Festival Special: Bell X1 get set to rock Trinity this summer

Bell X1’s Paul Noonan is returning to Trinity College this July over 20 years after he first walked through its doors as a student. Ahead of the band’s headlining show there, as part of the brand-new Trinity Summer Series, he talks about memorable festival experiences, how the band cope with touring, and why American customs refused to leave him alone…

Bell X1 know more about playing festivals here in Ireland than almost any other band. Having performed on almost every patch of green land in the country over the years, they’ve now been chosen as one of the acts to headline Ireland’s newest festival, the Trinity Summer Series. Taking place in College Park, slap bang in the centre of Dublin, it makes it feel like everything’s coming full circle for the bands’s frontman Paul Noonan.

“I studied engineering at Trinity,” Paul smiles wryly. “Yeah, as hard as that is to believe! And I never worked a day in my life in that field – I went straight from college to setting up the band – and from there we started ito all the writing and recording and gigging. So to come back and play in this beautiful city-centre space is pretty amazing. We’ve never done anything like this one before.”

SELLING EGG SANDWICHES

The road that brought Paul from being a student at Trinity College to headlining a concert there is a wonderfully circuitous one. Formed back in the ‘90s from the ashes of their previous group Juniper (which included Damien Rice), Bell X1 have gone on to release seven studio albums, earned acclaim for their energetic and infectious live performances, written some of Irish music’s most witty and memorable lyrics, and gained legions of fans on these shores as well as in places like America and Australia – all of this while unabashedly experimenting with their sound and keeping critics on their toes over the years.

The band’s latest album Arms was released on their own Belly Up label in 2016. Talking to Hot Press about the record, Paul Noonan made the point that being free from a major label had allowed them to embrace their eclectic song material – with the financial crisis, global warming, deafness, fatherhood and touring all on the menu – without an over-bearing A&R operative butting in and putting pressure on them.

In truth, however, Bell X1 have always forged their own musical path, big label or not. One of the reasons that the band’s fan base has followed them through thick and thin is because they were built up organically. Bell X1 did as many gigs as they could – and reaped the rewards.

“Back when we started, we would’ve played every show we were offered,” Paul says now, “and we would’ve even made gigs, where there weren’t any. That kind of stood by us, I think, because fans from back then are still with us now – and they’ve grown with us as we experimented with what we sounded like. It was the same when we first went out to tour in America in 2005: we played every gig we could get there. Obviously, Dave and Dom and I all have families now, so we can’t do that as much – but it does feel like, without having the benefit of any immediate smash hits, we were building up our fanbase one by one.”

The band had already built a sizable audience by the time they started to feature on festival line-ups.

“I think the first festival we played was Witnness in 2000, when it was only in its first year,” Paul recalls. “At that time, we’d been touring all-round the country for people to see us – from the likes of Ballybunion all the way up to Donegal – but playing your first festival is a different experience, because people are coming from all over to see you.

“I suppose I’ve never fully appreciated that aspect of it. You never really think about how far you’ve come until someone asks you about it, like we’re doing here,” he laughs. “We were just so incredibly excited to be on the main stage back when we started. Then we played Oxegen, when it took over from Witnness. We’ve probably tried our hand at most festivals, in their different incarnations over the years.

“Electric Picnic has definitely produced some of our most memorable moments. We closed it a couple of years back and then we played the 8.30pm slot last year. There’s always something magical about playing at a festival in the dark. You get an amazing feeling when you see the silhouettes of faces and flags in the sea of the crowd. It’s also the time when all the freaks come out!”

Does Paul Noonan remember the first festival he ever went to as a fan? “Féile in Tipperary, ’91,” he says without hesitation. “It was the height of the Manchester Vibe, so you would’ve had the The Farm, Happy Mondays, The La’s. Festivals could be pretty rough affairs back in those days. Just to give you an example, I remember arriving and seeing these dudes rolling some poor fella around who was trapped in a port-a-loo. That was one of my first memories of any festival!

“Then you would’ve had people selling egg sandwiches out their front doors in Thurles because there wouldn’t have been all the burger and chip vans like you see now. Festivals were more an innocent, improvised thing back then; there wasn’t the same huge corporate interest that you have nowadays; no mobile phone companies wanting to have their name next to the Main Stage or anything like that. Festivals have sort of come in from the fringes and been slightly sanitised – which has its good and bad sides, I suppose.”

A BIT OF CROWD SURFING

For all their success and acclaim as a live act, Bell X1’s appeal runs as broad as it is long. The band are well known for the wit and sophistication of their songs, which often channel the minutiae of everyday life through a special kind of lyrical prism. Their tireless search to find fitting metaphors for the sacred and the profane alike led to one of their lines – “I don’t believe in any old Jesus/ If there was a God, then why is my arse the perfect height for kicking?” from ‘Rocky Took A Lover’ – being voted the Greatest Irish Song Lyric in a recent Today FM poll.

