By Dan Poorman
The Bellegards are three young men from Long Island’s Suffolk County. Two of them, bassist Nic Palmeri and drummer (and fellow Taste Basket writer!) Kevin Redding, are recent college graduates. The other, singer-songwriter/guitarist Vincent Palmeri, stayed home for the four years his band mates were away at school and worked tireless hours in a variety of jobs, before eventually landing a management position at a local music store. Undoubtedly, the group’s time apart slowed them down at points; they were not able to tour, or play year-round local shows, and most of all they were not able to rehearse every day. Notice I didn’t mention they had any trouble writing new stuff.
And that’s because even when they weren’t together, The Bellegards were always thinking about their music. Fortunately, Nic and Kevin attended the same college, and were roommates for three of their four years. Me? I also attended this college, and was their unofficial apartment mate junior year and their official suite mate come 2013-2014. Trust me when I say that the band came up in conversation, quite a bit.
Being that Vin and Nic are twin brothers, there is an already freaky sort of wavelength they share that is independent of any amount of miles. While each brother has his own distinct identity, the two find in common a lot of philosophies and idiosyncrasies. This extends to include everything from what burger joints they frequent, to how they react when sad, to ultimately what subtleties they intend to express in their music.
And they were always just an emotionally-charged, feverishly productive phone call away. Yes, even just as the guy in the room next door, I know a fair deal about their creative process.
Writing another installment in the conceptual, character-driven Bellegards saga often begins with Vin reading something, or extracting an idea from a press junket interview on YouTube. Granted, he also takes into account his personal life, as any songwriter will, but with Vin it’s more or less about the story than himself—thus, he looks to all pre-existing forms of story to inform and enhance his own personal one (It should be known, he’s first and foremost a movie buff).
So then maybe he’ll record a demo, show it to Nic; Nic will write a bass line and throw in his two cents as to content and production; then they’ll bring in Kevin on the drums and start really making the music. It seems to me that this is just the way it’s always been. The Bellegards are a well-oiled machine, and have been since they were all thirteen-year-olds with shaggy hair worshiping The Who.
But their most recent release, Perfect Strangers, which came in January of this year, feels a tad different. It marks their first endeavor outside their home bedroom studio, where they’d pumped out their earlier lo-fi/ D.I.Y. material, and in terms of content, it’s a little more seasoned; more complex.
As a friend of the family band, I particularly enjoyed the album, but have come to notice that it has not gotten nearly enough promotion. It is, I believe, an important piece of work; it is versatile (exhibiting equal parts folksy acoustic and razor sharp, power-trio rock), and it is intensely personal and honest. Most of all, though, I think it is essential to consider the record for its keen sense of narrative.
The following interview with Vin was my attempt to observe The Bellegards as the hard-working, up-and-coming indie group that they are, and, though I have a bit of a personal connection to it, to dive into Perfect Strangers as objectively as possible—with a strong focus on the more spiritual process of creating it, and most especially, its story.
“TB” signifies me, and specifically, “Taste Basket,” not Tuberculosis.
“VP” means Vincent Palmeri, who is not Vice President of anything.
TB: So, Vin, how are you doing?
VP: I’m good. Our band has actually been playing a lot, so we’ve been pretty busy with that. I’m trying really hard to get them to play new music, but they really don’t want to. They just want to push the album. And I’m just working a lot, you know? Busy with my girlfriend, too.
TB: The band has been together for a long time now. How much of The Bellegards identity relies on the specific combination of you, Nic, and Kev?
VP: Well, that’s pretty much the whole identity. I mean, it’s been the same three people in this band since we were thirteen, so, you know, about eight years now?
TB: Tell me about the past four years; what it was like to be in a band—and to still be generating material for a band—while your rhythm section was gone most of the time.
VP: I think it was really interesting because they would be at school and I would—you know, for a long time I wasn’t working and I wasn’t going to school myself—so, I would just stay at home and I would have a routine. I would write every day, you know? And when I met up with them, I would show them these new songs, and some of the songs were really good; we really liked them. So, it brings back good memories when I think back on the four years. But with that being said, being away from them and being able to work on my own and then presenting these ideas to them and being excited, that was one thing—but then it was another thing to just be alone with, like, no momentum coming from them; no energy. So, it was frustrating, but it kind of let me work alone for the most part, so it was really interesting. I think it was a unique way to be in a band.
