‘It isn’t about how loud we are but the impact we can make’
There’s subtlety in And So I Watch You from Afar’s sonic madness
“We’re becoming a bit more refined in how we use volume”: Rory Friers, Niall Kennedy, Johnathan Adger and Chris Wee of And So I Watch You from Afar
The irony of having a civilised, if not genteel, discussion with two members of a band that has set the standard for raising the roof of any venue it plays in is not lost on Rory Friers and Chris Wee. These men are the guitarist and drummer with Belfast’s And So I Watch You from Afar, or Asiwyfa, a group that has over the past decade redefined the performative processes of (for want of a better term) post-rock.
Asiwyfa seem forever shadowed by the question of what comes next. As each powerhouse record is released and then revered for its mixture of boundless energy, pummelling rhythms, intricate time signatures and innate melodies, there is surely a nagging doubt that whatever comes next won’t be as riveting. Friers and Wee, sequestered in a provincial shopping mall, sipping Z-grade coffee, nod in recognition.
At the early stages of thinking about music for a new album, Friers says, semi-grandiose concepts always change. “We have these ideas of being radically different for each album, but very quickly we realise that our music is very much the product of a combination of things that have happened over a period of time. Depending on where and when the four of us decide to put energy into creating music, it will be defined by where we’re at up to that point.”
For us it’s no longer the wall-of-sound thing it might have been in the early days. Otherwise it becomes something that can’t maintain the levels of excitement
Over the course of five albums, from 2009’s self-titled debut to its new album, The Endless Shimmering, Asiwyfa has delivered a range of music that straddles the spectrum from granite tough to delicate. If the latter is pretty and pastoral, the former is something very different.
Influenced as much by hard-core punk and grunge as by jazz fusion and prog rock – think Mahavishnu Orchestra as performed by Black Flag, with Yes and Mudhoney albums playing in the background – the music is measured out in incremental steps of volume. It reaches a peak, sometimes subsiding in a form of sonic afterglow, sometimes crashing to a sudden, defiant halt.
Whatever takes place, it’s loud. Very loud. Volume is all well and good, Friers agrees, but noise annoys without dynamic. “It isn’t about how loud we are but the impact we can make from start to finish. For us it’s no longer the wall-of-sound thing it might have been in the early days. Otherwise it becomes something that can’t maintain the levels of excitement.”
Texture can also disappear or get lost in the mix. “The soil we came from in the context of what we wanted the live shows to emulate was that our set would never be more than 25 minutes long. In the early days we were never given the time as a support band to extend beyond that, so we had less than 30 minutes to make an impact. Because we came from the world of grunge and punk, which is unapologetic and full of impactful, short bursts, it’s taken a few years for us to gauge texture that, say, a 45-minute set provides. We’re becoming a bit more refined in how we use volume.”
Chris Wee, patiently resigned to his friend taking the lead in the conversation, finally says something. “We have tried to craft it a bit more. It’s a constant modification of ideas. We work minutely on putting parts together so that each is as exciting as the last one.”
That the band has enhanced its music across five albums within 10 years is quite the strike rate. Many groups or musicians, I suggest, simply don’t have the same sense of efficiency or urgency.
“Yes, it’s all right, isn’t it?” Friers says with some pride. “From the very beginning we were, and still are, obsessed with what we do. It’s very much our lives. Personally, we put a lot of importance on the music, and it’s the thing we think about the most. We spend time with our best friends because of it. There are ups and downs, of course, but it feels like we have direction because of it.”
Wee nods in agreement. “We try to take some time from it, but there’s always an underlying momentum the band has gathered and maintained throughout the years.”
Una Mullally speaks up for things that are important to us all. The song Mullally is named after and for her, but it’s also for everything that she and people like her encapsulate
The latest album also pays tribute to Irish Times columnist Una Mullally. “She’s a very inspiring person, a great friend, and we admire her massively,” Friers says. “She speaks up for things that are important to us all. There was something about the tune that we felt embodied that spirit. The song Mullally is named after and for her, but it’s also for everything that she and people like her encapsulate.”
There have been life changes, but the impact of these on the dynamic of a bunch of obsessive musicians wanting to take on all comers is not as forceful as some people might think.
“What it has done with us,” Friers says, “is that it puts perspective on what we do. We have been able to go on tour and make it more worthwhile. We play more shows, things are organised better, and there’s more structure to what we do and how we do it. Back in the day we were doing everything and anything – recklessly – spending money, losing money, doing silly things.
“Because we’ve been doing it for such a long time we have seen so many bands come and go. We’ve seen things we don’t like in how other people conduct themselves. We went from having almost a militant, guerilla thing – watching documentaries about Washington DC hard-core bands, and The Clash, death or glory! – but now we’re a really well-oiled machine.”
“Ten years ago,” Wee adds, “no one had ever really heard of us, and, being a band with no vocals, perhaps we needed to prove ourselves more. As a band it gave us a lot of focus, and galvanised us in terms of driving all day to a venue to find a handful of people there, but then still playing with heart.”
His bandmate agrees. “We have played to enough small crowds over the years to make us believe that what we’re doing is the right thing.”
Speak Up! ASIWYFA and hearing loss
Chris Wee “We’ve all had our individual awakenings with protection from the sound. I went to have my hearing checked a few years ago, and the audiologist told me I had lost some high frequency in my left ear and that it had probably come from having the drum monitor on my left side for years. After that I started using ear monitors with noise-cancelling headphones, and a mix of the band’s instruments at a lower volume in my ears.”
Rory Friers “I need to start wearing earplugs more. I wear them in rehearsals, but there’s something about playing on a stage where, even when I put them in, I take them out halfway through. I get so excited during a show that it gets to the point where there is no before or after – you’re so in the moment, so the earplugs come out. I have to be harder on myself, to be honest, as I have a bit of tinnitus.”
- The Endless Shimmering is released through Sargent House. Asiwyfa are at the Telegraph Building in Belfast on December 16th, the Academy, Dublin, on December 28th, and then in Castlebar, Cork and Galway on December 29th, 30th and 31st