FOCUS // Starting never stopping: the story of And So I Watch You From Afar

Luxembourg, 2010. Belfast band And So I Watch You From Afar have just finished a set supporting Them Crooked Vultures on their intensive 12 month Deserve the Future Tour. Drummer Chris Wee is chatting backstage to Dave Grohl, pouring his guts out to a childhood idol, telling Dave how he had first learnt to play drums by smacking snares to ‘Dive’ on Incesticide. Dave smiles and thanks Chris for his gratitude. Chris wouldn’t realise until two weeks later that Dave didn’t play drums on that track, it was Chad Channing. But Dave, the noble gentleman, hasn’t called him out on it.

Guitarist Niall Kennedy and bassist Jonny Adger, meanwhile, are smoking cigarettes by the side-stage, peering at the sea of heads impatiently awaiting Them Crooked Vultures’ headlining set. Their impatience is warranted; Josh Homme is running half an hour late. Dave Grohl is jogging on the spot and air drumming to pass the time. Josh finally arrives at 9:30.

‘Oh good, Axl’s arrived’ says Dave. Everyone laughs.

Josh walks directly from the car he’s been picked up in to the centre stage, plugs in his guitar and plays. His unfettered confidence, to trundle onto a new stage, no apologies or soundchecks, and morph into the archetypal rock star before an eager crowd of thousands, is something to awe. The perfunctory elements of the rock star life are laid bare before the younger band from Belfast. It shows them how far they’ve come in five years, but also how far they can still go.

It was the summer of 2005, off the north coast of Ireland, when Johnny Adger, Chris Wee, Tony Wright and Rory Friers first started jamming together. Their current music projects were slowly but surely fading. Chris, Rory and Tony were in a stoner rock band called Zombie Safari Park. But Rory was experimenting with guitar riffs that simply didn’t fit the loose and jejune nature of stoner rock. His licks were fast, intricate, discordant, and typically occupying the higher echelons of the fretboard. Even the most open-minded stoner would have no patience for that. Rory’s penchant for this style was no surprise really, he had been fed King Crimson albums by his Dad since an early age. Rory still plays the same Fender Telecaster his uncle passed down to him at that time. On the same day he inherited the Fender, he received a twin reverb amplifier and a cardboard box full of dusty pedals. Rory took an instant shine to the pedals; he would connect all them together and turn the MXR distortion pedal up enough for it to give off a piercing feedback. With the guitar angled against the amplifier, Rory would sit on the floor with the pedals and modulate the blistering cacophony of effects. “And my mum really hated it,” says Rory, “she would switch the amp off and my ears would be ringing”. These were the early pieces that would lay the groundwork for Rory’s technical and vivacious guitar play, but it just didn’t sit right with the scope of his current project. Something had to change, and it didn’t include Zombie Safari Park.

Tony was already connected with Johnny Adger through their band Pepperbook, but Johnny was no stranger to Rory and Chris. They had been partying around with him for a couple of months, and eventually an invitation to jam was put out. It was good timing really; like Zombie Safari Park, Pepperbook was on its last legs. Despite Rory’s weird new guitar ideas, and the task of playing unconventional time signatures to fulfil those ideas, the chemistry was good between the merged band members. What surfaced quite quickly were a collection of imaginative but very dense songs, each clocking around the 9 or 10 minute mark[NH1] . 

Their new project was an outlier in those days. The term ‘indie music’ had returned to the mouths of the press, superseding the dying flames of grunge, nu-metal and pop-punk. Bands like The Strokes, Interpol, The Killers, Arctic Monkeys and Franz Ferdinand elicited a sentimentality for the stripped-back, low-to-the-ground spirit of the post-punk era. Bands channelled the spirit of The Fall and Gang of Four but added punchy song structures, wild guitar hooks and memorable lyrics, all delectably packaged for radio play. And, like all great musical movements, the major labels were ready to buy in. In Ireland, the cosy folk-pop of The Corrs and The Cranberries had certainly taken the back seat. Instead, The CoronasTony Was An Ex-Con shot to #1 in the national charts; acclaim for The ThrillsSo Much for the City spread even further into the UK and Europe; Snow Patrol’s Final Straw achieved international success[NH2] .

One of the defining features of this mid-00’s indie revival was the vocalist, an orator that could tap into the collective ennui of a new generation of kids. A guitar line was not a replacement for spoken lyrics. Despite this, the band members would not bother to find a vocalist. They were listening avidly to bands like Explosions In the Sky and Isis, and were quite confident that a voice was not necessary to drive a musical narrative. Besides, there was Tracer AMC from Bangor, about twenty minutes east of Belfast, who played a slower, shimmery form of instrumental post-rock. A fully instrumental band could be done; and done well. Moreover, it gave the band a niche in Belfast, an ability to turn heads without talking into a microphone. Instead, they let the instruments do the storytelling.

