After the Sun Sets in Berlin, Songwriter Bates Belk Takes Us on a Nighttime Odyssey on New Album

The Dark Spektrum Album Artwork Cover by Bates Belk
Bates Belk

In 2015, songwriter Bates Belk moved to Berlin, Germany after living 20 years in New York City to write and record his first album entitled The Dark Spektrum. What followed the move was an unknown intense journey of music and visual creation with over 50 Berlin-based collaborator-artists and an infiltration into Germany’s electronic music communities. The new album, which can be categorized as a dance album…with a wicked twist, is a cinematic odyssey that takes the audience on a wild ride from sunset to sunrise. Set specifically at the night, the music has elements of dark disco, techno, trip hop, acid house and pop and comprises such themes as danger, horror, power struggles, sadomasochism, criminality, unrequited love, death, illusions, euphoria and freedom…themes that one can easily experience along the spektrum under the cover of darkness. And there’s even an orchestra on it.

The Texas-born artist, who now calls Berlin home, arrives for our interview on an unusually warm day at the end of December at the Centre Pompidou contemporary art museum in Paris directly from the Eurostar train from London where he has just completed the final step with the mastering of his new album at London’s legendary Abbey Road Studios. Bates arrives dressed in head-to-toe black and with a big smile. We sit down outside on one of the balcony mezzanines of the museum overlooking the romantic Parisian rooftop landscapes with our green teas and discuss The Dark Spektrum.

Q:   Congratulations on finishing the The Dark Spektrum. It’s fantastic.

A:   Thank you. I had no idea when it was going to finally end. Or how long it was going to take to get to completion. It was a long process to ensure it was my best foot forward. I’m happy to now hand it over to the universe and let other people experience it. It’s time.

Q:   You write about some very dark themes on this album.

A:   Yes for sure. Dark things are always in my head. And these are dark things that I have experienced first-hand. I find darker subjects to be more entertaining and wanted to capture them on The Dark Spektrum

Q:   So how did you choose the city of Berlin to record your first album? So many international musical icons have recorded historical “Berlin” albums like David Bowie, Iggy Pop and U2. How did Berlin play into your songwriting and collaborations?

A:   Berlin has always had a dark and exotic flare that I love. I find Berlin to be quite inspiring with its quirky characters, the moody low wattage street lamps and the often foggy atmosphere. It’s very noirish. It was the perfect city for me to covet easily in the dark shadows and write and record my first album. I wrote all the songs in Berlin. I collaborated with over 50 Berlin-based artists. I worked with the vast synthesizer communities all over Berlin. And I recorded all the songs in 7 or 8 Berlin recording studios. It doesn’t get any more Berlin than this album in my opinion.

Q:   Am I correct in stating that there is some sort of abstract storyline for nighttime on the album? The introduction song takes place as the sun is setting and the conclusion song takes place as the sun is rising. It’s almost as if you have written a soundtrack to a film with a beginning, middle and ending.

A:   Absolutely. For some reason I had been thinking of albums that have nighttime themes like Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours, Miles Davis’ ‘Round About Midnight and Chromatics’ Night Drive and I wrote my music to occur after the sun went down. I really spent a lot of time thinking through the sequencing of the songs on the album and how I was going to entertain the audience to bring them to eventual daylight. All the songs are intertwined along the spektrum. Writing songs for the darkness of night in Berlin allowed me to take advantage of those dark subjects we were speaking of before that I feel allow people to feel more comfortable to accept and engage…with the lights off so to speak. I find that people’s perceptions are often more exaggerated at night. Something dangerous can seem catastrophic. Something wonderful can seem fantastical. I really tried to take advantage of those perceptions and exaggerations in the storyline of the album. It’s quite a trip.

Q:   And you worked with legendary super-producer Gareth Jones, who mixed your album? How did that come about?

A:   I have been a fan of Gareth’s art ever since he produced the three historical Depeche Mode albums in Berlin including my very favourite Depeche Mode album…Black Celebration…another album that focused on dark themes that could take place at night. Gareth is a pioneer in Berlin music history, a pioneer in electronic music and a pioneer in dance music. He was the only one who could mix this album as far as I was concerned. And so I made sure that happened. I learned so much from Gareth during the making of this album.

Q:   Your song “Dancing with Bullets” towards the beginning of the storyline on the album is very epic and quite inspirational with the vocalist reminding the listener how important it is to feel alive. I find it to be sort of an anthemic pop song in a very James Bond 007 way and asks the listener to appreciate the avoidance of impending danger around the corner.

A:   I wrote “Dancing with Bullets” right after the horrible senseless mass shooting that took place on June 12, 2016 at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida where 49 people were in essence shot to death on the dance floor. Those souls lost their freedom that night because of the USA’s gun policies. The song is a political statement, it is meant to raise awareness on the importance of gun control and it is very much a tribute to the victims. All proceeds from the sale of the song go to the onePULSE Foundation...the official charity that was established to give educational opportunities in the names of the 49 gun-downed victims.

Q:   There is an orchestra on many of the songs on the album.

A:   Yes. I collaborated with the Berlin-based Stargaze Orchestral Collective on over half the album. I knew I wanted my album to be very filmic from the beginning of the album’s inception. And having an orchestral musicians on my album added to the cinematic feeling. And I love the sound frequency quality of my synthesizers mixed with orchestral string arrangements. The sounds are euphoric.

