Reading a (postively-worded) review of Bell X1’s fourth collection of wittily-worded and warmly-written songs this week, one sentence jarred with me: “Bell X1, now Ireland’s second biggest rock band.” Somehow, the placement of Paul Noonan, David Geraghty and Dominic Phillips just one place below Bono, Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. in the Premier League of Irish rock seemed like a misprint, as if Wigan Athletic had been bumped up to just one place behind Man United. Remember, this is a team not bankrolled by a Dubai sheikh or Russian oligarch (now operating on their own independent label, BellyUp Records, after a split with their label) and that has just lost one of its steadiest players to retirement (Brian Crosby). But then, consider their success overseas: their American TV breakthrough has been well-documented, with slots including David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, and soundtracks to the infamous O.C. Lesbiangate affair heightening their profile enough for four well-attended tours. If they maintain their form they’re even likely to cause an upset in Europe. Totally Dublin talked to captain, Paul Noonan about their current prospects.
Team morale must be pretty high, right?
P: A certain level of familiar contempt has settled in, really.
Toenail clippings in the bed?
P: Yep. Pubes in the bath, and that sort of stuff.
I think Blue Lights introduces a more visual, synesthetic approach to your songwriting, especially the Great Defector. Did you do acid in between recordings?
P: We just went on tour a lot which is a sort of similar, erm…
P: Yep, exactly. We were in America four times last year, and two or three times through Europe. A sort of manic, delirious mindset kicks in. It’s similar to not sleeping for four nights solid, all the time, which in itself is similar to a hallucinogen. It’s more flinging lots of lurid colours at a canvas than a coherent story.
There must be some chasm between performing for Ryan Tubridy, and for David Letterman. How self-conscious are you as a band performing on one of America’s TV institutions, as opposed to a few thousand people who’ve sat in on a Saturday night in Ireland?
P: It’s a lot colder on the Letterman show. They’re trying to keep people fresh I think. It’s a lot smaller too, which is strange. I remember when Sky first came out in Ireland they used to show Letterman every night, and I would’ve seen the Beastie Boys and stuff like that on it, so I think it’s an institution of sorts in Ireland too. It was very much like a conveyor belt though, they do so many shows that they’re just so technically on-the-spot. You do your songs, he gets up and shakes your hand, you leave, you’re on the next show. The Paul Shaffer band were lovely people, really complimentary. He himself was willing to indulge in a bit of Spinal Tap banter, as he was Artie Fufkin in it, which I didn’t know until the day we went in there.
You’re going back this Patrick’s Day right?
Your lyrics are always distinctly Irish. Plastic souvenirs from Knock. Go away and shite. Cornettos. Do you reckon most of it is lost in translation when you’re doing something like Conan O’Brien?
P: I think there’s still some kind of impact from them, even if these things haven’t been in your life. I do kind of worry about that, I wouldn’t like to be reduced to a lister of colloquialisms or anything. In ‘The Great Defector’ when we talk about the end of the Cornetto, which is a distinctly Anglo-Irish ice-cream treat (although they do them in Europe I’m told), I think it’s just a wacky enough allusion for an American to enjoy.
You’ve a keen ear for stories, and lots of your references are based out of literature. Do you write prose and poetry unattached to the music?
P: Yeah, I’d like to get into more writing. I’ve written some short stories, and in the sporadic blogging we’ve been doing I can exercise that.
Bell X1’s pop music is quite cerebral in comparison to most of the music it sits beside on daytime radio. Do you think radio station playlisters and the music press are cynical when it comes to how tolerant the mass market is to intelligence or relative experimentation in the music they listen to?
P: Yeah. I’m really surprised by how much The Great Defector is on the radio. We don’t really see ourselves in that place, it’s strange. We’re very grateful for it, it brings us to an audience. But I don’t know what parameters there are anymore. Daytime radio was traditionally always very conservative, but I do feel there’s great pop music, and terrible pop music, and they seem to coexist. There are boxes to be ticked, and it’s still quite narrow.