TB: And how many albums have you guys released?
VP: We have one album (Perfect Strangers), and one demo album (The Difference Between); it was the first thing we ever put out, it was on iTunes and everything. And then we did my favorite project, which was The Sea and Sand that Drowned the Band EP, a year after that. Those demos, though, were like a collection of the first songs we’d ever written together. So that album is kind of outdated and it’s really immature; I think that it definitely shows signs of us growing as a group when you listen to it, but for the most part it was kind of like a lazy attempt at an album. The Sea and Sand that Drowned the Band was much more ambitious, and I think better as far as writing goes. We also did a very short-lived project called Dinner is Served. So I want to say, like, four collective projects? The character that I wrote about with our band, though—I also did a play, which I performed in and directed, and Nic did the music for it—the character was a big part of that. That wasn’t a band thing, but they were very much involved.
TB: That’s cool. What was the title of your play?
VP: It was originally supposed to be called Floss, but it was changed to Florence’s Staircase.
TB: So, Perfect Strangers. How did it begin? When did you guys decide you wanted to do a new album, and consider it your first real, full-length album, essentially?
VP: It’s kind of annoying, with that whole thing—I’ll just talk about the seed, how it began. I feel like what happened was, we did the demo album and then we were like, “Okay. That’s out. That’s going to be the official first release, so it’s okay if it was bad.” You know, like some directors have a bad first movie—you can tell it’s their first movie. So I was willing to work past that, because we were going to do an EP called Secrets of the Season. “Chewing the Dice,” “Dead End Street,” “Perfect Strangers,” “300 Gallons,” all those songs were gonna be on this EP. So then [laughs] we did The Sea and Sand that Drowned the Band instead. We wrote “Chewing the Dice,” we had all the ideas and everything, but we were like, let’s hold off on this; we’ll do an album called Secrets of the Season—let’s do The Sea and Sand that Drowned the Band first, you know?
So, Secrets of the Season was still being talked about; the songs had been written, we’d been playing them live at this point. For that one, we wanted to move in a certain direction, and we wanted the production to be better. I personally thought that our home recordings were getting to a point where they were almost, like, professional. I could totally see this world, with the band producing; it was gonna be, like, this big thing. And then, I was talking to Sam Greene, who was Nic’s roommate, and he had such an opinion—like, one of the strongest opinions about music—and he had a lot of similar ideas that I had about music. I think we liked a lot of the same things about albums, about singles, where things were very eclectic but where it was the same sort of band, you know? So I was like, “Sam, you should record our next album,” as a joke. I said that to Sam at his New Year’s Eve party, and then, like three or four months later I saw him again and he said, “I want to do it; I want to record the album. But we have to talk about how we’re gonna do this, because you guys have been recording at your house and you have, like, all these weird songs from the demo album,” stuff like that. So after that conversation I had with him, the album that I’d considered an album—the first one—became just demos. It’s a rarities thing; you can’t really find it anymore.
So then, after The Sea and Sand that Drowned the Band, Dinner is Served was out of the picture; that was kind of like a half-assed thing. Now I had all these songs that I had written for Secrets of the Season. So, to make a long story short, with pre-production and actually recording it, he [Sam] was just kind of like, “Secrets of the Season is a lame title. You have, like, five decent songs that I will record. We’re going to do this very professionally—someone’s gonna mix it for us, someone’s gonna master it. We’re not gonna do it live; everything’s gonna be tracked.” He pretty much said, “Secrets of the Season, whatever you thought that was gonna be—we’re not calling it that, I’m gonna take these songs from you and then you need to start writing as many more as you possibly can.” So then I started writing all the time. That’s when Secrets of the Season officially became a new release—and it was Perfect Strangers—because we were doing it completely differently. We felt like it was really professional. It was such a departure from what we had done, that it just made sense to do it like that.
TB: And what exactly is Perfect Strangers about?
