Via Bella is the first musical project of Ookla the Mok founder Rand Bellavia and his wife Erin. It contains the same nerdiness and rock as any Ookla album, but lyrically the songs tend to offer a more female perspective. That’s obvious just from looking at the song titles: “Fight Like a Girl”, “The Princess Who Saved Herself”, “She Persisted”, and “Do as Peggy Says” as a few examples.
I’ve been a fan of nerd rock superstars Ookla the Mok in the late nineties when my roommate (MY ROOMMATE, mind you, not me) used Napster to illegally download a few tracks from Super Secret. It opened up a whole new world for me. Beyond just the funny and novelty songs of the Dr. Demento Show, there were also nerdy songs out there about comic books and sci-fi shows!
I had the pleasure of meeting Rand at ConGlomeration in Louisville, Kentucky a few years ago, and he proved to be a super-friendly, all-around nice dude. So when this new album came out, I thought, “Hey, instead of just doing a review, I’ll do an interview!” I sent Rand a message, and sure enough, he and Erin agreed to do it. And it was such a good interview that I’m just going to give it to you more or less verbatim. Here you go!
Read the Interview:
Dieter: First, a little background. Who are Rand and Erin? How did they meet? How long have they been married? What is their relationship like? No need to get too personal. 😉
Rand: Hi, I’m Rand. Some members of the nerd community may know me as one of the founding members of the nerd rock band Ookla the Mok. We’ve been performing songs about Star Trek and superheroes since the early 90s. We wrote and performed the theme to Disney’s Fillmore, and Dr. Demento really likes us–we had songs on his compilation CDs in 1998 (“Stop Talking About Comic Books or I’ll Kill You“) and 2004 (“F. People“), and had the most requested song of the year on his show in both 2012 (“Tantric Yoda“) and 2013 (“Mwahaha“)! Word of the Nerd was kind enough to publish a very favorable review of our album Ookla the Mok vs. Evil.
Erin: Rand and I met in 2004 and have been married for ten years. I got my master’s in education at the same college where Rand works as a librarian, but we actually met online.
Rand: It’s true. For a year or so, we were on the same campus, but didn’t meet until after she graduated. Which is to say: Erin got her master’s degree without ever using the library!
Erin: That is a filthy lie. Anyway, Rand was nervous about taking me to a con, but I took to fandom pretty quickly.
Rand: That’s an understatement. She’s much more savvy with social media than I am, so she was “Rand’s girlfriend” for about three months. Then, all of a sudden we’d show up at a con, and I was “Erin’s boyfriend.”
Erin: I’m a huge fan of live music…
Rand: And, for those of you don’t know, there is a pretty thriving music scene at science fiction and comic book conventions. While the music scene at cons has grown beyond what is known as “filk,” we are proud members of the filk community. One of the core principles of filk is that everyone has a song to sing–that music (and art in general) is something that all humans should do; and that, given enough time and effort at a given artistic discipline, everyone can produce something of value.
Erin: When I was a kid–for reasons passing understanding–I was cut from my middle school show choir. It’s not like they were a competing or touring group, but apparently I wasn’t good enough for them. And I should add that I grew up in a *very* small town, so the competition was not fierce. Needless to say, that sent the clear message to twelve-year-old me that I couldn’t–and shouldn’t–sing. So for decades, I was content to sit and enjoy music, with no thought toward participating. But once I joined the filk community, my new friends started to ask if I could sing, or play an instrument, or write music or lyrics. I’ve been a writer most of my life–I made my living as a journalist for years, and I’ve sold fiction in national markets–so it didn’t take too long before I started to feel the desire to see what I could come up with.
Rand: About five years ago, I was invited to perform at a filk convention in Toronto, and it was made clear that they wanted to see Erin on the stage as well. So she took some voice lessons, and we threw together a short set of cover tunes, some Ookla songs, and a few parodies Erin had written.
Erin: That show was successful enough that we were invited to perform at cons in Atlanta and Columbus. These were longer concerts, with a bit more pressure. We started to write and perform original songs, and I even played the ukulele on a few songs.
Rand: Obviously, we’re one of those couples who enjoy spending time and working together. I certainly understand that not all couples would want to spend what little free time they have writing and recording an album together!
Dieter: Why this album? Where does it come from?
