Winston-Salem’s True Believer Prepare Hail Bop
Shoegaze-y dream-pop trio make a lot of sound
Winston-Salem’s True Believer are set to release their first album-ish thing, a digital EP, this week. When I spoke to Alexis Siebert and Scott Brandenburg, two members of the trio, late last week, they still hadn’t settled on a name for the release. Don’t get the wrong idea, though. That doesn’t mean that they’re casual or off-the-cuff about their lush and hypnotic dream-pop project. The band members have a lot going on, both in and outside the music. (Siebert told me the next day that they’d decided on the title Hail Bop.)
Siebert and Brandenburg started making music as True Believer about three years ago.
They met through other musical projects and bonded over a love of ‘80s British art pop like Cocteau Twins and Kate Bush. Drummer Anthony Petrovic recently joined the band adding some non-mechanical force to the equation.
I spoke to them by phone following a busy Saturday-afternoon shift at Slappy’s Chicken, the well-loved hot-chicken restaurant that guitarist Brandenburg owns and runs, and where singer Siebert and Petrovic also work part time. Slappy’s opened last summer, and the restaurant serves as a sort of enabler for segments of the local music economy. Brandenburg says he settled on the somewhat unorthodox hours for Slappy’s based in part on out-of-the-way barbecue joints and other local restaurants that he remembers from growing up in Statesville, places that would perhaps inadvertently create demand by keeping customers uncertain about whether they’d be able to get dinner on any given evening. He liked the come-early-or-you’re-gonna-miss-it element. But, aside from any crafty business concept, the setup also aids in the creative pursuits on the part of staffers there.
“It helps our musician lifestyle more than anything,” says Brandenburg. “I’ve tried to give all of my musician friends jobs.”
The hours mean that the employees can start making and seeing music after the pots and pans are cleaned and the floors are mopped.
“It’s great because it closes at 8, so we can go be in shows or see shows,” says Siebert.
Putting together a True Believer show is a little more complicated than simply loading guitars and amps into the back of a car though. The band’s sound requires some technology. That’s part of the reason True Believer hasn’t played a show out of the area yet, though shows in other North Carolina cities are planned for April.
The music has a ton of layers to it, so they want to make sure it gets stacked together right. True Believer started as more of a recording project than as something to perform in real time in front of an audience. The band put extra work into replicating the material in the live setting, generating the same mesmerizing clouds of sound, complete with synthesizer backing tracks, reverby washes, and blankets of harmonized vocals.
I saw True Believer at a show at The Garage a month or two ago. There was a lot of sound coming off the stage. I poked my head around, trying to get a view of the sides and back of the stage, to make sure I wasn’t missing some hidden members of the band, maybe someone playing bass or synthesizer tucked behind a ride cymbal.
“It’s pretty immersive music,” says Brandenburg.
Live, Brandenburg, Siebert and Petrovic all play along with additional synth, bass and other processed parts cued up from a tablet. That can be a tricky maneuver, in terms of keeping the music metronomic without losing a breathing feel. The band brings their own PA system with them, to make sure that both the house sound is a proper forceful blend of all the component parts, but also to make sure that each of the players can hear what they need to in order to remain anchored in the pulse and flow of things.
Stereo chorus, piles of reverb, rippling delay effects, brooding melodic bass lines, sturdy drum beats, and trebly washes of guitar all create a dramatic and rich background for Siebert’s vocals, which move from understated and hushed, into big, climbing peaks. She can stomp on a pedal to double her voice in harmony at certain points. With the processing, and the rounded edges, Siebert’s singing can sound like the flute-like upper registers of a pipe organ at times, which adds to the solemn cathedral vibe that the music sometimes conjures.
I had never seen a live band that made me think of Cocteau Twins before. In part, that’s because that Scottish band’s sound is so otherworldly and strange, like the musical equivalent of amniotic fluid. It’s partly the vocal aesthetic, but it’s also the way of working with effects.
“Every time I’ve ever sat down with a guitar and used a delay pedal, this is the kind of stuff that comes out,” says Brandenburg. “I just find myself playing like that.”
Brandenburg, 42, might have reasonably come across some of this late-’80s music as a high school student, not long after it was initially released. But Siebert, 26, who grew up in Winston-Salem, says she listened to the Smiths, the Cure and Cocteau Twins alongside Beyonce and Taylor Swift in high school, though a lot of her peers thought it was lame to obsess over those retro Brit bands.
Post-punk sent musicians in multiple directions in the late-70s and ‘80s, toward angular textures, fractured rhythms, an overall darkness, with heavily processed sounds that undermined or undid the muscle of electric guitars. Bands like Cocteau Twins seemed more interested in being ethereal than in cultivating the ominous tone that came through with many male-fronted goth-leaning bands like Bauhaus and Sisters of Mercy.
As Brandenburg points out, a shoegaze revival has been underway for a while, but most bands apply a saturated and smeared guitar sound to that approach, almost always bringing to mind the warped and distended textures of My Bloody Valentine.
“We wanted to do a much more shiny pop version of that stuff,” says Brandenburg.
Evoking elements of Cocteau Twins, the Cure, and Siouxsie and the Banshees, True Believer sound lovely, hypnotic and dreamy, like a therapeutic sonic hot-tub soak accompanied by a minimal morphine drip. Something always twinkles in the soothing dim-lighting of the mix.
“Ragamuffin,” off the forthcoming digital EP, is built around a melodic bass-heavy line that walks down, then up, and then rises and falls back again, with Siebert’s vocal line climbing in a staggered fashion, creating a wispy counterpoint before coming to a kind of bright high point in the chorus.
True Believer seem to have admirably moved past any anxiety of influence by confidently pursuing the music that they have respect and a natural feeling for. Built into their mode is an understanding that over-engineering or predetermining a desired goal will only cast you in some other unanticipated direction, which might be cool, too.
“The harder you try to imitate something – I’ve found – the further away from the bull’s eye you’re going to end up,” says Brandenburg. “It always turns into its own thing.”
Wanna go? See True Believer at The Garage, with Bolomongoni featuring the Hard 8, and Mauve Angeles, Friday, March 31, at 9 p.m., 110 West 7th St., Winston-Salem, http://www.the-garage.ws.