Q:   The dance song “The Pursuit of…” is really experimental and extremely dramatic. The song brings together techno, orchestra and opera. What a great club track.

A:    Thanks. I really had to persevere with it to get all the various parts and artists to work with each other. The song is about an S&M situation between a predator in pursuit of a prey.  Much of the music was inspired by the John Carpenter and Ennio Morricone soundtrack on The Thing film. Interesting back story to the song…I like to write music as much as possible outside of a recording studio. So, much of “The Pursuit of…” song was written in a toilet stall in Berlin’s atmospheric Berghain techno nightclub as I was feeling the vibrations from the various DJs spinning inside the club. This is a perfect example of me taking advantage of all that Berlin has to offer for my art.

Q:   The walls really start closing in on your song “Clever Criminal”. The atmosphere created reminds me of Massive Attack’s dark Protection and Mezzanine albums with the combination of pulsating acoustic drums, oppressive low end bass synthesizers, orchestra and powerful soprano vocals. It’s very sad and melodramatic.

A:   I consider “Clever Criminal” to be a torch song and I had always wanted to write a torch song. I love torch singers like Patsy Cline, Lana Del Rey, Marlene Dietrich, Mark Almond, Billy Holiday, Morrissey and Édith Piaf. The song is also very cinematic. The lyrics are as honest as I have ever been and they are gut-wrenching and angry…and sung by a talented Berlin-based torch vocalist.

Q:   Things really go off the hook on the song “Sensational”. It’s quite over-the-top.

A:   Yes. This is my dark comedy song for the evening. A song largely about the ridiculousness of mainstream media with all its exaggerated messages and also about the narcissistic world that exists on social media these days. So, it’s a play on media sensationalism and the constant fear-mongering and demoralizing that is allowed to exist. I even think this song has an undercurrent to my reaction to finally leaving America and my perspective of America now that I live in Europe. Incidentally, the artists speaking on the song are actual Berlin-based actors that we recorded for this song. It’s always fun collaborating with actors.

Q:   Would you say that today’s media does play into the “Fake News” accusations?

A:   I haven’t owned a television since 2008. I do not allow television in my life, but every once in a while, a TV will be on in a hotel room or at some business meeting. I see how hard TV news anchors, especially ones in the US and the UK try to get entertaining and extreme reactions from the people they are interviewing by the choice of their words and the tone of their voices to the point of bending the truth…just to get a reaction to help accomplish their agendas…much like actors on the stage. What is real anymore anyway? What is the truth anymore? Do we know? And in social media, it’s quite fascinating to see how hard people are desperately vying for attention for short-term personal satisfaction. People will put anything on social media to get a reaction…even if it is not who they are or not the truth. All for shock value and attention. Hard-core social media users seems quite lonely to me and they seem like they are all about to crash and burn. It’s no coincidence that the song “Sensational” then segues into the song “Death Threat” on my album with its surprise ending.

Q:   The high energy dance song “Euphoria” is dynamic and exciting. It really makes one want to jump up and down as it zig-zags along. It’s very acid house in its sounds and beats. How did that song come about?

A:   That was the hardest song to write and produce on the album. And it took a full 18 months to complete. I consider “Euphoria” to be the finale of the album, right before the sun comes up. For some reason, I had this idea of the cast of The Rocky Horror Picture Show…again, another piece of music taking place at night…performing this song as a dance ensemble towards the end of the night in a very celebratory fashion. And so, I recruited over 10 local Berlin-based performance artists…I call them Berlin Shapeshifters…to lend me their voices and breaths and energy to be part of this very Berlin artist collaboration finale. Recording this song with all these artists was one big party atmosphere. All the Berlin Shapeshifters on this song are pioneering performance artists in their own right and many of them are genderless. They are very strong and very brave. They were all chosen for how they present themselves visually to the world and of course because of their open-minded personalities. “Euphoria” is meant to be a reward for those that have survived the dark spektrum thus far.

Q:   And then your album ends with the song “Dawn: Revolve and Evolve”…the sun is rising…we have made it to daylight. This is the most orchestral song on the album.

A:   I’ve always loved songs about sunrises…like The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun”, Bob Marley’s “Sun is Shining”, The Doors’ “Waiting for the Sun”, Stevie Wonder’s “A Place in the Sun” and John Denver’s “Sunshine on my Shoulders”. And so I wrote my sunrise song. I actually wrote the chord progression on the song on the beach in Mallorca, Spain as the sun was rising and then took the music back to Berlin and worked on all the various parts on it with the orchestra. It’s a great way to end the album after all the drama of the preceding songs on the album. The album ends on a very positive note.

Q:   So what is next for you now that the album is completed?

A:   I am going to be focused on getting the music out there for people to enjoy. There will be a few singles taken from the album. I also hope to have the music from the album performed in theatrical environments at some point in the future. I am also in the middle of producing a very dark techno EP in Berlin. And I just started writing the score and storeyline to my first contemporary dance ballet. I hope to be able to workshop one or two acts from my ballet with a choreographer in Berlin soon.

Photography: Sebastian Runge

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