            It was Johnny that came up with the band’s name. It was a lyric he had misheard in a song by Team Sleep, one of Chino Moreno’s side projects[NH3] . The name was long and kind of cumbersome, but they needed something for the poster of their first gig. And after a while it stuck. That first poster was for a friend’s 30th birthday in Portrush. Not only was the band’s name sealed, it was memorable. It was less a name and more of a phrase. This was not unheard of at the time in the underground scene, with bands like If These Trees Could Talk, This Will Destroy You and You May Die In The Desert. What gave “And So I Watch You From Afar” its sheen what that it was a statement, a proclamation, a desire. “You will be watched”. The sentence conjures up an outsider’s desperation in the wake of unrequited love; or perhaps a unsettling decree from a stalker.

Another of the band’s defining characteristics early on was its logo, a white isosceles triangle with adjacent black right-angle triangles on each side. Bizarrely, the tip of the isosceles triangle doesn’t line up with the edge of the adjacent black triangles, instead it encroaches over the border where its colour is subsequently inverted to black. It bears a stark and overwhelming presence, like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The logo, originally designed by long-time friend Tim Farrell, has no intrinsic meaning or subtext, it remains as mysterious as Kubrick’s monolith.

Around 2008, the band were balancing their bar jobs with eight months of extensive touring, supporting the likes of Maybeshewill, This Town Needs Guns, Her Name Is Calla and Tracer AMC. At their first London show, the venue, Water Rats, made the band buy all their tickets and on-sell them. A couple of the Maybeshewill guys lived above the Firebug in Leicester, which provided an easy place to crash and thus a commonly booked venue. 

And So I Watch You From Afar’s self-titled debut came out in 2009, incorporating several years of material dating back to their very first practices. The reason for its runaway success are sloganized quite fittingly by the opening track title: ‘Set Guitars To Kill’. This was, indeed, an album that slayed the senses. These guitars had the crunchy and brooding heavy metal quality. The listener was being attacked. What also made the album successful was that the riffs were memorable. Despite the bludgeoning sound of the guitars, the music itself had a melodic, almost pop-like sensibility.

What was this sound? Journalists never really know where to place the band, should they need to. ‘Post-rock’ and ‘math rock’ are thrown around a lot, terms often at odds with each other. Where post rock is articulately composed and drawn out, math rock is brief, indulgent and vivacious. If post-rock is a wine, math rock is a shot of grappa. Many would agree that And So I Watch You From Afar sit somewhere between these end members. The quartet are masters of instrumental poise, but have also never downplayed the flashy and mercurial veneer of their sound, a sound often embellished by Rory’s myriad of digital toys. It was this musical signature that got the band their spot on the Them Crooked Vultures’ Deserve The Future in 2010, a dream tour for a young band and a window into their potential futures as full-time musicians.

Cathy Pellow at Sargent House had always had her eye on the band. Rory had been in contact with her for months, mainly because he loved the roster. But Cathy was waiting for the right moment to make a move. She nearly took their sophomore album Gangs (2011) but the timing just wasn’t right. This ended up being released locally by the Richter Collective, the Dublin label run by Michael Roe from Adebisi Shank and Barry Lennon from Hands Up Who Wants To Die. The album was more focussed than their self-titled debut. The band had unveiled their wardrobe with the first album, they’d offloaded all their treasured riffs and let them out to into the ether. Gangs, on the other hand, was a cohesive piece. The arsenal was the same, but the scope and narrative of the album felt self-consistent and less an exuberant collage of riffs. All Hail Bright Futures (2013) was the right time for Sargent House. The band were well-established, and they wanted to tread new ground. Lavish vocal harmonies with punchy and powerful imagery were now being included in the mix (take, for instance, the resounding chant of ‘the sun is in our eyes’ from ‘Big Things Do Remarkable’). The tracks were poppy and bouncier than the more jagged Gangs. It was All Hail Bright Futures that allowed And So I Watch You From Afar to increase their international reach, and move their careers forward.

