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Interview: Niall Kennedy from And So I Watch You From Afar

Interview: Niall Kennedy from And So I Watch You From Afar

“Usually it’s the newest song that we’ve written is the favorite song.”

Belfast’s best musical export rides on. The exuberant, ridiculous, brilliant And So I Watch You From Afar just released their fifth album The Endless Shimmering to acclaim here on Spectrum Culture and continued their streak as one of math-rock’s most euphoric bands. Guitarists Niall Kennedy and Rory Friers, drummer Chris Wee and bassist Johnny Adger passed a decade as a band in 2015 and haven’t slowed down an inch. The new album flexes some hitherto unseen muscle, but still keeps things as bright and cheery as their old work, creating one of the year’s finest metal experiences.

We caught guitarist Niall Kennedy over Skype while on tour in Germany. We discussed just how many riffs it takes to get to the center of an ASIWYFA album, writing unexpected lullabies and their version of Guitar Hero.

The opening track “Three Triangles” has a sort of samba section at the end of it, which is something I haven’t heard y’all experiment with. How did that flavor come about?

I don’t know if I can pinpoint it, but I can say that we just spent an awful lot of time in the practice room for this record, just rehearsing and jamming. Ideas only stuck around if everyone was really excited by them and anything that wasn’t getting us going we just threw out. We just kept it brutal like that. I guess that was just something we were into that day.

I like how you said, kept it brutal, because, bit of a tangent here, I have synesthesia where I see colors when I hear music. And your last two records were just incredibly colorful. This one is a lot darker, more punishing. Was there a transition here between those two sounds?

Yeah, I mean we wrote an awful lot of songs for this album. Certain songs—we would just kind of demo stuff and everyone was listening to all the tracks throughout the year on their iPhones and stuff. And eventually the songs that are on the album now just kind of presented themselves as the ones that really needed to be on the album. There’s loads of really great stuff that didn’t make it. Like some of my favorite riffs from this album aren’t on this album. These songs just came together and felt like the right choice.

When we started out, the only thing we talked about doing for this album that we planned was just to spend an awful lot of time writing it. As opposed to the last two records which we wrote three-quarters of it and then went into the studio and experimented and finished off bits in there and came up with ideas in the studio. This one we wanted everything dialed to the nth degree and absolutely 100 percent sure of what we were doing before we went to the studio. And then we wanted to just record a really good live version of that album. There’s nothing more than that that we agreed upon before we started writing it. And it just kind of came out that way.

But I’ve spoken to a couple of people who seem to think that the first two albums are a pair of albums and the last two albums are a pair of albums that go together. And then this album is different again. Maybe the next one will be a sequel to that. I don’t know, we’ll have to see. I feel like there’s definitely a different direction with this stuff. It feels a bit, to me, like we took some of the stuff we learnt over the previous records and touring for all these years and focused all that stuff into the writing process for this.

That’s interesting you say there were a lot of riffs left off the album. My favorite song “Mullally”—is that how you say it?

Sure (laughs).

It feels like it could be five or six different songs, because, even though its cohesive, it’s like here’s a riff, here’s a riff in a very quick succession. And I was wondering how that came to be, because it feels like another band would just be like “oh this one riff will be one song.”

(laughs) Yeah! It’s weird. The first riff that was written for that song was the riff that comes in three-quarters of the way in—the kind of bridge section. That’s something I remember trying out in a soundcheck like a year and a half ago or something. And then you just kind of write all this other stuff and then you realize certain things. “Oh that would go into that really well” and you just try stuff out and if it fits, it fits and you refine it and refine it again and throw out a couple of bars (laughs), until you’ve crafted something that everyone’s really happy with.

I think it just comes from playing stuff over and over and over and over and over again in the practice room. And very quickly a part will get boring. If it’s boring, it’ll get boring to us first. Then we’ll be like, “ok, we need to change something here” or introduce something new. That’s generally the way it happens. And that can only really happen if you play something a million times.

The other song that really caught my attention the first few times I listened through was “Dying Giants.” Cause I’ve noticed that there’s this pattern you guys have these seven minute-plus songs on each album: “Young Brave Minds” on All Hail Bright Futures, the title track and “A Beacon, A Compass, An Anchor” on Heirs. And they’re all in the middle of these quicker, smaller songs. What makes you put “K is for Killing Spree” or “Young Brave Minds” next to the other tracks?

