The Irish Times' Una Mullaley reports back from Russian Tour

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. . . all over Russia, actually. Belfast band And So I Watch You From Afar have a devoted fanbase in the land of Putin. Braving snowdrifts and sub-zero temperatures, UNA MULLALLY joins them on the road

‘WE NEEDED THIS. We needed this.” A young Russian man at a metal club in Penza, 400 miles southeast of Moscow, is emphatically explaining to And So I Watch You From Afar what it means that they are playing a gig in his city. It’s -20 degrees outside when this band from Belfast arrives, their van reversed into a snow drift. The club’s convivial owner, Sasha, emerges with a scarf that matches the black and yellow decor of his venue, and a grin as wide as the Sura river that would flow through the city if it wasn’t frozen, and, with outstretched arms, announces: “you’re home!”

Seven days into a two-week Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian tour, ASIWYFA are reminded of their previous exploits at this small club by a poster of the band’s former line-up that adorns the graffitied dressing-room walls. It might seem odd that an instrumental rock band based in Belfast are trekking thousands of miles across Russia in the depths of a winter so freezing that dozens of people are dying from the cold, to bring their music to cities that most people outside of that country have never heard of. But here they are: Rory Friars (guitar), Niall Kennedy (guitar), Chris Wee (drums), Johnny Adger (bass), their soundman Andy, Alex, their Russian tour manager, and a stoic Russian driver called Ruslan, who keeps a bat wrapped in gaffer tape in the back of the van.

The sun rises in the morning, bears shit in the woods, ASIWYFA tour. It’s what they do.

FEEL THE LOVE 

It’s a week earlier, and the introductory marching drum thud of Set Guitars To Kill is kicking in as an encore at a club called Plan B in Moscow. When the band finally walks off stage, fans are waving vinyl sleeves in their direction and reaching out for high fives. An interview with Rolling Stone Russia begins backstage. Rory can be heard saying, “the word ‘compromise’ is not in the vocabulary of our band”, as the dressing room door closes shut. Outside in the bar, a young Russian woman screams, “I love you!”

“I love you back!” Niall Kennedy, the newest band member, replies with a hug. People are asking him where they can get black jeans as skinny as his. But there’s no Primark women’s section in Russia. Everyone in the queue is waiting for their moment to thank the band, and the people who’ve already bought a record and had it autographed retreat to a bench to examine the signatures. They sell dozens of band T-shirts.

The love that Russian fans have for this band is quickly coming into focus. (Later, ASIWYFA find out that the support band that night drove 1,000km to play the gig.)

FOND FAREWELL TO A FRIEND 

This is all awesome, but ASIWYFA have had to work hard to get here. Two years ago, when the band was playing more than 200 shows a year, they became completely institutionalised by touring (and to a certain extent, they still are).

On one occasion, having finished a tour and returned to Ireland, Rory and Chris continued sleeping in their van for two nights because they couldn’t handle the return to the “normality” of not being on the road. They had a saying at the time: “We are ostriches and tour is our sand.”

Relationships with girlfriends shattered. Friendships were stretched. They stopped getting calls from mates while they were on tour.

Some previous friends virtually ignored them, thinking that because they were in Kerrang! magazine they must now be too big for their boots. Then last year, Tony Wright left the band. Upon his departure, the remaining trio quoted Richard Bach in a press release: “Don’t be dismayed at goodbyes. A farewell is necessary before you can meet again. And meeting again, after moments or a lifetime, is certain for those who are friends.”

ONCE HE WAS A KING 

Enter Niall, formerly of Panama Kings, recruited officially 10 days before a European tour last September. Full of good-natured divilment, he’s been in the band twice, initially as a drummer while Chris was at university in Newcastle.

Russia calls again, and here they are, sweating after the first show in Moscow, apps buzzing, ears ringing, hands being shaken.

Celebrations are kept to a minimum thanks to an imminent 10-hour drive north. They make a toilet stop in a petrol station and see that the temperature is knocking -30 degrees. Mercifully, it’s slightly warmer when they reach St Petersburg (-18 degrees). By the second song that night, kids in ASIWYFA T-shirts are stage-diving. And they don’t stop. Drinking Jim Beam in a karaoke bar, after the gig, a fan talks about how all of her friends were so excited to see them play. “They are incredible, incredible,” she fawns on a loop.

NO SLEEP TILL NIZHNY NOVGOROD 

The next day is filled with a 16-hour drive to Nizhny Novgorod. Just before they go on, Rory has a fake panic. “I’m not ready at all! Hang on: lemon face / lion face / lemon face / lion face,” he repeats, adopting the appropriate expressions. “Okay, I’m ready.”

It’s this combination of relaxation and wit that typifies the band’s pre-performance ritual, if you can call being completely unfazed and chilled-out a ritual. There are few if any pre-show jitters; instead they spend the time trying to figure out what flavour crisps they’re eating, re-stringing guitars and drinking the local beer, requested as part of their rider. Chris prefers playing smaller rooms, and you can see why – within a few seconds, the punk-ish venue becomes a moshpit.

In the toilets, a man dripping in sweat is punching the wall with enthusiasm at the sounds outside. He goes to the sink to wash his face and knuckles as a girl wearing an ASIWYFA shirt emerges from a cubicle.

The man has a piss, and then launches himself at the door into the moshpit. Legs fly skyward. The barmen temporarily stop serving in order to rock out. Niall and Rory are held aloft by the crowd, and surfed back to the stage – as they are every night – while they play The Voiceless . Johnny as always remains centre stage, eyes closed, bass pounding, head banging.

