A few names immediately spring to mind when thinking of home town performances of the dizzyingly colossal variety. Muse brought the coast of Devon to a standstill with their Seaside Rendezvous. Oasis pencilled in a gathering of sixty thousand at the ground of their beloved Manchester City and last year Snow Patrol‘s umpteenth homecoming was the single highest-attended concert Northern Ireland had ever seen. But all of those are hard to compare to a Belfast gig from And So I Watch You From Afar.
It’s not just any Belfast gig from And So I Watch You From Afar either. Aside from that humble triple whammy for the fans over Christmas, it’s their first “proper” Belfast show in over a year. There’s also the small matter of an album to launch.
So while millions were glued to the blue bloods tying the knot, the eyes and ears of Northern Ireland were gearing up for the hysterically anticipated ‘Gangs‘, two years on from the première of their self-titled opus at this very venue – Belfast Mandela Hall.
Amidst the excitement though there’s a tingeing air of misfortune dampening the run up to the launch, with the album being leaked onto torrent and file sharing services just two days before the event despite ASIWYFA’s best efforts to bountifully drip-feed snippets, freebies, exclusive first plays and live versions building up to the release.
Initially disheartened maybe, but there was no doubt the record’s premature unveiling added something to the performance that otherwise wouldn’t have been present, a feeling of prevailing in spite of the leakers, with hundreds in support who were so familiar with the material you’d have thought it had been available for forty-eight weeks, not hours.
But it wouldn’t be an And So I Watch You From Afar spectacular without a ball-tightening under card of fellow Nordie noise-revellers and with tonight being the occasion of an album launch the support bill held nothing back in volume and variety.
The first instalment of a blood-boiling Irish North Coast port-punk twosome comes in the form of Lantern for a Gale. With a raging hardcore neckbreaker of an EP under their belts, their sound is confrontational and harrowing but also allows room for massive riffs that bring to mind crumbling, wrecked living rooms and airless basement circle pits. It’s evident tonight though that despite the sizeable early turn out they’re bewildered and unable to connect with the audience, hankering for the face-to-face proximity gig they’re so at home with, and as a result the performance is static and dwarfed by the alien setting.
As hardened veterans, Axis Of are comfortable with the environment, letting their hookier hardcore brand of rootsy punk command the stage. The Portstewart trio have undergone a bit of a reinvention, progressing further into a relentlessly raw pop sound that last year’s ‘Port Na Spaniagh‘ single hinted at without compromising any of the intelligent songwriting. It feels like a natural maturity that could capitalise on support of Rocksound and a Maida Vale session to earn them a huge following outside of Ireland.
All we need are new recordings to consolidate the leaps and bounds and upon hearing new songs ‘Pesticide‘ and ‘The World’s Oldest Computer‘ they can’t arrive soon enough, vocalists Niall and Ewen just need to ensure those oh so clever melodies aren’t lost amidst the breathless on-stage thrashing, as good as it is to watch.
But if opening with a couple of throaty punk bands seemed to be playing it safe, the double synth shoot-outs and vicious live drums of party ravers Not Squares was a gamble. Or it would have been were it not for the Richter Collective label mates already boasting a formidable live reputation.
To their advantage the Mandela Hall is beginning to heave with punters and with a corking light show their earthy dance fuzz pounds the crowd with a full bang. “We’re the dance band” they joke, before kicking into the sprawling banger ‘Release The Bees‘, full of thumping electric beats, banshee-like coos and simplistic wordless sing-alongs. They sample some of the best picks from their debut ‘Yeah OK‘ before making way for the reason the amass of bodies down the front is now water tight; it’s time for ASIWYFA.
This is when things really start to feel quite special. Before they even drive a decibel through those massive, overbearing speakers the admiration towards Rory, Tony, Johnny and Chris is all too obvious and everyone knows what’s about to happen will be so significant and so meaningful.
An hour later and Belfast is the first live audience to have hard ‘Gangs’ in its entirety and at no point did the intensity let up or the completely absorbing tendencies of ASIWYFA waver, not one bit.