I don’t know! I feel like we’re trying to be led by our instinct as much as possible and to follow those gut feelings and just trust whatever is exciting you the most. A few people have asked why there isn’t any vocals on this record, and it’s really just that there was no point which we felt “oh vocals would be great here.” We just went on our gut feeling. That song was one of those that came together pretty quickly from several different riffs and just felt really good in the room and we just knew it was going to be on the record for—since it was written. It is kind of long but, (laughs) I don’t know, it feels like it’s over in two minutes when you play it live because it’s just so fun to rip through it. It doesn’t feel like it’s drawn out and there’s lots of unnecessary parts. It zips along even though it’s a good seven-and-a-half-minutes or something.

I’ve always wondered, what is your guys’ favorite song to play live? Looking at SetlistFM, I’m surprised by what you do and don’t play. Is it just like “oh this is a really fun song! We’re going to play it every night!”

(Laughs) Yeah! Usually it’s the newest song that we’ve written is the favorite song. We’ve been opening the set this tour with “Dying Giants” and it’s been really fun because, I guess a few people know it by now, but for the people that don’t, it’s quite a good introduction and sort of warm-up song because it starts quite unassuming and then becomes explosive. But later on in the set we’re playing “A Slow Unfolding of Wings” and that’s a song that Rory had written for another project that he was thinking of starting.

And you were like “no, no this is ours.

(Laughs) I was like “There is no way, this has to be ours, I’m sorry.” I just convinced him over a period of about six months. I’m so glad he came around because that’s probably my favorite song to play live at the minute. It’s really fun.

I was wondering in part because, according to Audiotree and SetlistFM, you guys have like never played my favorite song live, which is “Animal Ghosts.”

Yeah, it’s one of my favorites as well! I think the problem with it is: it’s really dependent on—it needs to sound huge. So you have to play it in really big venues and the sound engineer has to know exactly what you’re going for. Cause there’s not a whole lot going on in the song. It requires the live production to have the same affect live that it does on the record. It’s difficult. We’ve thought about trying to throw even a section of it into the set on this tour, but we just never got ‘round to it. But I would love to play that song live, it’s one of my favorites. But it’s kind of good to have that stuff in the artillery for some other point where we’ll bring it out randomly and surprise everyone.

I listened to a podcast you were on where you explained that the ending string section of “Dying Giants” is a reworking of the riff from the final track “Chrysalism.” It sounds like a requiem, then it’s splashed against the almost poppy “All I Need is Space” and I was wondering about the sequencing between those two.

We’re trying not to talk too much about what we think the narrative is for the record or what the story is or what any of the song names mean or anything like that. But what I would say is that to have that piece of music appear at a certain point and then be more fully realized later on in the album, it plays to a certain narrative, I suppose. A bit like a movie or something like that. I guess we were thinking more along those lines when we were writing the album. I guess we were pushing it to be something a little bigger than just an album. We wrote and recorded the album, hoping that people would listen to it start-to-finish or at least make it so they could, if they wanted to. I think it kind of plays more into a certain narrative I suppose.

And sort of on that theme of almost getting pictures into listeners’ heads, because I was really interested in the title track. At first it sounds like a lullaby, it’s just something you could coo to someone before they go to bed. But it reminded me of “Tryer, You” from Heirs, because it seems like every record, you have a song or two that’s just cuddling up close to the listener.

Yeah it’s nice to write stuff that’s kind of feel good and doesn’t feel too oppressive or challenging, but is just kind of upbeat and fun. I guess the album represents a lot of different feelings and thoughts and things. For me, “The Endless Shimmering” represents being in a really happy place or having a really happy moment and not too much else going on.

I enjoyed it so much because it was so different from the rest. It reminded me of “KaBaTa”—uh whatever–

(laughs)

— off of All Hail Bright Futures, just this moment of “did another band just come in?”

The band has got to be exciting for us. It has to be something that we’re pumped about doing. I guess you have to do things like that (laughs) to keep things exciting and challenge yourself. We’re definitely not a band that wants to shy away from anything that feels a bit scary or feels a bit dangerous or strange.

Again I was looking at your setlist and it seems like every night you have the same encore: “Run Home,” “Eunoia,” “Big Thinks Do Remarkable” and “The Voiceless.” Is there a reason it shook out like that? I understand “Run Home” because it’s like “we’re back on stage, here’s rainbows flowing out of our guitars.” But “The Voiceless” is one of the oldest songs you guys play.

Again, I think it’s just a really upbeat kind of song. It’s the one song you play and you look out at the crowd and you always see couples hugging each other and smiling and sometimes you see people crying and stuff. For some reason it kind of connects with people. It’s so simple as well, it’s just one riff that repeats over, there’s nothing really too challenging going on. I think it allows people to—they don’t really have to pay attention to us and watch us. They can just embrace the feeling that’s being emitted around the room. It’s always been a really good closing song to go out on, leave everyone feeling really happy and upbeat about life. Yeah, I don’t know. We’ve just been closing with it for so long that it’s just always worked in that regard.

