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. . . all over Rus­sia, ac­tu­ally. Belfast band And So I Watch You From Afar have a de­voted fan­base in the land of Putin. Brav­ing snow­drifts and sub-zero tem­per­a­tures, Una Mul­lally joins them on the road

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Cover Story -

E NEEDED THIS. We needed this.” A young Rus­sian man at a me­tal club in Penza, 400 miles south­east of Moscow, is em­phat­i­cally ex­plain­ing to And So I Watch You From Afar what it means that they are play­ing a gig in his city. It’s -20 de­grees out­side when this band from Belfast ar­rives, their van reversed into a snow drift. The club’s con­vivial owner, Sasha, emerges with a scarf that matches the black and yel­low decor of his venue, and a grin as wide as the Sura river that would flow through the city if it wasn’t frozen, and, with out­stretched arms, an­nounces: “you’re home!”

Seven days into a two-week Rus­sian, Ukrainian and Be­laru­sian tour, ASIWYFA are re­minded of their pre­vi­ous ex­ploits at this small club by a poster of the band’s for­mer line-up that adorns the graf­fi­tied dress­in­groom walls. It might seem odd that an in­stru­men­tal rock band based in Belfast are trekking thou­sands of miles across Rus­sia in the depths of a win­ter so freez­ing that dozens of peo­ple are dy­ing from the cold, to bring their mu­sic to cities that most peo­ple out­side of that coun­try have never heard of. But here they are: Rory Fri­ars (gui­tar), Niall Kennedy (gui­tar), Chris Wee (drums), Johnny Adger (bass), their sound­man Andy, Alex, their Rus­sian tour man­ager, and a stoic Rus­sian driver called Rus­lan, who keeps a bat wrapped in gaffer tape in the back of the van.

The sun rises in the morn­ing, bears shit in the woods, ASIWYFA tour. It’s what they do. It’s a week ear­lier, and the in­tro­duc­tory march­ing drum thud of Set Gui­tars To Kill is kick­ing in as an en­core at a club called Plan B in Moscow. When the band fi­nally walks off stage, fans are wav­ing vinyl sleeves in their di­rec­tion and reach­ing out for high fives. An in­ter­view with Rolling Stone Rus­sia be­gins back­stage. Rory can be heard say­ing, “the word ‘com­pro­mise’ is not in the vo­cab­u­lary of our band”, as the dress­ing room door closes shut. Out­side in the bar, a young Rus­sian woman screams, “I love you!”

“I love you back!” Niall Kennedy, the new­est band mem­ber, replies with a hug. Peo­ple are ask­ing him where they can get black jeans as skinny as his. But there’s no Pri­mark women’s sec­tion in Rus­sia. Ev­ery­one in the queue is wait­ing for their mo­ment to thank the band, and the peo­ple who’ve al­ready bought a record and had it au­to­graphed re­treat to a bench to ex­am­ine the sig­na­tures. They sell dozens of band T-shirts.

The love that Rus­sian fans have for this band is quickly com­ing into fo­cus. (Later, ASIWYFA find out that the sup­port band that night drove 1,000km to play the gig.) This is all awe­some, but ASIWYFA have had to work hard to get here. Two years ago, when the band was play­ing more than 200 shows a year, they be­came com­pletely in­sti­tu­tion­alised by tour­ing (and to a cer­tain ex­tent, they still are). On one oc­ca­sion, hav­ing fin­ished a tour and re­turned to Ire­land, Rory and Chris con­tin­ued sleep­ing in their van for two nights be­cause they couldn’t han­dle the re­turn to the “nor­mal­ity” of not be­ing on the road. They had a say­ing at the time: “We are os­triches and tour is our sand.”

Re­la­tion­ships with girl­friends shat­tered. Friend­ships were stretched. They stopped get­ting calls from mates while they were on tour.

