The Sound of Music
Written by Bwog Staff
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.”