Standing outside his New York City show, people express their gratitude at his performance—his first in half a decade here. People are here from everywhere. They come from Upstate and from Long Island and probably from New Jersey, too. One dude goes to his car to make sure Jake had some weed for the road. "It's really good shit," his girlfriend says. Upon learning that Jake would make a stop in Colorado later that month, this guy proposes that they fly out for it. This might sound crazy. This is not a stop at Coachella. It’s just a show, another stop on the road. This, for a guy who just played to around 30 people as the opening act on an early show on a Monday night.
But this is Jake Bellows. Many outside of Omaha were first exposed to him on One Jug of Wine, Two Vessels, his 2004 split EP with Bright Eyes. The Conor Oberst endorsement was enough to sell many an emo fan. His three songs on the record outshine the Bright Eyes recordings, but his vocal turn on the Oberst-penned closing track “Spring Cleaning” will hit you right in the gut.
Tonight, 10 years later, the crowd is small, but loyal. Jake all but disappeared until last year. If you’d been waiting to see him, you probably assumed you’d be waiting for a long time. And these people were waiting.
There was a long break for Jake Bellows, between his band Neva Dinova dissolving after their last album (2008's You May Already Be Dreaming) and a solo debut, New Ocean, which arrived in August of last year. For fans, there had been little news—no official announcement of a Neva Dinova hiatus, no opening slots on national tours. For fans, it looked as if the music might have dried up, with no closure.
During this break, the longtime Omaha resident (he was born in Council Bluffs, Iowa) moved to Los Angeles. He had come up around the close-knit Saddle Creek scene, eventually signing to the label and releasing music with and touring alongside Bright Eyes. More than anything, he needed a chance to get away, to do something different. With his bandmates in the process of getting married and having kids, Jake took the money from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and headed west.
It wasn't out of spite. "I don't want to misrepresent my reasons for leaving Omaha,” he told me over the phone during the first part of our conversation. “It was mostly that I was drinking myself into a hole, and I can imagine that I could spend the rest of my life doing that. It's very easy to get by on little money, and I've never been motivated by money so I don't mind that." He misses Omaha, still.
He describes a time he had a flat tire and called everyone in the city he knew to get a hand. There was always an excuse. "Oh, I was about to sit down for dinner, but call me back if you can't find anyone else." He didn't call back on principle. In Omaha, you'd never need to make more than one call. And yet in Los Angeles, it’s harder to drink yourself into a hole the way you can in a Midwestern bar town.
The night of his New York show, Jake rolls into town in a '98 Cadillac, not the car he started the tour with. That was a '71 Datsun, a truck that people thought he was crazy to try and take across the country and back. He was. The truck broke down in New Mexico, leaving him stranded and forcing him to cancel a show. His uncle came and got him and brought him and the truck to Omaha, where he worked for four days to try and get it up and running. The tour would have ended there, if not for the generosity of his father and his brother, who pitched in to make the '98 Cadillac a reality. The only other option would have been canceling the tour. “Traveling and playing music, I'm so deep in the fucking hole I can't even tell you,” he says. “Although money is a foolish, made-up notion, it will still stop you. I don’t even have a credit card. That my brother and dad came together on this one means so much to me.”
"I used to be a depressive person," Jake says after taking the stage in New York. "I believe in people, so I've got a lot of hope these days."
Here's the premiere of the video for "New Ocean," the title track from Jake Bellows' recent solo record.
This isn’t that remarkable a statement until you remember that this is someone who once closed an album with the refrain, "The world's a shitty place and I can't wait to die." Now, he tells me, he’s reading Don Quixote for the sake of self-discipline.
I ask him about this change, which is reflected on New Ocean. Gone are the hard-drinking, slow anthems. The songs have taken a turn toward uplifting, songs like the title track, with the verse: "Make ready all the boats / The valley's filling up / Let's lower down the ropes / and let our brothers in." His answers to this are not simple. He’s clearly put a lot of thought in, but is also working out the answers—“the truth,” he mentions frequently—as he goes.
"I've come to understand that all things that exist are vibrating at a specific frequency, and therefore that is essentially the language that the universe is written in," he says. "Because of that, putting order to frequency is basically the creation of all things that exist. That's pretty exciting. Music is putting order to frequency as well, even the idea of a chord progression or a chord itself. So it draws these parallels between the idea of creation in general. I've been thinking: 'What if rather than constantly reflect the world that we see, we could create kind of a static loop of current events?' If [things are] good, they continue to get more good. If they're bad, they get more bad. Whatever the situation is, it continues to reflect inwardly. So I thought it would be cool if you were to create in this way, to project the world that you would like to see. To effect some kind of change in our world, to attempt to using music."
It's not just a philosophy for his music, but for his life. It's the result of a lot of thinking, presumably the result of moving to a new city without many friends, with no band, and with a job cutting glass and aluminum.
"In our family there was [a saying] that was if a kid was upset, my grandma or grandpa would say 'You better straighten up or a bird’s gonna poop on your lip.' So your lip is sticking out because you're upset in some way, and the implication is that because you're upset, the world will organize itself to drop shit on your lip. Bird shit! It's a pretty deep philosophical leap for people to be making casually while raising a kid. But it's interesting and I think there's something to it, to getting what you expect to get and having your perspective somewhat define your reality."
Later, I ask about luck: "I think I have a lot of luck, but it doesn't discriminate between good and bad."
If you believe in luck, it's been on display this tour. From being stranded on the side of the road half the night in New Mexico, to having family come to the rescue of the tour, he’s seen the ups and downs. Unfortunately, family won't likely be able to salvage the rest of the tour. He had been scheduled to do a leg of dates with Margot and the Nuclear So-and-So's, but those dates have been canceled. I doubt Jake will care about any financial implications from the missed shows, but he’ll be bummed not to connect with people on the road. He tells about playing Scottsdale, Arizona, a show that by all measures should have been considered a disaster. Something like eight people showed up. The most important part, he says, was when they all sat outside after and talked about “what it’s all about.” It’s a journey he’s happy to share with whoever wants to be a part of it.
Todd Olmstead has a cult following. He's on Twitter — @toddjolmstead