It’s an overcast May afternoon in Luxembourg city and, in a disconcertingly ketchy part of town, four Irishmen are lugging gear from a van.
Several hours before stage time, Belfast noise band And So I Watch You From Afar have touched down at Den Atelier, a 1,200 capacity venue in a stretch of Europe’s mega-bucks duchy that, to the untutored eye, could pass for a dowdier corner of West Dublin. Squint and you could be in Kimmage.
“We’ve actually played in Luxembourg city a bunch of times – more than you’d imagine,” says the band’s unofficial leader, Rory Friers. “We love going off the beaten track. You get to see parts of the world that you would normally never go to – AND get paid for it. A win-win really.”
On the mean streets of Luxembourg, the worst that might happen is a local merchant banker mowing you down in his Bentley. However, the band have been in genuinely hairy situations on their travels – somewhere between a laugh and a shudder, Friers recalls being pulled over by police in Ukraine and finding themselves in a scene from one of the Bourne movies.
“At home maybe they’d knock on the window and ask to see your driver’s licence. There,it was a case of pulling open the van door and sticking a Kalashnikov in your face. All you can do is hand over your passport and shout ‘Irish, Irish!’”
The group are, as it happens, just back from their latest tour of the former Soviet Union (for obvious reasons Ukraine was not on the itinerary this time). Russia has a wild west feel – there is a sense of a place where the normal rules simply don’t apply. However, coming from Belfast and old enough to remember the Troubles, the band understand that a country is more than the mass of cliches it has accumulated.
“You do see things you have never seen before,” says Friers. “Definitely we’ve handed over cash to cops and stuff like that. Going over there this time, especially, there was a lot of edge to it, as a result of what’s happening [in Ukraine].
“Being from Belfast you can spot the similarities. As young fellas, whenever we’d go to gigs further afield, people would have this idea that we lived in a place where bombs where going off all the time and tanks were rumbling down the streets.
“Obviously, there were pockets of it. The general population got on with their lives. You definitely have the same feeling in Russia – not everyone is against gay marriage or hates homosexuality. You have lots of young, liberal, open-minded people. As someone from the north of Ireland, I know what it’s like to be represented by politicians whose views on certain issues make you feel embarrassed.”
photo by Hana Ofangel for Metal Orgie
And So I Watch You From Afar have just released their fourth LP, Heirs. Friers is simultaneously nervous about the reception it may receive, and cheerfully devil-may-care as to how it goes down. At one level, he wanted to make a record that is well- regarded and perceived as a meaningful progression from the group’s earlier work. On the other hand, with ASIWYFA’s uncharacteristically melodic previous long-player All Hail Bright Futures having provoked a schism in the fan-base, he’s prepared for a sharp reaction.
It’s probably as well he’s going in with his eyes open, as Heirs is likely to prove even more divisive than All Hail Bright Futures. Placing further distance between the band and the familiar tropes of post-rock, at moments on the new record they could pass for an Animal Collective-style acid-freak crew. There are zinging melodies, batshit crazy hamster vocals – all good clean fun, for sure, but potentially upsetting to those used to thinking of the band as Northern Ireland’s Mogwai.
“You can’t take a big step left or right from your initial sound without rubbing some people up wrong,” says Friers. “I understand the impulse: if I fall in love with a band, really, I don’t want them to change. There’s this selfish thing you have of wanting them to stay the same.
“Our last record seemed to polarise a few people. In a terrible way, I found that satisfying. It confirms were are definitely taking steps in the right direction – we’re not repeating ourselves, which is absolutely the worst you can do. You don’t want to look back and realise you’d put an album out for the wrong reasons: to satisfy a record label, or a fashion trend... We have a constant need to stay unfashionable.”
photo by Hana Ofangel for Metal Orgie
These are heady days for And So I Watch You From Afar. A recent jaunt around the UK saw four-piece perform to sell out houses: today they’ve driven to Luxembourg from Dunkirk in France, where they stuffed yet another venue. The 1,200 capacity Den Atelier is unlikely to be heaving at the brim, Friers acknowledges. Nonetheless, a healthy attendance is expected – a far cry from early on, when the band would sometimes perform to the proverbial three men and a dog.
“It’s humiliating,” says the guitarist of the anguish of playing to an empty house. “Starting out... yeah it’s fine. You’re a kid – to have 10 people at your show is awesome. When you’ve put most of your adult life into doing something and the people you grew up with are getting mortgages you do start to question everything. The best you can do is put your head down and come through with a bit of humility. You’ve earned some stripes on your arm. Long term, it will stand to you.”
For a lark, before our interview I checked whether And So I Watch You’s music is available on Jay Z’s Tidal service. It isn’t – apparently Jigga has yet to discover the joys of Lagan-side post-rock.
“Yeah, he wanted us to come to New York for his press conference,“ deadpans Friers. “We’d already gone on tour. What can I say? We tried to let him down gently.”
To be briefly serious, he is happy the group’s music can be sampled on Spotify and other streaming services (it appears a Tidal deal is in the works). Well ‘happy’ is perhaps an overstatement. Put it this way: he’d rather people accessed the band’s material legally than gorge on it via Pirate Bay.
“I use Spotify because I’m poor, ”he half jokes.“ There are a lot of strong opinions surrounding it. I would rather people were listening to music on something like Spotify. It’s not as if we are going to get a bunch of money of it. At least the listener is contributing to some extent. Given the alternatives, that’s by far the preferable scenario.”