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
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.”
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.
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.”