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Interview with Meredith McHugh & Christian Best of


Published 2023

Smoke Bellow band

One of many the benefits of the neighborhood record store — that regularly hosts live music, I should add — is that the cost-benefit ratio is pretty darn good. The cost is walking a few blocks. The benefit is the chance to hear great music. Such was the case this spring when, on a whim, I stopped by Tone Deaf Records in Portage Park on a Saturday afternoon and saw sets by Smoke Bellow and Sun Watchers.

Both bands are on Chicago’s Trouble in Mind label which has such a stellar track record that attendance was a no-brainer. Inspired by the show, I locked in on Smoke Bellow's most recent album Open for Business — a 9-song joyride of infectious rhythms, sparkling melodies, and pop-friendly phrasing. It's a definite mood enhancer.

Not long after, I reached out to founders Meredith McHugh and Christian Best for an interview and just happened to catch them as they were working on their new album. —Chris Auman

REGLAR WIGLAR: Meredith and Christian, you are originally from Australia, what prompted your move to the U.S., and what brought you to Baltimore specifically?

CHRISTIAN BEST: Meredith got a job! I had no idea where Baltimore was, in fact, I for some reason thought it was on the West Coast. It was all quite a shock honestly. People just come up and talk to you on the street! That made me uncomfortable haha. It led to much personal growth and eventual shedding of some somewhat repressed cultural limitations. I truly can't imagine ever going back.

MEREDITH McHUGH: Yes I got a job (a postdoctoral fellowship) at the National Institute on Drug Abuse. I was applying for jobs all over the world at that point and honestly willing to go anywhere. It certainly was a cultural shift for me as well. Primarily in incredibly positive ways. The people and community here are truly magical.

RW: In what ways has Baltimore influenced your music?

CB: In a multitude of ways! It's impossible to imagine this band without Baltimore. It has shaped our influences, our overall approach to writing and aesthetics, our politics, it has brought us so many collaborators! While there is not, as far as I can see, a cohesive "sound" here, there is a culture of support and collaboration in the arts community. It is a scene that encourages experimentation.

MM: The support and community here are key. The culture of experimentation means that audiences are incredibly supportive and love to be challenged. People want to hear and see new and exciting music/art. This opens you up and challenges you as a musician because you don't feel tied to a particular sound, which is incredibly freeing. There are also so many wonderful and inspiring musicians and artists in this town and it all intersects in a beautiful and rich way.

RW: What surprised you most about living in the U.S.?

CB: So many things! The crumbling infrastructure! The food deserts! Portion sizes! Free poured liquor! Bottled water everywhere! But also the absolutely incredible people. In general, people in the arts here are so generous and supportive. There are so many great, great bands and I absolutely love that you can tour between cities here (something nearly impossible in Australia).

MM: I concur with all of the above. Also driving across the country on tour, the varied landscapes and cities/towns that you travel through are truly remarkable. That's something maybe I knew but also didn't know — actually experiencing it is something else.

The thing that surprised me as well is how much I love it here. That largely has to do with the people as Christian stated. But also it has something to do with a country that is grappling so evidently with end-game Capitalism. Which is bleak as hell, but from that emerges an awareness within the broader social psyche of how capitalism and systems that uphold and perpetuate it are truly the root of all the suffering that surrounds us. From that then emerges a true resistance and struggle to dismantle this — something that I personally need to be connected to and immersed within.

Smoke Bellow - Open for Business

RW: You are the core members of Smoke Bellow and have been since you formed in 2012. How did you two meet and were you always a duo before your move to the States?

CB: The story of our meeting is a long romantic and somewhat troubling story that I'll spare you, but the short answer is via music. We were both in separate bands when we met. When we moved to Baltimore together, we had no friends so we started making music together as a way of meeting people. It worked! We started out playing percussion with our feet. It was clunky but fun.

MM: Yes, that is basically it. We met just before I moved to Baltimore. Christian decided he wanted to come too! So we really were getting to know each other and Baltimore at the same time. Making music together made sense and worked immediately. We had somewhat different musical backgrounds and influences when we first started writing together which I think is a part of why it worked!

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RW: What is your songwriting process like — do you write together or do you each bring ideas to the other person?

TC: Our approach has changed over the years, we used to write together more, these days we give each other some space to be creative then bounce ideas off each other. Other times we will come up with something together. Most songs start as a bass line or a keyboard part and we will build it like a jigsaw puzzle from there. I have never been a great "musician" but I have always been obsessed with the character of sounds and musical aesthetics. I also love to arrange songs, and feel most confident doing this. Meredith is good at all of these things too, but also happens to be an excellent musician!