Rand: Honestly, the correct answer is “Why not?” Around the beginning of 2017, I got a call from Jeff Thomas, a musician out of Philadelphia who produced Ookla’s 2003 album Oh Okay LA. He pitched me an idea for a musical he wanted to write with me. We spoke a lot over the next few months, and put notes together for several possible musicals. At this same time, I was working on original songs with Erin. Jeff and I got together in April of 2017 to spend a weekend talking about the musical, and we ended up doing some rough demos for what became the Via Bella album, which he produced.
Erin: By this time, we had performed at four or five cons, adding some new songs at each show–and one of our songs had been nominated for a Pegasus Award!
Rand: The Pegasus Awards are like the Grammys of filk.
Erin: After every show, an increasing number of people were starting to ask when we were going to record our material.
Rand: So, all three of us agreed that we would only enter into this project if we could keep it fun. “Let’s not get too precious about this” became our mantra.
Erin: Our process was pretty straightforward. Most of the songs were ideas that I had, and I either supplied Rand with lyrics, line fragments, or lyrical notes–basically, letting him know what I’d like the song to be about.
Rand: Then I either set the lyrics to music, or–in the case of the less formed ideas–composed a piece of music and worked with Erin to craft lyrics around the existing melody. I recorded multi-track demos of all the songs and gave them to Erin (so she could learn her part) and Jeff (for production purposes).
Erin: For the most part, the songs were inspired by a combination of some novels, films, TV shows that are important to me and a reaction to the politics of the day. So, songs like “Do as Peggy Says”, “Orphan Black”, “Dear Seanan”, “Fighting the Black Thing”, and “Westworld” are about specific media (in order: Agent Carter from the MCU, the BBC show Orphan Black, Seanan McGuire’s October Daye novels, Madeleine L’Engle’s novel A Wrinkle in Time, and Season One of HBO’s Westworld series), while songs like “She Persisted” and “Nasty” came out of the last year or so of American politics. While we hope that none of this comes across as heavy-handed, the songs have a feminist slant, and were intended to be 21st-century protest songs.
Dieter: How is it different from/similar to Ookla records?
Rand: The thematic nature of the album is a pretty big similarity. Adam and I never really set out to write concept albums, and neither did Erin and I. I just find that when you write a bunch of songs in the same general period of time, whatever your concerns are at that moment in time are going to come forward. Then it’s just a matter of picking the songs that emphasize the themes you find.
Erin: The songs aren’t nearly as funny.
Rand: Yeah. Not that anyone could accuse these songs of lacking humor. I think the lyrics have the same level of wit and craft that Ookla fans have come to expect. We’re just not going for the joke as often as Ookla does. Also, I doubt Adam would have tolerated my exploration of disco (“Dear Seanan”) or funk (“The Face of God”). Another difference at the songwriting level is that a few of the songs (“Orphan Black” and “Westworld” being prime examples) are essentially three-chord musical loops that I layered until I was happy with the piece of music and then added the vocal melody and lyrics on top of the finished musical piece. This is a songwriting style that Ookla has never really experimented with, as we tend to craft vocal melodies first and go where that takes us.
Dieter: What are the biggest influences on this album? Both musical and nerdly?
Erin: See above for the list of media that influenced individual songs. Certainly, the filk community was a huge influence, on both my desire to push myself as a writer and singer, and also as an inspiration for specific lyrics.
Rand: Absolutely. We mentioned the filk community’s belief that everyone has a song to sing, and you can hear that idea echoed in songs like “Fighting the Black Thing” and “How to Grow a Soul”. Musically, I’m a huge powerpop fan, and I can totally hear the influence of Elvis Costello and XTC in these recordings. Going back to your previous question a bit, Adam is more of a metal fan than I am–I enjoy metal, I just don’t find myself listening to all that much in the last decade or so. Songs like “Fight Like a Girl” and “Do as Peggy Says” have a 70s powerpop feel, and I imagine they would both sound much heavier if this were an Ookla project. This album also gave me the opportunity to reference some of my favorite sounds/tones into songs, most notably the Mellotron (at the flute setting) that opens “Orphan Black”–see Strawberry Fields Forever–and filtering my guitar through a rotating Leslie speaker for the arpeggiated tone at the beginning of “Westworld”–a la every arpeggiated Jimmy Page/Led Zeppelin song ever.
Dieter: What was the most difficult thing about making this album? The most rewarding?
Erin: This was obviously my first time making an album, and I was really nervous. That said, I don’t think it could have gone much more smoothly. Rand and Jeff made everything so easy for me! A couple of things gave us a bit of a hard time at the lyric writing stage–and I was a bit nervous about having to sing some of the higher notes–but it all came together nicely in the end.
