Sunday 17 December 2017

X in the city

I'll know when I've arrived at adulthood the first time I pour a kettle of boiling water over the car," Bell X1's Paul Noonan laughs on a chilly winter morning. The band, affectionately known to fans as the Bellies (or as Pat Kenny once called them "Bell 11"), are gearing up for their final jaunt of the year.

Guitarist David Geraghty confesses that he actually finds it easier to sleep on the road than minding the kids at home.

"Considering we only made the record in January it has been a very busy year," Noonan reflects. "We spent the previous year writing it. Only this time last year we were Skypeing Thomas Bartlett [producer for Glen Hansard and Sam Amidon] about it."

The Bellies seized the opportunity to record their sixth album Chop Chop in a residential studio in Connecticut. "We had such a short timeframe to make the record that we wouldn't dare to go to New York at the weekends, as tempting as that obviously is," Noonan says. "Our manager is also based there. We got our heads down and it was an amazingly intuitive and confident process. We often get bogged down and explore all options, whereas we were very single-minded this time around and felt confident enough to follow our path.

"We worked with Peter Katis, who has been involved with records we really love by Interpol and The National."

The chart-topping band bring it all back home with a homecoming festive lap that culminates in two nights in Vicar Street next week, a fitting end to a year that saw Chop Chop go to number one thanks to a novel approach to selling and marketing the album. Rather than rely on a disintegrating music retail infrastructure, Bell X1 brought the album directly to their fans by setting up pop-up shops all over the country.

"How we built up our audience here was a very grass-roots process in terms of playing as many gigs as we could before we had any radio play or significant profile," Noonan says. "It was amazing to find places like DeBarra's in Clonakilty and the Spirit Store in Dundalk, where people had created venues that were about forming a community, sharing a love of music and having a great sense of integrity.

"We've stayed in touch with these places over the years. We thought we'd go back and play acoustic shows in these lovely rooms. In the context of so many record shops closing down, plus figuring out how the bejaysus you are going to get your records out, the idea came to us to do gigs in these places and sell albums for a few weeks around the release. We just walked up with acoustic guitars and didn't use any PA, so it had the informality of an in-store without the awkwardness of looking at a cardboard cutout of Enrique Iglesias. We definitely will continue in that vein, because you have to think outside the box in terms of how you get your music out."

The title of their chart-topping sixth album Chop Chop reflects a desire to slow down in today's relentlessly hectic world. "It's really weird these days that everyone is falling over each other to be busy," Geraghty reflects. "The title Chop Chop is actually saying, 'Slow down! Take it easy!' The way the music industry is going is just symptomatic of that.

"It's partly to do with the age we're at and the way we'll be paying off our mortgages until we're 70. It's so different to the days of yore when Dad was out working. It's a very different world we live in now. The music industry has been affected by this way of life like any other area. It's stating the obvious, but maybe that's because I've been up since 4.30am."

Chop Chop ventures into territory where most Irish acts would fear to tread, examining the human effects of the recession behind the economic stories.

"A Thousand Little Downers strays into talking about ageing, unbeknownst to me actually knowing what I was banging on about," Noonan says. "I was taking the piss out of being a grumpy old man and all these complaints that mount up, such as dealing with automated responses when you're on the phone trying to deal with a utility company.

"In the end, the only real downer in the song is walking around Dublin. I was struck by the vast amount of empty commercial premises. I was thinking about the personal stories lurking behind these spaces, and how I knew people involved in a couple of those scenarios.

However, Noonan does see reasons to be cautiously optimistic again. "It does feel like the DIY ethic is being taken up here with a new-found vengeance," Noonan says. "It always has been traditionally there over the years, but it seems that there are increasingly more collectives and pockets of bands who hang out together and share resources.

"People appear to be a lot more clued-in about making use of all elements they can and controlling their own means of production."

It is a resounding vote of confidence that their DIY method has resulted in a number-one album. "You might profess that these things don't really matter, but it's certainly a very nice boost when it does," Noonan admits. "We were pipped to the post the last time by some young whippersnapper called Lady Gaga. It always depends on what else is out there at the time. We knocked Kodaline off number one for a week.

"We were in the middle of an acoustic tour with the pop-up shops when we heard we had gone to number one," Geraghty recalls. "We stopped outside Roscrea at a Supermac's to celebrate. Good times."

From a Supermacs in Roscrea to playing a gig for Facebook head honcho Mark Zuckerberg, Bell X1 have had their fair share of surreal moments in their career. "We played on the roof of Facebook headquarters in Grand Canal Dock," Noonan reveals. "It was a bit mental, because yer man Mark Zuckerberg was in town that day visiting the Dublin office. We were standing there making small talk when the photos were being taken. We were trying to draw an analogy between The Beatles playing the roof of the Apple building and us playing on the Facebook building, but he thought we were talking about Steve Jobs' Apple building rather than the Beatles' record company."

"Zuckerberg is a very unassuming bloke for a gazillionaire," Geraghty adds. "All the staff were up on the roof standing around watching us. It was a very odd and uncomfortable situation.

"I hadn't seen The Social Network at the time, but I've watched it recently. I can't believe that the person portrayed in the movie is the same guy that we met. They seem very much at odds. In the film, he seems very outspoken, confident and full of nervous energy. In real life, he didn't come across that way.

"In his demeanour and dress sense he came across like a very enthusiastic young student," Noonan adds.

Next year will see Bell X1 return to their solo careers, namely Geraghty's third album and a duets project Noonan has been putting together in recent years. It really seems that the Bellies boys are hitting a prolific purple patch 13 years into their career.

"It might sound like we have it sussed, but we always just stumble away between discoveries and never really have a plan," Noonan says. "We went through a phase of assembling gear in a big rented house and thinking that we'd never use a recording studio again.

"It is a double-edged sword to have that amount of control. You end up doing things because you can and not because you should. We went through months of tinkering and going through various configurations."

"Ultimately, there ended up being far too much to sift through. We went back to using studios again just to restrict ourselves.

"The acoustic tour was very interesting for us to go back to basics and let the songs breathe again," Geraghty says. "We really liked the personality and emotion in the songs without over-dressing them."

"There wasn't a need to pander to any sonic fad or fashion, but just serve the song."

Bell X1 play Mandela Hall, Belfast tomorrow and Vicar Street, Dublin on December 20 and 21.

Irish Independent

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