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On ASIWYFA and the advantages of meeting your interviewees…

September 12, 2010


All photographs: ASIWYFA, photographed in Portrush for AU by Carrie Davenport

I had a few post-work pints with AU writers Francis Jones and John Freeman yesterday. Fra was the editor of the mag before me, and we’ve both been involved with it for about five years. His day job has changed but he still contributes regularly and is a good friend. John is from Manchester and found out about us through a mate of his who is obsessed with Duke Special – when we had Duke on the cover a couple of years ago, this guy got hold of a copy and showed it to John, who got in touch, pitched some work and soon became one of our main feature writers. However, he had never in his 40 years been to Northern Ireland so after interviewing Jeff Tweedy for our Wilco cover feature he took the opportunity to fly over for the band’s debut NI gig, at the Open House Festival. After innumberable phone calls and emails it was good to finally meet him.

Anyway, we were chatting about the mag and music writing in general, and got on to talk about the interviews we do. Being based in Belfast, most of our interviews are done on the phone – we are normally either previewing a gig to be played here, or the artist is promoting a new album. Either way, the interviewee is unlikely to be in Belfast. On certain occasions it does work out (sometimes we interview bands when they are here to play a gig, especially if they are about to release an album soon after) and of course we often interview bands from Northern Ireland.

Any music writer will tell you that a face-to-face interview is always preferable – there is only so much you can do with an interview based solely on words down a phone line. When you meet up with an interviewee, however, there is so much more to play with. Context, geography, even something as simple as facial expressions and body language make a huge difference.

With that in mind, and because I haven’t posted it up here yet, here’s an interview I did with And So I Watch You From Afar in March last year, just before their debut album came out. The photographer Carrie and I went to their own patch – Portrush – for the day and chatted to them in Barry’s Amusements, the Harbour Bar and on the beach. It was a fun day.

AND SO I WATCH YOU FROM AFAR

THE MACHINE RUMBLES ON

As ASIWYFA prepare to release their debut album, AU takes them for a day out at the seaside to get the inside story on this most extraordinary of bands. The music, the mayhem, and just why it is that these four lads from the north coast are such a force to be reckoned with.

It’s a bright, crisp day in Portrush, and as the wind whips in off the Atlantic and down the deserted off-season streets, there’s a bleak, sad air about the place. The coffee shops seem to be doing ok – it is freezing, after all – but even in mid-afternoon there’s hardly anyone walking the streets. It’s not quite the buzzing, bucket-and-spade resort that we remember from happy childhood holidays.

In Barry’s Amusements, for decades the centrepiece of this most earthy of seaside towns, some overall-clad employees mill about and we hear the faint clanking of a forklift deep in the bowels of the building, evidence that work is underway to rouse it from its winter hibernation. At the back of the complex, the Big Dipper stands proud – not as tall as we remember it but vividly bright blue and yellow, the product of a refurbishment a few years ago. The slot machines are modern and hi-tech, but to all intents and purposes, this place hasn’t changed for years. Dodgems, the ghost train, the carousel, the Cyclone. Generations of local kids have worked here and thousands more have passed through its doors, ice cream and candy floss in their nostrils. The manageress tells us that they’ll be open again for Easter. “We hope it’ll be busy,” she says. Later, we are told that even now, long after the town’s heyday, Barry’s makes enough money in a few months to sustain it all year. Summer is big business in Portrush.

We’ve made the trip up from Belfast not just for a jolly by the seaside (though that has its attractions, not least nostalgia for those hazy holidays of old) but because of a band that calls the area home. The four-strong unit of And So I Watch You From Afar are now based in Belfast and have, by accident or design, assumed the position of spokesmen for the city’s music scene, but this is their old stamping ground. Guitarist Tony Wright and bassist Johnny Adger grew up in the marginally more genteel resort of Portstewart, a few miles round the coast, while Tony’s fellow axe-wielder Rory Friers hails from the countryside near Whitepark Bay and drummer Chris Wee from the distillery village of Bushmills, a couple of miles inland. Rory reminisces about getting kicked out of Barry’s in his teens because he wasn’t spending any money. “We used to come over to Portrush as teenagers to drink,” says Tony, fondly. Their first video, for ‘WPB, 6am’, was filmed by Rory on a handheld camera right outside Barry’s, and a few days after we meet up, the band will headline the St Paddy’s Day Hooley gig at Kelly’s nightclub on the edge of town. They haven’t forgotten this place. In fact, they’re fiercely proud of it.