VP: Well, “perfect strangers” is like a cliché. It’s a saying, it’s a phrase, you know? So many people have used it in songs and movies and TV shows, like, I could name a bunch who have used that saying. But, pretty much, I was just thinking about those two words over and over again—and I had already written “Perfect Strangers,” the song. I wanted to do an album about who we are behind closed doors; what we decide to show to people, and what we decide to show to ourselves. I thought there was something so disturbing about that, and it was pretty much like, when you think about someone you love and calling them a “perfect stranger”—the word “strange” is in that saying, you know? And the more I thought about it, the more I loved it. And I loved that you could take salt and pepper shakers and use that as an album cover, ’cause the ‘P’ and the ‘S.’ I thought that was really cool. There were so many different things that I thought about, you know, with that being said. That’s pretty much where the name and everything came from.
I wanted to take a realistic approach to doing this album, so I would—I wouldn’t interview people, but I would have conversations with people—and you’d be surprised what someone will tell you if you are a genuine person. And you hear these sick stories, and for the most part, they sound like they’re made up, they sound like they’re fake; but they only sound like that ’cause you never believe that they’re real. That was the original Perfect Strangers, that was Secrets of the Season. It was made up stories, and it was real stories. And there was gonna be a fine line, almost like doing journalism, you know, in trying to do that. I was with Sam, and he didn’t really like that idea. So, after he had picked the songs, I was like, “Well, now I need to sit down and really start writing lyrics for this new thing—like, definitive lyrics.”
So pretty much what it is: it’s about this character, and he’s a waiter at a restaurant. And, in the first song, he quits his job. This guy is pretty much at this weird point in his life; loses his job, loses his girl—and he slowly becomes a recluse from it. And so he turns to alcohol, whereas the initial pain for him was coming from drunken nights. He uses drinking to comfort him in a sad, kind of sick way, in a “I’ll never let myself be happy” kind of way. So the character breaks up with his girlfriend, who is a waitress at the restaurant he used to work at, right? And he starts to have these nightmares, like, “Chewing the Dice” is about a nightmare that he has, where his girlfriend is getting drunk and yelling at him and laughing at him. So, it’s just something that he’s scared of, that sort of drunken—well, being made fun of by someone he loves, you know? And, the way I look at it is, “Howl” is the secret track at the end, and if you want, he can end as a paranoid freak with “Sirens,” like “I can hear sirens / I can hear sirens singing,” you know, this state of paranoia from drinking so much and all that—but if you listen to “Howl,” he kind of becomes a werewolf, a little bit. That’s how it ends [laughs], you know, for me.
TB: So, on the bonus track “Howl,” then, do you mean that he has become a werewolf, literally?
TB: Oh, boy. We’ll definitely need to talk about that later. For now, I’ll detract a little and ask you this: How is this album reflective of you as a human being, as compared to other Bellegards releases?
VP: Whereas the old Bellegards stuff was 100% about the character and not based in any sort of reality whatsoever—it lacked logic and reason as to why certain characters were doing certain things—this one, I think, is more down to earth. It actually takes place in a town that you might live in, you know what I mean? There’s a lot of allusions to a town in these songs, specifically on Long Island. I wanted to do what F. Scott Fitzgerald did in The Great Gatsby, but I wanted to tell it in an adolescent sort of way—the way I see Long Island now. “Half Hollow” is a street right by my house. “Sweet Hollow” is a town in Long Island that’s supposedly haunted; after I wrote that song, I went to Sweet Hollow and there’s a landfill right in the middle of it. I thought that was a really funny, ironic kind of thing.
And so this one’s definitely the most autobiographical. There is a lot more of me in it, and where I come from, that sort of thing. There is actually a section in a song where I reference myself, as a character.
TB: You don’t hear of that a lot. Considering you do have a unique approach to songwriting, what exactly inspires you to write Bellegards songs? Apart from your personal life, and from listening to and admiring other musicians, what multimedia stuff gets you writing?
VP: There’s so many things. Movies are absolutely number 1. I feel like, when you’re in a movie theater and you’re vulnerable and you went there to sit down and watch somebody else’s art, there’s so many times you could be caught off guard, and that’s one of the best things movies offer us. For a song to come in and define a certain scene or something—that’s what makes me want to write.
