And So I Watch You From Afar are leading the way in the burgeoning Belfast music scene and on a mission to conquer the world with their prolific touring and deep love for what they do, they tell Eamon Sweeney
The eponymous 2009 debut album by Northern noiseniks And So I Watch You From Afar (ASIWYFA) contains a track endearingly entitled A Little Bit of Solidarity Goes a Long Way. The Oh Yeah Centre on Gordon Street in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter is a glorious realisation of such a sentiment.
The brainchild of local luminaries Stuart Bailie, Gary Lightbody, Martin Neill and Davy Matchett, the complex houses a rehearsal space, record company, café, venue, recording studio and museum of musical memorabilia.
Rory Friers, Tony Wright, Johnny Adger and Chris Wee (aka ASIWYFA) are sitting in the space upstairs where they committed both their first and second albums to tape. They're certainly a band on the cusp of something and are not just the talk of this town any more. A few weeks back, BBC 1 DJ Zane Lowe lost his mind and marbles after playing ASIWYFA on his radio show. Lowe is admittedly known for being a bit of a babbling bunny upon hearing a good tune, but this was completely off the charts.
"I don't know whether to laugh or cry, that was so outrageously, brutally brilliant," he gushed. "That was unbelievable. I didn't think they'd get better than last time. That is like one of the best pieces of music I've ever heard, ever, in my whole life."
"I think the dead air and silence afterwards said more than anything else," says a still astonished Tony Wright. "It was surreal, because it was the first time I ever heard us on radio! I just happened to be cooking in the kitchen and I thought I'd check out what Zane is playing. The next thing is I'm hearing us, and then that incredible reaction."
In fairness, Zane's hyperbole is not just excusable, but completely justified. Until now, ASIWYFA were more noted for their intense live shows rather than their studio forays. Gangs is nothing less than an absolute monster of a record. It's loud, intense, brilliant and brimming with emotion. If their debut was blistering then Gangs is bruising, but still defiantly wearing both a heart and soul of gold.
"There is a lot going on, on it," Friers agrees. "We've put our life and soul into this record. I hadn't listened to the first record in such a long time, but I did after finishing Gangs. It's good, but it's just us being all lively and youthful with very little life experience. The past two years have been a rite of passage and a bit like a John Hughes movie. It's either been blissful euphoria or deep soul searching. We feel like men now. We're not scared of anything and there's nothing we couldn't have a dig at."
Well, they've certainly been digging away, as ASIWYFA is an extremely prolific live band. In 2009, they put in a dedicated hard slog of approximately 170 gigs.
"We've nearly done all the Northern hemisphere," Wright points out. "Next, we'll do the Southern hemisphere, and then we'll just have to go further a field, I don't know, underground or something! Going to Russia in January was amazing and an incredible way to start the year. It was incredibly apparent just how much our songs meant to these people hundreds of thousands of miles away in a place our album is not officially available. They really appreciated us travelling over there and the whole experience was so humbling, unbelievably so in fact. Johnny hurt his leg and there was maybe the prospect of going home."
Bassist Johnny Adger's busted leg nearly scuppered the tour, but showing remarkable grit and resilience he soldiered on regardless.
"I fell when I was carrying gear and my full weight went down on my knee caps and bruised the patella, ligaments and muscles, which partially detached on impact," he reveals. "It's nearly there. It'll be another month or two until it's 100pc. Nothing was broken, so I thought I'd get through it and I'm really glad we did. All the lads we're really looking out for me and I was so frustrated that we had to cancel one show out of the 15. We've all played through some physical or emotional pain, it can become another spur. A little voice in the back of your head is saying, "Come on to fuck!"
Against doctor's orders, Adger took his plaster off as his bandmates cheered. They're a ferociously close-knit group, all sporting the same ASIWYFA logo tattoos and staying steadfastly dedicated to the cause. Both their live performance and newly released studio achievements on Gangs are testament to their remarkable and unique band chemistry.
"It all comes from digging bands like Black Flag, At the Drive In, The Clash and Fugazi," Friers explains. "We grew up on the north coast of nowhere (Antrim). For anything to happen you had to do it yourself, back before we had any idea of punk rock or any DIY ethic. Whether it's Johnny cutting his cast off or Tony sneaking out of the hospital after he's been hit by a car, quitting our jobs, not seeing our family or friends for three-quarters of the year, there's an inexplicable devotion and commitment to this band. I think I need to point out that we're not all totally insane. It's not like this isn't incredible fun. It is! I guess we have a very direct drive to do what we do. You can't fuck around with music. It's too important. If you're writing music that you really truly love and believe in then you can't let anything get in the way."
The world wide web has spun wonders for these instrumental mentalists, but they do realise that making a crust from music isn't what it used to be.
"Everything is kind of fucked at the minute, but we've always been kind of fucked anyway, so things haven't changed for us," Friers reasons. "Maybe if we were younger all of our fans would own a vinyl or CD, but the thing we've discovered is that we'd be all the way out in Russia and people will spend a tenner on a T-shirt. People share music and they've more to choose from. You just have to trust the fact that if you find that band that your heart dedicates itself to, you're going to support the cause when it comes to your hometown."
"Music is getting back to its grassroots and a time before the record industry became this massive global beast," Wright maintains. "It's going back to musicians playing live in a room. It's like you've got to do it as musical door to door salesmen, and fortunately that suits us."
"This band couldn't have done what we've done without file sharing and the internet," Wright says. "If it was still up to the bigger labels to choose who to expose to the world, they'd never pick And So I Watch You From Afar in a million years."
Both ASIWYFA and slightly controversial Choice Music Prize winners Two Door Cinema Club are the two most prominent examples of an extraordinarily rich and diverse Northern Irish music scene. Move over Dublin and Cork, Belfast seems to be the new true-blue capital of Irish indie rock.
"There is a great sense of tribalism here," Wright agrees. "People want to do positive things now, partly because of that other shit and negativity that we've had for so long. We grew up in the shadow of all that, so we're trying to just turn it up and make it happy again."
Ireland's best riot of noise, mood and melody sum it all best in this sleeve note on their stunning new album. "This record exists because of people, many people from many places, people who support us and believe in us ... These people keep us breathing, keep us inspired and allow this band to exist, like Joe Strummer said, 'Without people we're nothing', and this album is a tribute and document to all these people. This is for all the gangs we've met along the way and all the gangs we're still to meet."
Gangs is out today through the Richter Collective. And So I Watch You From Afar play an album launch party tonight in the Mandela Hall, Belfast and tomorrow in the Button Factory, Dublin. Their Irish tour stops off in Dolan's, Limerick on May 18, the Ritz, Castlebar on May 19, The Stables, Mullingar May 20 and the Forum, Waterford on May 21
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