Oozing with raw, euphoric energy, And So I Watch You From Afar have accomplished more than they could ever have expected in the band’s ten years. From playing local shows in Atlantic Bar on the North coast of Ireland to touring Japan, they’ve enjoyed unexpected success for a group that plays what they describe as “weird music”.
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ASIWYFA’s sound has explored the avenues of post-rock and filled every crack with something refreshing while always remaining true to themselves since their debut, self-titled album. Since then they’ve created a seemingly unstoppable momentum, creating a new music scene not only in Belfast but all around the world. This brings the quartet to the release of their fifth album, ‘The Endless Shimmering’ and a 23-date European tour with only three rest days booked in to rest. “It was four and now it’s three because a gig got put back on,” guitarist Niall Kennedy tells me as we sit in the corner of Bar Rufían, a minimalist street bar you’d typically find near Sala Apolo where the band is due to headline AMFest later on.
Having only arrived in the city a few hours before, Rory Friers, who also plays guitar, tells me they’ve already experienced the madness of Barcelona in the wake of recent social and political turmoil after walking through the town square during the then-president of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont’s decision on independence. “Whenever people are talking to us about touring, they always say, “Oh, it must be so great to see all these beautiful places. But it is like someone coming up to you at a restaurant and showing you a beautiful meal, then they just take it away.”
As we find a cozy corner to sit down and drink, Friers talks to me about how the new songs have felt in front of an audience. “It’s the same thing with every album. We go out and all we want to do is play new songs. But you inevitably realise they’re so much harder to play than the old songs” he laughs. “In the past week, we’ve been changing the set every night. It’s super refreshing. The CPU spikes during the new songs for sure. In front of an audience, there are dark lights, there’s flashing, you’re not facing the band. You can learn to juggle absolutely fine. But it’s like someone asking you to juggle in a boat during a storm.”
Having experimented heavily on the previous two releases, ‘The Endless Shimmering’ joins together the songwriting and craftsmanship they’ve gained to exercise their love of experimentation with an expertly executed dose of hard-hitting nostalgia. ‘All Hail Bright Futures’ delivered a cosmic euphoria soaked in clean production, and ‘Heirs’ indulged in a garage rock-soaked experimentation with vocal melodies, but with ‘The Endless Shimmering’ the four-piece have hit a milestone in terms of pushing their craft method to new horizons.
The process of recording this album was purposefully minimalist – creating and refining the songs where they’re most comfortable, in a rehearsal room. After playing the songs so much they couldn’t help but remember them, burying themselves in a studio in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. After six days, they’d recorded an album. Buried within this nine-song epic is a story. However, the exact plot is something the band would rather keep to themselves, to avoid taking away from any messages or emotions listeners may naturally receive.
“It’s all part of the process to get where we are. We knew we weren’t going to go in the studio and make an album, we were going to write an album and then go and record it. Everyone has their own shit going on and everybody needs to feel like they can have their own narrative of a song,” Friers continues. “So once you start adding lyrics or a really overt message to anything, even though the temptation is there, I think you’ve just got to keep to the idea that we’re not here to say something loudly, we’re here to let people feel something really strongly.”
It’s an arduous task to set, forming a ubiquitous narrative that can act as a vessel for people’s emotions to materialise, but an even harder task to break this story into pieces while keeping hold of that original intention for the song. Dividing these new songs between fan favorites can be a struggle though, Friers confesses. “There are certain songs in our catalogue you know are just hitters on the night. They work in a live scenario and they become this whole new beast beyond what they were on the album. But you’ve got to make room and give the new songs time to breathe and become these new monsters.
“We’ll make an album that’s got an ebb and flow to it. We write it, record it and release it. That’s the way it’s meant to be. When you start to play songs live though it’s a very insular process and you try not to think about crowds or playing to other people. We try to just write what’s exciting for us in the room and be as purist as possible about that. But as soon as you start performing it live they’re not really our property anymore, they belong to the people who come to our shows. Every time you play it, it redefines your idea of it. The setlist that you craft becomes an album in itself where you describe a new story. The way we obsess over a setlist is the same way we obsess over the track order of an album.”
“It’s like everything in this band,” adds Kennedy. “A process of establishing something and trying to craft it until it’s the best version of itself. The setlist is something we’re working on constantly. Every time we come off stage we have a little meeting. “What sucked about that? What needs to change?”