“In the Eighties, obviously, there was the Troubles and all the shit that was going on,” says Tony once we are all safely ensconced in the cosy Harbour Bar, where he, Chris and Rory used to work – the latter two as apparently lax supervisors. “But in Portstewart, we kind of felt disconnected from it. There was bits and pieces but never anything severe, so it was a nice place to grow up. But it was a very closed-minded place to grow up as well.”

As with any small town, anyone looking a bit different can get pilloried by the locals – Tony admits he is no stranger to taunts of ‘fucking hippy, get your hair cut!’. “I still get it now!” he exclaims earlier in the day, his wiry crop steadfast in the breeze. But according to Rory – Chris and Johnny largely let the two guitarists get on with the talking – the fact that these north coast towns can be insular, boring places to grow up in has actually worked to their advantage. “I think we’ve grown to be almost grateful of the negative aspects of it,” he says. “Me and Chris were out-of-towners – country bumpkins – and Portrush and Portstewart were the places we’d come and see friends and stuff. And almost an extension of that is how we all felt when we came up to Belfast. None of us really knew what we were doing, but we all had almost an ingrained, inbuilt sense that nothing is going to happen unless you do it. It wasn’t like you could wait for a really good gig to happen – you had to form a band and then put a gig on for yourself. So it was cool because, naively, when we came to Belfast, that’s all we knew how to do. I think it’s almost been a blessing in disguise for us.”

Since the band made their Belfast debut in February 2006, their impact has been nothing short of seismic. Early gigs in the smallest venues quickly enabled them to prove their worth, but a constant theme of their story is an inability to accept the normal way of doing things. They were never satisfied with the usual treadmill of small pub shows and occasional support slots for touring bands – the limit to many bands’ ambitions. They were going to make things happen for themselves, and the first evidence of that was at the launch of their debut EP.

“One of our rules,” says Rory, “is that we try to have massive ambition but massively small expectations. I remember when we first booked our EP launch in Auntie Annie’s – we were like, ‘If we get 50 people in, that’d be amazing’, and then 100 people turned up. And that’s what we’ve been doing ever since.”

Since then, it has been a constant procession of bigger and better gigs – proper events organised, hosted and (with one notable exception) headlined by the band, that have shown off their enormous cojones as well as their ability to walk the walk when they get on stage. The real watershed moment came when they booked another EP launch in the xxx capacity Spring & Airbrake. The EP was Tonight The City Burns, featuring guest vocalists from Fighting With Wire, LaFaro, Driving By Night and Cruz. On the night, all of the bands played sets of their own before ASIWYFA came on and utterly destroyed the place, opening with the very first airing of the extraordinary ‘Clench Fists, Grit Teeth… GO!’.

“That felt like a big step for us,” says Rory. Tony admits that there were a few doubts as to whether they’d be able to pull it off, then recalls the response within the band: “Why the fuck can’t we do that? Why take the safe route again? We’ve done Auntie Annie’s now, let’s try something else and push it a bit further and hope it works. Let’s have massive ambitions and expect little. And we did it and it was brilliant.”

Through all of this, the band have frequently returned home to play gigs at, among other venues in the area, the Retro in Portrush, the scene of “anarchic” and “hectic” gigs by earlier bands Pepper Book and Zombie Safari Park. But it’s Belfast where the band made its name, and the next step was the quite mind-bogglingly ambitious A Little Solidarity festival in November last year – as the posters had it, “three days, four shows and a fuckload of amazing music”. 18 bands played in total, ranging from newcomers like Here Comes The Landed Gentry and Yes Cadets to heavyweights Oppenheimer and Fighting With Wire, the whole event proof of the strength of the Northern Irish scene and ASIWYFA’s place right at the head of it. At the closing show in Mandela Hall, the band humbly deferred to Fighting With Wire and let them headline, but at the start of April chalked that one off the list too at their album launch, supported by the Lowly Knights, Adebisi Shank and Pocket Billiards.