One of the songs that I write could very well be accompanying a scene in somebody’s personal life. If they put on the album before they have sex with somebody, or they make dinner while they’re listening, if they’re getting ready for a date or something like that, that’s my main purpose in writing music. I want someone to find some sort of solace in the songs that I write, you know?
TB: Totally. You’ve mentioned to me before that you’ve been inspired by James Franco. Can you elaborate on that?
VP: When I was younger and writing what was supposed to be Secrets of the Season and The Sea and Sand that Drowned the Band, I was very into Inside the Actor’s Studio, which I think is one of the most brilliant shows and general overviews of someone’s career, you know, up until that point. I happened to stumble onto his [Franco’s]. I remember, it was a Tuesday morning around Christmas time. And James Franco—he went through this artsy phase—like, he did Freaks and Geeks and then Pineapple Express; these very one-track kind of productions with Judd Apatow and everything—but then he did 127 Hours, with Danny Boyle. I love that film. The film, to me, was almost like, if you went to see a play and there was one person on the stage. Now, it’s the imagination that they had with that; the movie is essentially him sitting there with a rock crushing his arm, but it still moves you, you know? I love that they pulled that off.
When Franco did that book, Palo Alto, about where he had come from, in Palo Alto, California, I don’t think anybody necessarily cared that it came out. It wasn’t like a movie was being released. He was just doing it for the sake of doing something artistic and doing something to represent himself, but not on a selling-out kind of scale, which is hard for an actor like that to do, you know? So, the fact that he did that—it kind of inspired me to be like, “I can actually do this just ’cause I want to do this, and it doesn’t matter who likes it and who doesn’t like it.” It’s not all off-the-wall, but at the same time, is everybody gonna get it? No.
TB: Before we start highlighting tracks, I wanted to mention that I have some outside info on the song, “Domino.” It was originally released on your very first LP, which you now consider the demo album, The Difference Between. You guys re-recorded it for Perfect Strangers. Considering Perfect Strangers tells a story of its own, did adding “Domino” shift the original narrative? Thematically, does it align with Perfect Strangers with more resonance than it did with the demo album, or less?
VP: That’s something we argued about for a long time. I felt like the storyline [of Perfect Strangers] was important to me, and to nobody else. I mean, the story meant a lot to me; my whole reason for doing this was to tell a story. And, my rationale for it [“Domino”]—getting to the question of it being on The Difference Between and being on Perfect Strangers—for one, I think it ties all four of our projects together, which I like. I like being able to listen to all the completely different songs and have that one be pretty much in the same spot. As far as the narrative, in my mind, “Domino” can come across as pretty random. The song is about someone from birth to death; it tells the story of that particular character. “Domino” is a character—like, that’s somebody’s name. I know that sounds weird.
But the way I look at it, “Domino” is the bridge from our very first project to our most recent project. We put it on this album because Sam thought it was a really strong song. It took three months to finish. It’s five minutes long, there’s a lot of different parts to it; we had no idea what we were doing, and the fact that it was just a strong song proved to me that you didn’t really need a good producer, you didn’t need anything—you just needed the drive to finish something like that. Honestly, it doesn’t totally fit on Perfect Strangers, but I really like it as that bridge, from me when I was eighteen to me when I was twenty-one.
TB: Alright, let’s start discussing the songs that belong to the Perfect Strangers concept. The album opens with “Dead End Street,” which to me registers as one of the most emotional tracks. It’s stripped down, it’s intimate; your lead vocals are literally isolated for a moment. What purpose does the song serve? Who and what is it introducing?
VP: Okay, so the song, “Dead End Street”—it’s like, I’m not just in a band anymore; I’m telling you this story, you know? The way I look at “Dead End Street,” because of how bare-bones and vulnerable the voice is supposed to be, it’s like an invitation. I’m inviting you to come into this little world for forty minutes, and I want to start off by saying, “I was proven wrong, I’m dressed in all-black clothing, I don’t know what the fuck is going on, but if you want to continue this with me, you can continue to listen. Or, you don’t have to listen to me at all.”
TB: So it’s like an extended hand to the listener, so to speak. Would you say it’s almost like a warning, too?
