The 24-hour-plus drive to Austin, Texas, to play the South by Southwest Music Conference is a pilgrimage many Chicago bands know all too well in recent decades. Each year, bands make the exhausting journey in search of some new, undefined adventure, despite the potentially negligible benefits of being one of 2,000 acts to perform at the annual conference.
When Melkbelly was invited to play the conference earlier this year, singer-guitarist Miranda Winters was dead set against it. “I was 150 percent ‘no,’” she says. “Everyone else was saying let’s do it. ‘We can do more shows and make it pay off.’ I was outvoted. But what ultimately persuaded them and eventually me was that we got the invitation to play for Carpark.”
The respected Washington, D.C.-based indie label Carpark was staging a showcase for its bands, which included Melkbelly, then newly signed to its subsidiary Wax Nine Records, which is run by Speedy Ortiz’s Sadie Dupuis.
Winters and her bandmates, brothers Liam and Bart Winters (Bart is also Miranda’s husband), and drummer James Wetzel piled themselves and their gear into their rusted tour van and headed out of a Chicago winter toward Texas. Then everything that could go wrong did: a snapped steering column, a flat tire, a seven-hour pit stop in Dallas for repairs, and then, just as they were closing in on their destination, a near-death accident.
“A car spun out on the highway in front of us and just missed us,” Miranda Winters says. “We got into the club and we were still shocked and full of adrenaline: ‘Oh, my God, we’re alive.’”
The band can almost laugh about it now, but the close brush with mortality definitely had an impact on the performance that immediately followed. The band rolled into the venue and set up quickly, maintaining their cool even as some last-second sound glitches were worked out, and then played a ferocious set. “All the stress anxiety just disappeared,” Miranda Winters says.
“That helped us appreciate life again,” Liam Winters says.
The band played countless times in the days immediately afterward, including gigs in back yards and garages, to help pay for the repairs and break even on the trip. And the old church van from Kenosha that served the band so well for most of its four-your existence? It’s been gracefully retired.
The band is going to need new wheels to properly mark the forthcoming release of its first album, “Nothing Valley.” It distills the band’s strengths — sliding sneaky good hooks through thickets of dissonance and distortion — into 11 discrete bursts of madness and melody. It’s one of the best indie releases this year, and stamps the band as a must-hear for noise-rock aficionados.
It’s the product of years of individual and collective woodshedding by the band as songwriters and musicians. Miranda Winters arrived in Chicago a decade ago after spending time in the Providence, R.I., indie scene. She and Bart Winters worked in a more low-key band together before joining forces with Wetzel on drums and Liam Winters on bass.
“I was always split between two types of music, soft folk and louder rough stuff,” Miranda Winters says of her previous bands. “I wanted something between those two extremes.”
With Melkbelly, Miranda’s vocals bring a melodic sensibility to songs that touch on classic metal sludge (notably on “RUNXRN” from the new album) and the raging jazz-punk feel of Lightning Bolt, particularly through Wetzel’s protean drumming (check out the recent single “Middle Of”).
Much of the songwriting is collaborative, and it’s reflected in songs that feel compressed, volatile, as though some unseen force is desperately trying to keep a lid on all the energy flying through the dense two- and three-minute arrangements.
The four band members all live within a few blocks of each other in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, and spend much of their down time hanging out with one another. There’s a collective mindset at work in the band’s blast-furnace concerts and in the way it records.
“Although there’s three of us bonded legally or by blood, I feel James is part of the family too,” Miranda says. “It’s difficult to find where the line is drawn, where one relationship starts and the other begins. With Bart and I, we always talk about music. When do we pause and we are not bandmates?”
“We hang out after practice, doing things like watching ‘Game of Thrones’ together every Sunday,” Liam Winters adds. “We keep the lines of communication going so there are no lingering debates.”
It leads to a communal brand of songwriting and arranging. “The way I write, it would be impossible to say something is a song until the others look at it,” Miranda Winters says. “It takes four brains to make a Melkbelly song.”