The barman bursts into the backstage area with a funnel and a bottle of something and tries to force it down Johnny and Andy’s throats. Johnny’s freaking out that it’s the same shot that was lined up for them as they came out for the encore, which instantly made him feel locked. Instead, they opt for post-gig shots of Jaegermeister, which come with slices of peppered orange.

GET YOUR KICKS IN KAZAN 

It’s the next day and the band wakes up in the van in the Russian Republic of Tatarstan as the city of Kazan’s massive and beautiful kremlin, built at the behest of Ivan the Terrible, comes into view. “I wonder if Ivan the Terrible was always Ivan the Terrible,” Rory muses. “Maybe he started as Ivan the Alright, then Ivan A Bit Full On,” offers Chris.

At the gig, the crowd is young, local to the 15-plus universities in the city. Ruslan, the driver, hasn’t said a word until this evening. Instead of sleeping in the hotel during show time, he watches the gig, and subsequently drags Alex over to the band to translate how great he thought it was: “you brought out emotions in me.”

Back in the hostel, fans are scrawling “And So I Watch You From Afar” on a chalkboard, putting their songs on the stereo, and waiting for the guys to come and drink whiskey with them. In the band’s dorm, there’s a map of the world covering an entire wall. This leads to ideas about where to play next.

Niall is keen on the Azores. Chris fingers the map, pointing slightly regretfully to a place in Siberia, near Mongolia, where they were meant to play. In the morning, some stragglers are still there, asleep on the couch under coats, as the band heads out for another 500km drive. Andy drinks three cans of Red Bull and promptly falls asleep. Next stop Samara.

SAMARA SCENE 

Driving through blinding whiteness, endless stretches of snow and ice interrupted only by forest, they reach the city. This is the place that inspired a track on their Choice Music Prize-nominated album Gangs, Samara To Belfast . It’s a complex, 10-minute epic that Niall has yet to perfect so they won’t be playing it tonight. In their pleasant apartment accommodation, Chris finds a puppet of a cow Johnny instantly christens “Mos-cow”. Last time they played here, Johnny and Rory were brought to the top of a tower block where they got tattoos of Russian bears, an inking which was preceded by the tattoo artist’s rather unsettling quip, “Don’t worry, I won’t give you the AIDS.”

The kids who brought them to get tattooed, a two-piece band called DEAFDEAF, are supporting them again tonight. When they first met DEAFDEAF, Rory felt as though he was meeting his own band years previously in Portrush – DIY kids in a place with no discernible musical culture to identify with, scraping together instruments, PA systems and friends to create their own scene.

Backstage, boxes of costumes – presumably meant for podium dancers who populate this kind of cool, mirrored venue that looks something between a gay bar and a strip club – are raided.

Outside the chants start, “AND. SO. I. WATCH. YOU. FROM. AFAR. AND. SO. I. WATCH. YOU. FROM. AFAR.” Chris dons the tiny yellow shorts Rory bought him for Christmas. Fans are lining the stairs and balcony of a club. The chants continue at the end of the set. This time: “THANK. YOU. THANK. YOU.”

DEAFDEAF bequeath ASIWYFA a crate of beer. There are endless hugs and high fives. In the van on the way back to their beds, a harmonised chorus of Frère Jacques starts, the lyrics replaced with band names, starting with their own acronym sung phonetically, “Asiwyfa, Asiwyfa, La Faro, La Faro, Adebisi Shank, Adebisi Shank, Axis Of, Axis Of.”

ALL THE WAY TO PENZA 

At dawn, it’s off to Penza. En route, Alex, a master of logistics and serenity, withstands another bout of police intimidation. The cops, corrupt, are constantly stopping the van trying to extract money through inventing fines: “you don’t have the right visas . . . you don’t have the right documentation . . .” and, rather hilariously, “you are transporting drug addicts” – hilarious because the band’s drug intake involves beer, cigarettes and tropical-flavoured chewing gum. Zahvat is the kind of club where it’s perfectly acceptable to punch and shatter a bottle of beer out of someone’s grasp.

People hang out smoking at the squat toilets when the all-kicking, all-elbowing crowd gets a bit too much.

“Where is Tony?” someone in the crowd shouts during the gig.

“We love Tony very much,” Rory says from the stage, dedicating A Little Bit Of Solidarity Goes A Long Way to their former bandmate. The possibility of an after-party is thwarted when no one else can fit into the van.

KEEPING ON 

Voronezh’s rock club is called Tarantul. The stage is a giant metal spider whose body is formed by the drum riser. Mind Portal, a Russian prog metal group ASIWYFA are fans of, are supporting. Rory and Niall have covered the backstage yellow dressing room door in fake band names and logos with black permanent marker, a tour game they play persistently that has also expanded to Twitter. “Tricked Into A Cave”, “Oceans Of Shit”, “Cornered In The Gymnasium”, “Wrecked Futures”.

Right now, the band is scraping by. Any money that’s generated goes back into it.

Rory would like to be able to come home from tour and take his Mum and Dad out for a meal. Johnny would like to be able to

afford rent. But most of all, they want to be able to continue to make music.

“We really never want to repeat ourselves, we want to diversify, keep doing it,” Rory says. “We want to make people happy,” Niall adds.

Before the gig in Voronezh, they’re trying to think of a memory they most want to keep from this tour. “Chris in that drag suit!” Rory exclaims, referring to Chris’s shirtless pre-Samara-gig costume of giant pink glitter wings, a silver mask and foot-high gold platforms. “Off the record, off the record!”

Chris intervenes. And once more, like all good mates, they collapse into laughter around a table of beer and cigarettes. That night, again, they play their hearts out. Suddenly, naming a song Don’t Waste Time Doing Things You Hate makes more sense than ever before.


Gangs by ASIWYFA is nominated for the Meteor Choice Music Prize

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