Bellevue Cadillac Interview with Doug Bell, Founder of the Bellevue Cadillac
Bellevue Cadillac is one of the leading bands of the retro-swing movement. The band was previously nominated for seven Grammy nominations in addition to being nominated for the upcoming Grammy's. Their music has appeared in numerous shows such as The Sopranos and Brotherhood. I was extraordinarily lucky to recently have an opportunity to interview for the Dieselpunks Forum the legendary Doug Bell who founded Bellevue Cadillac.
Doug, in many ways you are Bellevue Cadillac. Could you give our readers a little bit about how you started the band and some of its history?
Bellevue Cadillac was formed in 1991 with a bunch of original songs I had written during a huge personal bankruptcy. It was a way for me to comment on the process using musical echoes from all the musical tapestry I had listened to since I was a kid. It was a way for me to look at the world and ask open ended questions about us as a culture using musical styles from new Orleans to Harlem, Philly to Motown, California surf, Chicago, Kansas city, but putting a modern spin on the content and lyrics, characters and stories. I remember hearing the music behind the cartoons as a child and loving the energy and “swing” of it, watching the characters of animals turning into caricatures of famous movie stars, the song “black and white” turns that experience into racial parallels, using Louis Jordan, Basie and the Duke, etc and the fact that many bands were bi/racial pre civil rights and used black and white as a metaphor where music knows no color…….. as one example.
Are there any interesting stories that you could tell from the road that you think your fans might enjoy?
When we did our shanghai china tour, the promoter of the venue said please understand, that the people in china grew up under Mao, and don’t know fun or how to respond to the music, so don’t take it personally when they don’t clap, or laugh, or respond to your music. It’s not your fault and it is the way it is, so we did our show and after the last song they stood up and clapped and yelled for almost 20 minutes, we came out and did 3 encores, MUSIC IS TRANSFORMATIVE.
Another time we were booked at some completely punk club in Worcester Mass. It was all black, and co-ed rest rooms and we knew it was a mistake we hit the stage and all these punks with neon Mohawks and piercings just stood there wondering just what in hell these old dudes in suits were doing on stage so they just stood against the walls staring for about half of the first song...... Then they shot out on the dance floor and started slam dancing what a ball we had that night, again music knows NO boundaries, thank god
Your reputation is well known as being one of the great bands in the retro-swing revival. Are there specific bands from the Big Band era that most inspire you?
I really like the pre rock & roll period of the late 40s, I also like the fashion from the 30s and 40s, it had a grown up elegance then, there was a wonderful transition from deco of the late 20s in design to the mobile generations that followed. The bands were huge and had complicated (elegant) arrangements, but I responded to the Gene Krupa, 50s Basie stuff when he switched from Jo Jones to Sonny Payne and the drums just popped, as a kid that “wild” beat, pre backbeat, hooked me, then the back beat came in, the Louis Jordan, Prima, et al, Cleanhead, Amos Milburn, the stuff jumped because back beat entered the equation, also the lyrics of Jordan really caught my imagination, it was way hipper than stuff like” I got a gal from Kalamazoo”, Slim Galliard too, with his Caribe/ Greenwich village (north beach) vibe and the hipster lyrics, under currents of other meanings, like being in the secret in crowd cause “you” knew what they were talking about, I like some of the jive period, Callaway in the Harlem period, Armstrong in the hot 7 and prima all were very cool extensions coming from New Orleans, Kansas city jazz and putting some “pop” into the rhythm sections. Then came Chuck Berry story teller to the teenager. I loved Basie when he started to play Hammond b3……..
Bill Haley’s band is WAY better than the songwriting would suggest, they were killer……..
Of all of the albums you’ve released over the years is there one that you would point to as being most pleased with?
