From the balcony of the apartment Chris Wee and Rory Friers share in Belfast, they can see aircraft taking off and landing at Belfast City Airport and hear the rumble of trains from the nearby Central Station. Considering their extensive globetrotting in recent years, it’s a base that has served them well. At the crack of dawn tomorrow morning, for example, they’re off to Russia for several gigs.
“It’s always a bit crazy over there,” says Wee, the friendly drummer of And So I Watch You from Afar.
Apart from a Northern Irish Music Award hanging on the wall of their sittingroom, there is little to suggest that two members of one of Ireland’s biggest independent rock bands – and their tour manager – call this place home. Loyd Grossman would have a hard time of it, but it’s indicative of And So I Watch You From Afar’s general ethos: head down, socks up, work hard, play loud. It’s been that way since the childhood friends first started playing music together as teenagers in their hometown of Bushmills, on the north Antrim coast. “We’d practise for 20 minutes and then play basketball for the rest of the day,” he laughs.
A short drive across town, right on the border of east and west Belfast, guitarist Rory Friers is waiting for us. It is here, in a small room in a converted linen mill, that And So I Watch You From Afar rehearse, plan and thrash out ideas. It’s also where they demoed their new album, Heirs, and song titles remain chalked on a blackboard. Beer cans are strewn around the room: two nights ago, they played the new songs live in front of an audience for the first time, squashing “about 60 people in”, Wee says proudly. They went down well, he adds.
It has been a steady ascent for And So I Watch You From Afar. Their first album, released in 2009, built so gradually that they weren’t even aware of it.
“I remember our label saying, ‘I think you’re gonna be up for a Choice Music Prize.’ I said, ‘I have no idea what that is. Is that good?’ ” says Friers, laughing. “Then it was up for XFM album of the year; I was like, ‘Are they Cork or Limerick?’ I see so many bands putting out that first record and it’s really tough. I feel like it’s only now that I appreciate how well that did, with hindsight.”
The pair discuss how “green” they were back in those days, bringing friends on tour to do crew, sound and lighting – and paying them all, “even though we had no money”, says Friers. In more recent times they have been forced to become more career-minded, but not in a hard-nosed way.
“We’re not a huge band; we’re not even a medium-sized band, by any stretch of the imagination,” says guitarist Niall Kennedy. “I guess we are a small band who can consistently get people to shows, and have built up a bit of a reputation. And now that there’s – well, not a lot of money, but now that someone’s offering us a bit more than 25 quid and a box of beer for a show – it’s like we’ve suddenly realised that we have the responsibility to kind of do ourselves justice and to be smart with that.”
There have been numerous changes in the band’s camp over the past few years, musically and personally. Firstly, bassist Johnny Adger became a father last year, while other children born to family members of the band partially influenced both the title and theme of Heirs.
“Suddenly, we weren’t just the youngsters, there was all these other lives about, and that was really inspiring,” says Friers. “We got talking about that and the importance of that kind of handing down of your values, where we came from and how we got here. That tied in with music as well; how all songs are just reinterpretations of all the music we’ve listened to. We’ve taken all these ideas and spun them out into this album. It’s been a kind of self-propelling thing.”
There have been changes in line-up, too; new guitarist Kennedy is now on board as a full-time member, and he contributed much to the writing process this time around. They’ve also shaken up their management team and booking agent in recent years.
Most notably, to this record the band have brought the sense of creative freedom they gleefully plundered on 2012’s All Hail Bright Futures. That album marked the first time they had used vocals and guest performers; this record continues to use vocals on tracks such as “These Secret Kings I Know” and “Fucking Lifer”, all blended with their trademark frantic, dynamic riffs. They began jamming ideas in early 2013 and demoed them in the rehearsal room that summer, before recording with Rocky O’Reilly in his Belfast studio. It was the longest – seven months – they had spent working on an album.
“All Hail was such a daring side-step into other stuff; we ended up being in a room with just synths on one occasion, and I remember thinking, ‘What the f*** are we doing?’ ” says Wee, chuckling. “Doing stuff that was so far removed from what we’d normally do was really fun.”
“When we came out the back of that,” says Friers, “we thought, ‘Okay. We can get away with doing this much more.’ It was like an exercise in stretching ourselves. We talked about this record so much on tour. We conceived so many different albums – there was definitely one that was going to be really . . . galactic,” he adds, dissolving into laughter. “I remember the word ‘regal’ being important for a while. ‘Regal, boys.’ I think what we meant was that we wanted there to be a real deep sense of atmosphere to it.”
Live and dangerous
Of course, anyone who has seen an And So I Watch You from Afar gig will be aware that live has always been where it’s at. Their touring schedule is generally insane after an album release. But being one of Ireland’s hardest-working bands has its pitfalls.
“I certainly feel like because we’ve been at home so long, that I’ve definitely got into this routine that’s a bit more like ‘normal’ life,” says Friers. “You go into town, get your little coffee, relax for a bit, do a bit of work, see people you know, hang out with your girlfriend, go see your family at the weekend. As you get a bit older, you realise how time with other people is so much more important – but you’re the one pulling yourself out of it, and it’s your call . . .”
Not only does 2015 mark the release of the band’s fourth album, but it has also been a decade since they officially began playing as And So I Watch You From Afar. Do they feel they have another 10 years in them?
“I really do, yeah,” Friers says without hesitation. “I don’t know whether that sounds cool or naive. Obviously there’s been lots of things that have happened to the band, mostly over the last four or five years, and we’ve definitely had to consider that the band could be indestructible for one second. Whether it’s personal stuff, or financial stuff . . . there have been these big threatening things, but we’ve got through them all.”
“It hasn’t been a fairy tale: massive success and made millions and millions,” Wee says. “But what we do have is a very solid and steady progression through a load of s**t throughout the years, while making all of the music. We’ve got to travel so much and see so much, and we still have the excitement and enthusiasm to keep going.
“It’s a nice place to be at after 10 years, because it’s a very real thing we have. It’s a very solid foundation.”
NO LONGER INSTRUMENTAL? ONLY IN ONE SENSE
“I remember when we brought out the last album, someone said, ‘It’s insane that you put out that record, and it’s amazing that you did. If you’d put out another album like the first one, that’s when bands start to lose their appeal or become a bit predictable.’ And he was right. I think we had that on our minds this time around, too. We never want to be predictable.”
(via Irish Times)