VP: Yeah! Actually, it sounds so silly, but if you’re familiar with Lemony Snicket—and I know that’s a pen name—he used to do that in every one of his books [in A Series of Unfortunate Events]; he would give us warning. That’s kind of how I wanted “Dead End Street” to be taken, and because I loved those stories growing up and because they were so dark, it made sense to use as reference. Because this project was gonna be pushed so hard in the future, I really like that it’s a reference to my childhood and also, yeah, it’s definitely an invitation in that way—and it’s describing somebody in the moment. He just quit his job. He lives on a dead end street.
TB: And when we talk about Lemony Snicket, we talk about a level of self-awareness and a tongue-in-cheek way of storytelling—the point of view is mostly omniscient, but the speaker’s got an intrusive voice, too. It’s cool, then, how you mentioned that you’re a character in this. The influence makes sense.
TB: It’s an interesting transition, going from “Dead End Street” to “Chewing the Dice,” which is a riffy, frenetic full-band arrangement, more reminiscent of The Bellegards I knew before Perfect Strangers. “Chewing the Dice” is also a super interesting phrase in itself. What’s it mean to you?
VP: We used to get together and play card games and charades and stuff like that all the time, and I think at some point Kevin said, “chewing the dice,” and I fell in love with that saying. To me, I felt like it was a term for being nervous, almost like biting your nails—but in a completely different scenario, ’cause “dice” is in the phrase. In the song, it more or less means, “I don’t want you to chew the dice, I won’t let you do that,” like a friendly, protective kind of thing.
TB: And who is the “I” there? Who won’t let whom chew the dice?
VP: It’s not the main character, it’s a friend of the character. The part in the song where I sing, “I just can’t let you go,” it’s not the character so much. See, a lot of this album is actually an outsider’s point of view, I will say that. I remember thinking about that a lot when I was writing.
TB: Then we come to “Sweet Hollow” and “Half Hollow.” You’ve already talked briefly about the significance of these real-life locations. But, if you could elaborate: surely, these songs must be connected based on their titles alone, yes?
VP: The fact that they’re back-to-back was kind of a shot in the dark, more of a coincidence. We just thought the album flowed better like that. Sweet Hollow and Half Hollow, they’re locations—but they lend meaning to the character. “Sweet Hollow” is almost like, when you’re in a relationship and you get broken up with, or if you do the breaking up, there’s almost a sort of optimism at first. Like, this is a huge change; this could mean good things for me. Like, I’m sweetly hollow right now. I don’t feel whole, but at least there’s some sort of light at the end of this tunnel. And then, as time goes by, you’re not so optimistic, and this is how I felt personally when I went through this experience myself. You’re just fucking half hollow.
“Sweet Hollow” is about a conversation the character and his girlfriend have. Like, “Don’t treat me like a child anymore,” “I’m a man now,” that kind of stuff. “Half Hollow” is about the character talking to his old coworkers about his girlfriend. She’s pretty much a whore now; I say something on that song—”That’s where she learned the benefit of the midnight shift”—meaning, she never got asked out, she never got picked up, until she started closing the restaurant, and she would take the drunks home with her, to her house. And all this: it’s continuing to be, like, a nightmare for our character.
TB: The title track, to me, comes in with biting sarcasm—”There’s something special in the way that you use me / There’s something different in the way you abuse me”—what do you have to say about that?
VP: The song “Perfect Strangers” sums up the whole feeling of the album. “There’s something special in the way that you use me / There’s some different in the way that you choose me”—it sounds like a sweet song, but what I’m actually trying to say is that the words there are almost like the vagueness of the saying “perfect strangers” itself, if that makes any sense. So that’s why the song is named after “perfect strangers,” because I’m rattling off these kind of vague, but really mean things.
So, yeah, your interpretation that it’s sarcastic is definitely 100% true. “Perfect Strangers” and “300 Gallons” are the same thing. Not to skip ahead, but it’s like the interaction between two people who, at one point, loved each other, but now can’t stand each other. They each just fucking hate the other person. “300 Gallons” comes from, you know, saying, “If we were to add up the amount of alcohol it took for me to muster up these feelings that I have, to tell you that I hate you, I think it’d be about 300 gallons.” Like, “If you take every Friday night that we went out drinking and I had to put up with bullshit, it would be 300 gallons or so,” which is a lot of fucking alcohol. In that state of mind, I wrote “Perfect Strangers” and “300 Gallons.” It’s that same sort of sarcastic, “I hate you, but I really have no choice but to do this right now to be with you because I am dependent on you” kind of deal.
