It’s late in the afternoon on April 20. About an hour ago, thousands of Vancouverites sparked up joints outside the city’s main art gallery, but the members of the Belle Game are clear-headed and sober. Sitting down for coffee and sparkling water at Jitters Cafe on West 4th Avenue, Adam Nanji, Andrea Lo, and Katrina Jones laugh when discussing their absence from the annual marijuana celebration.
“Our band is as close to straight edge as you can get without being straight edge,” keyboardist Jones says wryly. “We don’t call it straight edge. I just call it boring. We have two drinks and we’re exhausted.”
Frontwoman Lo chimes in, “I take fish-oil supplements every day.” She facetiously continues, “Sometimes I throw a little oregano oil into the mix.”
In lieu of indulging in rock ’n’ roll hedonism, the musicians have been focused on advancing their career. They recently returned from a pilgrimage to Texas for the South by Southwest festival and this month released their debut full-length, Ritual Tradition Habit, through Boompa Records. Most in the group—which also includes Alex Andrew on guitar and Rob Chursinoff on drums—work only part-time in order to focus on music.
“We all felt that, if we committed as much time as we could, it would expedite the process of finding out whether it [a career in music] is going to happen or not,” guitarist Nanji reflects. “We always say, if we’re going to half-ass it, we might as well start a cover band and have fun and make a bunch of money on the weekends.”
The Belle Game wasn’t always so goal-oriented. The group formed in 2009 when McGill University student Nanji returned home to Vancouver for the summer and linked up with some old friends; he launched a spinoff version of the group when he returned to Montreal in the fall. During this early period, the cross-Canada collective headed into the studio with local producers Dave Carswell and John Collins (otherwise known as JC/DC), but their lack of focus meant that the sessions floundered.
“It was super distracted,” Lo remembers. “At that time, Kat and Adam were still over in Montreal, and we were writing back and forth. We only had a small period of time to get together and work out a couple things. Many things were just done on the spot in the studio. It was really rushed and it was hard to put a lot of thought and care into it.”
They wrote an entire album’s worth of material but eventually decided to scrap the sessions and start from scratch after Carswell offered up some advice. Nanji says, “I remember sitting down with Dave for lunch because I was the only one in the studio that day, and he was like, ‘You don’t really like these songs. These songs aren’t very good. You should work on it more and do what you actually want to do in your brain.’ ”
The Belle Game set about doing just that after Nanji and Jones moved to Vancouver in 2011. While the outfit’s early EPs featured acoustic instrumentation and folk-oriented songwriting, the new material was darker and more atmospheric, with rootsy influences scaled back in favour of echoing guitars and textured ambience. These songs came together during an intensively collaborative period of writing and revision that was a far cry from the band’s hurried past attempts.
“We tried harder,” Jones says simply.
The new songs were recorded in a series of short sessions with producer John Raham, resulting in Ritual Tradition Habit. Equal parts catchy pop and nocturnal moodiness, these 12 tracks are steeped in reverb and cinematic drama. The climactically waltzing “River” acts as a vehicle for Lo’s soaring vocal angst, and there’s a hint of baroque lushness to the piano tinkles and string swells of “Bruises to Ash”.
“We wanted the album to feel melancholy, because we think it’s a pop album, but we all think that there’s something more powerful about sad pop music, and taking serious subjects and turning them into dance songs,” Nanji observes.
Jones agrees, offering, “As people, that’s where we channel our darkness, because we’re pretty positive, fun-lovin’ folks.” You can hear evidence of the musicians’ sunny personalities on the cloud-parting single “Wait Up for You”, which—despite its creepy, cult-themed music video—brims with beach-ready guitar licks, buoyant trumpet, and vintage soul-pop hooks, making it by far the brightest tune of the bunch.
With Ritual Tradition Habit on shelves and the Belle Game fully committed to making a living from music, the band is planning a string of festival dates in the summer to be followed by a cross-Canada tour in the fall. And despite the members’ businesslike approach to promotion, Nanji notes that they’re still in it for the right reasons.
“Deep down, we’re all kids watching MuchMusic that just want to be at the Junos,” he enthuses. “That little-kid mentality is still very much a part of us. It’s just fun right now. We take it very seriously, but it’s very fun to be in a band and get to play.”