But does it stop there? No. The band was unfortunate not to make it onto the bill of the recent Do You Remember The First Time? gig at the newly reopened Ulster Hall (though Tony does spend the day excitedly recalling his guest appearance: “I got to sing a Rage Against The Machine song with Jetplane Landing, in the Ulster Hall! It was a dream come true!”), but that iconic venue is in their sights, too. “I think any Irish band goes, ‘One day we’re gonna play there’,” says Tony. “Of course we’ve all said that in our lifetime. So yes, one day we’re gonna play there. Those are still the same plans I made when I was eight years old and they’re not changing!”

These things don’t happen for nothing. One not-insignificant reason for the band’s meteoric rise – all the more impressive when you consider how utterly uncommercial their music is – is the fact that they’re totally fucking amazing, especially live. An ASIWYFA headline show is almost how you imagine it would have been seeing Public Enemy in their pomp, or Fugazi. Utter life-affirming carnage, and all achieved without words, save the between-song exhortations to the crowd from Tony and Rory. But aside from that, the band themselves recognise that there is something special in the chemistry between the four of them. Spending the day with them, you can feel it. These guys are the closest of mates, first and foremost; everything else flows from that.

“Sometimes we have to take a step back and realise why it’s so good to be in this band,” says Rory. “The most exciting thing about when the four of us first got together wasn’t really the music we were playing, but it was a definite feeling that everybody just wanted to push for something. We didn’t know what, but we wanted to push towards something different and something cool. We always say how lucky we feel that there’s four random people who have all met and all have this very specific drive and ethic and ambition. And it took us a long time to realise how lucky it was because bands come and go so much.”

Tony adds, “Everyone knows what the other person’s going to do. It’s just like one big bastard fucking machine, driving forward.”

“Music is why we’re doing it,” says Rory, “but at the same time that’s the fundamental reason why this band’s worked so far – because everyone’s shooting off the same page and the music’s almost a bonus of the shared attitude and shared drive we’ve got.”

It is a hell of a bonus, though. This month sees the release of their debut album proper on Smalltown America Records, the Derry-based label run by Jetplane Landing. It follows the self-released This Is Our Machine And Nothing Can Stop It mini-album, which received excellent notices from the UK press, putting the band on many more radars than they would otherwise have been, resulting in a Rock Sound magazine-sponsored UK tour, amongst other things. The debut proper, recorded in Belfast with Rocky O’Reilly, is nothing less than a statement of intent – an hour-long encapsulation of everything that makes them such a thrilling band. But although they are often tagged as post-rock and latterly have brought in a more technical, mathy feel, they are curiously reluctant to name any specific influences, instead preferring to talk abstractly about what inspires them to make music.

“I think it evolved, really,” says Tony, “because the first jams that we had were more in the style of what people would call post-rock, and we wanted to move away from that was much as we could. We have a common influence between us all which is a love of dynamic music – it doesn’t have to be pinned down to one genre in particular, but stuff that is dynamic and passionate and has some fucking heart behind it.”

Rory picks up the baton: “The general rule, and we say it all the time, is that as long as you’re writing music that you want to listen to and as long as you’re writing music that is progressing yourself, at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter. Whenever we first started we didn’t decide we weren’t gonna have a singer. We were doing these jammed-out tunes, big crescendo-based stuff, and it was great, but very quickly that gets kind of boring. It’s not that all of us dislike post-rock and wanted to try and consciously write something different, it’s just natural for us to do something different; do something more.

