Over the last four years, Melkbelly has emerged as a staggering force in Chicago’s vibrant DIY scene. With a combination of raucous punk noise, alt-pop hooks, and a lot of experimentation, the band—which has a lineup of guitarist/vocalist Miranda Winters, her husband, guitarist Bart Winters, her brother-in-law, bassist Liam Winters, and their friend James Wetzel on drums—makes music that is weird, hypnotic, and contains tension-ridden energy that makes it sounds like it could self-destruct at any moment.
Miranda Winters credits the band members’ distinctly different musical experiences and interests for their unique cohesion. “Each of us had played in different projects, so we had experienced different sort of band aesthetics,” she says. “And we had different ideas of what we thought we wanted to be making. When we came together in order to write songs, it changed a little bit. It just sort of happened that way. At first, we didn’t quite know what it was, but I think over the last four years, we’ve figured out what it is and what we’ve liked and been trying to fine tune it.”
For her part, the Providence, Rhode Island transplant grew up equally enthralled by folky songwriting and experimental rock and punk—she cites iconic Providence noise rock duo Lightning Bolt as a major influence. The first guitar she ever owned was a Fender Telecaster, which she felt would allow her to explore both of those polarities in her music. “I like the feel of the neck, and for me, it was really conducive to folk and rock at the same time. I’m so uncomfortable playing acoustic guitars in front of people, but I liked having the electric so that I could do maybe effects—just really basic stuff like light distortion and light reverb.” These days she plays a Gibson SG, but much of her writing starts with a nylon-string classical guitar.
Miranda first visited Chicago while on the road with her solo folk/rock project, reddelicious, and eventually relocated permanently. “I still have so much love for [Providence].” It definitely informed a lot of my making and writing processes,” she says. Moving to her adopted city was cause for culture shock, but also led to new musical opportunities. “Coming to Chicago, just the way that the air felt was bizarre. But Chicago is special for its DIY scene. There’s all these secret spaces, lofts or basements or houses. Maybe not all of them have very long lives, but you know that once one closes, another one will up. I love Chicago just because everyone in the music scene is so passionate.”
Melkbelly came together in late 2013, and by the end of the following year had established itself as a presence on the local circuit, toured out to the east coast, and released a debut EP, “Pennsylvania,” which consisted of the first songs the band ever wrote. Since then, the band has only gotten stronger, a quality Miranda describes in part as a result of the band’s close personal relationships. “I think that there’s something to be said about having really intense and caring relationships with the people that you play with, because then the music and your parts in the writing become more selfless. When the music stops and we leave the practice space, these three other people are so deeply rooted within my life,” she says.
For Melkbelly, that knowledge and care has led to better communication, and in turn, better songwriting. “Having a conversation with someone that you don’t want to offend, they’re hard conversation to have, but I think those are also some of the best conversations that we have because it helps us when we’re writing in the future. Once you realize that you tell someone something isn’t working and the whole world doesn’t fall apart, I think that helps you write better songs.”
In 2015, Melkbelly crossed paths with Sadie DuPuis of Speedy Ortiz. The musicians’ like-mindedness and camaraderie led DuPuis to sign the band to her new label, Wax Nine (an imprint of Carpark Records). The band’s first full-length release, Nothing Valley (out October, 13) is also the first release from the label.
Recorded and mixed Dave Vettraino at Chicago’s Public House Sound Recordings, Nothing Valley ups the ante of “Pennsylvania’s” fervor, and showcases remnants of Miranda’s singer-songwriter leanings, notably on “Kid Kreative,” “Gull Girl,” and “Cawthra.” But its most explosive moments find her calming vocal melodies paired with discordant riffs, chugging drums, and full-on rock aggression, such as on “Twin Lookin Motherfucker,” which alternates grinding chords with comparatively soft fuzz and noise, and the cacophonous maelstrom of the opening track “Off the Lot.”
Comparing Nothing Valley with Melkbelly’s previous material, Miranda says much of the band’s high-octane flavor was a natural reaction to the ecstatic energy between the band and their audience during shows. “You do kind of respond to the way audience reacts to something, and when you play something that’s loud, fast, and has a hook that allows entry to a wide swath of people, it’s more exciting because then you have this incessant energy and people moving around.”
Another vital component, she notes, is just being present and involved in the music community at home and beyond city limits. “I’m constantly inspired, not only by just the reaction of crowd at a show that we’re playing, but also the crowd at the shows that my friends are playing. And also the music that my friends and the scene are making and the art that they’re making. It is all very cyclical, for sure.”