The Story So Far…
Lots can happen over 20 years. Whole economies can collapse and rebuild. Lovers can lock eyes, walk down aisles and drop children to school gates. Under our noses, tastes undergo changes we may never understand and cherished silver can earn its tarnishing.
And there are things that toil away in the background as the seasons turn, out there for us should we ever need them. Take Bell X1. Nearly a quarter of a century ago, the three men at the core of this Irish music institution dusted off the ashes of Juniper following the 11th-hour departure of Damien Rice. Without fanfare, they decided there was no point wasting the body of songs and musical connectivity they already had, and that they might as well just forge ahead.
The forging has never stopped.
Two decades later, they find themselves in a position even they could never have imagined. It is a unique territory in the Irish rock landscape – a household name, but one still keenly relevant and critically lauded. What’s more, Bell X1 remain restless and fidgety at a point in their career when most acts, should they dream of even hanging in that long, tend to narrow their field-of-vision and consolidate their legacy.
Time has also brought Paul Noonan, Dave Geraghty and Dominic Phillips their fair share of dead ends and false scents because that is what living entails. It has resulted in a supporting cast of all-sorts, friends and bandmates and fellow travellers on the same road. Some have stayed the course, some peeled off down their own pathways and some were taken away far too early.
Conquering radiowaves and arenas is all very well but more salient destinations have been arrived at. Music that threads itself through lifetimes like punctuation marks. A first dance at a wedding or a song of remembrance at a funeral. Pogoing indie-disco dancefloors and nights your aunt wouldn’t approve of. A tender scene in a hit US TV series and scores of babies named “Eve” because a few descending piano chords and a warm bassline can seem so beautiful on the right night they transcend mere sonic vibration. National-treasure status has been awarded for less.
The signs were apparent all the way back in 2000 when the then-quartet released debut Neither Am I as a means of planting a flag in the ground, something their burgeoning fanbase could clasp in their hands. There was a controlled power beneath the lilts, shuffles and snarls. Temperatures fluctuated track-by-track and a maturity behind the eyes was suggested.
It all smacked of white-hot ambition, even if Noonan himself today recalls the “starry-eyed” quality of those days. “It was friends in their twenties getting to live a dream,” he says, his smile filling with imagery of Welsh recording studios, jerk chicken dinners on London’s Portobello Rd during mixing sessions and producer Nick Seymour of Crowded House playing midwife to the delivery.
It got Bell X1 airborne, which might be all you could ever really ask of a debut, albeit one that the years have been kind to. Island Records snapped them up and the band were engorged within a London scene of moneyed music-industry clout and growing attention from the ever-fickle UK music press.
Follow-up Music In Mouth (2003) rocked and swooned its way into glowing reviews and swelling live dates. The album was dextrous and shape-shifting. Hard-edges – see the paranoid thrash of ‘White Water Song’ – bled into slow-burning poignancy or primary-coloured pop. Listen closely and you can hear youth grappling with sudden and tragic loss on ‘In Every Sunflower’, an ode to Noonan’s late girlfriend, TV presenter and indie icon Uaneen Fitzsimons. The aforementioned baptismal beauty of ‘Eve, The Apple Of My Eye’, meanwhile, set out its stall and hasn’t looked back.
“We were quite green,” Noonan insists. “We met Massive Attack in the hallway of a studio and were star-struck. It felt like we’d arrived but there was no grand plan.” It was all very exciting agrees Phillips, a natural pragmatist who remembers the “empty promises and nice-sounding patter” of the cigar-chompers but also how major-label backing helped establish momentum for Bell X1 in the form of wide-ranging tours and high-profile support slots. “So we made another record,” the bassist shrugs. “That is what we do.”
There was nothing for it but to strike while the iron was hot. Flock was released in Ireland in late 2005 and shot to No.1. It was a chest-out collection of songs where lyrical vulnerability was cut with steel and resolve. Muscular singles – ‘Flame’, ‘Rocky Took a Lover’ – were snatched at by radio stations where they remain on heavy rotation more than a decade later. The record would be used as a greeting gesture to US audiences three-years later, and no better man for the job.
Bell X1 were now a multi-platinum-selling act who could fill arenas at home and find very warm welcomes across the global touring map. Tour de Flock (2007), a recorded commemoration of their triumphant sell-out Point Theatre homecoming, was a logical encore for that heady passage of their story. Grainy YouTube footage exists of the band performing ‘Rocky Took A Lover’ on The Late Show With Dave Letterman in 2008. A slight swagger is detectable in the body language, which is perhaps the only way to say hello to the greater American public. There is nothing on their faces or in the toothy grin of Letterman himself to hint at the tectonic shifts happening in the music industry at that time.
All around us in the world, we see companies reshuffling and streamlining to meet market demands, and so it was with showbiz. Buyouts and rejigs affected Island’s roster of acts, and while the band were offered another deal after Flock, they had enough credits and confidence in the bank to establish their own independent label.
There is survival of the fittest, but there is also that of the dogged, the daring and the artistically resolute. No outfit can negotiate such fundamental structural change without these qualities. The Celtic Tiger, meanwhile, the surging economic miracle gracing Ireland at the time, made it feel like things were possible. Its unfiltered, unexamined optimism spilt over into the camp.
Enter Blue Lights on the Runway, Bell X1’s first long-player on their own independent label. Among its tracklisting nestled a song called ‘The Great Defector’ which would go on to become one of the biggest Irish singles of all time.
By their own admission, they were coming out of a “speed-wobble”, as Geraghty puts it. Founder member Brian Crosby had departed along with any major-label infrastructure. They decamped to Ballycumber House, a stately pile in the Irish midlands, to see what would happen. For the journey, they packed drummer Tim O’Donovan and a digital guitar known as a Casio DG-20. The rest is history.
“When you get a new toy, it can be a springboard,” Noonan says affectionately of the DG-20’s “shitty sounds” and “goofy nature”. “I listen to that song quite a bit because my kids love it. ‘The Cornetto song,’ they call it. It’s got that playful bounce to it.”
Kids of all ages, it turned out, were partial to ‘The Great Defector’’s cartwheeling hook and giddy arpeggios. To this day, it is a constant staple of daytime-radio playlists. “Fantastic,” Letterman bleated after a return visit to The Late Show studio.
Everything has been achieved without gimmicks, hype, fashion (“We’re painfully unfashionable,” Noonan laughs), faddishness or celebrity flashbulbs. Similarly, there is no “sound” upon which to neatly hang Bell X1, nor has there ever been an overarching strategy, philosophy or furrow-browed manifesto. Around 2010, band members were starting to have families and there was a wave from Blue Lights… there to be ridden. Surely the logical next step was a record full of even Greater Defectors?
Why this didn’t happen is much the same reason why Bell X1 have managed to remain part of the conversation. Fifth LP Bloodless Coup is recorded more-or-less live (save some minimal overdubbing) in Grouse Lodge with Rob Kirwan (Depeche Mode, PJ Harvey, Hozier), an old friend from the Juniper days. Rory Doyle and Marc Aubele are inducted on drums and keys/guitar, respectively. The first album track they chose to release to fans? ‘Hey Anna Lena’, an achingly gorgeous digital bath of glitches and programmed beats that was unlike anything they’d ever put out.
Things had changed, after all. Ireland’s bubble had burst, both economically and hedonistically. The foundation was shown to have been held together by nothing more than flimsy velcro and the self-interests of Teflon-coated financial classes. A “sugar high”, Noonan called it in the scathing track of the same name. Hard truths about vaulting ambition and mortality were faced up to on ‘4 Minute Mile’ and ‘Built To Last’ because they simply had to be.
“We were all having kids,” Noonan explains, “and the anxiety that comes with that. But at the same time, we were seeing friends losing their parents. We were entering a life stage that was new, and that cycle of life was bluntly evident.”
Look forwards. Keep things interesting. Write-record-tour-repeat. Nip out for solo projects, soundtrack work and moonlighting with extended musical family. Then return to the Bell X1 nest with foraged materials and elixirs. Field Recordings, a live acoustic cornucopia released in 2012, was an extension of this mentality that undressed the group’s songbook, exposing lithe contours, tough hides and manoeuvrability in their genetic material.
By the time Noonan, Geraghty and Phillips jetted out to Connecticut at the dawn of 2013 to record with the production dream-team of Peter Katis (The National, Interpol) and Thomas Bartlett (The Gloaming), they were looking to up their game. They’d come to the right place.
“It was a new way of doing things and we were excited by that,” Phillips reflects. “We brought nothing with us except a couple of guitars. Peter and Thomas got involved in turning a longlist of songs into a shortlist. And Thomas gets stuff done – we named the album in honour of his work tempo.”
Two weeks is all it took to bring Chop Chop (2013), one of the most critically gushed-over Bell X1 records, into the world, a symptom of the three-piece feeling “strong” and “cohesive” while flourishing in a new collaborative environment. It duly crashed into the top of the Irish charts.
Much has been made of the fact that Arms (2016), their next LP, was the group’s “difficult seventh album” – it took two years to record compared to Chop Chop’s two weeks – but like everything about Bell X1, all that mattered was the music that came out the other side. In the case of Arms, that was something very special.
Silken of texture and prone to beguiling purrs of pop brilliance, Arms (2016) was a career high at a stage when Bell X1 should really have been in creative decline and putting their energies into being a nice obedient heritage act. Assuredness and collected control wafted off this LP more than any other release from their career as experience, patience and solace emulsified to sublime effect. Maybe this is the “upswing” Noonan is singing about on that lead single. “One day, we’ll meet Trouble halfway, and we’ll say, ‘Oh why’d you gotta be that way? Trouble, look around you. Everything is beautiful.’”
Beautiful indeed. After 20 years of hit singles and naming babies, Bell X1 owe us nothing. The next steps can’t be known, the nights to come, the ears to woo or the melodies to weave on the song-writing loom. Something inside you, however, tells you we’ll be having this conversation again in years to come.