Cincinnati husband-and-wife folk duo The Bell and the Hammer are preparing to release their second album, The Things We Get Wrong, on August 5th on Friend Club Records. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s an incredible TWELVE YEARS since their first album, To Set Things Right. (We’re starting to get into Tool territory in terms of output intervals.) A lot has happened to Dan and Serenity Johnson in that time, and yet throughout the interim they continued to write and arrange pop-folk songs reflecting their felt experiences of the world.
After successfully funding a vinyl pressing of The Things We Get Wrong on Kickstarter, Dan sat down with me via Zoom to discuss the band’s history, what it’s like to create music as a married couple, and the inspiration behind several key tracks from their latest output. Read on for an edited version of our extremely pleasant hour and a half conversation. And be sure to listen to The Bell and the Hammer on Bandcamp, follow them on Instagram, and pre-order the new album here.
For those who don’t know, who is “The Bell and the Hammer?”
It’s me Dan Johnson and my wife Serenity Johnson. We started writing music in college before we got married. We were already dating. We met through a traveling choir that was part of college. She just had this ridiculous voice and I had been in a bunch of terrible bands in high school. I knew we had to write together. I think it wouldn’t have been her thing had I not pushed for it, and I’m glad I did.
When we first started writing we were playing small shows. We were doing it in our own capacity, playing open mics. We were playing in the Orlando area for about the first four years we were together, and it was just something fun to do. But really it was an important outlet for me, writing is my primary outlet. I feel weird calling myself a guitarist or a singer, I don’t feel like those really fit me. But I feel comfortable calling myself a songwriter.
Are you the primary songwriter or do you co-write songs?
In the beginning she was writing some lyrics, and I was writing some lyrics as well. We were both taking turns sharing lead vocals. Obviously being in a relationship together and trying to create together can be really volatile, because it’s really personal. There’s already enough band drama without the added drama of a relationship. There were times where it was just hard.
It was never stated or said, but she’s obviously the better singer, and so she basically took over singing the songs. She’s probably the better lyricist so she kept writing, and I started writing less and less lyrics. So, we were able to delineate the roles into a way that has worked for us over the past decade where I write pretty much all the music but also the melody. She’ll write the lyrics, I’ll write the melody based on her lyrics, and she’ll tweak the melody a bit. That’s usually how it breaks down. And it worked, because we both have our things we’re responsible for, and we’re both happy to have the other person take care of their own role.
How does your relationship play into the lyric writing? Is this like a Fleetwood Mac situation where she’s secretly singing about you?
Literally on the only love song on the album, she wrote my name into the song. She says “Daniel,” and I’m singing it too, which is maybe weird. We’re averaging about one love or relationship song an album. For her, if she sees something or hears something, and it impacts her that’s how she processes it—by writing it.
What does the Bell and the Hammer name mean to you?
It’s the word for word title of the fourth chapter of The Magician’s Nephew (C.S. Lewis). It was 2004, and I didn’t just want to be “Dan and Serenity Johnson.” I just threw it out there, and she didn’t object, so we stuck with it. The imagery of it is really cool. It’s what wakes up the white witch. The kids go in and strike this bell with the hammer. It’s this sound that gets louder and louder; it doesn’t hurt their ears, but it takes over everything. I don’t think our sound necessarily matches it, but I like the imagery. Obviously, all the time we get “Who’s the bell and who’s the hammer?” It’s not how we ever thought about it.
How has your sound evolved/changed with this newest album?
Our first album, To Set Things Right, came out in 2010. The sound on our newest release is a lot different from that album. There’s a few reasons for that. We’ve always written acoustic and two voices. She also plays clarinet. I’ve always arranged the songs in such a way that they can be played with just us two. Because of my influences and ideas, I always hear a lot more than what just the two of us are doing. But in our recording process of the first album, I was trying to get as much as I could onto the album before we left the country. And we literally ran out of time. So the album technically doesn’t sound the way I want it to. We’re still really proud of it. The idea was always to make it a fully fleshed out album. But we just ran out of time because we were moving to South Korea in three or four months from the day we entered the studio.
That’s interesting because “The Things We Get Wrong” is very full and orchestral. I can see how you could strip that down and play with just two people, but I can also see how you’d play with a full band.
It’s the kind of thing that the core sound hasn’t changed too much. A lot of these songs are basically over a decade old. We had our first child in 2011, and the first album came out in 2010. Right until our son was born we were writing the next album. We had five or six songs, and we were playing out in Korea, planning to go full steam ahead. Obviously, life happens. From that point on maybe we were writing a song a year; it was a trickle. It wasn’t like we fully put everything down and then started up fresh a couple of years ago. It was as if we were hibernating almost.