“Once a band starts laying out a formula,” Tony adds, “it almost sucks the life out of it. Our sound has changed, but the one thing that’s remained constant is that we’re just pushing further. We’re by no means the finished product yet. We’re getting there, but I think the day we’re the finished product is the day we’re finished.”

Aside from any quibbles about what is and isn’t post-rock, one noticeable shift is that it feels like a much brighter record than This Is Our Machine… There’s a sense of community, celebration and, yes, solidarity. Maybe the artwork is something to do with that – that mini-album featured the titular machine rumbling across a post-apocalyptic landscape, painted by Rory’s artist dad Julian. This time, Mr Friers has come up with something more surreal than outright menacing. But, more obviously, it’s in the song titles and the music.

“With ‘These Riots are Just The Beginning’,” says Tony, “people think that that’s quite threatening or something, but I actually think the idea behind that is that it’s a catalyst – something’s going to come of this; something’s going to grow and be created out of it. It’s aggressive, but I think it sounds really celebratory as well. And with other songs on the album, I think there’s almost a slight pop element to them, but there’s also an underlying current of darkness. With everything, there’s both sides – there’s yin and there’s yang; there’s dark and there’s light.”

Another key track could yet become the band’s manifesto, even more so than ‘A Little Solidarity Goes A Long Way’. That track is called ‘Don’t Waste Time Doing Things You Hate’ (it should be noted here that all four members place great importance in their song titles). It’s long, complex and heavy in places, but it’s also beautiful, indeed almost carefree and optimistic. Halfway through, it enters a samba breakdown, cowbell and all, before a joyous choir of ragged voices comes in and cheers it to the heavens. Efterklang gone prog-metal, you might say.

“That was almost a reassurance to ourselves, calling the song that,” says Rory. “I think we came up with it when me and Tony were mixing the album in London. Being in a band is unbelievable and this is all we’re gonna do, but you’re taking these formative years of your life – your 20s – when most people are working their way up in their career, and all your friends have got these great jobs and are buying their houses and stuff, and we’re scrimping together pennies to try and go on tour.”

As Tony butts in, the strength of feeling is etched on his face. “Whenever you were a kid, whenever you were 10 years old, did you really want to be a chartered accountant? Is that what you really wanted to do? This is all we’ve ever wanted to do, and we’re going to do everything in our fucking power to make sure that this is what happens.”

“Especially now,” Rory nods, “we feel things are really jumping up a notch and it’s proper decisions we’re making. This is it now. It’s something to get people thinking. It’d be great if someone was like, ‘I heard that song and read that title and now I’m doing this’.”

Even now, you will come across young, new bands in Northern Ireland who cite ASIWYFA – and comrades like Panama Kings, Fighting With Wire and LaFaro – as influences. The ambition they have shown is already rubbing off. Shortly before we met in Portrush, the band returned from their latest UK tour, this time with LaFaro in tow. They are now properly tour-hardened, having done this several times, and they know what it is going to take in future, especially now that the album is almost out. They are a fiercely ambitious band, but not in such a way that they are hell-bent on selling millions of records and becoming household names – one listen to their music tells you that much. Their ambition is just to do this for the rest of their lives, and that last tour, which they admit was tough at times (“one of the ones people tell you about,” says Tony) has only confirmed that view.

“We don’t want to set anything in stone,” Tony says, “but we’d all say that if we can continue to make music and [for] people to enjoy it, and we can make enough money to travel and continue to produce that music and get it out there, then that’s all we want. Write, record, tour; write, record, tour; write, record, tour.”

“Our ambitions are stretching to getting to Europe, getting to Japan,” confirms Rory. “The record’s just out in Japan, so let’s go tour there. We don’t want to be one of those bands who sit where we’re from and are happy with that. The fundamental thing that we’ve always pushed is that if you’re in a band, you’ve got to push yourself as far as possible, but you’ve got to make sure you don’t forget where you’re from. That’s something we’re never going to do. We’re not gonna move to London and forget about Belfast. And, in a weird sense, the more we can do for ourselves, the more, hopefully, we’ll be able to contribute to what started it all, which is people back home.”