Personally, I still like “Love Allways”, I tried to look at a subject the way Picasso would have had he chosen to be a songwriter, would he have looked at multi-dimensions in 2 as he did in art. So I took the subject of love and did 13 takes on it from unrequited, to familial, twisted love, to love of power, of the game, letting love in, driving love out, love of country, etc……..then the bonus track wraps it all up in some over analysis of the subject which is why the character couldn’t simply let it happen………the band was playing great, pushing the envelope, and we moved from track to track, style to style, city to city, decade to decade without losing context, modern anachronism? I like “Prozac Nation” too, if you look closely at the artwork with the Chrysler building and empire state bldg under attack by biplanes, and us flying over the world trade center, the monkey (me) is sitting on top of a giant syringe, and it reflects the song “Call of the Wild”, the lead track, which sounds like a precursor to the attack, “in the city, asphalt jungle, Walter Mitty’s grey flannel, wood paneled walls of the modern monkey man, hear the “chatter”, everyday, doesn’t matter, what they say, listen to the voice in you and take me by the hand” last verse is “we’re so busy, never seem to stop, getting dizzy climbin’ to the top to shake the money tree for chimpanzees fighting over peanuts in the promised land.” Pretty freakin’ creepy since it was written in ’98, and adding to the fact we played at world trade center windows on the world every couple of months………there are some songs on that CD that were dark with a light heart, like “Prozac”, it has “in the mood” running through the top horn melodies to accent the lines like, “put a bar in your car and drive yourself to drink, just 12 steps away from a AAA rated shrink” it was about my fathers suicide, and electroshock therapy, and maybe if they had Prozac then, who knows, but why would anyone want to think about a personal tragedy, so instead I wanted to make it funny and appealing, while exploring the darker elements to depression. The Bellevue caddy is the ambulance or hearse that takes you to hospital after all.
So “Prozac Nation” was pretty special as it was made in a time when lots of people were wondering what kind of music this is, and the gap commercial gave us all huge exposure with the Louis Prima tune and those kids retro swing dancing, and gave bands like Bellevue Cadillac, Royal Crown, Big Bad Voodoo Daddies the chance so many talented bands just never ever get. I’m very thankful for that, and that my songwriting resonated with so many people, just so, so lucky!
I understanding there’s a story concerning Bellevue Cadillac and the JFK Wedding? Would you share that with our readers?
This story put Bellevue Cadillac on the map, quite by accident, playing a show at the hot tin roof in Martha’s Vineyard we were approached by someone we knew about a “gig of a lifetime” “career making show” etc, we never knew who it was for only that it would be “huge”, I said at the time, uh…….I think we are already booked for a wedding that day, and they said, “get out of it” you don’t understand, this will be career defining, so we stayed at Carly Simon’s band house, and a small hurricane came and left us to talk about this and how the band would make this decision, as once made, that’s it, you have to continue down that road. After trying to negotiate the date with another band, (bigger than us at the time) we would pay for roomful of blues to play that wedding and a guaranty for Bellevue to play a show for them or a charity at a future date, they still declined, saying: Bellevue Cadillac band is an original band correct? To which I responded, yes…….” So in order to hear Bellevue Cadillac music which we love, no one else can do that right? Well, ….I’m screwed………..the money kept getting better with each offer from the unnamed party, but we took the original wedding. In the eleventh hour we tried to private jet the lead singer to the island for a gospel rendition of a song for the couple, but Senator Kennedy had blocked all airspace over the private island……no dice!! Post script: we have remained friends with the people on Cumberland Island, and visit and play there usually twice a year, Memorial Day and Thanksgiving. All in all it got Bellevue Cadillac booked for weddings for 2 solid years after. All because they knew we would show!!! What a business.
On our homepage dieselpunk is defined as “a subculture and a genre of art blending the aesthetics of the 1920s through the early 1950s with today” in which the “goal is to create something unexpected and new by merging the zeitgeist of the past with today's technology and attitude.” Would you say that’s a fitting description of the music of Bellevue Cadillac? If so, would you be comfortable calling yourself a “dieselpunk band?”
I guess in some ways we are traveling on parallel pathways. I love the concept of these rich design periods, the steam age, and diesel age, the chrome, steel, curve, lines, stabs of vibrant colour on black and gray, like the TV show The Wild, Wild West, or 20,000 leagues under the Sea, Time Machine, even Planet of the Apes to some extent, King Kong, the Orient Express, meets Aliens…….the American Ethos……yeah, I can see that, the dirty underbelly like Batman movies, NYC, I guess I like the steampunk, Burning Man, dieselpunk vibe way better than the neoswing thing, in that it pushes forward, not entrenched in the past, or trying to “relive” some kind of a scene, neoswing grew out of the punk movement, I guess that’s why I like Royal Crown the best of all of the bands, they embody that swagger, they got game in the players (all killer) had a greasy, grimy, dead end kids, tough neighborhood, West Side Story thing going on, with players that know the turf, had interesting storylines, characters, almost a beat poet, or slam poetry vibe, they are just ………..hipper than the rest, I try to take modern life, issues, characters, ideas and put them in a context that might be 20s,30s,40s, but not try to “sound retro” but “echo” those periods. Maybe think of it as a different tapestry, one that started weaving itself taking elements from all those periods and then placing the character in the middle for context. for example in black and white, I had a bunch of “homage, or themes” running thru the song, don’t mean a thing, mellow saxophone, the bugs bunny factory music, all to put you in the cartoon, but it isn’t Squirrel Nut retro, it’s a bit more chrome and glass, elec vibes, 50s black and white TV, even though it was recorded with vintage instruments, there is a next years model feel to it, it’s difficult to explain, but like Sgt Pepper was modern meets classical in a sense and a bit of psychedelic, I try to do that with American music, all American music, not just genre specific, which makes it kind of a hybrid, in my opinion.
