Back in the USSR, they don’t know how lucky they are; in the midst of a typically hot and humid South By Southwest festival in Texas, And So I Watch You From Afar are looking back on an ever so slightly cooler environment when they last visited Russia for a tour which nonetheless proved to be hotter than they could ever have imagined.
“It was like -25c, really harsh conditions, so the daytimes would maybe be a bit of a slog and be hard work, freezing cold. But then the crowds at night would just make it so worthwhile,” they tell Live4ever in this exclusive SXSW interview.
The Irish group also found time to candidly discuss all details behind the shock exit of influential band member Tony Wright and the subsequent arrival of long-time friend Niall Kennedy, as well as why they were dancing around the garden after landing a coveted support slot with Them Crooked Vultures.
Live4ever with And So I Watch You From Afar at South By Southwest 2012. You played our showcase which was broadcast by VenueOne.com yesterday lads – how did you feel about it?
Really enjoyed it, really liked the venue. We heard that place is pretty new as a venue on the South By list. Yeah, thought it was great, really, really enjoyed it – nice set-up, good line-up, good mix of bands, think you guys put on a really good line-up.
You all have a tattoo, have you got this tattoo (to newest member Niall)?
(Niall): Not yet…
We haven’t got him drunk enough yet!
You have to be drunk to get it?
(Niall): I guess if the situation appears where it seems like the right thing to do maybe I will.
We should explain – the tattoos are your symbol from both the covers of the ‘Letters’ EP and the ‘Gangs’ album.
(Niall): It’s actually designed by my old flatmate Tim Farrell. We used to live together – he’s a graphic designer in Belfast. I think he came up with a whole bunch of ideas and we picked that one. It was something sort of simple, identifiable – not saying it’s as good as or as recognizable yet – but the one thing that stuck with everyone was it’s kinda like the Black Flag logo. So we wanted a logo that we could just put places and which would look good on a shirt – people wouldn’t have to learn the massive name, they’d just see that. We played a show in Russia that had a big black curtain and a white curtain behind it, and we were able to part the curtain in the middle and just made the logo! It’s good if it’s real simple.
Talking about the Eastern Bloc – how are the fans out there?
Fucking brilliant! Mental – there’s a lot in common with the Irish and the Russian people, the only difference is they speak better English! They’re brilliant, they’re really into it. They’re just so thankful that you’ve made the journey over there and they’re just really passionate about it as well so they’re mad into it, going nuts. But they are really gentle with each other as far as, you know, moshing or whatever word you want to use, and stage diving. You go to some shows and you see people just jumping recklessly in and kicking people in the face. They sort of more like flop on to people instead of diving and then they all get passed around and sat down. They’re more rough with Niall and Rory whenever they go in than they are with each other.
Anytime we would jump into the crowd within probably about 5 or 10 seconds they would lift us up so we would be crowd surfing while we’re playing guitar, which we were never expecting, but maybe it’s just like a custom over there or something. We want to just like dance with them in the crowd and rock out, but they just wanted to push us up into the ceiling instead!
How do you get the word out to Russian kids about you and that you’re going to go over there? Was it a part of little festivals, with three of four bands? Any Russian bands you were playing with?
Yeah, some really good ones actually. The Russian thing just began organically with people finding us on last.fm and downloading us illegally maybe, and we didn’t really know to what extent people knew about us over there. We got asked to do a tour by a company and it was crazy. We got there and it was like, ‘I wonder if anybody comes?’ and in the end there was hundreds of kids turning up and they spot you a mile away and they were all going mad. Getting your photo taken in the street – making you feel like you’re important!
How does that actually feel – you roll up to a venue, you don’t know if anyone’s going to show up and there’s 200 people there in a sold out show?
It’s like the ultimate drug, the ultimate reason to be in a band. It makes it all make sense. When we went to Russia it was like -25c, really harsh conditions, so the daytimes would maybe be a bit of a slog and be hard work, freezing cold. But then the crowds at night would just make it so worthwhile. You forgot about anything that happened during that day…any food poisoning that you’d got! The crowds just make everything disappear.
