'We've never been happy to be just a big band in Ireland'
Eager to get off the “hamster wheel” of local gigs, Bell X1 spent last year touring the US (four times), including appearances on Lettermanand Conan O’Brien. Frontman Paul Noonan tells Jim Carrollabout the band’s broadened horizons and their first album as a three-piece
PAUL NOONAN could probably chart his working life through interviews in hotel bars like this one. Every couple of years, Bell X1 release a new album – and every couple of years, Noonan takes a seat in a bar like this one, faces a gallery of tape-recorders and starts answering questions again. The location may change, but the dance steps remain the same.
This year’s model is their fourth album, Blue Lights On The Runway. It’s the follow-up to Flock, the 2005 album which notched up over 60,000 sales and saw the band become one of the biggest domestic draws of all.
However, much has changed between releases. For one, the band no longer enjoy the largesse of a major label. For another, they’re a man down, since the departure of founder-member Brian Crosby last autumn.
Change has come to Bellyland and Noonan feels this impacts hugely on the new album.
“For me, it’s about holding steady through the choppy seas of change,” he says of the new record. “It has been a huge period of change for the band and we wanted the record to be defiant, to stand up in the face of those changes and to do something we felt was great.”
The first change came in early 2007, when the band and Island Records parted company in a no-fault divorce. Whatever about how the band may have felt at the time (Noonan wryly mentions the corporate giftbox they received from the label one Christmas with White Russian fixings and fancy peanuts), the singer now sees the parting of the ways as a hugely positive event.
“With a major label, you need to have a certain amount of sales to move the cogs in the wheel and we just didn’t have that, so the cogs didn’t turn quick enough,” he says.
“When our deal was up, we were offered a new deal and we said no. The deal was still with Island Records, but it wasn’t something we wanted to jump into again. We preferred to put a smaller operation in place worldwide and find partners who we felt were more passionate about it.
“We’ve always wanted to put out records in America and tour there. We’ve never been happy to be just a big band here in Ireland. It took a long time to put the infrastructure in place so that we would have longevity over there and get to go back to tour properly.”
It proved to be time worth taking. Flockgot an American release from bustling indie label Yep Roc and the band toured the United States four times in 2008. Each tour was a little bit bigger and a little bit better than the previous one, validating their decision to spend so much time in the US.
“It helps that we can see progress when we go back because the shows are bigger and the radio sessions are going down well,” says Noonan. “I think collectively we still have a hunger for touring. Of course, there are varying degrees to that love amongst the band, but we all enjoy it. There’s no-one saying: ‘I can’t do this any more’.
“When we play live, we make friends. We toured with Stars last year and got to tour in Georgia and the Carolinas and Tennessee, not the usual west coast, east coast and Chicago circuit. It’s great to get to new places where you’re not relying on an ex-pat audience as much. It’s not annoying and it is a natural thing to tap into in places like Boston and Chicago and something we’re grateful for, but it was good to play in front of audiences who didn’t have a clue who we were.
“Having songs on TV shows definitely helps. The late night TV show appearances with Dave Letterman and Conan O’Brien help. I still haven’t got my head around how radio works over there, but we’ve definitely been embraced by National Public Radio.
“We could have just made a record and toured Ireland and got on the hamster wheel every couple of years and been comfortable here, but I don’t think we would be fulfilled by that. We wouldn’t have made the record that we just did if we hadn’t gone out and extended our horizons.
“You really get a sense of how small Ireland is when you tour America. It’s quite daunting. You really see it when you do the TV shows and realise you’re just one act on a long conveyor belt. Dave Letterman comes up after you’ve performed to shake your hand and then he’s off straight away to the next stage.”
Even before the record is in the shops in Ireland, the US campaign has already begun. “We’re just back from there again. We did a Steve Lillywhite show which was syndicated for National Public Radio and we recorded a session for the Daytrotter blog as well. They’re based in Rock Island on the Illinois/Idaho border, a very nondescript American town in the middle of fields, but they have a brilliant studio with an amazing room full of vintage gear.”