But it goes beyond songwriting too. Before conducting the interview with Paul, I had been following a string of colourful online diary entries written by the man himself, which documented Bell X1’s recent tour across the States. Topics included subjects as diverse as dealing with the complexities of a Laundromat to finding a better-than-awful burrito in midtown Santa Barbara. “Should we do a wash & fold?” it reads. “Or do it ourselves? Some pushback from Rory on the former - he’d be embarrassed to hand over his smalls to the lady in the booth, so we roll with doing it ourselves.” I speculate that the adjectives “Bell X1-ian” or perhaps “Noonanesque” are ripe to be coined, before asking just how much the lads fixate on the small things while they’re touring.

“It’s not so much that,” Paul says good humouredly. “It’s more a case that going out to eat or doing laundry is a mundane, domestic exercise that takes us away from the craziness of being on tour.”

It’s worth remembering that while we might think of them as rock stars, all the members of Bell X1 are settled with families now. On their latest album, ‘I’ll Go Where You Go’ deals with the struggles of being away from your kids – and from everything else that grounds you – when you’re touring.

“It’s an alternative reality to be living out of a suitcase all the time,” says Paul. “It can become physically and emotionally draining. You’re trying to give everything every night, and you’re doing a bit of partying and drinking, which you certainly wouldn’t be doing at home. Days off, when you get to do your laundry, as strange as it sounds, become a kind of welcome respite.”

When summer comes around, is the festival circuit equally draining? “Yeah, there is an element of that too,” he laughs. “For a lot of artists, they’re on the hamster wheel of festivals all summer. They’re rocking up on a tour bus in the morning and doubling out of it bleary-eyed the next day. And it’s like Groundhog Day for months on end. We did a few summers like that and the gigs just rolled into one.

“Festivals can be a very levelling experience,” he adds. “It’s sort of a case of you queueing up for the backstage bathroom in Slovakia or Frankfurt or wherever – and you’re in line with whoever happens to be there. Or you’re at the food stand waiting for your breakfast while Chris Martin and Gwyneth decide whether they wanted boiled eggs or mashed potatoes (laughs). There isn’t the same amount of prima donna behaviour that there would be at other music events.

“Some of the American acts would’ve tried to pull some shit like getting their tour managers to flex their muscles for special treatment – but it wouldn’t be ourselves. Most acts, however big they are, tend to realise that a festival is greater than the sum of its parts.”

I can imagine that all the touring and festival-hopping would’ve landed Bell X1 in some difficult positions in the past…

“Oh yeah! I once lost my shoes during a set at Oxegen,” says Paul, in a story which sounds fairly typical of the late Punchestown Festival. “They weren’t stolen off my feet while I was performing or anything – they’d just gone missing while I was doing a bit of crowd surfing. It wasn’t so much a festival disaster as it was a memorable couple of songs. “Then we always seem to have incidents when going through customs in America. I remember once being at the airport with my guitar on my back and the dude at security didn’t believe that I was a musician, so he made me sing a song right there in the customs office. So, of course, I sang ‘Carrickfergus’. I realised right away they were fucking with me, but they got to enjoy a few bars of ‘Carrickfergus’ all the same.”

HITTING MIDDLE AGE

No incidents occurred during the band’s latest trip to the States (although Paul did go to some lengths to satirise Trump’s latest Executive Order in one of those memorable diary entries…) The band have given most of their songs from Arms an airing at this stage, both in Ireland and abroad. Having told Hot Press that writing Arms was difficult, I wonder if that translates to the song’s being difficult to execute on stage?

“It’s more the opposite,” he says. “All the constant revising in the studio was the issue for getting Arms right – but going out and doing the shows is a big relief as a result, so we’ve actually really enjoyed this latest run of gigs. We’d worked with keyboardist Glenn Keating on the record and managed to get him to come on tour with us. Glenn informed a lot of the groove and the palate of the record, so it helped us massively with executing the show to have him with us. The same goes for our drummer Rory Doyle – he’d been away touring with Hozier but came back to help us with the direction of Arms, so we’re lucky to have him touring with us too.”

The triumph of Arms - which is a superb record - and the commitment that the lads have to touring their music, proves that even though they might be hitting middle-age, Bell X1 still have the appetite that made them fall in love with rock ‘n’ roll in the first place. So, what’s next for the band then?

“We’re constantly writing away, as a discipline,” says Paul. “We tend to always be working towards something. We’re also touring around Europe at the end of the year. It doesn’t feel like Arms has had its natural cycle yet. There’s a bit of life in it still before we get into the studio for the next record.”

Bell X1 play College Park, Trinity College on July 8, as part of the Trinity Summer Series. Their newest album, Arms, is out now.

 

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