When you sit on music for 12 years, people change. Did you find yourself being able to relate with that music still, or did you have to change anything as you recorded it?
Definitely things change. But actually the first song on the album is one of the first songs we’ve ever wrote. We wrote it before we got married. That song is almost 20 years old. We demo’d it for the first album, and it didn’t sound right. I always heard what I wanted it to be in my head, but I was just never able to accomplish it. And then finally almost 20 years later we were able to get it to where I’m really happy with it.
But the lyrics to that song are reflective of the time. I don’t think Serenity would write that song today. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t still value in it today. I almost thought this was going to be the last thing we would ever do. We were almost treating this as an anthology. Let’s just collect what we’ve written, and we’ll just have it for ourselves. I don’t think that’s the case now, and I’m glad it’s not. But it would’ve been okay if it was. It was a powerful process revisiting where we have been all the way up to now. The last song on the album, the title track, is our newest song essentially. The album is bookended with our newest and oldest song.
How did the pandemic affect this process for you?
I want to point out that it wasn’t a pandemic record. Basically, we had studio time booked for April 2020, and it fell apart. I didn’t know what to do. We have been trying to record this album for the past six or seven years. We had studio time booked but life got in the way, and we would just back out. This time I was like “This has to happen. We have to make this work.” Booking studio time was the furthest I have ever gotten to being committed to making it happen.
With the pandemic I still wanted to record, but nobody was going to let me into their house or into their studio. So I ended up recording it myself. I had done a little bit of recording before, but definitely not to this level. It was a huge learning curve, a ton of trial and error. But I’m really happy with how it came out. My buddy Matt Putman helped me mix it and produce it. And that was amazing. I was a year into recording it myself but was starting to sputter out. I reached out to him, and he helped get me over the line.
Faith seems to play an influence in your music. Could you speak to that a little bit more?
It’s very clear in our music that we are believers, or however you want to say it. The name of the new album is a response to the last album. If in 2010 we are looking to set things right, now we’re saying here’s all the things we get wrong. We believe different things than we believed 12 years ago. But at the core it’s still the way that the world makes the most sense to us. That there is a Creator, that’s the lens I view the world through. With science you still only can get so far. There’s something that had to have happened that science can’t account for because science tells us that something can’t come from nothing. And so you’re getting into the realm of philosophy and asking “What does that mean?”
For sure, when we’re saying “the things we get wrong,” we’re in a place where we’re saying “Who are we to say out of the billions and billions of people that were on this earth that we’re the first people to fully understand what life is, how we’re supposed to be, and how we’re supposed to engage with people.” How arrogant could you possibly be? I’m trying to take a more measured posture and say “I do know what I believe but I don’t for a second think that it’s 100% right or that I’ve got it all figured out.” And there’s nothing wrong with saying that. We don’t have to be so afraid of not knowing everything.
There is a song on The Things We Get Wrong called “If Only for the Night (a Prayer for Peace).” Could you speak a little more to the inspiration for the song?
That was written in Korea as a prayer for North Korean people. We lived there from 2010-2013 and a month after we got there North Korea made their most brazen attack on South Korea that they had in decades. North Korea sunk a South Korean navy ship, and it killed dozens of soldiers. We had family calling us and asking if we were going to die.
We lived in Seoul, it’s about 40 miles for North Korea’s border. We got hooked into a refugee group run by South Koreans and ex-pats where they were helping North Koreans escape. They would have to come through China and then come down. They were trying to be practical in providing an escape for them. Whatever you’ve heard or whatever you’ve read (about North Korea) is infinitely worse than what you can imagine. And the situation hasn’t improved since we lived there. That’s all the song was, a very plain call for these people who are so oppressed, if they could just get out of there.
I read that title and listened to the song and thought it had something to do with Ukraine.
We thought basically the same thing as it was happening. We just want peace.
The song “When I Was a Sailor” has a significant story behind it about your father. Could you share a little more about that?
It is about my father, but Serenity wrote it. He died in 2019, and he suffered from bipolar disorder his entire adult life. He had a psychotic break while he was in the Marines. He got put on lithium and that regulated him really well. But lithium is toxic to the human body. Our kidneys can’t process it. He took it for 40 years and doctors said you’re going to go into renal failure and need to be on dialysis for the rest of your life unless you stop taking lithium. So he chose to go off it.