Blue Lights On The Runwaybegan to take shape when they moved into an old mansion in Ballycumber, Co Offaly in November 2007. Further sessions took place throughout 2008 in a disused factory in Dublin and bass player Dom Phillips’s garage in Co Meath.
“I think we’ve flexed our muscles and extended ourselves quite a bit on a lot of fronts,” says Noonan of the new album. “It’s more adventurous in how we approach the songs and the structures are less conventional. There are a couple of six- and seven-minute work-outs on it, which is something we’ve been a bit wary about before for fear of being indulgent.
“I don’t think those six- and seven-minute songs are radio singles, but there are radio singles on the album, so we were aware of needing that. It’s a 55-minute album and there are only 10 songs. I always wanted to keep a record to one side of a C90 tape, so it would have annoyed me having to put 10 minutes on the other side.
“We wanted to raise the bar a little and put the best foot forward in the face of what are, on paper, setbacks and come out dazzling. We wanted to dress the songs a little differently, but we wanted to make sure they were sound to begin with.
“A lot of times when you hear a band introducing beats to a song, you can tell that the groove is not enough and the song is a little watery as a result. A lot of the songs were only written and finished while we were recording and were completed by the experiences we were having on tour, especially that unhinged delirium you sometimes get on the road. A song like The Great Defectortries to capture that transience and constant newness of everything when you’ve not slept for two days.
“With Flock, more of the tunes came from band jams and a song would be crow-barred into that arrangement. This time, it was back to Dave (Geraghty, guitarist) and I crafting the flow of the song in each other’s apartments before bringing in the machines.
“A big thing with this record for me was watching Dave and Dom recording their parts and realising what great musicians they are. Sometimes, you do take the people around you for granted and familiarity and contempt set in after so many years together.”
Brian Crosby’s departure from the fold last year didn’t surprise Noonan or the others. “In the years since Flockcame out and when we were trying to put the engines in place for it to come out in Europe and America, we had lots of downtime. The band developed into this hub from which a lot of side-projects have sprung like the Cake Sale. Brian is not one to be idle and he embraced that more than any of us. When we were in America last year, he’d often be on the computer working on other things. When the time came to make and release a new record, he said he couldn’t commit to it and wanted to concentrate on producing and soundtracking.”
Noonan smiles as he recounts how he spotted Crosby in the audience at one of their first live shows after his departure. “He said he wasn’t going to come to the show in Vicar Street, but he did. In Vicar Street, you can see everyone in the room. He was up on the balcony, stage right, at one point, under a light, and we locked eyes. It was obviously odd for him too – he called it an out-of-body experience.”
Crosby and the band remain friends. “I think the notion of what a band is has become more fluid and people move in and out. When a band have so many creative voices, it’s natural that different people will play on different records and I know that I will definitely work with Brian again.”
His departure could, of course, be viewed by the others as a challenge to come up with a truly great record. “I’m sure subconsciously that was part of it,” notes Noonan. “Like when Damien [Rice] left Juniper [Bell X1’s previous band], we would have been determined to make good music in spite of that. It would have driven us.”
Noonan has also had some non-band flings during the last few years. He drummed with Cathy Davey, looked on at the acclaim achieved by Some Surprise, the song he wrote for the Cake Sale project, which was recorded by Gary Lightbody and Lisa Hannigan, and began to muse about making a different kind of record. After all, he knows that 2009 will be all about the new album and continuing to make friends away from these shores.
“I’m a big fan of Gillian Welch and would love to make a record in that vein some day with a female singer. Just something simple, with two guitars and microphones and not have the multi-layered endless recording process which we normally go through. I’ve been working up songs like that with a view to doing something in the future. Vague, I know.”
Blue Lights On The Runwayis released on February 20. Bell X1’s Irish tour begins in Galway’s Black Box on March 25 full details at bellx1.com