Tell us about your live shows. What can your fans expect when they see you live?
Bellevue Cadillac live shows are as crazy as I am! It’s a big V8 engine, start it up and it just rolls…..high intensity, dynamics, a lot of motion on stage, it’s like taking a road trip with some whacko at the wheel in a big caddie convertible, traveling all over America, punching the radio buttons (chrome of course) and hearing song after song coming out of the speakers without knowing what kind of station you tuned in to, just that oh….. I like that song, what is it, punch another, and you get transported to yet another great song, completely different, cha cha, surf, Tex-Mex, Caribbean, Havana, hot mambo, suddenly you’re in Memphis, then Detroit……then…..ukulele? what? Then a bit jango, trombones, bari saxes, flugelhorn, clarinet, melodica, flute, jug, washboard, then I’ll rap a Starbucks menu!! It’s like New England weather, wait a minute, it will change.
What’s been your biggest challenge as a band? Your greatest success?
The biggest challenge for any band is staying booked! It costs a fortune, and man can these guys eat, ugh……..those riots in Greece, when we returned from Athens? They discovered our bari player ate ALL their food! I’m just sayin’
Our greatest success is in many areas, playing with Ray Charles? R u kidding me! Being chosen by Rolling Stone Mag as one of the best 2 bands in neoswing, oh, now that was a good one, Grammy ballot with 7 nominations, best album, best song, pretty slammin’ but overall, just being able to write, record and perform for 20 years is a freakin’ miracle……the fact that people all over the world have chosen to listen to Bellevue Cadillac music may be the greatest success of all………that is where the truth is, thanks for the great reviews and all that, but, when someone responds to something I have written, and they love it the way I loved so many songs over the years, there is NOTHING that can compare to that feeling, period.
You’re coming out soon with a new album, “Once in a Blue Moon.” Would you like to tell our readers about your new album?
'Once in a Blue Moon' was recorded in Athens Greece on New Years and the magic somehow just happened, you never know when lightening strikes, but when it does you know it. It’s a live representation of a Bellevue show with this 8 piece lineup, and there are some new songs, never before recorded and very unusual takes on favorites. The band was in the house! You can feel the audience, and the band as if great dancing partners, light on their feet, joy, wonder, excitement, laughter, and lots of risks being taken……..you can feel the moment. I’m so happy we just got lucky here. I did an impromptu poetic spoken lyric instead of singing in this noir kinda tune that they use on Crossing Jordan and Las Vegas, I had not done it before, and the guys are like, what the $#@#, are you doing dude?!!! So that caused the band to do different kinds of solos, w a y out on the limb…….there is another kind of West Side Story, film noir tune that’s new and that came out better than I ever thought it could, so you never know. The band played very well, taking risk after risk so it gives it an immediate feel, danger around every corner. You can tell we were having a ball…….
Any additional thoughts or remarks for our readers?
Yes, thank you for mentioning us in your forum, I had no idea diesel punk even existed, I’m an old guy ya know, my 40s attire is original equipment! My guitar same, so when I stumbled upon the forum, I was amused, flattered, and really happy that movements like this are so grassroots, and have great bullshit detectors, that to even be talked about in such a favorable way was a huge compliment to Bellevue Cadillac, I want to thank all of you who are interested in our music for taking the time to sit thru my answers to these questions, and hope you weren’t bored out of your mind, after all, you should be out reinventing the 21st century, shouldn’t you? And to the former editor / art director of Swingtime Magazine, thanks for the kind words, we loved that mag. Best to all you grimy punks out there from the Prof!!