Rand: I should start by saying this was probably the least difficult album I’ve ever made. We kept it light and fun the whole time. That being said, the most difficult thing was probably having to adjust at a songwriting level to not having Adam to lean on. While Adam and I can both write music and lyrics, music comes easier for Adam, and lyrics come easier for me. So, over the years, we’ve come to rely on the other in those areas. When writing an Ookla song, I’ve gotten into the habit of getting the rhythm of the melody in place – what I call the “Lou Reed” version of the song – and then handing it over to Adam, who will clean up the chords and formalize the melody, making it much more musical. (And Adam will often hand songs off to me with notes like, “Rand writes clever and poignant lyric here.”) So there was definitely a point early on in the process of writing these songs when I would look around confused, like, “No… Adam?” But ultimately it was good for me to push through that, and I’m excited about what I will be able to bring to the table when Ookla starts writing again, both in terms of songwriting and production.
Dieter: Will there be live shows? Some of these songs played at Ookla shows?
Rand: I doubt you’ll see Ookla performing any of these songs, but Erin and I will definitely be playing out as Via Bella in the coming months. We hope to do a show or two with Jeff if we perform near him.
Erin: We just had our CD release show in Toronto, and we have three shows booked and are in the process of booking three others–in such disparate places at Rochester NY, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Jersey City, Buffalo, and Seattle! Details can be seen at www.ooklathemok.com.
Dieter: The album cover doesn’t really convey what the music is like, so what’s the story behind the cover?
Erin: The story is that we ran out of time!
Rand: I know this sounds strange, but I knew I wanted that color scheme for the album cover, but couldn’t come up with (or find) the right image. The album cover is a photo that I took of a sunset. We were on vacation at the Thousand Islands, and that was the view from the window of the house we rented. I had that photo as a placeholder and figured we’d come up with something better.
Erin: And we never did.
Rand: It’s not that I don’t like the image–it just seems a bit… I don’t know. Hokey? Cliché? That being said, I do like how the image of a sunset provides multiple meanings for the phrase “The Way of Beauty.” “Beautiful Way” is the best English translation of Bellavia. The Way of Beauty seemed like a better phrase, though. And I like that you can think of it in the most obvious meaning (“the path that leads toward beauty”) or as a more active phrase (as in, you have to get in “the way of beauty”) or the darker notion (intimated by the sunset) that all things end–that “the way of beauty” will ultimately lead toward death. I don’t mean that to be depressing. It’s just that we rarely stop to recognize that it is the fleeting nature of the sunset that forces us to recognize its beauty.
Erin: It also ties into the political elements with the Phil Ochs quote on the back cover, “In such ugly times the only true protest is beauty.”
Dieter: Who is Mike Mallory, and why is he someone you wanted on the album?
Rand: Mike is Ookla’s bass player. He provided the bass guitar for most of the album, and IMO is the musical star of the Via Bella. I’ve been collaborating with Mike since 1996, and have a hard time imagining doing a project without him. When recording for Ookla, Mike tends to add the bass at the very end of the process, filling in the gaps and contributing what are often the catchiest and most melodic parts of the songs. With Via Bella, I was able to get Mike copies of my demos, which changed everything. Mike would often submit a bass line that was so good that Jeff and I would strip away all the drums, guitar, and keyboards we had recorded and completely reconstruct the song around Mike’s bass. (The most obvious examples of this would be “Do as Peggy Says” and “Dear Seanan”.)
Erin: Mike also happens to be one of the kindest, most good-natured people you could ever hope to meet.
Dieter: Any other interesting stories about the creation of the record?
Rand: It might interest people to know that the version of “She Persisted” that is on the album is a live recording that I made open air (i.e., no microphones were used) to my iPhone. Jeff is on piano and I’m singing. We intended to do a proper recording of it with a similar arrangement, but were never in the same room with a grand piano after that day, and when we tried to record it traditionally (i.e., recording each track individually to a click track) we thought it lost too much–the power and appeal of the song is largely inherent in the slight fluctuations in tempo that can only be achieved when the singer and pianist are in the same room and can make eye contact as they perform. Jeff and I kept going back to this live recording and saying, “We can’t put that on the album, can we?” But then we cleaned it up as best we could, and were surprised to hear how good it sounded, relatively.
Listen to the Music:
Bonus! Via Bella gifted WotN with two demo tracks not on the CD just for our readers! Listen to this version of “Dear Seanan” with Rand on vocals instead of Erin:
Next, hear a live version of Via Bella performing “Storybook Love Story” at Marcon 2016: