With Bell X1 once again nominated for a Choice Music Prize, making inroads in America and set for The Music Show, Paul Noonan talks to Craig Fitzpatrick about his delight over the election of fellow RDS guest President Michael D. Higgins, charity gigs, activism and how he has dealt with the turmoil of the past few years in song.
These pointed words aimed at a group of political bods leading us to ruin first spilled from Paul Noonan’s mouth in the middle of the last decade. They appeared on the Kildare band’s third studio effort Flock, an album that went five times platinum and positioned Noonan and co as a real musical force in Ireland. An act with intelligence, tunes and strong chart showings. Odd timing. It was the best of times, but the worst times were on the way. Noonan may or may not have clocked this, but what is clear is that, even from that position of relevant comfort, he was long investing his lyrics with a sense of wary purpose, not leaving them in thrall to champagne receptions. Observing.
So we skip joyously past the dreaded collapse to springtime in Dublin, as the genteel singer sits in the Central Hotel’s Library Bar, sipping tea and talking about how, in the intervening period, he has scarcely stopped commenting on this country of his. In fact, as the bleakness crept in, it became ever more evident. Does he feel songwriters have an odd responsibility to broach these subjects? And is he happy with the position that puts him in?
“Sometimes,” he smiles. “I don’t feel like I’m a particular authority on issues but they are of interest to me. Especially the Irish Question. Irish identity is something we’ve played with. ‘Reacharound’ predates the collapse but was very much about that cute hoorism that would eventually lead to it. That short-sightedness and sleeveenism is still there but is now recognised as a destructive force.
“But you write what you know or what you’re preoccupied by. A song called ‘Sugar High’ [from last year’s Bloodless Coup] was very much about a specific vision of the Fianna Fail tent at the Galway Races. A HR Giger debauched vision partly inspired by a song of Lou Reed’s called ‘Sex With Your Parents’, which is about that Republican old boys’ club and the homoerotic factor within that.”
It’s unsurprising that Paul should be making ever more comparisons between Ireland and that vast expanse of land across the Atlantic these days. America’s woes are unavoidably our woes and, in personal terms, the band are now touring Stateside more than ever before, building a fanbase and getting acquainted with the culture and the quandaries. Tellingly, during their jaunt to the east coast late last year, one of Noonan’s first ports of call was Occupy Wall Street.
“Spending so much time in the States last year, we saw so many of the Occupy protests,” he notes. “But New York was bizarre, it was a circus. It’s so small and compacted down there, so you had Zuccotti Park on one side being completely lined with cops and paddy wagons and on the other side you had media trucks.”
How did he react to the movement?
“It’s hard to know. There isn’t really a singular identity or message to the thing but having seen it elsewhere in Portland, Chicago, Seattle and Austin, I think the important thing is the act. A fundamental ‘shit is not right’ statement. While inequality in America is very extreme, it exists throughout the world and is something that we should become preoccupied with.”
And the Irish campaign?
“I didn’t see it to be honest. I feel here, yes there is inequality, but there isn’t that drastic disparity. What has angered me most is that endemic cute hoor, sleveen culture that meant we were grossly mismanaged and are now paying the price for it. Yes, we’ve thrown out most of the people who’s watch that happened on but I still think it will take time for it all to change. I do think that things are better now. People have been humbled by it, not just the political class but everybody.”
On to matters more positive then. Like most of the nation’s artistic community, Bell X1 seem over the moon with the new resident at the Áras. No distance could stop the band celebrating Michael D’s victory.
“It’s a very good thing indeed,” he agrees. “Sadly we were away in America when it happened. We were actually at the Other Voices gig in New York just after the election, so the vote was known by then. I will say that it was interesting, and really nice, being amongst the New York diaspora having just elected a poet as President. There was obvious delight in the room at that, I think Joseph O’Connor mentioned it from the stage and there was a big cheer. We’d flown in the morning after the Frontline debate that had scuppered the chances of Sean Gallagher and Roddy Doyle was on our flight with Iarla O Lionaird. I know Iarla from a while back, I didn’t know Roddy, but there was a great, almost girly delight in the cabin and gossip going around about what had happened. So I think it’s a rare positive in the landscape.”
