The Sound of Music

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For careful listeners, the best soundtrack on campus is the rotation of Vampire Weekend, Radiohead and other indie darlings at Cafe 212. Bwog cultural correspondent Merrell Hambleton sits down with the man behind the mix.

I find Café 212 manager Robert Bell working to hang up two small bulletin boards. “I’m actually doing something with the music,” he says. “The music” he’s referring to is precisely the reason for our meeting—Bell, tall with longish brown hair, dark framed glasses, and a neatly trimmed chinstrap, has earned a reputation in his year at Columbia for playing some non-traditional Muzak. In fact, its not Muzak at all, it’s actually, well, good. If you’re haunted by memories of 212’s old soundtrack, you’ll likely be pleased to hear the likes of Radiohead, Cat Power or the of-late-ubiquitous Vampire Weekend while you wait in the sandwich line.

So what prompted Bell to buck the trend of non-descript instrumental world music and hit-or-miss pop (read: Ferris Booth)? The Virginia native moved to New York (Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, to be specific) in 2004, where he first “got excited by working with food” while working at an Au Bon Pain branch.  But chain stores don’t offer a whole lot of flexibility. According to Bell, “One thing that really bothered me… was they had this Frank Sinatra thing going on. They had it very carefully orchestrated, so in Hong Kong they had an Au Bon Pain that was also playing Frank Sinatra at 8 AM.”

When he arrived at Columbia in 2007, Bell had the opportunity to indulge his pop sensibility—which began, unsurprisingly, with the Beatles. “My dad had a copy of Yellow Submarine, which has got to be the worst Beatles album, but it had ‘Hey Bulldog’ on it.”  From there, Bell’s taste has expanded significantly, though when I ask if there’s a band he plays more than others, Bell admits, “there’re a lot of Beatles on.” (As we talk, “Get Back” is playing—part of the “Brit Pop” mix). Spoon has been on heavy rotation lately, and when In Rainbows came out Bell let the whole record play through. “Vampire Weekend and Cat Power’s Jukebox came out a few weeks ago and I mixed that together and played that in the morning.” Of course, Bell doesn’t have total freedom, even if the boundaries are self-imposed. “You can’t play Gang of Four; you can’t play J.U.S.T.I.C.E. here when people are trying to study and digest.”

The music Bell plays is almost entirely his own. “Because of the way the music is set up here,” He says, “I play CDs, so its not like I’m streaming Pandora… I actually mix CDs from stuff that I have, which fortunately at this point is a large amount of music.” Aside from living in Brooklyn and frequenting the Siren Festival, Bell used to read Inkblot Magazine to keep abreast of new bands. “I think a couple of those people broke off and went to Pitchfork. PopMatters is another one.”

When he isn’t re-ordering Movie Size Junior Mints (incidentally, these are selling really well) and feeding ravenous undergrads, Bell is in class. Intro to Comp Lit is the second course Bell’s taken with Bruce Robbins and he claims to be “enjoying it thoroughly.” Though not a matriculating student, Bell hopes to apply in the next year or so. Minus the Dining Services jacket, it seems like he’ll fit in pretty well.

So does Bell’s presence signal a new, edgier direction for Columbia Dining at large? It doesn’t seem likely. Ferris is still blasting the Grease Soundtrack on a weekly basis. Still, Bell says he’d like to get the Ferris manager’s input. “I think he likes metal.”

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  1. back to your roots  

    the JJs place 90s mix beats all.

  2. YUM  

    This is cute. Thanks for a nice easy to digest post.

  3. i like

    two songs by vampire weekend (one moderately so, the other a lot) but am not a fan of the rest of their stuff--i feel like a failure as a columbia supporter/partisan

  4. >:o  

    Bwog, you promised me a Financial Aid announcement. >:o

  5. yet how  

    can one frequent a festival that only happens once a year?

  6. i'm  

    impressed with bwog as of late. not as much off-campus fluff and more of the goings-on at columbia. huzzah for bwog going back to her (his? its?) roots!

  7. ...  

    look out nyu! we got us a real hipster now! he even lives in brooklyn! nyah nyah nyah!

  8. Don't even

    mention Vampire Weekend and Radiohead in the same sentence. One is a flash in the pan the other is the inheritor of the Beatles best qualities.

  9. bwog doncha know  

    ...that vampire weekend is MTV's artist of the week AND will be on Saturday Night Live this week!

  10. good music =  

    mike the carman security guard's playlist. double points if you catch him playing air guitar.

  11. bell  

    is the nicest.

    he even offers people fruit on a tray in the morning!

  12. That explains why  

    I heard the same fucking cat power song both the times I was in 212 today, for no more than 2 minutes each

  13. negative points for  


    not every fucking thing is an acronym. yet.

  14. Why yes,  

    212 does have good music, sweet oasis selections every now and then

  15. m b 1  

    very good article.

  16. lies  

    there are no au bon pain's in Hong Kong

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