This is a visible truth for the band. After releasing what is arguably their bravest album, ‘All Hail Bright Futures’, the band would organically play through the first three or four tracks, giving them the musical context they were designed to have. Now, these songs are spread throughout the setlist yet have found a comfortable independence alongside old and new tracks.
“It takes a while for us to detach from the thing we’ve become so precious about”, Friers explains as he leans forward toward the conversation. “But those are healthy moments for us as a band – to split those things apart and have that psyche and apply it to any aspect of the bands. It’s healthy for us as it takes away any notion of fear.”
“Everyone has their own shit going on and everybody needs to feel like they can have their own narrative of a song.“
Losing ownership of a song once it’s been played to someone is an interesting notion. It’s a visceral idea, omnipresent in the band’s breathtaking live show. For And So I Watch You From Afar, the live experience is where these songs are given a free space to roam, grow and become something even they had never imagined. While there are obvious standout songs for the band such as ‘Search: Party: Animal’ and ‘Big Things Do Remarkable’, their live set spans five albums over not much more than ten songs. For Friers and Kennedy, the live set becomes a sanctimonious discovery of new arcs and album ideas.
“There was always this intention to not repeat anything we’ve done on other albums,” Friers mentions, getting back to the album as Kennedy finishes his drink and adds his thoughts. “We just focused on what excited us. We definitely didn’t go into this thinking, we had to have this sort of album so let’s not do this”.
The conversation quickly moves onto the topic of music labels – a point of interest for the ‘post-rock instrumental band’.
“Sometimes when you’re getting a taxi or something, someone will ask you “Oh, what kind of music do you play?” and you just sit there silently. We’re just a band that plays loud music. You sell yourself short by saying anything,” remarks Kennedy, smirking while digging through his memory.
“We’ve always prided ourselves on being on the fringe of genres,” continues Friers. “We were never at the centre of any scene. We were important in the Belfast city scene but we never felt like we were a part of any specific group.”
The duo share a laugh as we go through the various labels we’ve all heard the band being referred to as “dance music for rock fans” and “ladcore” getting the best response. Continuing to speak about defying genres and subscribing to labels, Friers continues in relation to their use of voice as a supposedly instrumental band. “In moments you do feel this temptation to speak when you care so strongly about something.
“I think the one strand of continuity through the band has always been that we feel the band, both personally and musically, is very much a form of escapism. For us growing up, live shows were so, so important. They felt like life or death. Finding these little shows for bands you’ve never heard of are defining moments for young musicians. We definitely behold the concept of a live experience using the idea of commune to experience something together. But as soon as you start trying to put it under any sort of bracket it limits the number of moments that can happen to people.”
Now all in important points in their lives, the band has been the universal baggage they’ve all brought with them. For a lot of bands, hitting a decade with the same four people and starting families is a reason to step on the brakes or remove yourself from this altogether, but for everyone in the band, that just isn’t how it works.
“Whenever Nial says to me, “I’m not really feeling that anymore.” I can say “You know what? You’re right”, as opposed to “Right, I’m going to fucking kill this guy.” We’re a low ego band who trust each other. It can be something we’d spent months working on and sweating over, then in an afternoon it’s gone,” replies Kennedy. “Some of my favourite riffs we wrote for this album aren’t on it.”
“There was this one song called ‘Prospector’ which is like nine minutes long,” remembers Friers. “We spent probably four or five months writing it. I remember it being so technically difficult but once we got it we were like, “This is going to be the opening song on the new album!” Then one day we just agreed it didn’t work. We have a really bad combination of wanting to jump on a new idea and an aversion to nostalgia. There’s never a conversation in the band, it’s very forward-focused. Sometimes you feel sorry for some of the older ideas.”
Referring to bass player Jonny who has a daughter and a wife, Friers confesses that he doesn’t understand how growing up or starting a family can ever hinder your ability as a musician. “The fact he’s settled down doesn’t mean he can’t put as much into the band, that mentality is such bullshit. That sort of thing makes you more focused. You don’t fuck around making pointless stuff when you’ve got the support of a family behind you. We’re all lucky to have that with our individual families and girlfriends because they know we’d be useless without the band.”