TB: “He said he had a story to tell,” in “The Downpour,” evokes a frame-story narrative. I picture your speaker in a bar listening to some crazed man accounting a trip to his lover’s home in the rain—is there in fact a story within a story at play?
VP: Well, this is where I come into the storyline. I love this story. I love “The Downpour,” and for so many reasons. So, what had happened: my now-ex-girlfriend and I had broken up and I was in my friend’s basement watching the new Arrested Development season. In the basement, I had no cell service, and when I got out of the basement, I had two missed phone calls. And I was like, “Look at that missed opportunity,” you know what I mean? I was like, “There is something here, ’cause I’m frustrated, but I’m kind of happy that I missed these phone calls.” So I sat down, and just then I wanted to tell a story about me going to this restaurant, to this bar. It was like Cheers! You know, when I play this song live, I can see Cheers. I can see the bar, and everybody there. I can see me and the character there as well.
So, pretty much what happens in the song is, you know, it’s pouring outside, and I’m driving to this bar. I want to go to a place where I can hide for a little while. “And then a story comes from down the row / A young voice, old and gone cold.” And the character, as he walks in, he goes, “I almost died.” You know, “He said, ‘I almost died’ as he closed the door.” And then he walks the length of the room, as his coattail drags on the floor, dripping with the rain. And then the character, who I meet for the first time—the same voice in “Dead End Street”—is now talking. He tells a story. He says, “I slipped between the white lines,” meaning the lines on the road, “‘And I never came fighting for air,'” so he was smoking a cigarette but had the window rolled up. So he goes along with the story—basically it was pouring out so badly, he had come across this familiar town. He doesn’t remember why it’s so familiar to him, but it’s definitely reminiscent of something. Then he realizes that he’s at his ex-girlfriend’s house. He knocks on the door, and she says, “Why can’t you just let me live a life of my own?” And then he says, “I didn’t think it’d be you that I’d find in the downpour.” It’s just, like, this terrible story, because he thought that she was gonna take him back at that point. At the end of the song, he says, “I’m someone that she’s outgrown / I’m someone that I don’t know.” This whole time, you know, I’ve been listening to him tell me this story—and it all comes back to the big idea of this missed opportunity.
TB: So, next, “Is that your Sleeping Beauty?” Who is the Sleeping Beauty alluded to here, if you’d care to say?
VP: This came from a real interview with somebody. But, for the sake of the story, and the privacy of other people, what happens in Perfect Strangers is the character starts becoming more reckless after “The Downpour.” “Sleeping Beauty” is him sleeping with somebody’s wife, and he actually walks into their home and sees the husband sleeping in the bed, and there’s a phone on the nightstand. You know, a phone, with a cord on it, just sitting there. He’s like, you know, “Is that him waiting for me to come here? Like, should I say something? I’m about to sleep with his wife, and I normally don’t do this.” It’s the first time that he realizes he doesn’t want to be the person to steal somebody else’s wife—and it only appears in this song, that he’s having this affair, so to him it’s like a thought that came and went. He tried it, he experimented with it; he’s done.
TB: This character, he’s the same guy? This is our “Dead End Street” guy, he’s just gone real crazy real fast?
VP: Yeah, it’s the same guy. If you look at “Domino” as a sort of intermission to the storyline, “The Downpour” shows the character is obviously distraught, and now, because of that, in “Sleeping Beauty,” he’s become this sort of different person.
TB: I saw you perform “300 Gallons” at a venue called Goodbye Blue Monday in Brooklyn last summer. I remember it giving me chills. Though it could easily be deemed a breakup song, your performance felt more organic to me; it seemed to suggest that it was more than just a breakup song. Of course, it’s largely about your speaker, too, outside of any romantic relationship—for Christ’s sake, he compares himself to a doped-up race horse.
VP: There was something that I had to say with “300 Gallons.” It was convenient, since I’d already entered myself into the storyline in “The Downpour,” if you want to look at that as an episode, almost.
TB: Right. The idea of you, personally, as observer.
