Belfast noisemakers And So I Watch You From Afar have a hard-earned reputation as being one of this island's absolute best live acts. Not only that, they're also one of the few bands capable of bottling up the magic they weave on stage and capturing it in a recording.
The fourpiece released their third studio album All Hail Bright Futures earlier this week and John Balfe caught up with them to talk about it, whether it represents a shift in tone for them and what it's like being one of hardest working live bands around today.
RF - Rory Friers, guitar
NK - Niall Kennedy, guitar
JA - Johnny Adger, bass
CW - Chris Wee, drums
The reception to the album has been fantastic so far. Having worked on something internally as a band for so long, it must be a gratifying feeling to hear such praise once you release the thing?
RF - Yeah, definitely. Obviously we never shied away from trying to step out beyond the comfort zone and each time we do that it entails new ground and new sounds and new music. You're never sure if all the people who liked the first album, or the second album, or the Letters EP are all going to like it. As the time came closer and closer we thought, 'this is going to be interesting'. We certainly stepped out beyond what was easy to do. It's great to see people really discussing the record and the tracks.
Is the word 'departure' too strong to use in relation to All Hail Bright Futures?
RF - No, definitely not. What we've always strived to do is progress and change. Repetition is our biggest fear. Anything that solidifies that we haven't done that is great to hear, as long as the word 'good' is before 'departure' and it's not 'what a terrible departure'!
There's a much higher representation of vocals on this album than your previous two. Was that a natural progression for you as a band, or did they just happen to be the songs you collectively wrote this time around?
JA - Probably a mixture, to be honest. We'd always maintained that if we thought there was a tune that could be made better by having some form of vocal on it we would try some things out. We never set out to be solely instrumental; it's just the way it worked at the time. Now, this is working. There was really only two parts in our old set that had some kind of vocals, we decided instead of us being stand-offish and hoping people in the audience would sing it for us we thought we'd project the voices and actually try and sing it. Then melodies we came up with ended up staying as a vocal part instead of us playing them, so we decided to stick with it and see what happens.
Niamh Danger from The Danger Is is on there in a few songs too, right?
RF - She's on 'Like A Mouse' and 'Ambulance' and other bits. She's brilliant, we had so much fun the day she came up to the studio. The working title for 'Like A Mouse' was 'Wee Banger' and we were getting her to do all these screams. She asked, 'what's this song called?' and we were like 'Wee Banger'. She goes, 'We Bang Her?!'
L-R: Niall Kennedy, Rory Friers, Johnny Adger, Chris Wee
There's flute, horns and strings on this album. Where did that impetus come from?
RF - That's actually my dad and his mate doing that. It spawns from the initial idea of the band when we felt that we could kind of do anything. If it works, it works. There's probably lots of stuff which has not worked and therefore has not been heard on an And So I Watch You From Afar album. Like, whenever Niamh came up it wasn't like we had something prepared and it was like, 'Niamh, do this'. So yeah, flutes and trumpets. We've got Van Morrison's trumpet player on there - Linley Hamilton - he's just an inspiration.
NK - He's got loads of really good, filthy jokes as well..
I've been told that most bands make their money from touring and merchandise and that there's not a lot of money in things like record sales anymore. Is that a myth in your experience or is it true?
RF - It's certainly not a myth, but that's not because we make a lot of money on tour it's because you literally make nothing from record sales. You just don't. There's a certain amount of costs that come along with putting a record out, even in a very modest way.
JA - Keeping the band on the road as well, it's very expensive.
RF - Once you've made a record and you're waiting for that money to come in at the backend of the cycle, once you break even with a record - that's party time. The money you make on top of that is usually pittance. The money that makes us a self-sufficient band is made on tour predominantly. But that's cool because that's where it feels most real. That's where it feels like you're actively in a band.
CW - You're personally selling your CD to a person, it feels quite real.
Between April 1st and April 20th your touring schedule gives you one day off. Is that a good way to travel in the sense that I would understand that word to mean?
NK - A lot of the time you don't get to see all the cool shit. You get somewhere and you just see the inside of the bar.
JA - How many times have we been to Rome? Everyone's always like, 'is Rome nice?' and I say that I honestly don't know. The people I met in the venue were lovely, though.
NK - But when we started the US we drove through the Rockies and that was amazing.
RF - It's based on luck and where you have to travel through to get.
JA - We were ten minutes from the Grand Canyon and couldn't go. The thing is you the world in a unique way, because you're seeing little pockets of these people who you are meeting and hanging out with. They're very real lives, instead of browsing through a brochure and figuring out what to do each day. It's very strange and unique and ever-changing.
Niall, you're the newest addition to the band having joined in October 2011. How has the experience been for you?
NK - It's been great. We live together anyway, and have been best friends for many years now. It's been very easy to make the transition but obviously they were very big shoes to step into. There was a lot of pressure, A LOT of pressure at the start but it's been really fun and I wouldn't want to be anywhere else.
Speaking of Tony [Wright, former ASIWYFA guitarist], this is the first album you wrote without his input. In terms of the creative input that he'd put into the previous two records, did you have to try and mirror any of that or did you just write an album as the band you are now?
RF - Yeah, just like that. We approached it just like we'd do any other record. The only difference was that we wrote a bit more of it in the studio and, of course, we were writing twice as many guitar lines. There was three people writing guitar lines for a fourpiece-plus band. We decided when we went it to record it that we weren't going to worry about how we would play it live at all.
CW - I think we would have been totally limited by that, as in 'I can't be doing that and this at the same time, so I better not do it'.
I remember reading a tweet from one of you from around the time when 'Gangs' was coming out which said that now that it was released, you had to learn how to play it live. Is that the case with All Hail Bright Futures too?
RF - The thought that we had tweeted that about 'Gangs' seems literally hilarious now. We had to learn parts in Gangs which were quite difficult to play, but on this album it's like we're having to learn to sing in a four-part harmonies, whilst playing our instruments with new pedal set-ups, with extra live sampling, pads and electronics.
JA - We've been rehearing off and on for a while. We toured pretty extensively with Niall last year, whenever we came back from China we decided to make a start on this. None of us were particularly comfortable singing while playing. Chris has a bunch of new toys that he's working with, samplers and all sorts of things.
How do you replicate the strings, horns and flutes?
JA - We're a nineteen-piece band now!
RF - Chris has got a sampler and he triggers stuff. We really wanted to try and avoid the backing track thing. We've played with bands who had a backing track - it sounds great - but very robotic every night.
And it'll sound the same every night as well...
RF - Yeah, exactly. Even though it was a lot harder, we wanted to trigger stuff live.
NK - It gives you a bit more freedom as well to get more creative with it.
RF - Like Johnny said, it's about finding who's got the spare hand at what point!
It sounds like you're playing Twister on stage!
RF - It's exactly like Twister! That sound needs to come in at this point, what's everyone doing?
Festival season is kicking off soon, presumably you'll be doing some?
RF - We haven't decided to what extent we want to do festivals this year. We definitely know we want to do some. There's a few we've confirmed and a few we know we're going to announce but we haven't quite decided whether to go out all summer or not. We'll certainly be doing a few key ones, and maybe we'll do a whole load, but for now we're trying to pick good festivals. We want to make sure we gives ourselves time before we go to America again in September and we also want to make sure we're playing other music other than just the new album, we've always got to feel like we're making new music.
All Hail Bright Futures is out now on CD, LP and Digital via Sargent House.