Bell X1: American dreamers
ED POWER goes on the road Stateside with Bell X1
Published 20/03/2009 | 00:00
Standing in the shadow of the Staten Island ferry terminal in Lower Manhattan, Bell X1's Paul Noonan is having one of those crazy New York moments. "The taxi driver was just sharing with me his theory about where Leprechauns come from," he chuckles.
"Apparently, they were originally dwarves brought to Ireland by the Vikings and put to work digging tunnels. He also thinks dwarves were somehow involved in the Vietnam war at some level. They drilled tunnels to get at the Vietcong."
We're here for a photo shoot that will see Ireland's pre-eminent orchestral rockers -- vocalist Noonan, guitarist David Geraghty, bassist Dominic Phillips, plus touring members Marc Aubele and Rory Doyle -- strike self-effacing poses against the Manhattan skyline. Promoting new album Blue Lights On The Runway, the quintet are three-quarters way through a trek up America's east coast -- their fifth US trip in the past 18 months. "Or is it our sixth?" muses Geraghty. "Sometimes you start to lose count."
The weather is lousy -- gusty and overcast -- but spirits are high. Last night Bell X1 played to a sell-out room of skinny-jean-clad hipsters at the Highline Ballroom in Chelsea. Post-gig, the dressing room was a scrum of New York music industry players, queuing down the stairs to shower the Irishmen with well-wishes. Seeing the taste-makers jostle to give homage, you couldn't help but suspect Bell X1 -- likened to Coldplay by the New York Times in a slavering write-up -- are on the crest of something special. "We've been here a couple of times -- the first visit was back in 2003. We did two shows: one in the Mercury Lounge in New York, one in the Viper Room in Los Angeles," Noonan says. That debut tour, he adds, was a consequence of having a song featured on teen dramady The OC. As two of the show's resident hotties smouldered up the screen with a lesbian kiss, Bell X1's willowy ballad Eve, The Apple Of My Eye played in the background. "When we got the email from the people at The OC, we thought someone was taking the piss," says the singer. "We had imagined these things happened at a high level. But they emailed our hotmail account and said they liked the song.''
Bell X1 have been dutifully disinterring Eve every night of this tour. Introducing the song, Noonan has honed a wry bit of banter: a girl-on-girl snog might be an unconventional avenue for success, he says, but the band will take their breaks as they come. Mostly, though, the sets are given over to newer, more dynamic material -- a smattering of favourites from their 2005 break-out record Flock and a chunk of stuff from Blue Lights On The Runway. "Touring the States is something we wanted to do since we started making music," says Noonan, as the group convene post-photo shoot in a Wall Street diner. "When the opportunity came, we embraced it. It feels like we're really connecting here."
Huge in Ireland, Bell X1 are determined not to rest on their local success. What money they've made at home is being ploughed into an impassioned bid to woo the US. Already, they're planning a longer summer tour. In the meantime, they've been courting public radio -- a crucial showcase for left-leaning bands -- while building a grassroots following among influential US bloggers. Talking to industry people in America, you sense a genuine excitement about the group -- and a belief they can crack the mainstream. "They're such a great great act,'' one public radio person tells me as we watch them perform from side of stage. "Paul is a fantastic lyricist and they've got such an amazing dynamic. We're really thrilled about them here.''
That's not to say Bell X1 have completely transcended their origins. New York excepted, their US dates draw a visible, and raucous, expatriate contingent -- with occasionally cringeful consequences. At Washington's atmospherically tatty 9.30 Club, Noonan becomes mired in a heckle with a guy from the home country, who insists on haranguing him in Irish. (He puts a full stop to the conversation by dismissing the heckler as an "amadán".) And at the end of a gig at Philadelphia's World Cafe Live, an inebriated woman from Cavan, having already attempted to start a chant of "olé, olé, olé!", offers to whisk the singer off to a local booze-barn. "If my boobies pop out, will you come for a drink?'' she says, making to hoist herself on stage. Looking as if he's giving serious consideration to bolting and locking himself in the loo, Noonan politely assures her the band are far too busy to take her up on her offer. For a moment we fear she is about to clamber up anyway, and disappear with the wiry singer over her shoulder.
"To try and play the Irish card too strongly would be a mistake,'' Noonan says afterwards, unable to decide whether to be amused or irked. "As with anything, you exclude people if it feels like this kind of club that people are in or out of. And we don't play particularly Irish sounding music.''
Between mouthfuls of burrito, Geraghty, a soulful, inscrutable chap, chimes in: "You do want to experience new things and meet new people. By playing the Irish card too strongly, you're limiting yourself.''