I grew up and I thought I was living the most normal, milquetoast, suburban life ever. Everything was fine. I had a loving family, both parents were there, nothing extraordinary happened, good or bad. I felt like both my parents loved me. I didn’t even know my dad had bipolar disorder, because my parents didn’t have to tell me and my brother. He didn’t have any relapses.
When I was in college things fell apart. That actually happened right before the first album came out where he just went to this constant depressive state where he didn’t come out for a decade. He languished in a VA hospital. He went in when he was 65. He could take care of himself physically but couldn’t do it mentally. We were in Korea at the time, and we’d come back for two weeks. I’d go see him and five minutes into the visit he’d need to take a nap. It was really hard.
We heard a sermon where the preacher was talking about this metaphor if a sailor forgot how to long for the sea, who is he even? That’s what it is, a metaphor for life and what my dad was going through. This is actually an older song too, maybe nine or ten years old. I think we wrote it in Korea. I’m really proud of it, really happy with it. It was the kind of thing I always heard in my head what it would be, but I was worried a little bit switching between 6/4 and 6/8 time.
Yeah, that song takes you on a real wild ride, time signature-wise.
When we played it just the two of us, I worried if people would get what was happening without some kind of percussive element. But when we started playing it out, people responded well to it. Finally getting to flesh it out on the record the way I always heard it in my head for over a decade was really satisfying.
Tell us a little about the crowdfunding process for the newest album?
It was a little bit scary. Like most people who are into music, it was a dream of mine to someday put something out on vinyl. But like most people who have ever thought about it, I’m very aware of how expensive it is. Friend Club Records are putting the album out on cassette. I didn’t want them to have to take on the burden of funding the vinyl. Friend Club is a small operation. Everyone is involved because it’s something they love doing. I just said if we can fund it then let’s do it, and if we can’t then let’s not. We went ahead and tried and it funded in the last 24 hours. It was scary for a while. But it was really amazing to see our friends, family, and fans rally around us. Now we just have to wait the 14 years lead time to get the vinyl in.
How did you get hooked up with Friend Club Records?
In a very, very technical sense, I’m one of the founders. I met Rob Froese through the midwest emo-posting Facebook group. We had talked about starting a record label for years. Then the pandemic hit, and he said “I have to actually do this, I’m going crazy.” He, in a very kind way, let me claim to be a part of it. But he’s definitely the brains behind the operation. It was just a very natural thing. He asked to put out the Bell and Hammer’s first album on cassette. And that just led us to here.
Who would be in your Mt. Rushmore of influences?
Oh my gosh, this is impossible. I think the album fairly represents my influences. I’m definitely an emo kid at heart. That is everything that I always come back to. I’ve always loved pop music. And I listen to a ton of singer-songwriters, folk, and indie.
Appleseed Cast would be one. They’ve been a constant for me since I first heard them.
Denison Witmer. I’m obsessed with Denison Witmer. He’s hugely underrated as a songwriter. A few years ago, right before Kasey Musgraves won all the Grammy’s, she called out Dennison Witmer as one of her favorite songwriters and said that “Little Flowers” is one of her favorite songs. It’s all very practical and straightforward. That all resonates with me a lot. It gets at the heart of it and does it in a way that’s never super flashy but always super effective.
Third, I’m gonna have to go with Brian Wilson. It’s kind of a cop out answer, but I’m fairly obsessed. I think he’s the greatest American songwriter of all time, which is saying a lot since he hasn’t written almost any of his lyrics. It matters that it’s the music, that it’s the melodies. That’s what he’s doing, and that’s what I do, and I’m never going to claim to be anything like that. Pet Sounds is genius. Smile is genius.
Finally, John K. Sampson. He is the singer of The Weakerthans. He is a lyricist’s lyricist. He is a poet. He used to be the bassist in Propaghandi. On his first album of the Weakerthans you can hear a tiny bit of the punk influence. But every album on it’s less and less and becomes straight up folk. Just incredible stuff.
You could ask me this question tomorrow, and I might give you four different artists.
What do you do when you aren’t The Bell and the Hammer?
I’m a software project manager for a software company out of Dayton. We do 3-D AR and VR visualization software. Which is fine. I just have a lot of passions. Making music, listening to music, playing boardgames, playing video games, building Legos. I just have way too many things that I’m into. And obviously doing all of those things with my family.
My brother-in-law and I designed a board game. Last year I finished up a screenplay about my dad for a feature film and also a TV pilot. I’ve been filling life with creative outlets.
I’m glad that the album finally exists and really stoked to share it. No delusions about what we are or what it will be, but just hoping that a few people will hear it and that it impacts them somehow.