UpinArms with BellX1

Record stores may be clos­ing, but vinyl lives on – in the dé­cor and pil­lows sec­tion IWrit­ing the fol­low-up to ‘Chop Chop’ prompted a lot of soul-search­ing for BellX1, af­ter 18 years of­mak­ing mu­sic. They dis­cuss the re­sults with Lau­renMur­phy

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - MUSIC -

Ev­ery trip to New York comes with cer­tain rit­u­als. Down the years, I’ve found my­self head­ing to joints such as Strand Books and Ve­selka on ev­ery visit be­cause they’re part of the fab­ric of the Big Ap­ple ex­pe­ri­ence and stand out in my mind’s map of how to nav­i­gate the city.

But on a trip the other week, there was no need for once to head to East 4th Street. Af­ter more than 20 years in busi­ness, Other Mu­sic turned off for the lights for the last time in that lo­ca­tion in June.

I couldn’t tell you how much money I’ve spent in that record shop, but I can clearly re­mem­ber it’s where I came across a bun­dle of records which have be­came lon­glast­ing favourites. It was where I first came across artists such as Evie Sands, The Na­tional, An­thony & The John­sons and many, many more.

That’s be­cause Other Mu­sic op­er­ated the way a record store should op­er­ate. There was great stuff on the shelves which would pique your in­ter­est if you had a cu­ri­ous mind or you’d hear some­thing play­ing which would set you off on another route. It cov­ered all the bases and found space for the vin­tage as well as the brand new. The staff were friendly and knowl­edge­able so you could trust their calls.

In 2016, there’s not much de­mand for a place like that any­more. Well, there is still de­mand, and a press­ing need, but no one is pre­pared to pay for it. But the record shops have been chased out of town. There are some shops left where brave souls con­tinue to fight the good fight, but the rest have put up the white flag and got rid of their last box of sale-or-re­turn CDs.

You can’t blame them as it’s hard to face down a com­bi­na­tion of chang­ing cus­tomer be­hav­iour, the cav­a­lier greed of the prop­erty mar­ket and a ridicu­lous fix­a­tion on the short term by the big­ger chains.

Yet de­spite all of this, there are some new record slingers around. Four blocks away from where Other Mu­sic used to stand, you’ll find a cou­ple of racks of records in­side the door of home­ware and fur­ni­ture shop Crate & Bar­rel.

As part of a deal with Capi­tol Records, the chain are now sell­ing al­bums by No­rah Jones, Beck, The Beach Boys, The Band, Ge­orge Clin­ton, Beastie Boys and many more. They list their mu­sic of­fer­ings un­der dé­cor and pil­lows on the web­site in case you’re won­der­ing.

Crate & Bar­rel are not alone in get­ting into records when the ded­i­cated shops are get­ting out. The Tiger chain are also re­cent ar­rivals in the vinyl game (¤15 for an al­bum, which much cheaper than the the reg­u­lar record stores), while Ur­ban Out­fit­ters con­tinue to sell more vinyl than any other high street op­er­a­tor.

Some­thing which was once spe­cial­ist and niche – you didn’t get any­thing more spe­cial­ist and niche than vinyl records in the decades af­ter the CD rev­o­lu­tion – is now avail­able in a fur­ni­ture shop near you.

The ques­tion re­mains as to whether folks are buy­ing records for style or sub­stance from these new out­lets. Just as Ap­ple was keen to get into the down­load game to ini­tially sell iPods, most of the new vinyl-sell­ing ar­rivals are also flog­ging the hard­ware to go with it.

Is the ap­peal of these vin­tage ar­ti­facts just part of a fur­ni­ture trend or some­thing else? Cer­tainly, the record player from Crate & Bar­rel will look just lovely set off against a whole range of Far­row & Ball colours.