Noonan may spend most of his time mapping that landscape lyrically, investigating melodically how the highs and lows affect its people, but he’s also keen to alter it for the better. There’s that old debate over whether music can change the world in and of itself, but practical undertakings involving the art form can certainly make all the difference. Say, for example, a charity gig to help those without a roof over their heads. In the lead up to Christmas, Bell X1 put on such a show in The Olympia Theatre, not only entertaining those assembled but also sending all proceeds the way of The Capuchin Day Centre. Based in Bow Street, Dublin. The Capuchin Brothers work tirelessly to aid those less well-off, including the late, real-life protagonist of one of the band’s best-known songs, ’Rocky Took A Lover’.
“We wanted to ‘give back’, for want of a less cheesy expression. For years I lived across the road from the Capuchin Day Centre in Smithfield and saw how they worked and who they helped. And how that had changed drastically over the time I was living there from helping very obviously homeless people, drug addicts on the streets, to helping ordinary families as the situation worsened. Kids would be lining up as things went to shit.”
And then there was ‘Rocky’, whose sad story from the streets was told on a gorgeous single that sounds like a ‘Fairytale Of New York’ that never even left Dublin airport.
“He died in a doorway on a cold winter’s night,” nods Paul. “He was probably the only homeless person I’ve ever gotten to know. We would be sitting in our front-room in that house in Smithfield and he’d be sitting against the same wall on the other side. When he was our age he had a pretty functional life with children from an early age, a home and a job. There was no grand event in his life that led him to where he was. He was there by a thousand cuts. It was gradual slide. He was a total charmer when he wasn’t drinking and very interesting. Sadly, he was very aware of what had happened and where his life would probably ultimately go but he didn’t have the capacity to do anything about it. Then when he was drunk he was a total fucking nightmare, he smashed our front-window twice because we were playing music too loud.”
What were the young musicians playing?
“Probably our own music, we used to have listening sessions in the front-room, arguing over mixes.”
So Rocky, now immortalised in Bell X1 song and folklore, never really cared much for their music?
“Yeah…” Paul chuckles as his gaze drops. “The grand irony of it all.”
Bell X1’s path through troubled times has been comparatively smooth. The frontman admits they arrived at just the right moment to be carving out a career in the business, and when you throw graft and talent into the mix, the result is a band with a strong infrastructure in 2012, content and coping in a fraught industry, earning a living from what they love. Paul tells of Bell X1 being a “hub from which side-projects spring, which is healthy” and confirms his plans to release an album of pared back collaborations this year with female vocalists like Martha Wainwright, Joan Wasser and Gemma Hayes (“I’ve reached out to people like Emmylou Harris as well,” he adds, “Gone for long shots to see what happens). Time management is more of an issue these days with kids to take care of, and he confides that he’s strongly considering keeping office hours a la Nick Cave. Would the prospect of starting out today be a daunting one?
“Yeah,” he admits. “I think we were very much aided by the optimism and buoyancy that was around Ireland in general when we began. And it definitely has darkened. I think bands are a lot more self-sufficient now though in terms of production, everyone can make their own recordings. Listening to Little Green Cars’ stuff, they recorded most of that themselves and it sounds great, it has real character. That’s been a big positive in the last ten years, the recording process has really been demystified. But in terms of making a career… it’s a really interesting time in terms of disseminating the work. It’s anarchy in lots of ways.”
Could he imagine having ever done anything else?
“No, not now. When I was 16 I went crazy about Formula 1 and I wanted to work for one of the teams, be the dude in the pitlanes with headphones, looking at computer screens. Which is why I did a computer engineering college. But I can’t relate to that at all now. So who knows? A lighthouse keeper, maybe.”
Ships passing in the night. Navigating journeys, illuminating hazards along the way. A most romantic aid. What we’ve come to expect from Bell X1.
Bell X1 play the Music Show in the RDS, Dublin on Saturday February 25.
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