And So I Watch You From Afar are not a band that enjoys convention. Since their self-titled debut album demonstrated to the rest of Ireland what the Belfast scene already knew – namely that they had an outstandingly raw and inventive band on their hands – things have been nothing but one long, wild ride.
The past year has seen the band support Them Crooked Vultures for part of their massive European arena tour, and swiftly follow their ‘super gig’ debut with a sweatbox performance in Dylan Haskin’s back yard at Hideaway House. They’ve toured Russia and the Ukraine for no other reason than they felt like it, and been greeted as heroes, returning with some magnificent band-themed artwork produced by local fans, and plenty of war wounds. Now, with debut album Gangs, Northern Ireland’s finest heavy export of recent years looks all set to launch on a still more international scale, with positive reviews seemingly two a penny. There’s an overwhelming sense that things are about to go very, very big. State took the chance to catch up with guitarist Tony Wright before things get too crazy…
How does Gangs compare to the debut album and The Letters EP, style wise?
I think it’s more confident and pieced together. We’ve become less afraid to take a chance – before we might have thought ‘well that’s a bit stupid’ but that seems a good reason to do it. It might appear both stupider and more intelligent at the same time. You might also find us to be slightly older looking with a greater tolerance for lack of sleep!
Though the releases have all done well, you’ve built your reputations as a live band rather than a studio band. Does going into the studio suit you?
There’s a lot of hours put into translating the energy of the live show onto ‘wax’ as they used to say, or MP3 as it is now. With this album we’ve worked a lot more to try and recreate – naturally and unnaturally – our live performance, and bring it through to make the album more like a live show. It’s never going to be that, but it’s closer than it’s been before.
Are there any particular techniques you’ve used on Gangs to make it more like the live show, feedback for example?
Well on ‘Search:Party:Animal’ I don’t actually play any musical notes for at least forty seconds, just feedback from the guitar off a riff. Rocky [O’Reilly], our engineer, has co-written a few songs, he had lots of stuff that he wanted to try out, but didn’t really have the band for in the past. We’re always up for trying new stuff. So yeah, it was really interesting. We think we’ve made a really live-sounding album. It’s every bit as idiosyncratic as we are.
Have you ever been tempted to release a full live album?
We’ve got the past two years worth of shows pretty much fully recorded, since we’ve had our own soundman. He just records every show. At Christmas when we had those three shows in a day in Belfast, we gave the people who came a Christmas card with a CD in it, and the CD had various recordings from the last few years. We’ve got a healthy back catalogue. We’d love to do it sometime, maybe as an EP, though we probably wouldn’t do a full live new material album. But who’s to say.
You scrapped the best part of an album as part of the process of producing Gangs. Have you got a lot of new material beyond the new album, apart from the scrapped material?
As I speak to you, we have five new songs written. It would be nice to have the next album written before the second one comes out. We’re getting there, we’re just constantly writing. Rehearsals are basically constant songwriting. We won’t go too much into the new stuff just yet, though, the second album isn’t out yet! But yeah, we’re really looking forward to going out and playing a lot of new songs. We’ve played ‘Set Guitars To Kill’ and that a million times.
“I quite enjoy going out and singing my sad little pop songs.”
How does your solo project VerseChorusVerse fit into all of this?
The time between the tour of Russia and recording Gangs was the longest we’ve had not on the road since 2007. I always enjoy playing my acoustic guitar, and it was really something to keep me going. I also wanted to produce something as far removed from And So I Watch You From Afar as possible. I figured me sitting down with an acoustic guitar singing sad little pop songs would be the kind of antithesis of the band. VerseChorusVerse is much more of a standard song writing formula, compared to a band that doesn’t really follow that structure. Also, I have a really common name. There’s an American football player called Tony Wright, the lead singer of Terrorvision is called Tony Wright, and my favorite one, the world record holder for insomnia is called Tony Wright. Google image that guy, he’s on haggard looking motherfucker. Poor guy. So I couldn’t call myself Tony Wright. And it’s a Nirvana reference as well, of course.
Is it a different experience going out and singing?
Yeah, well I sang in bands before And So I Watch You From Afar. When I first met Rory, I was singing and playing guitar in a band, so it’s not new. I quite enjoy going out and singing my sad little pop songs. I just hope people like them.
You sometimes hear people say that ASIWYFA don’t have any lyrics as a pointedly apolitical thing, which is probably something they come up with based on your Belfast background – the idea that the lack of words is an attempt not to sit either side of the fence. It’s probably a complete fallacy, but how do you feel about the idea?
People are always going to say things like that because of where we live. It’s just a natural thing to say, but I can guarantee that we all have the same political feeling, and that is we don’t give a fuck if anyone’s Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, whatever. As long as no one dies, we just don’t care. I don’t care what anyone calls me, so long as nobody gets hurt. Whenever we go on tour, somebody will bring it up, and it depresses us a little bit that it’s the first thing people go for. At the same time, it is changing. I can’t think of a single young person, whether in a band or in sport or a journalist or whatever who wants things to go back to being what they were when we were growing up. I know we have volatile titles and stuff, but believe me, the reason we don’t have lyrics or vocals is because we didn’t feel like we needed them. A million love songs have been sung, a million protests have been sung, we just wanted to make music.
“As long as no one dies, we just don’t care. I don’t care what anyone calls me, so long as nobody gets hurt.”