I’ve always appreciated that about you guys, it feels like the happiest mosh pit.

And “The Voiceless” is us giving you a little massage afterwards to say “don’t worry, it’s alright.” (Laughs)

There does seem to be this very small niche of bands, like LITE, who you toured with in Japan or Torche. It’s brutal, but you just want to climb Mt. Everest after you listen.

Yeah, we absolutely love those bands. They’re some of our favorite bands, so I’m on the same page as you.

How was the tour with LITE? I saw them open for Mike Watt and they were just incredible players.

Yeah, they’re amazing. We played with Mike Watt as well actually, a few years ago in America. And he was also—we loved him. He actually gave Rory the—there’s a song called “Like a Mouse” and that’s a Mike Watt quote just from a conversation they had about music.

But LITE were like the nicest guys. Their English wasn’t amazing and our Japanese is terrible so there was somewhat—communication problems—but you can communicate in other ways. We spent a lot of time with them. They took us around to different kind of touristy stuff and we went out for dinner every night and they took us to really, really great Japanese restaurants. We had the best time. And we just missed them. We just played at a festival in Barcelona and they had just played the night before so we missed them by a matter of hours, which was really sad. Hopefully we can get to play with them again. I think we’re planning to go back to Japan in October in the next year or so. Hopefully we’ll be able to see them again. Love those guys.

What was the “Like a Mouse” quote?

I think, as far as I remember, he was talking about how you—it might have been about how you present yourself as a band, you kind of like sneak in and he was being like—he’s just a legend and he just talks in poetry a little bit. He’s very quotable. I think he was describing something like that about how you attack music and sneaking up on people like a mouse. But when he said it, I remember Rory saying he said the whole sentence and then took a little pause and said—(whispers) “Like a mouse!” (laughs) And Rory just thought it was awesome. I think Rory might even have a tattoo of that as well.

That fits for my experience with All Hail Bright Futures, just very colorful while being brutal.

It was a great album to put out. Then the reactions were like—there were a whole bunch of people who were die-hard first-album fans who thought it was absolute bullshit (laughs). Then there was this entire wave of people who had never heard us before. And it was a really accessible way to get into our music. Probably the biggest songs we’ve got on Spotify or songs we play live are from that album. We’re super proud of it and we love playing those songs. I wish there was more time in the set to play more songs off that album to be honest, but it’s tough trying to squeeze everything in.

A friend of mine and I were recently talking about a version of Guitar Hero where every song is an And So I Watch You From Afar song, and every song is also the final guitar song.

That would be a dream come true.

I can’t play y’all’s guitar stuff at all, but I was trying to get through All Hail Bright Futures on drums and my arms just fell off.

(Laughs) Yeah, Chris is a fucking machine. It’s ridiculous. I started out playing drums as well, in fact—I’ve played in And So I Watch You From Afar three times, and the first time was when Chris was still at University and I had to fill in for him. And it was a fucking nightmare. Because his parts are just ridiculous (laughs). So, yeah I feel your pain.

On that note, do you have a song you play live that’s usually pretty exhausting? I always thought “Wasps” would be there.

It’s relentless, yeah. The saving grace is that tiny section where I drop out after the second chorus and Rory’s on his own and I have 10 seconds of stretching my fingers out (laughs) before I have to start again. Cause it’s just completely constant. And then you’ve got to sing as well… Yeah “Wasps” is probably the most strenuous. And also “BEAUTIFULUNIVERSEMASTERCHAMPION”—the repetition. You know, it’s a simple riff but just over and over and over again gets a little tiring. But, you know, it’s fun. The adrenaline’s up so you just break through it.

Finally, I follow you on Twitter, and it’s interesting to me—you’re talking about politics on there a lot and I appreciate that and find it cool that, even without music propelled by politics, you have to be involved in some way.

Absolutely. It’s always been a question for us as a band: whether or not we speak out about things. Individually, we all have very strong views and we talk about politics every day when we’re at band practice and the news and whatever’s going on and everyone has very strong opinions. When it comes to music and the band, I think it’s good sometimes for music to be an escape from stuff for people. There are loads of bands that are super political and have done great stuff with their platform they’ve got—lots of bands I love, I’m really psyched that they speak out about certain things but, for us I think, that’s maybe not our place in music. I think our place is somewhere you can go regardless of what you believe or what your feelings are and kind of have a little bit of an escape into somewhere else. You want it to be—everyone can come together and that’s where we’re at.

So I shouldn’t expect the subtitle of “Dying Giants” to be “Dying Giants (The Failure of Capitalism)”

(Laughs) That can be your subtitle.

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