Playing the album from end to end wasn’t at all unexpected, but it was a move that could have backfired. Airing over fifty straight minutes of material that would have been, if it weren’t for the leak and subsequently the early release, previously unheard could have worn the crowd’s patience down to a nib, anxiously awaiting the old favourites and by the time they’re brought out no longer having the enthusiasm they set out with.
But as it turns out ASIWYFA don’t underestimate their fans who invite the magical currents of each track to make their acquaintances in the loudest manner possible. It’s an album that doesn’t ramble and overstay its welcome, while at the same time being more direct, more focused with its intentions, ready for the endless possibilities it might bring being such a digestible, seamless work.
It all makes even more sense live. The only survivor of the initial twenty five song scrap ‘7 Billion People All Alive At Once‘ scrapes the sky with a poetic sentiment, it’s the centrepiece and becomes more of moment when the band recall the rest of the line-up along with friends to add their voices to the huge mantra midway through without rehashing a similar technique used on ‘Don’t Waste Time Doing Things You Hate‘.
Lead single ‘Search: Party: Animal‘ has already made Zane Lowe babble in awe live on air and now it’s given them a hundred reasons to never have to play ‘Set Guitars to Kill‘ again, most notably as an almost (almost I said!) radio-crafted signifier of ASIWYFA which still packs the weight of a potcheen hangover with dub-drums, dive bombs and Adger’s foreboding bass tingling, like a horror movie relentlessly teasing at the big scare lurking never too far away.
Further on ‘Think:Breathe:Destroy‘ boots up with what sounds like a sinister boss level theme playing from a ten thousand-strong army of wonky Game Boys and the closing chapters of ‘Home‘ just about melts the bake off Belfast entirely.
Co-riff wielder Tony Wright serves as the band’s between-song mouthpiece tonight but the tearfully sincere gratitude from all four speak volumes louder than any chit-chat on the microphone could, volumes even heavier than ‘Gang (Starting Never Stopping)‘s coronary cyclone of gridlock-tight musicianship.
It’s candor, energy and pure feeling that’s beyond classification, more deserving than a meaningless genre title could compensate for. It’s just music. Breathlessly emotive music that keeps on giving the more you allow it to, and by the end of ‘Gangs’ we’re rewarded with forty minutes of the back catalogue.
From ‘S Is For Salamander‘ to ‘The Voiceless‘, a signature song that was cut short from their Ulster Hall triumph, it’s a resounding success of mosh pits, tears, heartfelt thanks, happy birthday sing-alongs, music and community that will hopefully serve as a catalyst for so many more great things.
Even if the third album is a dud, which it sure won’t be, if it’s launch is half of what Belfast saw and heard tonight there’ll be sweeping smiles all round once more.
How are you guys all feeling ahead of the show tonight? Nervous?
Just excited for more of a truer word. It’s been over a year since we did a proper Belfast show, the last one was Christmas 2009 so it’s nuts. We’re just dead looking forward to it, it’s nice to be back here. We did the album launch here two years ago and Solidarity and stuff so yeah it’s cool.
Are you frustrated about the album leak so close to the official launch date?
Seething to start with. I kind of went through several stages of emotion. Absolute seething rage, then kind of dumbfound acceptance, then laughed about it, then a bit depressed about it and then just like ‘Ah well’.
I suppose it’s just the way I tried to reason with it in my head is that I never in my life thought I’d be in a position to get upset about an album being leaked and it means people really want to hear it.
You’re in a position now where it’ll affect you as a band. Did that not happen before?
No, no. Somebody said to me last night that they traced the person who did it’s IP address and it’s also the same person who leaked the ‘Adebisi Shank’ album so we’re pretty sure it’s an Irish journalist. It was a blogger or a journalist or something because it was given to reviewers and they both went up, Adebisi then us, signs that point to an Irish journalist.
