This article was first published on CLUAS in Aug 2001
Caroline chats with Bell X1's singer Paul Noonan
Paul Noonan. When I listen back to the conversation, recorded on the murkiest of Saturday afternoons in Whelan's front bar, his voice is level. A man of level voice and persuasion. Later in performance at the same venue, the band play a new song, 'Oilslick' - a cantering tune of almost nursery-rhyme simplicity with a chorus refrain that asks, 'How am I supposed to feel?' This night they play as a four-piece with singer Paul doubling up on kit duties. For this song though, he begins alone on acoustic guitar, the others building into the track behind him. Toward the end, bandmate Dave downs bass and takes to the drumkit, a maelstrom of incongruous beats and driven guitar, with the singer standing close-eyed and the continuous picked acoustic motif and vocal mantra, 'How am I supposed to feel?' A song about giant emotion not quite breaking through.
Enough has already been said about Bell X1's genesis. (Juniper, Damien Rice, Polydor, Universal, et al). Now it has been two years since their last confession, with 'Neither Am I', a record that confounded its loudest champions (and most likely pleased its loudest critics) with a one-off release in Ireland and low-level single releases that failed to significantly chart. Another band seemingly swallowed up in the corporate munch-fest. 'Everyone's eating each other up,' he says. But BellX1 are still here or, more to the point, they never left. As Paul in a matter-of-fact way puts it, 'We want to make records that come out, em, outside of Ireland, primarily, 'cos the first record came out just here, which has been a pain in the arse.'
Right now, BellX1 are a band in flux, learning from past mistakes, it would seem, and considering future gambits for their next record - things like that old albatross, commercial viability. 'It's just something we never really considered, we went away and recorded 15 songs and slapped them together in an order and chose singles. We toured in Ireland a lot. We played a couple of gigs in London, the Borderline, which is great. But we've been to London a lot recording. And, you know, having travelled a lot this year I've really got a sense of how small Ireland is.' And this fatter horizon has expedited the band's path on the uphill learning curve of song-writing, songs that are thankfully flowing faster than the grass is growing beneath their feet. 'How I look at it now, is, I prefer to just capture the song as it is and move on, because I mean, I feel we've a lot more momentum now, and because there's so much kind of coming out of all of us as song-writers. There's always new songs to work on.'
Although the voice is steady, never falters, a tiny flicker in a glance says a lot, away as though looking for a bolthole. He says, 'We've been through a lot this year.' Right now positivity is a byword for BellX1, if their singer's opening affirmation is an appropriate yardstick. Their manager is here and he's really excited. 'Our people are very excited.' They don't know for whom they will record their next release, but the plan is an album in the bag by Christmas. 'We've hired a house for a couple of weeks down in Wicklow, and we're gonna' go down, write some new songs, maybe cook, go for walks on the beach and? become a band again because we've all been whoring around for the summer, so I think it's time to kind of come back to roost.'
He and Brian (guitarist) have recorded in beautiful, unlikely places like the Loire Valley, 'lots of good food and wine', with friend and latest Source signing, Gemma Hayes. They've been listening to summer sounds like the Beach Boys and Bill Withers. Sounds like a lot of healing. And the music must benefit from all that. 'I think it's all quite a bit lighter, as in light and shade, than the album, anyway. I think, em, the album? the songs were floating around for about two years and a lot of them were from kind of formative song-writing of the band, which tends to be, well for us anyway, it was quite dark. Broody, teenage stuff. Eh, I think now we've got, certainly the music we've been kind of listening to lately, has been a lot kind of sunnier and in a way, optimistic.'
'Neither Am I' was a flawed record - the sound of a band learning how and who
But the moments that buoyed it up to greatness come alive in performance. 'No more love on the dancefloor.' The sensual swell of 'Slowset', Paul's voice a natural croon, capturing nostalgia in a word. Somewhere in the midst of a brief conversation you get that the notion of gameplan is alien to BellX1 - references to intuition, abstraction and refutations of musical heritage. 'I generally have quite a strong idea of how a song should sound, as like a finished thing, before I actually touch an instrument. I mean, I might have, like, a melody, or a theme or a colour in mind. Maybe see? see it? envisage it being performed. How it would affect people in various scenarios. It's quite an abstract thing, you know.' You get an overview. 'Yeah, exactly. Overview. There we go.' It's all quite vague and yet the lack of academic bluster is refreshing.
This Whelan's gig falls on the date of a weather-aborted alt-festival spearheaded by band buddies, The Frames. The wonderfully conceived but alas ill-fated Britnness - an intimate, outdoor gig in an undisclosed location that would transpire as a musical mystery tour for a small fan coterie. Now BellX1 at Whelan's is about to become a sub-Britnness anything-might-happen event, with The Frames lined up to support. As we wrap up Paul confides his nervousness at the transaction: headlong into a headliner with the most popular band in Dublin. 'I'll be the one quaking at the front.' 'I'll be the one heckling,' I say, in retort. He says, 'Be gentle.'
In the end, BellX1 capitulate to nerves, good sense or demand, any of the above, and The Frames go on last to an explosively excitable ringside audience. But BellX1, they should be happy. They got to play the slowset. And they got a letter, Paul tells us from the stage, from a lady that gave birth to her daughter, while listening to that self-same song. Naturally, she named the little one 'Bell'.
Check out the CLUAS review of the Bell X1 album 'Neither Am I'