You’ve stated your desire to escape that hamster wheel of being a Big Irish Band, and the success in America to date has been a release from that. Is it a little frustrating, or exhausting having to, say, talk to Totally Dublin at half ten on a Monday morning?
P: Not at all. It’s not with a sense of weariness we talk about that hamster wheel image of a process. We’re grateful for the success here, it facilitates being able to go to America, and to Europe, there’s a very direct cause-and-effect there.
Flock took a little dalliance into the kinetic kind of post-punk that was ubiquitous a few years ago, in Reacharound, He Said She Said, and Flame. Was this a conscious effort at the time to be zeitgeisty, and what made you move away from that particular direction on this album?
P: I think a lot of those angles on the last album were down to the fact that a lot of songs came from the music first. We jammed up a lot of music, and crowbarred songs into it, which is the oppostire from how we usually do it, and have gone back to now. I don’t think it was a conscious decision to be zeitgeisty. There certainly was that trend amongst the English NME kind of bands at the time, and we would have balked at that if anything. Often what happens when musicians jam together is that creating rhythm comes first when there’s no song to wrap it around, and I think that’s where it came from.
Were there any other differences between how you approached the songwriting with Blue Lights and before?
P: With this album I went away and wrote a lot of the songs by myself, with a computer, and software synths and beats and stuff, before bringing it to the band. Dave and I worked a lot together too. We had this singular idea before making the effort that we would take a song that we had the backbone of, and then dress it up with noises and beats and stuff, and we’d never really done that before. That worked in some cases, but it sounded really gratuitous in others, so we peeled it back. Which is why we have something of a mongrel on our hands again. But I think that’s the kind of band we are at this stage.
Yeah, I was just about to say that’s almost Bell X1’s sonic identity, being a bit all-over-the-shop. But there’s this kind of uniformity, what do you think it is that holds it altogether?
P: The songwriting is traditional, it’s usually verse-chorus-verse-chorus-middle eight-chorus-out. There are a couple of deviations from that on this record, because we left the tape rolling in most cases, which left us with some nice 6 or 7 minute songs. A great piece of advice we got from a friend before we started was that “a groove isn’t always enough”, which is often the problem. We had to address that in a couple of cases. If the song wasn’t strong enough, we had to tinker with it until we were comfortable with it.
With Flock there was this really strong visual identity – the artwork, the Tour De Flock DVD, the backdrops and silhouettes live. Have you got any of that kind of stuff worked around Blue Lights?
P: I came across the work of this German photographer online a couple of years ago, his name’s Jan Van Holleben. We started an email dialogue, and I asked would he be interested in doing some shots for the album artwork, and some band photographs. He was, so went to Berlin for a few days and shot the light-based work that’s on the album cover. So we’re hoping to take that to live shows as well, project those light paintings and kind of strobey stuff with the series of those images.
And are you happy with how it ties in visually with the music on the album?
P: Yes, it’s perfect. One of the things we tried to do was make a much more colourful album, a little day-glo and joyous. The light painting has resonance like that for us.
What’s your diagnosis of the current health of the Irish music scene? Do you take an involved interest in the other music going on around you, or are you more ivory tower than that?
P: We’ve all been involved in lots of different Irish projects since Flock. I was playing drums for Cathy Davey and met Conor, from Villagers. I think they’ll make an amazing record when the time comes, the EP is really great. They’re playing with us on the Irish tour in March. Halves music too, we love. Both of those bands blow what an Irish band is out of the water. There’s so much going on in so many forms in Ireland now that the image of dirgy pub rock is no longer relevant. It’s really healthy.
Coming from a scene like that, and also the singery-songwritery element that was in Irish music when you started up, did you decide to strike out from that sort of conservativeness?
P: Not consciously, no. We’d never done the open mic nights, it just wasn’t part of where we were coming from. I think Ireland punches well above its weight in a sense. From record to record we’ve always tried to be different from the previous, as opposed to what was going on around us. I think these things are magnified when you’re so entwined with the music, so the changes will have seemed much greater to us than to other people, but it’s been important for us to change up every time.
Bell X1’s brand new album, Blue Lights On The Runway is out now.
Words by Daniel Gray