And as we sit supping pints around this battered old table in what is best described as an old-man pub in Portrush, talk turns to the sacrifices that the band have made to get this far.

“We put our heart and soul into the band and the music,” says Rory, “so we’re not doing it for our four egos. We’re doing it for the band and something that we’re proud of. I’m sure it’s like when you raise a kid – you want your kid to fucking do the best they can.”

“You’ve got to give it the best platform possible,” Tony agrees. “We’ve all quit jobs [especially Chris, who came home from Newcastle-upon-Tyne for the then nascent band], been taken down with doses of salmonella [Johnny , who played a gig instead of going to hospital], snuck out of hospital after being hit by cars to go and play a gig [Tony himself]. We’ve all made massive, massive sacrifices and been broke for the last two years and it’s all for those songs. To get as many people as possible to hear them.”

MEET THE BAND!

OUR CUT-OUT-AND-KEEP* GUIDE TO ASIWYFA

RORY FRIERS, 25, GUITAR

Favourite album ever
DJ Shadow – Endtroducing, but I gotta give a shout to At The Drive-In – Relationship of Command. I wouldn’t be in a band without that record.

Best gig attended
Jethro Tull at the Ulster Hall with my Mum and Dad.

Best gig played
It’s gotta be A Little Solidarity, the atmosphere was incredible.

Guitar hero
Joe Strummer

Worst injury suffered
Snapped ankles, though I’ve had my nose broken 13 times.

Best heckle heard
You’re a big fat mess.

Tell us a joke…
Q: Why did the little girl fall off the bicycle?
A: Because someone threw a canoe at her.

TONY WRIGHT, 28, GUITAR

Favourite album ever
Fugazi – Repeater

Best gig attended
LaFaro at A Little Solidarity.

Best gig played
Glasgowbury ‘07 was a pretty special moment.

Guitar hero
It changes quite a bit, but the constants would be Graham Coxon, Kurt Cobain, Steve Albini and Ian MacKaye.

Worst injury suffered
I got hit by a car the night before Fighting With Wire’s album launch. My head felt like I had the world’s worst hangover before and after the gig!

Best heckle heard
One time in England whilst engaging in inane chat with the crowd between tunes, one guy shouted, “Shut up and play!” Probably the best advice I’ve ever got.

Tell us a joke…
Q: Two cowboys are hanging out in the kitchen. One is an imposter – how do you tell which one is the real cowboy?
A: The one on the range.

JOHNNY ADGER, 29, BASS

Favourite album ever
Tool – Lateralus

Best gig attended
Again, I’d have to say Tool. SFX, Dublin, about 11 years ago. They completely blew my mind!

Best gig played
The Solidarity show. Not necessarily for our performance, but it’s the best atmosphere I’ve ever played in.

Bass hero
Jack Bruce from Cream. Until him, bass players were not usually such a prominent part of the band, live or on record, so thanks Jack!

Worst injury suffered
Ruining my ankle skating at the old St. Anne’s in Belfast (RIP). I’ve never felt pain like it and hopefully never will again.

Best heckle heard
I [used to have] a habit of playing shows with my back to the crowd for the whole set due to nerves. One guy kept shouting, “Fucking turn round!” Eventually I did and started going nuts like Tony, only my headstock met the back of Tony’s head, leaving him with a nice scar!

Tell us a joke…
Q: Why did Nivea cream?
A: Because Max Factor!

CHRIS WEE, 24, DRUMS

Favourite album ever
Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream

Best gig attended
Smashing Pumpkins, Wembley Arena, November 2000

Best gig played
A Little Solidarity

Drumming hero
Danny Carey (Tool) and Thomas Haake (Meshuggah)

Worst injury suffered
I got stung on the hand by a wasp just as we started a set once, karma for killing loads of wasps earlier that day!

Best heckle heard
“Get your tits out!” Ironically, mine already were!

Tell us a joke…
Q: Who would win in a fight between Superman, Batman and Iron Man?
A: Chuck Norris

*NOT REALLY

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