It’s just rather depressing that someone that’s given that sort of trust of the record would abuse it for the split second of them feeling like a big person. But you know what…they’ll die alone, so fuck ‘em.
I’ve heard that all people that upload albums to the internet are bona fide paedophiles and racists that deal in the slaughter of puppies. They’re a despicable human race that are comparable only to those old, crusty white dog shits you see on the side of the road. That’s basically them. But I’m not bitter!
It might give the launch an entirely different feel and perspective. It’s only been two days but it’s ASIWYFA fans we’re talking about!
Yeah! We’re just happy that it’s out there and obviously it’s not all according to plan but at least it didn’t happen a month ago and only only a couple of days ago.
Was it a mutual decision between yourselves and Richter Collective to put it out early then?
Basically someone posted on our Facebook saying ‘Just thought you should know there’s a torrent up’ , so I deleted the comment and mailed them explaining that I didn’t want people to see it and not to be offended with me deleting their comment. I phoned Mick from Richter and we just made the decision there and then to put it up on Bandcamp for legal download there and then so we could be honest and go ‘Look it’s up for illegal download there or you can pay a little bit of money to us and thus we might be able to make a third album.
What these people don’t realise is that they’re actually choking bands and killing them. It’s hard enough for us to make any money whatsoever. I can’t remember the last time I had more than one meal in a day, I don’t even eat some days. We literally can’t afford it and that person has taken more food out of our mouths and put the future of the band and other bands in jeopardy. If that’s what they’re happy with maybe they just hate music.
It’s just there and we have to accept it. I remember when Future of the Left’s second album got leaked and feeling so bad for them. It’s not as if I can say I’ve never illegally downloaded an album because I have but I haven’t done it in over a year and a half, I made a decision to stop it. With what little money I have I make a rule to buy an album a month because I want to put something back into the business I want to be in. I suppose in a bit of a crap spiritual way I believe that if you give a bit then you get something back.
It’s a lot different for bands who’re already huge and it won’t affect in the slightest.
Exactly. Radiohead can afford it but we certainly can’t. I really hope the guy or girl…(he corrects himself) what am I talking about, they’re not even human. They’re sub-human scum.
Can we talk about the album?
Were you more aware of expectations this time round? Tell us about the general direction of the album – it’s ten minutes shorter than the first.
We didn’t really say ‘Right we’ll make songs shorter’ or ‘We’ll expand here’, we like to be a bit more concise because instrumental bands have a tendency to do quite a lot of noodling and there’s nothing wrong with that but I think we’ve all got a slight bit of ADD or something and can only play a little bit for a little bit, then be like ‘Right let’s change again!’ so we’re always pretty ruthless like that. Just like we’ll chop that bit in a half or sack that part completely or stop there that’s quite interesting, just experimenting with basically the four of us and what comes out so long as it’s something we reckon we’d listen to, that’s the kind of litmus test.
Did you want to have a completely different mood and contrast it with the first record?
We didn’t want to make the first album again. The first album’s more a collection of songs from where we were at that point and how long we’d been a band and all of them catalogued, whereas this is a body of work that’s all there together. I think it feels that way, it feels more like an album. In a weird way it’s almost like our debut album. So it’s cool and we’re dead, dead proud of it.
We know you didn’t sign till well after the album’s writing and recording but is there any influence you can tell us about from Richter Collective acts?
Hell yeah! I think it works both ways. The first time we heard Adebisi doing a slow tune we were like ‘That’s amazing!’ and they said ‘We were just trying to do your kind of stuff!’ Cool! (laughing). We love all those bands, we listen to them flat out, played with them all over the world so obviously it’ll rub off. They’re our friends, our peers and more importantly they’re fucking kick ass bands.
Do you take the greater fan base into account when writing and recording now as well?
I think we’re all still oblivious to it because sometimes you look at your Last FM or Facebook and you’re like ‘Fuck that’s cool!’ but then you don’t really comprehend it. I think if you thought about it all time it would probably send you nuts, so you just get on with it. It just hit fourteen thousand fans on Facebook and I remember starting that page up only a few years ago and when we started it we were just like ‘We’ll see how this goes’ and it then it overtook MySpace but that’s globalisation for you.
