Richard Reed Parry and Pietro Amato Bell Orchestre

Richard Reed Parry and Pietro Amato Bell Orchestre
Bell Orchestre often rehearse in a cramped two-storey loft space deep in the warehouse district of Montreal’s Saint Henri neighbourhood. The damp room is a patch-job of any band’s barest necessities: drywall, beer, electrical outlets, tour posters, a sofa, and a cavalry of instruments. Though the location is decidedly isolated, these warehouses in a corner of the city that was largely abandoned only a decade back have become notorious among musicians looking for cheap jam spaces that don’t warrant noise complaints from neighbours. Bell Orchestre’s niche, which they share with a collective of other musicians, is only one in a long row of rehearsal rooms.

After a quick jam session by three of the band’s members, I sit down with upright bassist Richard Reed Parry and French horn player Pietro Amato. Both men are very busy these days. Apart from rehearsing with Bell Orchestre, Parry is in the middle of mixing the forthcoming Arcade Fire album while Amato does the same with his other project, Torngat. "It’s not always easy,” Amato admits. "It takes planning in advance, and sometimes you have no clue what’s going to happen in a few days. People can go on tour. Different things happen in different bands.”

Given that practically all the members of Bell Orchestre have other bands, the variables intruding on this band’s time can add up. Parry readily concedes that, "Bell Orchestre has always been a ‘fly by the seat of our pants’ kinda band.” They’re rehearsing for a November recording session; they’ve booked ten days in Chicago with Tortoise’s John McEntire at the production helm. But given their hectic schedules, they’ve kept their goals pragmatic. "Whether we’re going to get a record done fairly soon is somewhat unlikely,” Parry says, "but we’ll get the bones down, get halfway there. Something has to come out of our recording sessions; we can’t walk away empty handed from ten days with John McEntire. A bunch of the stuff is ready to record, and all we have to do is get it done.”

Granted, the hard work is paying off for these two esoteric instrumentalists. It’s not often that a French horn and upright bass find themselves outside the jazz or classical realm, much less courting an international fan base in indie rock circles. For both Amato and Parry, their relationship with these instruments is more "kinship,” as Parry puts it, than professional use. "When I was nine, a concert band came to play at my primary school,” Amato says of his first encounter with the French horn. "At the end of the concert, the conductor said to all the students, ‘If you enjoyed the show, we’re accepting applications to join the band. You can play an instrument. It’s really easy.’ I thought that would so much fun. I went and signed up. We had to do a year of recorder before the conductor asked everyone to choose an instrument. Everyone else was jumping on the drums, guitar, bass. I didn’t know; [the conductor] said, ‘I think you should play French horn, because you have a good ear.’ I didn’t know anything about the French horn, but once I started playing the instrument, I loved it.”

While Amato picked up the French horn before puberty, Parry didn’t discover the upright bass until his late teens. "I played electric bass first. I’d taught myself that in high school, around 16 [years old]. But I had it in my mind that the upright bass was a really beautiful instrument. Once I got to play, I thought it was a better version of the electric bass: it sounds nicer, it’s bigger. Eventually, I found a cheap one that a friend of my family’s was selling.” Given the nature of both instruments, Amato and Parry both had run-ins with classical training early on, to varying results. "I had a couple of really awful lessons that kinda made me want to give it up,” Parry says, "but then I decided that, no, I actually wanted to keep playing, I just didn’t want to take a lessons approach. I didn’t want to be one of those really uptight classical musicians without a lot of musical soul despite being a very skilled musician.”

Amato’s relationship with classical music was a lot more involved. "After I started playing the French horn, I was listening to a lot of classical music. As a result, I have a bunch of classical training, but I’m definitely not a professional classical player. One of my goals is to not play the instrument in the traditional classical music sense, but also go out and find textures and different ways of playing the instrument.”

Ultimately, what stands out for Amato and Parry about their instruments is similar to what stands out about the music their bands create. Both the French horn and upright bass are versatile, and they both possess a very distinct personality.