Like Bells drummer Will Mason and violinist Garrett Openshaw entered the Oberlin Conservatory of Music with every intention of becoming professional musicians capable of playing with a major orchestra. Those plans haven't entirely changed, but the guys now have another priority.
Like Bells, the band they formed a little more than two years ago with Gabe Baker (a classical-studies major who moonlights as an experimental guitarist), releases its self-titled debut this week. A collection of mostly instrumental tunes, the album is an esoteric work that has more in common with contemporary instrumental groups like Do Make Say Think and Sigur Rós than it does with post-rockers like Tortoise. Yet Like Bells still sounds distinctive enough that they can't be dismissed as derivative.
"While a lot of people at the conservatory are gung-ho about practicing Chopin 10 hours a day to go play in an orchestra, there are other people interested in eclectic music and in participating in as many projects as possible," explains Mason. He and Openshaw, scruffy guys who wear flip-flops and jeans, were at Exit Stencil Studios in Cleveland's North Collinwood Waterloo neighborhood, prepping for a series of record-release parties. "That's what the climate is today. We're not living in a time where you can just go a major- city orchestra. You have to be versatile and embrace that versatility."
Openshaw and Baker originally started the band with another friend who played bass. They performed a couple of shows as an acoustic trio before deciding they needed a drummer. That's when they recruited Mason.
"Things started slowly transforming from an acoustic trio to more amplified sound," says Openshaw.
And when their bassist decided to take a year off school and quit the band, they decided to continue without a bass player.
"We thought the live shows would be more dynamic with just the three of us," says Openshaw. "Each of our roles is heightened, since there are only three of us onstage. We were the key people writing the material, so it gave us a little more freedom and more control over how we put the pieces together."
"We wanted to keep a lot of key elements from those early days, namely really tight songwriting," adds Mason.
The guys started recording what would become their debut, producing the album themselves as they laid down tracks at Cleveland's Ante Up Studios, where Openshaw had interned the previous summer.
"Every weekend, we would just go up to Cleveland and get in as many hours as we could," says Openshaw.
"We were there over Thanksgiving break, eating nothing but bagels and not sleeping," adds Mason.
The hard work paid off. The album has a delicacy to it on songs like "Atlas" and "Yeti," which have a bit of a folk flair. While all three members plan to graduate from Oberlin next year, they think they've gotten enough momentum behind Like Bells to keep the band going no matter what happens post-graduation.
"Garrett and I are in music school, and that means we're interested in being professional musicians," says Mason. "So it's something we're interested in pursuing. Maybe one day, [guitarist] Gabe [Baker] will get his PhD in classics and become some musty, blazer-wearing professor, but he has plenty of time to do that. I think he would want to take a few years off from school to rock out in a band. We're definitely in it for the long haul."