I think we annoyed quite a lot of people (on Twitter) with constant retweeting but we really wanted “gangs” to trend and we got “ASIWYFA” trending in Dublin then half an hour later it trended in Ireland. It was crazy!
You guys have moved up and beyond being a little local band but will you always base yourselves here and use Belfast or Portrush as a hub for smaller shows from time to time perhaps?
Yeah well not necessarily smaller shows. We’re all based here and I very much feel like Belfast is my home now and the other guys feel similar. They have parents’ houses up north still but they’re very much settled in Belfast. I don’t think for one we’d ever make enough money to disappear off and live somewhere else and two, I don’t think that’s the sort of people we are.
With being on tour in the US, Russia and all over Europe have you maybe begun to feel like you’re looking in on the Irish music scene from an outside perspective where you were previously more heavily apart of it?
A little bit sometimes but not in a negative sense. It’s more like we’ll be in Russia or we’ll be checking on the AU site in the states or whatever to check what’s going on. There seems to be so many great bands coming up through like that band Eatenbybears just continually blow my mind. They’re one of the most exciting Irish bands I’ve ever heard, they’re fantastic. Axis Of’s new stuff is unreal. Lantern for a Gale, Event Horses, More Than Conquerors and I can’t wait to bring Mojo Fury out on this tour.
With your success some bands have mentioned feeling almost a leaderless void so to speak – what do you think about it this and do you encourage local bands to follow you’re path?
Jesus, if there is such a void I’d encourage every band out there to step up and try and take it…I don’t think any alpha-male leadership or anything is what’s needed. What’s needed is for people just to have that sense of community, togetherness and to help each other out. Let’s face it, no one else is going to help. There’s no money in the music industry. You’re no going to be whisked off by Frankie Sharp of Sharp Records for a big record deal or whatever. I mean it does happen but it’s a million to one so get out there and do it yourself and while your at it help your brother and sister out.
Well speaking of record deals we mentioned Richter Collective earlier. Did you feel it was just time to move on from Smalltown America, almost like your work in the North was done?
I suppose it could be interpreted that way but it wasn’t at all. As a group of people we don’t like to remain still as you can probably tell from our touring schedule and we just wanted to try something else. We’d be down south and hanging out with the Richter guys and it was never something premeditated because there was other offers on the table but we were like ‘Hang on, we could do something really special here’, strength in numbers you know? We felt like a lot of the Richter bands were our peers in both attitude and sonically so it just seemed like a natural move. It’s a fucking cool label and so is Smalltown and I know we’ll work with Smalltown again in future if they’ll have us. Those guys are unbelievable and we wouldn’t be able to do anything if it wasn’t for Andrew, Charlene and Brian and the people that work there, it’s a fantastic label.
You have a UK tour coming up after this. Have you any UK festivals confirmed?
We’ve a couple of UK ones but to be honest it’s mainly Europe. The past two years we did festival overload so this year we’re backing off a little bit. We planning to record again in summer so we’re easing off to give ourselves breathing space.
Any clues as to what the recordings will shape up into?
Ah we’ll have to see!
Will any ideas from the scrapped sessions ever become anything?
It’s cool it’s like having a big, massive pad of ideas. That’s the glory of being an instrumental band you know, cut and paste. Who knows, they could come out in some way, shape or form some day or they could never be heard of again.
And lastly I know you probably can’t talk about this but because a lot of people are interested I wanted to ask about Glasgowbury festival. Have you been in talks or is anything in the works for an appearance this year?
I think if we did Glasgowbury this year, as much as we’d love to, that would be five years running and I don’t think they’d want us for five years running! I think for the first time in five years we’ll be able to just go and have a drink and chill out, watch some bands and soak up the atmosphere. If I’m in the country and Lafaro are playing I’m there!
(Photography: Matthew Alexander Patton)