the three other acts from across Canada doing the residency.
During a classical performance, Lo joined British pianist Lara Dodds-Eden and Montreal-Irani dulcimer player Sina Bathaie on an unplugged rendition of River that took the singer completely out of her comfort zone.
“I’m so used to singing behind a cloak of reverb and delay and having a whole band blasting from behind me,” she says. “It was quite intimidating but really awesome to push through that and do a stripped-down performance with those two.”
Lo sees nothing strange about indie music taking its place among the higher art forms at a place like Banff.
“It’s all something creative that’s fuelled by emotion and, whether it’s on a conscious or sub-conscious level,” she says, “I think that’s something all artists resonate with, regardless of their medium, whether it’s photography or sculpture, classical composition or a rock band.”
After all this personal growth and transformation, Lo says The Belle Game can’t wait to get back to Vancouver and perform for a hometown crowd.
“We’ll probably be entirely different people by the time we get back there,” she says. Then she recants. “Just joking. … Let’s just say, our minds have been diversified.”