Mean­while, the count­down con­tin­ues for the CD re­vival. Paul Noo­nan, Dave Ger­aghty and Do­minic Phillips are tucked away in a cor­ner of a bustling cafe in Dublin city cen­tre. Plates and cut­lery are clat­ter­ing in the back­ground as we dis­cuss BellX1’s Arms, the fol­low-up to 2013’s Chop Chop – a record that won them the best re­views of their 18-year ca­reer.

“It’s beena bit of a strange jour­ney,” Noo­nan ad­mits, smil­ing. “Chop Chop felt like the most co­her­ent body of work that we had made, and it was prob­a­bly the eas­i­est and most en­joy­able. So in try­ing to re­group and make this one, it’s been a real strug­gle to feel like we had some­thing that was worth putting out. It led to a lot of soul-search­ing, in terms of our rea­son to ex­ist and what is it that we are? And what do we want to say?

“There were sev­eral points dur­ing this process that we would have had some re­ally en­joy­able weeks in the stu­dio, but still felt de­flated that we hadn’t reacheda point­that we had some­thing that we wanted to share. Some­times I’m over­whelmed by the amount of mu­sic I haven’t heard, and we didn’t want to add to the noise. We wanted to say some­thing pro­found. But I feel

Just as Ap­ple was keen to get into the down­load game to ini­tially sell iPods, most of the new vinyl-sell­ing ar­rivals are also flog­ging the hard­ware to go with it

This record has a sort of loose, buoy­ant, cel­e­bra­tory vibe about it. The last record was quite a stately, beau­ti­ful af­fair; this one is a lit­tle more sham­bolic

this record has a sort of loose, buoy­ant, cel­e­bra­tory vibe about it. The last record was quite a stately, beau­ti­ful af­fair; this one is a lit­tle more sham­bolic.” Fig­ur­ing out a path­way into

Arms proved more try­ing than on any other al­bum ex­pe­ri­ence, says his band­mate and co-song­writer Ger­aghty.

“It was like hav­ing a few dif­fer­ent va­ri­eties of pasta – do we make the tube pasta, or the swirly pasta?” he says, laugh­ing. “We could have made three dif­fer­ent types of al­bum with the body of work that was there. It could have been a con­tin­u­a­tion of Chop

Chop. Another strand was a garage band-style thing, like The Walk­men, all an­gu­lar and youth­ful stuff. Then there was another batch of songs that didn’t fall into ei­ther cat­e­gory – and our hearts just said, ‘Fol­low that clutch of songs.’ We didn’t re­ally know what it was yet, but that was the ex­cit­ing part.”

Bowl­ing with Le­bowski

From the first track on Arms, it’s clear that Bell X1 have pushed their own boundaries this time around. The stut­ter­ing groove and woozy ef­fects of Fail Again,

Fail Bet­ter be­came an an­them of sorts that summed up their man­i­festo of try­ing new things.

“The idea was that it would be less of a song than it is a vibe – a short, two-and-a-half-minute fade in/fade out thing that would set the mood,” Noo­nan says. “In a lot of ways, work­ing through the frus­tra­tions and fum­blings that even­tu­ally led us to where we wanted to go, there was this el­e­ment of ‘fail again, fail bet­ter’; al­most thriv­ing on the ex­pe­ri­ences of dead ends and feel­ing good about the chal­lenge of it. We wanted that first tune to have a touch of The Big Le­bowski, where Wal­ter says, ‘Fuck it, dude, let’s go bowl­ing.’”

The writing process be­gan in Jan­uary 2015, when Noo­nan would cy­cle across the city and Phillips would drive from his house in Meath to meet at Ger­aghty’s stu­dio, in the garage of his house in Ra­heny.

“It wasn’t so much a nine to five; it was more like ‘in for 10 or 10.30’. And Fri­days was ca­sual wear, beer and pizza,” jokes Noo­nan. “It was good to have that dis­ci­pline, though. It’s Dave’s stu­dio, but it’s also his house – so we had the com­forts of that as well.”

