Democracy's a funny thing. It can define civilizations. It can liberate minds and unleash souls. It can prompt unending, impenetrable gibberish from bespectacled poli-sci students.
And it can kill a rock band.
Music groups adhering to egalitarian ideals are breakups waiting to happen. Dictators--benevolent, malevolent and all points in between--seem to work best in the rock 'n' roll kingdom. Little Hitlers write the songs the whole band sings. And they keep writing and singing come what may, refusing to abdicate when threats foreign or domestic destroy everything around them.
Tom Gorman knows about democracy and dictatorship, rock 'n' roll-style. His lead guitar plays second fiddle in Tanya Donelly's band Belly. Gorman's a drone in Donelly's hive. He helps write a few songs and sings now and then, but, for the most part, his main job is to assist Belly's main attraction.
Gorman claims to be a happy proletariat. But he says there's a velvet revolution in the air.
"In the beginning, with Star, the first record, Tanya had a bunch of songs that she had to get out," Gorman says. "And because she was the known quantity in the band, she took most of the attention.
"Which," he adds, "I think she got pretty tired of."
With that in mind, Donelly recently set out to form a more well-rounded Belly. That's why Gorman and other Belly members share songwriting duties on four cuts from the band's new CD, King. And that's why Donelly allowed most of her own songs to be fleshed out from skeletal ideas she initially presented to the band.
Belly's still Donelly's baby, but she gladly shared power in the making of King. "I know she's always said she's much more attracted to bands that operate as bands, instead of solo artists with backing bands," Gorman says. "When she formed Belly, she said she was kind of sick of being in a band that was one person's main thing with everyone else on the side. She wanted something that operated more as a unit."
That mindset came from Donelly's stint as a glorified side player in Throwing Muses, the New England-based band led by her stepsister, Kristin Hersh. Donelly and Hersh were founding members of TM, but Donelly contributed roughly two songs per CD on the band's first five full-length discs. After 1991's The Real Ramona, Donelly was ready to pop with unborn material. She bolted from Hersh and the Muses, a move she's described variously as "friendly" and "painful." Donelly went on to join the Breeders for that band's first album, and then became one of many ephemeral members of This Mortal Coil's ever-changing lineup.
Finally, in 1992, Donelly decided to settle down and give birth to her own band. The first person she called was Gorman, a friend from the old Muses scene around Providence, Rhode Island. Gorman and his brother Chris had been in a noted mid-Eighties hard-core band, Verbal Assault. Donelly, having played with stepsister Hersh in Throwing Muses and sisters Kim and Kelley Deal with the Breeders, reverted to form and recruited both Gorman brothers for Belly.
"Siblings definitely make a difference in terms of the dynamics of a band," Gorman says. "It makes for a nice creative balance."
But brothers and sisters can be creative in other ways, too.
"It can lead to a volatile situation in terms of stupid little arguments," Gorman says. "But because of the relationship, things usually blow over really quickly, where sometimes in a nonsibling situation, something might blow up and then fester and get worse. If it's your brother, it's like, 'What do you do?'"
Gorman and his drummer brother have played together for years ("It's hard to explain what it's like being in a band with him because I haven't been in many bands without him"). Most of the Gormans' past groups were of the hard-core punk variety, a growling, tuneless style about as far as you can get from Belly's graceful pop.
Gorman says, "Most of the people I know from when I was into hard-core and punk are like us; they've progressed into other things, too. When my brother and I were playing hard-core, it had less to do with style than with being more of a social thing. And it was a really good way to learn to play. You could pick up an instrument, be in a band a week later and be in a show a week after that. You didn't have to sit in your room and practice for years before you ever dared present it to the world."
Belly's songs have a hint of punk's d.i.y. ethos. Donelly's vocals are nicely nonpro, and the band performs with an equally charming instrumental simplicity. Most of what little extra weight Belly carried on Star was reshaped on King by producer Glyn Johns, whose wrinkled fingers have massaged a soundboard or two. Johns has helped produce albums by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Led Zeppelin and a slew of lesser gods. Gorman says it was intimidating at first to deal with someone whose name is on "about a quarter of the records and CDs we own."
Not that Johns shoved his hefty rep in Belly's face.
"He's kind of like a good-hearted old grump," Gorman says. "He's just done it for so long and he's done it with so many different personalities, he has the psychological aspect of it down. He knows how to treat people to get them to do what they need to do without being a tyrant."
Gorman was surprised at how oblivious Johns was to the current music Zeitgeist. Gorman says the grizzled Brit didn't even know who Pearl Jam was when the name came up in conversation.
"He doesn't have much knowledge of current music, and he really doesn't care," says Gorman. "It made it refreshing to isolate the record and not have to think of it in terms of where it's fitting in now."
Where Belly fits now is somewhere snug on the high side of big-time success. Star sold respectable numbers (500,000 at last count), and King should do at least as well, especially with such catchy fare as "Seal My Fate," "Now They'll Sleep" and the less-poppy "Red," the latter two songs co-written by Gorman.
There's a considerable amount of attention focused on Belly, with band profiles gracing recent covers of Rolling Stone, Pulse and other national music mags. Such mainstream buzz, along with Donelly's fresh-scrubbed, agreeable and decidedly non-riot grrrl persona, threatens to change Belly from alternative darlings to bloated targets for backlashers.
"I know a few years ago, having a certain amount of success virtually guaranteed that you'd face a backlash," Gorman says. "Particularly if you were an alternative band. But I don't think that's the case now, because those kinds of bands are going multiplatinum. So even if there is a backlash, it's relatively small compared to the band's success."
Belly is scheduled to perform on Sunday, April 30, at Electric Ballroom in Tempe, with Polara. Call 894-0707 for showtime.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.