Some pre­vi­ous friends vir­tu­ally ig­nored them, think­ing that be­cause they were in Ker­rang! mag­a­zine they must now be too big for their boots. Then last year, Tony Wright left the band. Upon his de­par­ture, the re­main­ing trio quoted Richard Bach in a press re­lease: “Don’t be dis­mayed at good­byes. A farewell is nec­es­sary be­fore you can meet again. And meet­ing again, af­ter mo­ments or a life­time, is cer­tain for those who are friends.” En­ter Niall, for­merly of Panama Kings, re­cruited of­fi­cially 10 days be­fore a Euro­pean tour last Septem­ber. Full of good-na­tured divil­ment, he’s been in the band twice, ini­tially as a drum­mer while Chris was at univer­sity in New­cas­tle.

Rus­sia calls again, and here they are, sweat­ing af­ter the first show in Moscow, apps buzzing, ears ring­ing, hands be­ing shaken.

Cel­e­bra­tions are kept to a min­i­mum thanks to an im­mi­nent 10-hour drive north. They make a toi­let stop in a petrol sta­tion and see that the tem­per­a­ture is knock­ing -30 de­grees. Mer­ci­fully, it’s slightly warmer when they reach St Peters­burg (-18 de­grees). By the sec­ond song that night, kids in ASIWYFA T-shirts are stage-div­ing. And they don’t stop. Drink­ing Jim Beam in a karaoke bar, af­ter the gig, a fan talks about how all of her friends were so ex­cited to see them play. “They are in­cred­i­ble, in­cred­i­ble,” she fawns on a loop. The next day is filled with a 16-hour drive to Nizhny Nov­gorod. Just be­fore they go on, Rory has a fake panic. “I’m not ready at all! Hang on: lemon face / lion face / lemon face / lion face,” he re­peats, adopt­ing the ap­pro­pri­ate ex­pres­sions. “Okay, I’m ready.”

It’s this com­bi­na­tion of re­lax­ation and wit that typ­i­fies the band’s pre-per­for­mance rit­ual, if you can call be­ing com­pletely un­fazed and chilled-out a rit­ual. There are few if any pre-show jit­ters; in­stead they spend the time try­ing to fig­ure out what flavour crisps they’re eat­ing, re-string­ing gui­tars and drink­ing the lo­cal beer, re­quested as part of their rider. Chris prefers play­ing smaller rooms, and you can see why – within a few sec­onds, the punk-ish venue be­comes a mosh­pit.

In the toi­lets, a man drip­ping in sweat is punching the wall with en­thu­si­asm at the sounds out­side. He goes to the sink to wash his face and knuck­les as a girl wear­ing an ASIWYFA shirt emerges from a cu­bi­cle.

The man has a piss, and then launches him­self at the door into the mosh­pit. Legs fly sky­ward. The bar­men tem­po­rar­ily stop serv­ing in or­der to rock out. Niall and Rory are held aloft by the crowd, and surfed back to the stage – as they are ev­ery night – while they play The Voice­less. Johnny as al­ways re­mains cen­tre stage, eyes closed, bass pound­ing, head bang­ing.

The barman bursts into the back­stage area with a fun­nel and a bot­tle of some­thing and tries to force it down Johnny and Andy’s throats. Johnny’s freak­ing out that it’s the same shot that was lined up for them as they came out for the en­core, which in­stantly made him feel locked. In­stead, they opt for post-gig shots of Jaegermeis­ter, which come with slices of pep­pered orange. It’s the next day and the band wakes up in the van in the Rus­sian Repub­lic of Tatarstan as the city of Kazan’s mas­sive and beau­ti­ful krem­lin, built at the be­hest of Ivan the Ter­ri­ble, comes into view. “I won­der if Ivan the Ter­ri­ble was al­ways Ivan the Ter­ri­ble,” Rory muses. “Maybe he started as Ivan the Al­right, then Ivan A Bit Full On,” of­fers Chris.

At the gig, the crowd is young, lo­cal to the 15-plus uni­ver­si­ties in the city. Rus­lan, the driver, hasn’t said a word un­til this evening. In­stead of sleep­ing in the ho­tel dur­ing show time, he watches the gig, and sub­se­quently drags Alex over to the band to trans­late how great he thought it was: “you brought out emo­tions in me.”

Back in the hos­tel, fans are scrawl­ing “And So I Watch You From Afar” on a chalk­board, putting their songs on the stereo, and wait­ing for the guys to come and drink whiskey with them. In the

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