Guitarist Niall Kennedy joined And So I Watch You From Afar quite matter-of-factly in 2011. He was already living with Rory and Chris in Belfast. So when Rory walked into Niall’s bedroom and quite casually asked “you want to play guitar in the band?”, it was not like an offer of employment. This was just two roommates talking. Niall initially thought Rory meant joining as a third guitarist, a non-essential crew member who would sit behind the amps and throw in some filler for an added touch of atmosphere. No, Tony had left. Niall needed to fill the spot, and fast. The next gig was in eleven days, followed by a seven-week European tour. An hour, and possibly an encore, of new music to learn. Music that was impetuous, angular, would change abruptly, would stop and start. Miss a beat and you’ve nudged a house of cards. This was a step-up from yelling vocals and strumming power-chords in Panama Kings, Niall’s previously disbanded project. And So I Watch You From Afar was a band who actively engaged in off-the-wall and exquisitely crafted guitar riffs. Niall’s guitar would be on full display. You couldn’t fall off the train.

While they guys were in the studio recording All Hail Bright Futures, Niall was downloading every album, finding the tracks he needed to learn and memorizing them. He’d spend his mornings and afternoons learning each and every guitar riff, only to be shattered when Rory, returning from a day at the studio, would tell him that what he’d been practicing was, in fact, absolutely wrong. He’d learnt Rory’s part instead of Tony’s part, for example. Eleven intense days of learning, collecting and refining in time for his first gig as second guitarist.

That first gig was at Whelan’s in Dublin, a high energy gig. After the gig, there was list awaiting Niall of what he had played wrong. The timing was out in ‘S Is For Salamander’. The notes were slightly off-key in ‘Gang (Starting Never Stopping)’. To top it off, the muscles in his hands were completely strained. Surprisingly, it was that repetitive stuff that did it. There is enough hand movement variety in bulky tracks like ‘Homes’, but playing the lead riff in ‘A Little Bit Of Solidarity Goes A Long Way’ in rapid succession for three minutes puts a high level of stress on the hand and forearm muscles.

Niall Kennedy’s wounds at Whelan’s provide an insight into the physical labour the band endured each night, the manual investment required to complete a show. For the existing members, who’d been doing this for six years now, this was business as usual and their muscles had accommodated the load. For a former rhythm guitarist in a straight-up-the-middle rock band this was an intense and exhaustive new undertaking. This is what it takes to be in And So I Watch You From Afar. From a physiological perspective, this was a very different road to other bands trying to forge a career from their craft. This one involves a high intensity workout.

The band’s first four albums (Heirs followed All Hail Bright Futures in 2015) were each recorded in Belfast at Start Together Studios. By album number five, however, the band wanted more of an experience with the recording. Not walking down the road from their house each day to throw down tracks, and returning for dinner and commitments. No, the band wanted to be locked away in a creative space, sleeping and eating there, living and breathing the album. They flew out to Rhode Island to record The Endless Shimmering (2018) at Machines With Magnets, who had made masterpieces of the Battles’ albums and had produced John Stanier’s drumming craft with impeccable precision. This was exactly what And So I Watch You From Afar were after, subscribing to a homegrown adage that one can build anything around a good drum sound. The entire album was recorded in one intensive six day burst.

An international tour follows each album release, which the band always refer to as the ‘campaign’. They have a mutual business ethos but they’re not shackled to it. There is a loose system in place to release an album every two years, to balance the budget with tours and merch sales and then to return home; but there is also the need for breathing space and letting ideas distil. It’s easy to become disillusioned with the oppressive and repetitive nature of the album-tour cycle, to deal with the survivalist nature of creating content, selling it, returning home, waiting until the next load of bills show up, and repeating the cycle. One can only speculate how this affects the full-time touring musician, but maybe some implications can be made when a rock star like Josh Homme can walk indifferently from their limo to an arena stage. Maybe it’s simply business as usual. In 2013, And So I Watch You From Afar supported Nine Inch Nails in Belfast, but never met them. After leaving the stage at Custom House Square, the tour manager for Nine Inch Nails congratulated the band, assuring them that the members of Nine Inch Nails watched and loved their set. And So I Watch You From Afar expressed their gratitude, but knew that he was lying. This was the reality of tour life. The balance between work and play, enjoying music and undertaking music, was blurred.    

The road for And So I Watch You From Afar is more cumbersome than other bands making a living from their craft. They venture on without a lead singer, playing an unconventional musical style that puts a physical toll on their muscles each night. But they’re successfully making a living do it. That is a more than admirable feat. Moreover, they are a band that have learned to separate (but not completely dichotomise) the business, art, and lifestyle elements of their band. Being a musician is not just a joyful slog, or the box-ticking of an existential void. Nor is there a senseless detachment with their artistic vision. Fifteen years since they formed, it appears that the band have never lost touch with that feeling of musical empowerment. They have the thirst for taking bolder risks, shedding their skin over and over. Never stopping.

Apologies to Chad Channing.