by / August 10th, 2012 /

Top Story: Interview with Paul Noonan, Bell X1

by James Hendicott

The recent release of live album Field Recordings tells a story of BellX1’s success. Featuring live tracks from as far afield as San Francisco and Amsterdam, Paris and Cork, the 21-track epic includes ample new takes on old songs, and the odd glance into the less obvious corners of the back catalogue. Most impressive is the American selection: the US has been kind to Geraghty, Noonan and Phillips; to many on the Irish music scene, it’ll seem like far more than the turn of the century when they wandered fresh-faced onto the Irish music scene and, with the help of former band Juniper’s reputation, made a quick, impressive mark. A decade later, Paul Noonan’s in contemplative mood, grateful for the progress but hungry for more, both in his role with the group and as a developing, talented solo artist. State caught up with the vocalist to check in, reflect on the latest release, and look back over a decade of achievement.

You’ve just released your second live album. When you set off on the American tour, were the plans already in place to record?

We recorded every gig on the tour with a view to pulling something out of it. The whole emotion of acoustic touring was key. Before we made ‘Blue Lights On The Runway’, we wanted to play some gigs with the songs before we recorded them, just to see how they felt. We’ve never had that luxury before. It’s always been write a record, record it, tour it, and then go back for the next record. There’s no substitute for playing songs to other humans, so it was very constructive in that sense, especially with them being so starkly presented, just with acoustic guitars. As well as doing new songs, we worked on a lot of the catalogue, for performance in that kind of arrangement. It was kind of regressing back to how they were written, peeling off all those layers that we can’t seem to help lashing on in the studio. It was a very refreshing, easy way to tour, and we really liked it. The next time around, we did a lot more gigs before Bloodless Coup we did the same thing. We had the idea to record them all and put it out. We wanted to do the recordings as just two mics in a room, and we spent a good part of early this year listening through to 38 gigs, which was pretty painful. With such stark arrangements there were a lot of warts. There’s nowhere to hide.

It’s a very different beast to the last live album, which was a recording of a single Point gig…

Yeah, that was a very different thing, very pressured. We had to make sure it went well on the night in a venue we grew up seeing bands in. It was full tilt, all bells and whistles and lots of production. We hedged our bets on this one and recorded every gig.

It’s a little bit of a unique album. Do you feel you have to do that bit more to sell physical copies now, like in putting out the photo book you’ve done with this one?

It just seems a little sort of lame to just do a regular version and rush it out there. It’s something I’ve always regretted not doing with other albums. Phil, our sound engineer, takes a lot of photos on the road. It feels really nice.

The tour was also a ten year anniversary for (debut album) Neither Am I, which means you’ve been part of the modern-day Irish music scene for the entire 21st century so far. Before if you include Juniper. Things seem to be going incredibly well across the scene right now. How have things changed?

I suppose we’ve always felt that there was a genuine community of musicians who wanted to help each other out, an attitude of a rising tide, and the opportunity to ring people for advice on various things. In entering it as we did, I suppose from the ashes of our former band Juniper, we had some sort of foothold, but we were from out of town, and I remember we started with a residency in Dublin. We went from there to Whelan’s, and there was always a sense of a community of musicians.

Is it a conscious ambition to break America? You’ve done very well there, with The OC using a track and your Letterman appearance amongst other things…

Part of why I wanted to be in a band was to get out and see the world. In those heady days of starting a band, writing songs and people you don’t know coming to your gigs for the first time… the notion of touring America has always held a certain romance. When we finally got to do it, with our third record, and we sorted proper infrastructure for a release, an agent took on gigs, to sort of tie things together – the record, going to radio stations, the tour built around that – we really went for it. We’ve been going there a few times a year since. The more time you spend out there, the more it seems to click. We really enjoy it, especially the last two trips, where we’ve got to the south and the mid-west. They’re fascinating parts of America that you’d never see without being a touring band.

You’ve made a real effort with those tours to plant trees and compensate for your CO2 production. Is that a full on part of the BellX1 ethos?

I actually think that’s a bit of a swizz. It’s a private enterprise, and… Yeah, in general we try not to do any more damage, we do think about how our stuff is printed, and we’re conscientious about how we travel. We’re a tiny drop in the ocean in terms of the scale of what bands do on the road.

Do you still perform with the ‘acoustic’ set up where the iPod provides the backing track?

Yeah, for some tunes. We’re going to do it again towards the end of the year, I think I’m going to play on a little drum kit you play whilst standing. We might do away with Mr iPod then.

Does that work okay when it comes to the live recordings?

No. There’s a lot you can get from the iPad by squiggling away on a screen and making crazy sounds. I don’t do it as much as the other lads, but some people swear by it. The apps on that for live synthesizer and beats are pretty impressive. Gorillaz supposedly made their entire album on the iPad on the tour bus.

How’s the solo stuff coming along?

I’m working on a record of duets. It’s kind of a long winded project I’ve been turning to now and then over the past couple of years. I’ve always loved the simplicity of boy/girl voices and guitars. I suppose I wrote quite a few songs for the project, and others were songs that have been kicking around and hadn’t really found a voice elsewhere. It’s not a solo record as such.

Does it mean anything for the future of BellX1, or is this just something you’re doing on the side?

Well we’ve all sort of gone off and the band has sort of become a hub from which lots of side projects have sprung. I know a lot of people who do that and bands that exist in that kind of way. It’s good for bands to do that and bring whatever they learn back to the table when it comes time to make another record.

It seems like a long time since you’ve been around Ireland. Are you looking forward to getting back?

Yeah, we’ll be playing Electric Picnic, which will be great, it’s been a few years since we’ve been there, so we’re really looking forward to that.

How far off is another BellX1 studio record at this point?

I don’t know, we’ve been working over the past few weeks in the studio with new songs and it’s been great. Dave’s converted his garage into a studio. I’ve really missed it, it’s been great. We’ll do some recording this year, but it’ll be next year I’d imagine. I also wonder how long the notion of albums will hold. You tend to make a record and it takes months to see the light of day. The notion of making music and putting it straight out there is quite appealing.

Would you prefer a subscription service, or just people paying for individual songs?

I’m not sure how it would work in that sense. It’s just about getting what you’re most excited about into the world that has the most appeal.

For now, BellX1 continue to put out albums in the conventional way. Field Recordings is out now on Belly Up Records.