Did you get introduced to some really good vodka?
Yeah; we had one night where you’d buy a few bottles of vodka for the table and then you just pull yourself shots, you know? There was a type of vodka they had called Parliament. And it’s…we always mix vodka at home ‘cos it’s disgusting but there, as long as it’s cold, you can drink it and it doesn’t give you that ‘ugh!’ kind of feeling you get, it’s actually really nice. It’s nice to drink it neat. It’s palatable!
We want to go back to Tony’s exit from the band – not that Niall hasn’t taken over that role, but Tony seemed an integral part of the band and we were very surprised to hear that he left. So what went on with that and what was he doing?
Well about a year and a half ago – he’s always been a singer/songwriter – and about 18 months ago he started taking that more seriously and was starting to gig a bit, and it just got to the point where we had a big tour coming up and it got to that tipping point where it was his involvement with the band and his own thing got to the point where it was make or break – one or the other, you know? There was an element of frustration as well; like we’re always going to love him, but if something makes you unhappy that you’re supposed to love doing and you stop loving it, it’s time to move on.
And he never came across as anything like that, that’s the thing – he was always so into it, he always gave it everything, like all of you do.
(Niall): He is just super into music. He’s just super passionate about music and performing and everything, and he’d pour himself into anything he did in the same way. He’s just an awesome musician and person and performer. I found out about Tony’s departure about 10 days before the tour we went on, so I was grieving Tony’s loss as much as any of the fans were ‘cos I’m a big supporter and he’s been involved in the band for a long time, and I’ve followed every step along the way. Me and Rory moved to Belfast around the same time when I started Panama Kings so we were always involved in each other’s stuff, did some gigs together and stuff, and always kept like a good handle on each other. I was gutted when he left as well but I guess it just seemed like no-one wanted to stop so…
…Must have been really tough for him to make that decision.
(Chris): Yeah it was tough for everybody; being in a band together for 5 or 6 years, and Johnny was in a band with Tony called PepperBook years ago, and me, Rory and Tony were in a band called Zombie Safari Park, so there’s a huge history with all of us.
So what’s Tony’s project called?
And it’s him, acoustic?
Yeah. We actually went to see him about two weeks ago for his first ever performance with a backing band and it was awesome. He had Lukey from General Fiasco playing drums and a couple of other dudes. So yeah it was brilliant. We’d seen him a couple of times before just with his acoustic, and when we’re on tour we always check in. He keeps putting videos up online and stuff and we’ve been following it, and then getting to see him do it live was special. It was great to see him doing it and really loving it. He’s had a lot of really good news recently as well, don’t know if we can go into it, but sure he’ll tell you himself.
How does it feel to be on Sargent House (label set up by Cathy Pellow, who also runs Omar Rodríguez-López of Mars Volta/At The Drive In’s Rodriguez Lopez Productions) with someone so influential, and partnered by somebody as massively influential on all of you growing up as musicians – most of you have said At The Drive-In’s album ‘Relationship of Command’ is a big influence.
Yeah it’s incredible. As soon as we signed up with them it’s like you’re suddenly entering into this big family you know, a really good feeling. It’s been great meeting some of the bands at South By as well. Like we’ve been hanging out with Gypsyblood and Indian Handcrafts and some other dudes from the label and it just feels like a big family. So we’re psyched about the showcase tonight (March 18th), we think it’s going to be really fun.
Have you met Omar Rodriguez-Lopez?
No – hopefully he’ll be around. He’s got a film showing at South By, he’s not performing this year. We met him at Oxegen about three years ago – fanboyed it you know, waited till after they had finished and went up to him. So it’s cool when things like that happen – one minute you’re chasing after a band to say hello after a show, then next thing you’re on a label that’s co-owned (by them).
In preparation for playing live you rehearse, and rehearsals can take many forms. The Minutes told us they don’t really rehearse, they don’t really like it except for before studio recordings, and you guys have had so many shows over the last couple of years – do you even rehearse?
We don’t really, that’s the product of playing so many shows, and then when you do get a bit of time you just end up writing rather than rehearsing.