VP: Absolutely, yeah. So, now, I kind of take on the “Perfect Strangers” mentality of that bitter sarcasm, you know? But in “300 Gallons,” I’m much more defeated. I start with describing my body, [laughs] not to sound weird—but I have two birds tattooed on my arms, and I remember telling Kevin, “The birds on my arms are gonna overthrow me. They’re gonna kill me, ’cause they want to be free. They’re gonna leave me, because I’m depressed.” In a sense, because they’re a figment of my imagination, that would mean that I want to kill myself. It was just a scary way of saying, “I feel very reckless myself.” It was me being a little dramatic, I admit.
And then, I drive a black car. The album was recorded in the summer, so I say, “My black car looks like a hearse in the heat.” It’s so hot outside, it’s hazy, you can’t really see what I’m driving. It kind of looks like a hearse, because that’s how I feel. I feel like death. I’m overworked, I’m tired, I’m miserable. There is no triumphant quality here whatsoever; I’m just defeated. There’s a line, where I say, like, my girlfriend would be like, “‘You wake up in the morning, and take a deep breath,'” as if to say that everything is fine, everything’s gonna be okay. I’d be like, “Yeah, that’s true, except I’m choking on a cigarette as soon as I wake up—so, your words don’t mean anything to me because I’m already destroying myself.”
Now, at the end, there’s a little bit of a musical interlude, and I say, “For the girl that I prevented once from living / She says I’ll never be forgiven / I’m like an old, sick dog licking salt from the wound / Thinking maybe one day it’ll get better soon / But when I think of her smile in late July / It makes me want to die.” It’s shortly after all that, that I do say, “I’m a doped up horse running fast around the track / But when I get to the end, I never look back / I’m running away, just a winner now / But the dope’s still in my veins.” So I’m saying, even though all this stuff has happened to me, and I felt this way—and this song refers to drinking a lot—I’m saying, I came out of this. And I escaped from it, I didn’t walk away willingly. But there’s something lingering, like something that someone had put in me, you know? Like, the way a bookie would dope up a horse.
So that’s where that comes from—and specifically, it comes from the movie, The Apartment. Jack Lemmon is about to hook up with a girl on Christmas Eve night, and she says that her husband went to jail for doping up horses. And I love that movie, and I watched it probably every night that we were making this album. I always wanted to pay some sort of homage to it, even in the smallest way, in a song that I thought a lot of people would really like, because it’s just my favorite movie of all time.
TB: “Sirens” is a real rocker, and it feeds into the aforementioned lycanthropic bonus track “Howl”—enlighten me as to the decision-making process here. Why is “Sirens” the last song, and how does the bonus track differ in tone from the rest of these songs?
VP: “Sirens” is the last song because our character is finally in full-swing paranoia; he’s a complete wreck all over the place. There’s a section in the song where my vocals are overlapping, to show something kind of like in Goodfellas when Henry is addicted to coke, and he’s still narrating the story, but he’s kind of saying all these things really fast. There’s also a scream in the song. It’s like saying, at the beginning, I was just a guy who lost his job. Now, I leave my house and I can hear sirens. I’m fucking paranoid. I sing, “Do you think my girl’s gonna smell you on my breath when she comes to get me?” meaning, “If I cheated on my girlfriend, is she gonna smell a little bit of you, of your perfume or something? Do you think the cop’s gonna smell it on my breath when he comes to arrest me?” I’m not telling a story anymore. It’s an uncertain feeling. This character has no idea what’s going on anymore and no idea what to do. He’s become a complete recluse; an alcoholic, miserable fuck.
With the “300 Gallons” thing, where the whole song’s depressing and then there’s a little bit of light at the end—”Sirens,” with its chord progression and its whole deal, just knocks that theory that something good is gonna happen to shit. It’s actually kind of evil, you know what I mean? That’s what “Sirens” is. That’s why it closes the album. I think it wraps up those feelings in a real dramatic way.
