Bell X1: On getting back to basics
Paul Noonan and Dave Geraghty talk about their sixth album and the band’s slow-burning success in the US
Bell X1: Dave Geraghty, Paul Noonan and Dominic Philips
It takes some bands a lifetime to come full circle and decide that they want to get back to basics. For Bell X1, it took 13 years. The story of the Kildare band’s sixth studio album begins in a nondescript garage attached to the house of guitarist Dave Geraghty, which now acts as a base for their musical endeavours.
It was here that they recorded 16 demo tracks last summer, nine of which would go on to become Chop Chop, the band’s leanest, tightest and most interesting album in years. The most striking first impression is that it mostly foregoes the noodly electronics that have informed much of the trio’s recent material.
“I suppose we just felt that we’d exhausted that stuff,” says Noonan . “And as a writer, I felt that my strength was more in traditional songwriting on a piano or a guitar, as opposed to electronics. I’d done a lot of programming on the last couple of records and it was good fun, but I don’t think it’s a strength.
“ So it was just the three of us going back to piano-based or guitar-based songs. Dave and I worked on stuff separately and brought them up to a pre-finished song structure, as opposed to a beat coming off a laptop with some idea sketched over it. There was something really refreshing about shrinking the palette.”
“It was kind of an accident that we had the songs and started recording and making demos in this garage studio,” adds Geraghty. “We realised, ‘Actually, this sounds really good; we can use fewer elements, but make it much bigger’. Those kind of details, like on an old Sam Cooke recording . . . you hear the honesty and heartbeat of the song, rather than it being overcrowded just because you want to make it contemporary. Or maybe it’s just because I’m getting old? ‘Enough of all that thump-thump music there, now!”
The desire to back an intimate album that sounded big led the trio to Bridgeport, Connecticut, the sleepy town where renowned US producer Peter Katis operates his famed Tarquin Studios. When the opportunity to work with the man known for cutting records by The National, Interpol and Jónsi arose, the trio eagerly grabbed it. Sharing a production credit with Katis on Chop Chop is Thomas Bartlett, aka Doveman, a member of trad supergroup The Gloaming who has also been a session and touring player with the likes of Antony and the Johnsons to The National.
“We sent demos around to a few people, and Peter loved them and was really into doing the record,” explains Noonan. “We really wanted Thomas to be involved, especially seeing what he brought to The Gloaming. We were all only available for this two-week period in January, so we got our skates on and made it happen.”
The plan, the pair explain, was originally to record two albums in quick succession. They’ve temporarily abandoned that plan, but the resultant album is a tidy 33-minute-long collection of beautifully simple songs that rely on subtle orchestration – a soulful parp of brass here, a flourish of strings there – to create mood and fill out the recordings.