Do the songs have meanings to you? Obviously they’re open to interpretation to the listener…
Of course. All the songs have meaning to us, but we love the fact that so many people get other meanings out of them. That’s what spurs us on, we’re dazzled by people using their imagination to come up with an interpretation of your piece. All these little things blow your mind. If anyone says ‘is that what it means?’ we always just say yes, because if that’s what it means to that person, that’s what it means you know?
What’s the strangest interpretation of a track you’ve heard so far?
Not of a track so much, but us not having lyrics because it’s apolitical! No, I’d be scared to go into them in case someone read this and felt that we’ve taken away the meaning from them. But there are plenty of good ones, we’ll keep those for the biographies.
Joining Richter Collective seems an obvious move, what with BATS, Enemies, Adebisi Shank, all that lot. Was it a difficult decision to go on board with them?
No, it made perfect sense. We actually couldn’t believe we hadn’t thought of it before. Not that there was anything wrong with Small Town or anything like that. There’s no big scandal, we just wanted to try something else really. Everyone at Richter are our friends and peers, and the opportunity came along to work together. We just thought ‘let’s do this’. There were offers out there, from bigger labels, but we just felt that we’d still be in control like we were at Small Town, controlling our own destinies. That’s really important, rather than having people push us in a certain direction. They just trust us to get on with being a band, and help us to be a band, doing things that we can’t do when we’re somewhere in Russia. They’ve been absolutely stellar at it so far. Long may it continue.
You seem just about the least financially motivated band you could ever come across. You played shows like Hideaway House and those Christmas gigs to fifty people, then you have Them Crooked Vultures at the other end of the scale. How do you deal with the financial side of things?
Yeah, well we all left jobs to go full time a good few years ago, and we’ve never looked back really. Even when our van breaks down and we have to wait at the side of a motorway for 13 hours for someone to come and pick us up, we never though ‘oh I wish I was back working in the pub’. We get to play music and travel around the world and meet interesting people, hear amazing bands. It’s brilliant. We’re all laughably broke. It really is funny how broke we are. We’ve been going through a recession for four or five years, and it’s like everyone else has finally caught up with us financially! But yeah, as long as we can make enough money to survive as we go along, we’ll continue. We’re making enough to get by but food is definitely a luxury.
Let’s say the finances sort themselves out and you’re a lot better off this time next year, will you still play all the small shows to a hundred odd people?
Definitely, that’s how we were raised. You always enjoy those smaller shows more than big shows like Them Crooked Vultures support. Those big stages, glamorous arenas… you’re not getting splashes of sweat from the people in the first row landing on you, and vice versa. Seeing the whites of their eyes and seeing how much people are enjoying it makes it all worthwhile. The Hideaway House in Dublin was the week after we played in Ulster Hall, our biggest headline show. There were 50 or 60 people there, and it was great. I know I speak for the band when I say there’s no doubt which show we enjoyed more.
We definitely can’t do an entire interview without talking about Russia. Did you just want to see the country?
Well we were booked to go over a year early with Maybe She Will, and it didn’t come off because of visas, finances and stuff. We wanted to get over just because there was such a strong interest. Thank God we did. It was easily the most rewarding tour we’ve ever done, personally. We didn’t come back with gold hanging off us or anything like that, but on a basic human level, connecting with people, it really stunned us. They were just so happy we were there; when we travel through Ireland, the UK and Europe, everything’s so familiar, as people travel through it all the time. You see it on TV all the time, so you just feel familiar. It was fantastic just to see Russia, and how incredible the people were. They had big hearts, and they really looked after us. It was great. I loved how everywhere we went after Johnny has the accident with his knee, people came up to him to make sure he was okay. We ate some questionable food. In fact, I hardly ate anything as I’m a fussy eater at the best of times, hence why I’m a short ass. One day the tour manager brought me food he thought I’d like. It was McDonalds. I had to explain that ethically I don’t eat that. He must have thought ‘you spoilt western prick’. We were on TV while we were over there, with our voices dubbed over. Johnny’s voice became this super baritone voice speaking in Russian. Hilarious.
You once did more than 170 gigs in a year. Is there such things as too many shows?
Yeah we did 170, 180 in 2009. We slowed up a little bit in 2010, we did 160 and saw a bit more of the world. I think if we could play a show every day, we probably would. It’s a bit much physically, but we get to play music and jump around, it’s great.
Can you suggest any Northern Irish bands to watch out for this year?
I guess you’re all familiar with Not Squares and Axis Of. A new band called Lanterns For A Gale are worth a look, really intelligent, proggy punk. It’s difficult as we’re away so much, but there are some great bands. A three-piece called Eaten By Bears are brilliant, they’ve got Richter Collective written all over them. Girls Names are doing really well. The local scene’s in rude health, it’s brilliant for such a small city.
What would you consider a success for Gangs?
A success would be to be able to pay our rent and not have food as a luxury. Anything beyond that’s incredible. That’s not too much to ask, is it?
What about a more long-term legacy for the band?
I’d like our band’s acronym, ASIWYFA, to get into the dictionary, and for it to be synonymous with gangs of people trying to be positive, one of whom has red hair and one of whom’s half Chinese. One of them’s an outstanding guitarist and of course one of them’s a workhorse ginger guitarist. No, just a band who gave a fuck would be nice. That’d be a nice legacy.
As published on State.ie, April 2011.