“When I moved out to Ra­heny, we fi­nally got to set up the gear there and it was re­ally use­ful for

Chop Chop too,” adds Ger­aghty. “It’s been cool, ’cos we feel like we can just switch on, tune in and play at our own pace, be­ing led purely by the sound and with­out the stress of mov­ing gear or ex­penses tot­ting up; no ‘ quick, quick, we need to come up with some­thing . . . or do we book another week?’ It was, ‘What do we feel like play­ing to­day?’ and that was re­ally ben­e­fi­cial.”

Done­gal­batch

The trio made sev­eral trips to Done­gal, to record at At­tica Au­dio, the stu­dio owned by Tommy McLaugh­lin, to thrash out some ideas, while Glenn Keat­ing of Jape – who they met while tour­ing with that band – proved an un­ex­pect­edly use­ful sound­ing board.

“Not just son­i­cally, but he helped with some of the de­ci­sion-mak­ing as well. He had cat­e­gories: ‘the old Bell X1’, the ‘sex vibes’, and I can’t re­mem­ber the third one,” re­calls Phillips, laugh­ing. “He was kind of like our first port of call, our first set of ears out­side of the three of us, apart from man­age­ment.”

Keat­ing’s in­flu­ence can be felt on the more off­beat, ex­per­i­men­tal tracks like I Go Where You Go and Out of Love, while he also steered them gen­tly away from what Noo­nan jok­ingly refers to as the “totes emosh stuff”.

“That was some­thing that Glenn iden­ti­fied,” he says. “He put it very nicely, but he def­i­nitely said, ‘I think you can ease up on the totes emosh.’ A cou­ple of our big­ger songs would be that sort of overtly emo­tional and heart­felt, which there’s noth­ing wrong with – but it can be too easy to go there again. There are those mo­ments on this new record, but we wanted to han­dle them a lit­tle less . . . clunkily.” He’s right; the likes of Take

Your Sweet Time and Sons & Daugh­ters tackle emo­tion in a more con­sid­ered way, the lat­ter mus­ing on the world that they are leav­ing be­hind for their chil­dren that saw them “jux­ta­pos­ing a se­ri­ous sub­ject mat­ter with some­thing up­beat and jaunty”. Mu­si­cally, their pal­ette was drawn from some un­likely sourc- es – every­thing from Grace Jones’s Is­land Life al­bum to Metron­omy to Sly and the Fam­ily Stone.

Ringinthe­new

It doesn’t quite feel like an out-and-out rein­ven­tion but, with Arms, there is a cer­tainly a sense of things be­ing over­hauled within the Bell X1 camp as they edge closer to their 20th an­niver­sary in 2018. Although they are one of Ire­land’s big­gest bands, now in­flu­enc­ing a gen­er­a­tion of younger bands – “I still feel kind of odd about that,” laughs Noo­nan, “I’m not ready to be an elder states­man” – they still feel as if they have some­thing to prove.

“There’s a healthy fear of, Well, maybe peo­ple won’t bother this time, be­cause why would they?” says Phillips, shrug­ging. “There’s no guar­an­tees. It’s nice that peo­ple like the gigs, but if you put out the same old thing, it would kind of slowly dis­solve into noth­ing. Whether it has to be fresh and dif­fer­ent, or just ‘good enough’? I dunno – but we’re proud of this one and we’ve en­joyed the jour­ney that it’s taken us on.”

“There were times that we were un­sure, but I don’t think we were ever lost,” says Ger­aghty. “Be­cause we were do­ing what we love do­ing, es­sen­tially – which is get­ting to­gether and hang­ing out with pots of tea and mak­ing mu­sic.”

Arms is out to­day. Bell X1 play Lim­er­ick, Cork and Belfast this month and in Novem­ber. See bellx1.com for more

JIM CAR­ROLL ON THE RECORD

Bell X1 “If you put out the same old thing, it would kind of slowly dis­solve into noth­ing.”

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