MM: Christian is obviously an excellent musician (don't let him fool you!). We both love to write hooky baselines and arrange together. I think a part of what works for us is that I tend to write a lot of the guitar/vocal/synth melodies and Christian is amazing at sound production elements and his guitar parts are always a perfect counterpoint to mine.

RW: This may be a chicken or egg-type question, but do you listen to certain types of music to get new ideas, or do the ideas come as a result of listening to new records?

CB: I obsessively listen to all kinds of music to get inspired. Lately, that's generally been a lot of post-punk and modern minimalist composers, but we also return to a bunch of foundational things every time we enter the writing process. This includes David Byrne/Robert Wilson's The Knee Plays, Tony Conrad, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Henry Flynt, Yoko Ono, Suburban Lawns, Stereolab, Au Pairs, Pylon, Peter Gordon and the Love of Life Orchestra and so many more.

MM: I generally let Chrsitian do the work of finding new music for us to be inspired by because he is constantly finding and sharing things with me. It is wonderful! We are always excitedly listening to and talking about music together. For me, the process of writing music is implicitly tied to what you are immersed in at the time and feeling inspired and challenged by this.

Smoke Bellow

RW: What was your recent mini-tour with the Sunwatchers like? Was this your first time in the Midwest? Any lasting impressions from the tour?

CB: We love Sunwatchers so much. They are our favorite band, and we absolutely love spending time with them. Incredible, inspiring people. We had such a blast on this tour! I love the Midwest. Lovely, warm people with great music taste! Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis are some of my favorite American cities. This was the second time we toured through the Midwest, there was meant to be more but the pandemic forced us to cancel. It was so lovely to get back there!

MM: Yes we established a deep and immediate band love affair with Sunwatchers. They are incredible, beautiful people and an extraordinary band. We feel like their little sisters a lot of the time because we are so in awe of how talented they are. I also love touring the Midwest! We had such a wonderful time and also got to finally hang out with Bill and Lisa from Trouble In Mind (our label family), as well as label mates En Attendant Ana, which was magical.

RW: Your last record Open for Business was released in 2021. Was it written and recorded during the COVID shutdown and if so, what was that process like?

CB: Open for Business was written almost entirely during COVID, which weirdly for us was a really productive time! I was in the middle of nursing school which was intense and a little scary, to say the least. It was weird seeing the world become obsessed with sourdough and Zoom parties while we were both so incredibly busy, but overall it was an interesting and rewarding time to focus on our art, as catharsis.

MM: Yes I was working as a therapist via Zoom during this period. Demand for therapists was (and remains) immense during this time. So I was incredibly busy but also suffering from the physical isolation like everyone else. Music was a huge release and respite from this. We also spent 10 days in a cabin in the Appalachians recording a lot of it. This was a really special time and felt amazing after that first year of being trapped in our houses.

RW: The songs on Open for Business feature a lot of African rhythms but also a lot of pop elements. I’m wondering what your most unabashedly pop influences are.

CB: I'm not sure what qualifies as unabashed but this band seems to listen to Simon and Garfunkel quite a bit, weirdly. Jen and I also discovered a mutual love for Ludacris on this last tour.

MM: We also love Wings but I would say maybe what is being heard as pop influences is the joyful melodic elements that we love about most post-punk like Young Marble Giants and The Raincoats as well as bands like the Talking Heads and Yo La Tengo.

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RW: You’ve been in the studio recently. What are you working on and is it a continuation of your sound as represented by Open for Business or is it something else entirely? Is there an estimated release date yet?

CB: We are working on LP4! It's hard to have any perspective on the sound and how that fits with other releases, but it seems new in the sense that on past records we would completely dismantle the idea of this band then rebuild it from scratch. This time around we allowed ourselves to continue on where Open for Business left off. Things were working so incredibly well with Jen (who drums). We wanted to continue on in a linear way. It's definitely a little less minimal, and to me, it sounds like a mix of all three records that came before it. Date-wise, we aren't sure! Early 2024 I would guess.

MM: Centering the drums and rhythm is certainly present for both Open for Business and this new record. Jen is an incredible drummer but also an amazing singer and musician generally so it has been wonderful working on this new record with her. There are songs that sound completely new, some that sound sonically connected to Open for Business (with the clear nods to our love of post-punk and minimalist composition). There is also a richer/krauty element that harkens back to our older releases. We are all pretty excited about the new record and are in the mixing stages right now!  

Smoke Bellow releases:

Open for Business (Trouble in Mind) 2021

Isolation 3000 (Ehse) 2018

Blooming/Middling (20/20 Records & Tapes) 2014

Old Haunts (self-released) 2012

Smoke Bellow - Old Haunts Smoke Bellow - Isolation 3000 Smoke Bellow - Blooming/Middling


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