Rising from the ashes of the excellent, yet short lived Belfast band Cashier No. 9, exmagician, the latest project of songwriters Danny Todd and James Smith, has already set tongues wagging, emerging as one of the most genuinely exciting new Irish bands of the year. With their debut album Scan The Blue hitting the shelves on March 25th, and a headline Dublin show in Whelan’s Upstairs at the start of April to look forward to, it would seem exmagician have a bright future ahead of them, a new dawn that is certainly not lost on its two co-founders. In an exclusive interview with State, Danny Todd of the band discusses the new musical project in detail including what he and James have been up to in the years since the break-up of Cashier No. 9…
I suppose writing and recording, and scraping things, and re-recording things, and demoing… A lot of working as well – we’ve both got fucking jobs – and we kind of filmed the new record, putting the new band together, like a live version of the band. Having children as well, a lot of stuff.
Was that the reason why you took some time out then. Different things happening in your lives?
No, we [myself and James] were always co-writing together. The Cashier thing just kind of fell apart in a hail of what usually happens in bands… we fell out! So it took a while for the dust to settle and James and I were the only ones who could look each other in the eye afterwards so we just kept writing tunes together.
Of course you two have known each other a long time.
Yea we’ve kind of known each other from playing in different bands in Belfast. So 10 or 15 years or so. We were writing together in Cashier as well, he wrote a few tracks on the To The Death of Fun record, so we’ve always kind of shared similar ideas and influences. He’s always sharing new music with me, and likewise me with him. Probably a bit more on his end though, haha.
So did you feel you had grown apart from the Cashier music stylistically and wanted to try something new?
No, I think a new Cashier album would’ve sounded a lot like this (Scan The Blue). I mean James and I were the main song writers in the band, and I think you’ve always got to develop things. It would be a bit stale to just have the same sound. The exmagician record was produced by just me and James and a friend, whereas David Holmes produced the Cashier one so it was always going to sound a bit different. It’s lost that kind of West Coast vibe that Holmes brought to it, this one just sounds a bit more ‘Belfast’.
I read somewhere that you wanted to do something louder, and a bit grittier?
Well I think we experimented a lot more with keyboards, and a bit of synth. That’s usually where the jump off point for a song comes from, James and I just plugging different sounds. That’ll always be the inspiration for us, just see where it takes us. We don’t really sit down with a guitar, or a piano or anything, it’s usually just loops and samples and keyboard sounds we can turn into riffs, and then we’ll sit and scratch our heads and pull our fingers out and try and turn it into a song. But we’re really happy with this record, it’s really cool I think. Because we’ve been writing so much though our heads are nearly in the middle of a new record. It’s been fun to play it live as well, and explore things in our studios at home as well. We’re remixing the whole record as well so hopefully we’ll put that out between this record and the next, a kind of alternative version. So we’ll have a lot of fun doing that and just channelling different ideas on where we’re gonna go with the next record.
Just with regard to the style of Scan The Blue, there’s a lot of influences on there, so you must’ve been listening to a lot of different music prior to recording it?
Yea we’re always trying to channel different sounds, but I think we wrote this album thinking that it would be fun to play something a bit more upbeat live, because we’ll be touring it for about a year. I think that was something that was definitely in the back of our minds, you know, something an audience can react to. I suppose with this album as well, a few of the tracks were just done live in the studio with four or five people playing together which is the first time we’ve done that. It’s usually just done in layers, ad libs, and under-dubs, but some of the tracks on this record were just recorded live, which is nice. The Cashier record was very stripped back, and not a huge amount of energy about it, so there’s definitely a lot louder songs on this. I think it balances out though, ‘Feet Don’t Fail’ is a bit slow, a kind of weird, waltzy ballad, and ‘Smile To The Gallery’ and the track ‘Scan The Blue’ are sort of droney, warbly synth, sounding a bit space-like.
In terms of the song writing, what’s the process like? Is it any different to when you were in your last band?
No, it’s pretty much exactly the same. I suppose there’s a bit more sharing now. In the Cashier thing it was just me writing demos and just playing them in the room with people, passing out parts for people to explore, bringing in different players, and having a go with arrangements. But now it’s just me and James just emailing ideas back and forward and just kind of chipping away until we get things as they should be. He would definitely have his own two or three songs on the record, and then I’d have my own, and then each of us would write lyrics together and then compose different parts for each other. We played most of the parts on this records ourselves, then we had a friend Linley Hamilton who put in decent triplet parts for us. (He kind of appears on nearly every Belfast record at the moment, he’s done a few And So I Watch You From Afar records and others.) But the whole thing was recorded in Start Together Studio owned by Rocky O’Reilly. He’s the kind of go-to guy in Belfast, he has a really good studio up here.
You mentioned that you’re already ‘in the middle of the next record’. Is this because you wrote and recorded so much new material that it needed to be split between two albums?
No I thinks there’s always one or two popping up every month so it’s just the best collection of songs at that point. We recorded a selection of 14 or 15 songs and we wanted to put out an EP with a smaller production rather than put a record straight out there. Just to wave and say “Hi, we used to be Cashier No. 9 but we’re doing this exmagician thing now, here’s a couple of tracks”. A few of the EP tracks are on the record as well, from those original 14 or 15 songs.
You’re getting quite a lot of airplay at the moment, both here and across the water, so you must be quite excited with how things are going?
Yea it’s very exciting, we’re getting played in America a good bit too, so hopefully we can afford to get out there. It was the same thing when we were with Cashier, we were getting played over in Australia but we couldn’t afford to get out there. So hopefully this time around we can manage it a bit better. There’s only four of us who play live so we’ll see. We have a few things in Europe booked this year, and we’re doing The Great Escape Festival in Brighton, and maybe the Sea Sessions festival in Bundoran. It’d be good to get to The Picnic as well, so it should be a fun Summer. Eat crisp sandwiches in a van somewhere, maybe a box of Rennies!
You’ve obviously been doing gigs around Belfast, but how does the reception compare when you do gigs down here, or over in the UK or Europe?
I think I much prefer playing gigs out of Belfast. Just cause it’s a small town and you’ve always got friends and family turning up, and you’d just be playing and thinking “Jeez, how many gigs have they been to now!” like is this just a sympathy thing or are the crowd enjoying it?… But really we’ve only played maybe two or thee gigs so far. Just did our second in Belfast so it’s all very new and we’re still kind of figuring out our live show at the moment. I can’t wait to get down to Dublin again, we usually have some good shows down there. We’ve got one in Whelan’s Upstairs (April 5th), and we might be doing a thing for Paul McLoone in The Workman’s Club, so it should be a good Summer.
exmagician’s debut album Scan The Blue is out on March 25th with their Whelan’s Upstairs live show on Tuesday, April 5th.