The title of Bell X1’s fifth album, Bloodless Coup, could be a description of their slow-but-steady ascent to become one of Ireland’s most popular bands, both here and abroad, over the past 10 years. Any band looking for a blueprint of how to get a foothold in the US need look no further. They tell TONY CLAYTON-LEAhow it’s done
HERE THEY come again – one of Ireland’s most popular bands, a likeable unit with a strong predilection for writing the type of songs that get them noticed far beyond the often stifling boundaries of Ireland.
Bell X1’s new album, Bloodless Coup, is simultaneously a continuation of and a departure from a trajectory of acclaim that started more than 10 years ago and shows no signs of stopping. While they remain one of the country’s most commercially successful acts, life outside of Ireland is, by necessity, a priority. Hello the US of A.
“We first attained a profile from having a couple of songs played on The OC,” says lead singer and primary songwriter Paul Noonan. We first went over to America in the mid-2000s, played small clubs, which to our surprise were full of people who knew the songs.
“We’ve always had a hunger to get out and gain a foothold in different places. I still think the best tool in our arsenal is playing in front of people. There really is no substitute for that, and it’s been great to see over the past few years that crowds have increased and venues have got bigger. We’ve also reached beyond the bigger cities in America to the south and Midwest, and up to Canada, which is great.”
The holy grail for any music act trying to get a grip in the US is airplay. Bell X1 seem to have been making the right noises (literally), because on Sunday, American radio network NPR (National Public Radio) will be at the Guinness Store House in Dublin to record a special Bell X1 gig for their syndicated World Cafemusic show, which is broadcast on 185 stations across the US. In what is a first for NPR, they are winging their way across the Atlantic in the company of 85 lucky listeners in order to show support for the forthcoming US release of Bloodless Coup, which comes out over there on the Yep Roc label. This is big thing for the band, yes?
“It’s hard to quantify that,” says Noonan. “I’m still getting my head around the indicators of what success means in the US, because radio is so formatted. There seems to be a hierarchy – and I may have this wrong – that involves jumping from Adult Alternative to NPR to the first rung of commercial radio. Then it goes up to Super Pop radio, or something like that, which is probably where Billboard comes into play.”
Whatever happens during this process, and indeed after it, is in the lap of the gods, but it won’t prevent the band attempting to balance the expectations of their Irish fans with the commercial pragmatism of wanting more.
“We’re a very different prospect in Ireland, in that we’ve been releasing albums here since 2000. Bloodless Coupwill be our fifth, and before we had the massive radio play here we had a few years of touring and going to every county, playing and building what is still a really strong, supportive fan base. That is the core for us, and indeed it has fuelled everything beyond Ireland for us. We’re self-funded, and I think at some level people are very much aware of that and feel part of what we do.”
“You have to prove yourself abroad,” adds multi-instrumentalist Dave Geraghty, who is also Bell X1’s sharpest dresser. “Ireland is a small country, and as insatiable a market as it is – justifiably renowned for its love of music – you can only do so much business.”
Broadening the horizons is the thing to do, says Geraghty. But stretching these same horizons has inadvertently led many an Irish band into music industry quicksand, the result of which is, inevitably, failure. Geraghty jokes that “if you’re going to fail you might as well do it on the world stage and with a bit of flamboyance”. He is correct about the high risks involved. You certainly get the impression from him and Noonan that the last thing they want to do is to wearily surface from a music industry quagmire, split up and then reform every Christmas for a stocking-filler gig at Whelan’s.
In relation to albums, though, how do Bell X1 balance the familiarity of their music with wanting to do something fresh each time? What can a band do to hold on to their creativity while simultaneously keeping a close eye on the accounts?
“It’s more about learning what you don’t want to do,” says Geraghty. “You learn from things that go wrong. Methodology is crucial.”
How long does it take for you to listen to the finished album and realise there are flaws on it? “That happens,” says a wryly smiling Noonan, “but in some ways it’s a counter- intuitive process. You record these songs without having played them live, and when you go out and play them live they eventually become the songs they should have been in the first place.
“Then there are the moments in the studio where you are playing and land on some things that feel so good without having planned them out in your head. It’s a happy accident, I suppose, but it’s also a level of intuition that develops over a long period of time. That’s the essence of a band, I reckon – by everyone nudging something in a certain way you find yourself in utopia for a minute. Often, thought is your enemy in the studio. Sometimes first takes and those happy accidents are the gold.”
Ten years down the line, Bell X1 have gone from being ingénues to established figures, from being on major labels (Universal/Island) to self-funding and self-reliance. If it’s done the right way, and if Lady Luck shines a smile at you, it can work, can’t it?
“Musicians are a lot more aware these days of that side of things,” says Geraghty. “It’s a scary thought, I suppose, that the musician should have entrepreneurial skills as well as creative ones.”
“It’s been very empowering,” adds Noonan of the DIY business model. “The major label deals we had elevated us to a certain level of visibility, but it’s a whole new world for bands now.”
“The only disadvantage,” counters Geraghty, “is not having the big label support, the financial backing for touring. And with venues struggling, they now want to know that you’re capable of selling the shows. So you can see, even globally, that many venues are not going to go out on a limb to book even up-and-coming acts. But we prefer it this way. We’re more in control, we make our decisions based on what we, as a band, have achieved.”
You also have to limit yourself to a degree, says Noonan. “I remember we signed our first deal at the dizzy age of 20, and we now have such a level of awareness of what goes on that it’s hard to compare the two kind of existences.”
Back then, recalls Noonan, they were like kittens cheerfully chasing a ball of wool. Now, he reflects, Bell X1 are more informed, “being men of a certain age, pausing to reflect on the massive changes that have sneaked up on us – in relation to personal matters, becoming fathers for the first time, and also being of an age where our friends and loved ones are losing their parents. We’ve all been touched by it in some ways.”
Hits, misses and lesbian kisses: The Bell X1 story so far
1991Juniper form in Co Kildare, with Paul Noonan as drummer, Damien Rice as lead singer, Brian Crosby and Dominic Phillips on guitar and multi-instrumentalist Dave Geraghty.
Late 1990sDamien Rice leaves to forge a successful solo career, leaving Noonan, Crosby, Phillips and Geraghty to form Bell X1.
2000Bell X1 release debut album, Neither Am Iin Ireland only, where it achieves gold status.
2003They release follow-up album Music in Mouth, which achieves double-platinum sales in Ireland. Album track Eve, The Apple of My Eyeis used during an episode of US teen show The OC, in a scene where two of the show’s female characters share a kiss.
2005They release third studio album Flock, to huge acclaim, selling five times platinum in Ireland, and enabling them in 2006 to sell out a show in the RDS Main Hall and to play the Main Stage at Oxegen.
2007They are dropped by Island UK. Goodbye corporation, hello artistic freedom and a DIY approach to business by the founding of their own label, BellyUp Records.
2008They release Flock in the US on Yep Roc Records. Tours of North America are a success. Original member Brian Crosby leaves the band on amicable terms.
2009They release their fourth studio album, Blue Lights on the Runway. Lead single, The Great Defector, becomes the band’s most successful yet. Accusations of it sounding more Talking Heads than Talking Heads prompts Noonan to comment: “Part of me was ‘fair cop, guv’, but then it became a tag you’d see in every mention of the band. There were 10 other songs on the record, too, so perhaps it was a victim of its own success.”
2011They release fifth studio album, Bloodless Coup.