“Howl” is an old, old song originally from Secrets of the Season. The original version of the song was not strong enough, we felt, to make the cut. But I took the original chords and turned it into this new song, and it was kind of like for the band, you know? We had worked so fucking hard on this thing, and “Howl” was supposed to be a fun song. The reason why “Howl” is one of my favorites is ’cause it’s essentially saying two things: it’s saying “I’m home, and I’m howling at the moon for you,” like “Honey, I’m home—I’m here for you!” The other thing it’s saying is, “If I’m gone, I went to look for you. The only reason why I would leave is if I had to go and find you.” I love that; that’s such endearment. That’s a sentiment, you know? So, with that being said, it’s kind of like when somebody dies in a movie, and then they do a flashback to a particular point in their life—pretty much, the character is saying, “I’m crazy, and I was crazy about somebody, and figuratively, if I had the chance to, I would just eat them and be done with it.” That’s where the fun sort of werewolf idea came in.
The lyrics are, “Well, she was sweet and all / But I swore she’d rot my teeth / And when I ate her bones / Her green eyes looked at me / She never tasted better than when she wore that sweater,” then I go on to say, “I stain my yellow teeth with blood / Every time I smile, I show a symbol to our love.” So, yeah, it’s a kind of Halloween-werewolf-love story type thing.
TB: Speaking of werewolves and Halloween, I wanted to draw attention to the fact that you guys seem to be obsessed with creepy, sleepy, autumnal themes. Knowing the band around Halloween time, actually living with Kevin and Nic around Halloween time—it’s a fun experience, because you guys really do go nuts. Two Halloweens ago, you put out an original song entitled “Vampire Shenanigans,” along with a cover of “Monster Mash,” in a two-track package on Bandcamp. Years later, you’re still incorporating the fall season and the macabre in Perfect Strangers. I mean, the album artwork fixates on dead leaves—plus, your story, to me, has anything but a happy ending. So what’s the fascination all about? Where did it come from?
VP: Me, Nic, and Kevin, we all really love the fall. It’s by far, collectively, the biggest thing with our band. Sleepy Hollow is one of our favorite movies, we watch it every year; that’s partly why “Hollow” is used in two of the song titles, ’cause we love Sleepy Hollow. Every Halloween, we get together and we actually watch movies, we read the books that they put out, you know, the actual Sleepy Hollow stories and stuff. When we started the band, we always wanted to pay attention to that time of year. We actually wanted to release Perfect Strangers in October, that’s why the album cover looks the way it does. Because the album is based around Long Island and uses names from Long Island, we wanted to give off the feeling of what October is like for us here.
A working title for the album was actually October, and [laughs] we didn’t use it because U2 used October. Also, the artist we worked with has a calendar that he published. It has a picture, done by him, depicting each month. That was a big reason why we chose him.
Fall is just the most colorful season to me. Around Halloween, there’s so many different people with so many different attitudes; I just feel like that’s naturally when people and their personalities come out, like, the way they celebrate that time of year, you know? If you’re a fun person, you usually do something fun around that time, and you can be whoever you want—that’s the other thing. You can be your favorite movie star: actor or actress, you can be your favorite character. And no one looks the other way. Most people get a lot of satisfaction out of that.
TB: Yeah, so no specific reason why you like writing dark subject matter the most? Is it just in your nature?
VP: It’s just more fun! I love how dramatic it is. We want everything to be kind of dark. You know, we always say, “We should move in a creepier direction,” probably every time we write a song [laughs], so it’s definitely just a big thing with us.
TB: Last question. I know you like to read. So humor me here and for a moment, think of Perfect Strangers just as a narrative, rather than a musical project. Would you say it’s equivalent in capacity to a short story, a collection of short stories, a novel, or a novella? And why?
VP: I would see it as a collection of short stories, just because technically, that’s kind of what these songs are. Because the writing of the album was so chopped up with our producer saying that he didn’t like this song or that song, the last resort I had was to pretty much write these short stories and hope that they had enough feeling and emotion in common with one other, that you could kind of see them as a series of stories in the first place. There’s an overall thought, and then a bunch of short stories, you know?
And these stories, then, all point at the same feeling: that this person, by the end, is a complete stranger to you, a perfect stranger. And that’s all they’ll ever be to you. That’s the truth. And that’s the weight of that saying, to me.
Listen to and download Perfect Strangers and more music by The Bellegards on their Bandcamp page.
And check out this cool music video for “Chewing the Dice” from filmmaker Louise Bartolotta: