Irish rockers Bell X1 commanded the sold-out crowd at New York's High Line Ballroom three nights before St. Patrick's day as they powered through favorites from "Flock" and new album "Blue Lights on the Runway" alike, and frontman Paul Noonan broke out the angular dance moves, cowbell, and jokes about U2 shoveling snow for David Letterman, for whom Bell X1 themselves will perform tonight (March 17), in his mild brogue. Shortly before the release of the lush, dark edged "Blue Lights On The Runway," which holds cold, wonderous Radiohead-esque moments within a warmer sound all their own, Noonan and guitarist Dave Geraghty sat down in an Irish Pub in Soho to talk about delayed attention on this side of the pond, the new album, and the hallucinogenic buzz of constant travel.
You spent 2008 in America and elsewhere supporting "Flock," a record many times platinum at home in Ireland but that had been made a long time ago. What was it like to be promoting material that familiar to a fresh audience?
Paul Noonan: I think had we still been touring in Ireland with this three years down the line, we would have been bored with it, it would have felt wrong. But because it was so new here I think that kind of gave it a newnesss for us as well.
Dave Geraghty: We were buzzing off the people's reaction and the freeness of being in different places as well. Being able to tour in America is something you dream of. See, we were with Universal Records before and that was something that, rather than being kind of helpful was actually restrictive. Being with a massive company that has a huge metaphorical umbrella was the one thing that prevented us from traveling because they weren't being proactive in getting us to other territories. When we parted ways, we started setting up an apparatus so we could start to tour and release records abroad.
Noonan: It was really nice to start to play small rooms again. I think we prefer that, to be able to look everybody in the room in the eye.
Geraghty: Before we came out here we played our biggest show ever at a theater called The Point Depot, which is a real institution in Dublin and fits about 10,000 people. We grew up going to shows there. It was pretty freaky.
You recorded "Blue Lights On The Runway" before "Flock" came out in America, is that right?
Geraghty: We started it before, which was cool as well because it kind of gave us a certain distance from the music. We would sit down with the album, then go off and tour, and then come back and have a certain freshness.
Noonan: It's kind of backwards the way the whole music thing works here. You write an album, you record it, and then you go to America to play it. But it should be that you write the songs, play them, and then you go and record them to a certain extent, before you get jaded and your three year window expires.
Were you playing any of the new stuff live last year?
Noonan: We tried a couple of songs during summer festival season in Europe and then before we mixed the songs, we did a couple of shows in Dublin where we played pretty much all new material just to see how it sat before we put it to bed. We'd never had that luxury before. It was pretty much recorded, but [the shows] did kind of influence how we approached the formative stages: the mixing, the song choices, and what connected most.
What was the effect of the departure of guitarist Brian Crosby in October on the band?
Noonan: In the time since "Flock" came out in Ireland, the band was going to become a hub from with lots of side-projects sprung. For a few years now, Brian has been involved in production and scoring for TV and film. When the time came to make this record he said, "I'm not going on. I'm going to concentrate on production for awhile." He didn't feel he could continue to juggle [it all] given the prospect that we'd have another two years like the last two years. It's part of the journey.
Was there an element of what you experienced on tour that influenced what you wrote about for "Blue Lights on the Runway"?
Noonan: Yeah, because it was recorded during the pockets between touring, it was timing your life between runways. Part of it was that sense of comfort when you land back home, where ever that may be. A lot of it was inspired, I suppose, by the kind of delirious euphoria that kicks in after awhile touring when everything has a constant newness and its a very transient existence. You don't get much sleep. But its nice, a nice little buzz.
I think you're the first band I've talked to who has said that feeling was good.
Noonan: There's a song on the album called "The Great Defector" which is a celebration... We tried to capture that sense of abandon and euphoria. Like at school during summer holidays we used to try not to sleep for three days and see where that brings you.
But "Blue Lights" is a logical progression from "Flock."
Noonan: I think we wanted to get a little nasty, a little Gary Numan-esque, put in a little austerity. We let ourselves off the leash a little. In many ways it was being a little less traditional about song structure. We wanted to push ourselves a little, allow ourselves to do songs that were six or seven minutes long. We were confident in the content of those six or seven minutes to actually put them on the record this time.
Geraghty: We were inspired by the likes of Depeche Mode, which has a wonderful mix of sonics that have that kind of austerity but that are amazing songs as well. You can break them down and they still work on acoustic guitar. We've done "Enjoy the Silence " quite a bit in acoustic sessions. Talk Talk. Mark Hollis. "Flock" kind of jumps around stylistically, where I think "Blue Lights on the Runway" is a little bit more mood oriented, it kind of carries you through. It doesn't lose me. It comes back to the idea that you are ultimate audience, so you have to turn yourself on first. We weren't precious about it either. That comes with the confidence of it being our fourth studio album. We'd all lead each other, we had this unspoken thing. It was taking turns at following. Within the band, it was a fresh confidence.
Do you have a favorite song on "Blue Lights"?
Noonan: In terms of realizing a vision for a song, the last song, "The Curtains Are Twitchin'." I always had this idea of having a New Orleans brass section. Somebody sent me links to YouTube footage of jazzer's funerals in New Orleans and a band playing "A Closer Walk With Thee." It has this wild energy that's whipped up during the course of the song that's really joyous but kind of sour occasionally, and woozy. I really heard that flavor in this song; it's pretty conventional but juxtaposed with a brass section building to this crescendo. I went online and eventually made contact with some musicians in New Orleans, sent them the songs, traded ideas until we landed on something we were happy with and recorded it. It was very satisfying. And then the three of us put down the extra percussion as if we were in the [brass] band, playing the big bass drum and the cymbals. We didn't really have the swing, but it's buried in there. For a few minutes, we were striding.
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