None of the band fit the stereotype of the debauched rocker -- though spiky-coiffed keyboardist/guitarist Aubele does make an effort to dress the part and projects a dutiful air of loucheness. Pre-show, they're too busy hauling equipment on stage to party. There are no roadies, just the band, a tour manager and sound-man with the party divided between an equipment van and a rented people carrier. Afterwards, there's a truck to be loaded before they can even think about a post-performance beer. Following their Washington pitstop, Bell X1 drive directly to Philadelphia -- a near three-hour trip. Graft, not glamour, is their daily lot. "You can't really complain about the touring side of things because you're busy doing what you're trying to achieve,'' says Phillips. "The upside far outweighs the downside."
Not that touring America doesn't have its fraught moments. An early morning performance for a public radio station in Philadelphia is a strain for a clearly flagging Noonan -- he declines an invitation to perform an encore (which won't be broadcast on air) and, afterwards, seems distracted and distant. When the other members of the band hop in a cab for an excursion to Philly's bohemian South Street (rumoured to be home to the city's best hat shop), he goes back to the hotel and doesn't resurface until soundcheck. "We're not ones for punch-ups," Phillips tells me later, "but maybe the brooding silences. The tour is about accomplishing something -- we're all conscious that we have to get the job done, we're all pulling in the same direction.'' Seated opposite him, Noonan nods. "But everyone needs their alone time occasionally -- that's a given. We kind of have to pull along together."
In interviews, Noonan can come across as intense and a bit aloof but he's actually rather down-to-earth. And he's got an arch sense of humour that doesn't necessarily come over in Bell X1's music. At the Highline Ballroom, he arranges for the band to be preceded on stage by footage of the Muppets performing Danny Boy, complete with oversized Aran sweaters and exaggerated weepiness. It's a hilarious curtain-raiser, albeit one that seems lost on the Americans in the room -- even worldly New Yorkers don't quite 'get' Irish irony, it appears.
In their original incarnation as Juniper, Bell X1 were fronted by Damien Rice, who left just as they were starting to gain attention (the misty-eyed troubadour is rumoured to have wanted more creative control than his bandmates were willing to cede). Back home, this is all ancient history. In the US, however, it's an angle the media found irresistible. "While it was irritating, we accepted it initially,'' says Noonan. "Every short preview of us would mention him. But I would hope we're past it now.''
Driving from Philly to New York, soaking up the brooding post-industrial landscape, the band are pleased when a radio station sandwiches single The Great Defector between songs by The Police and Bruce Springsteen -- the presenter praises Noonan's 'quirky' delivery and nuanced vocals. Later, backstage at the Highline, one of their US representatives says the song reminds him of late period Talking Heads -- without slipping into pastiche, Bell X1 have delivered a Road To Nowhere-style anthem with break-out possibilities ("a period from that band's history that nobody references").
And then there are those increasingly ubiquitous Coldplay comparisons. "It's very hard to look at your own music when you're in the midst of it,'' says Geraghty. "Maybe fleetingly for split seconds perhaps their might be something in there that Coldplay could be blamed for.''
Shaking his head, Phillips chips in: "When I read that I think 'OK, it's a band with bass, drums, guitar and keyboard'. I don't know how to relate to it other than other than that. I mean, one minute someone will compare us to Coldplay, then someone will compare us to Talking Heads. Would you say Talking Heads and Coldplay are anything like the other. If someone asked you, 'what do Talking Heads sound like?', would you say, 'a bit like Coldplay'?"
On St Patrick's night, the band played The Great Defector on the Late Show With David Letterman. It is their second turn on Letterman -- last year, they sang their sad, strange hit, Rocky Took A Lover. Caught up in the craziness of their longest spell of sustained touring in their career, they breezed through the performance. Two days before St Patrick's day, however, nerves are evident. "We've had to cut the song down a bit and I'm afraid I'll forget the edits,'' says Noonan. "If you look at the cumulative effect of all those performances on TV --the modern indicator is the number of plays in MySpace and it definitely goes up.''
This is the first time Bell X1 have gone on the road without founder member Brian Crosby, who quit last year to concentrate on production work and side-projects-- he curated the highly successful charity album, The Cake Sale. Is it different without him? "Yeah. But we've travelled with different people and there's a different chemistry. It's good -- it's all part of the journey.''
In Philadelphia, the band's post-gig drinks are crashed by a bunch of inebriated Irish ex-pats straight from central casting. Amid slurred compliments, one asks whether, having played arenas in Ireland, it is a step down to perform in much smaller venues in the US. "We don't want to be simply doing a certain level in Ireland and staying at that," muses Phillips. "The challenge is to start at club level and build up from that. It is great to be going somewhere and starting again.''
Noonan has his own take on the group's ongoing US adventures. "America is a country where so much is synthetic," he says, contemplating a glowering bottle of fizzy grape extract. "But some things here aren't synthetic at all."
Blue Lights On The Runway is out now. Bell X1 play Black Box Galway, March 25, 26; Dolan's, Limerick, March 27, 28; and Vicar Street, Dublin, March 30,31, April 8 and 9.