So what happens between writing something, recording it, and preparing to go on tour?
Last time with ‘Gangs’ we really had to rehearse before we went on tour, and that’s probably the only time we would rehearse unless we had something big coming up.
So what would the rehearsal schedule be?
We have a room that we share with a couple of other bands in Belfast and we just head out there and spend a bunch of hours trying to rehearse before a show, but we end up trying out new stuff ‘cos it’s just fun.
How is that so when your music is so intricate and the interplay with the guitar parts especially?
(Niall): Well I had ten days to learn the tracks before we went out, so we sat down for a couple of hours to do that and go over some stuff. But then when you’re out on the road we don’t really take days off – we don’t really like days off – so it’s pretty much every night and then if it’s a headline show of ours we’ll get to soundcheck and cover stuff then as well. And so if you’re doing it every day it’s like a rehearsal as well.
We start with the best intentions; it’s like, ‘Let’s get back into the 9 to 5 routine’, then 9 to 5 became 12 to 7, you know? It’s like ‘Fuck I don’t want to be in for 9 in the morning so let’s go out and just jam new stuff instead’. We have a schedule set out for the next year maybe, of touring and what not, but we have allocated probably a month and a half to two months of pretty solid rehearsal. It’s the first time we’ve ever had that luxury of time.
You, Niall, have been friends and known the band for a while? You’ve soundchecked for them and stuff like that?
(Chris): Yeah he drummed for us as well. The rock trivia is that Niall’s been in the band twice and we’ve only ever been in it once. ‘Cos whenever I was at university there was some gigs in the early beginnings of the band when I was in England and I couldn’t get back so Niall drummed for us.
And did you have your own stuff going on as well?
(Niall): Yeah, I used to play for a band called Panama Kings. Actually me and Rory first met in a bar that we worked in, and about a week after working together we played each other music – like we were just talking about music and knew straight away that we were clicking. And a week later we started Team Fresh which is a band we played in, which was like an Irish punk/hip hop kind of thing that we played back home, and so that was about 7 or 8 years ago now. And just always been really tight, then through Rory met Johnny, and known Chris for a little bit longer and Tony at the same time.
I remember going to see Zombie Safari Park and coming up to the stage afterwards with all these beers ‘cos I was really happy to know that Rory could actually play guitar – we’d got on so well and I was just like, ‘Please God don’t let them be shit on guitar, and I’m going to have to be like, ‘…Really good man(!)’. So we did Team Fresh for ages together and then moved to Belfast at the same time. We did our own things and then Panama Kings came to an end, continued to play with Team Fresh, started recording for a solo thing that I’m doing as well, and then Tony left and that’s where it’s at at the minute.
What of plans to tour the States?
Yeah the plan is to hopefully get back over in the summer, if we can land a support tour.
If you could pick a massive band you’d want to support who would it be?
(Chris): I would love for Nine Inch Nails to be back on the road, I think that would be my ultimate tour support.
(Rory): At the minute it’s a toss up between Mastodon or Queens Of The Stone Age, I think we could fit in in both ways.
Do you think about how the band would fit with that music, or that fanbase, or just purely because you’re a fan?
Initially it’s like, ‘I would love to play with them’, and then you start thinking about it more in realistic terms like, ‘Would it work?’ But it’s terrifying, shit like that, that used to be just pipe dreams, and now people are going, ‘Well OK, why don’t we put in for them?’, and it’s, ‘Eh? You want us to play with you?’.
It was like when we got the Crooked Vultures thing – it was ridiculous. That was one of the few times we were practicing – when we got the phone call. Another really rare thing that happened that day was the weather was very good! So we got this call asking us if we would do it, and Rory was on the phone and he just started dancing round the garden.
(Niall): Then about an hour later Rory called me and asked if I was free for a couple of weeks, ‘You want to come roadie for us?’. Any downtime I have, anyway to make money is perfect you know? Then he’s like ‘It’s a little band called Them Crooked Vultures…’, and I was like, ‘Oh shit!’. It was a great tour.
So who’d be your band then Niall?
I’d probably be the same as Rory – Queens or Mastodon would be awesome.