With critically acclaimed new album Arms freshly delivered to shops and an international tour calling, Dom Phillips of Bell X1 sits down to talk with Features Editor, Killian Down, about the anxiety that comes with unveiling new music, the commitment to evolving, and legging it down to Clonakilty.
A Most Surreptitious Success
The scale on which we measure the success of contemporary Irish acts, and bands in particular, is slightly distorted. The distortion stems from the top end of the scale, from a band so immensely popular, so beloved, that judging the success of another with any semblance of relativity becomes a rather difficult task. Lest you think I’m slightly overshooting the mark as regards the popularity of Bell X1, I should point out I am, of course, referring to U2.
If we put U2’s perspective-skewing success to one side, Bell X1’s achievements come into sharper focus. This is a band who have had three albums chart at number one in the Irish charts, and whose last four albums have been nominated for a Choice Music Prize for album of the year. A band who’ve shared a producer and mixer with The National. And yet, there is something of the enigma in Bell X1. It’s almost as if their success is a bit of a secret – they’re certainly not a name that would roll off mammy’s tongue and you’re unlikely to find them as an answer to a pub quiz question.
Their success has not, however, gone unnoticed by the all-powerful critics, with Hot Press describing them in blush-inducing terms as “critics’ darlings.” When I speak to Dominic Phillips, songwriter and bassist with the band, there is three weeks to go before the release of the band’s seventh studio LP, Arms; the album has since come out and yet again critics are waxing lyrical about the Irish three-piece. It seems then that the band have hit the oh-so-rare sweet spot of critical acclaim and domestic commercial success minus the parasitic attachment of the kind of fame that extends selfie sticks and tints car windows.
I begin by asking Dom whether it’s a relief to have the level of privacy that he and his bandmates benefit from, and he responds with a chuckle: “Well certainly when you’re the bass player you have no problem. It’s complex really – if people see you at a show or a festival that you’re playing in they’ll realise who you are but there’s no tabloids [sic] to worry about for us. I can’t imagine what that must be like and there are no benefits as far as I can see, unless that’s your thing.”
As successful as they are, the band’s work is primarily consumed by an Irish audience, so when they are recognised in public, it tends to be on home soil. The concept of fame in Ireland was something I had been ruminating on in the lead-up to our conversation, and I put it to Phillips that being well-known or famous in Ireland is a very different experience to the equivalent anywhere else in the world.
“I’ve always thought there’s a bit of the Irish ‘ah sure, who do they think they are?’ kind of thing [going on]. I mean, you meet Bono in a pub and you kinda go, ‘ahhh, howya Bono?’ yuno, which I think is a really good thing because the alternative is people just roaring at ya, random stuff, and like, there’s no human interaction there. You might as well be roaring at the newspaper. So… Irish people tend not to put people on a pedestal. And maybe it’s because it’s a small place so it’s just by nature of that.”
Phillips does admit that being recognised at gigs and festivals where they’ve just come off-stage can have benefits. “It’s an ice-breaker, if nothing else. It’s a way you get to talk to people from another place, which I find very interesting… You can find yourself talking to people from places you have never been and probably will never be because they happen to be in town for a gig you’re playing.”
Festival-y Type Things
Playing gigs is something which, as of late, Bell X1 have done plenty of in preparation for the album’s release: “We’ve done a bunch of shows, sort of big festival-y type things during the summer which has allowed us to play quite a bit of the new stuff which is great, that’s kind of the whole object, to play the new stuff.”
One of the these “festival-y type things” happened to be the Main Stage at this year’s Electric Picnic, a fact Dom neglects to mention. At this point of the interview, his humility comes as no great surprise. Warm and thoroughly likeable throughout our conversation, he displays a self-effacing nature made manifest through never bigging himself or the band up. He’s contemplative in his responses to my questions which hints at a thoughtfulness that, if left unchecked, could perhaps lead to over thinking as regards releasing new music to audiences. Was there a sense of angst when playing then-unreleased songs at festivals and gigs over the summer?
“Yeah, I guess there is the jitters when you play new stuff in general, so in one way it’s kind of worse because you’re playing to people who haven’t heard the stuff at all, so it’s totally cold. There’s no substitute for playing the songs in front of people. So whether they’ve heard it or not means they’re more settled in our heads, I guess. That has settled us somewhat, if you know what I mean.”
Any anxiety a band might feel about unveiling new music to the public has the potential to be multiplied exponentially in Bell X1’s case; seemingly afraid or just plain unwilling to fall into any sort of groove that could be construed as inertia, the band has consistently experimented with their sound from album to album. Indeed, even within Arms it’s difficult to identify any unifying sonic theme or feature that would allow the album to be easily categorised. This is just part of their process, it seems: “That’s the way we normally work. We’ve always tended to have material that is quite varied – like the problem with the first record [‘Neither Am I,’ released almost exactly sixteen years ago] was that nothing sounded like anything else, and we’ve always had an element of that. At this point, we’ll maybe not choose a theme but we’ll have a bunch of songs for the record and we’ll pick from that bunch… Whatever takes the mood.”
This tendency towards a dynamic process of evolution comes down to rather simple logic: “We tend not to want to do the same thing again partly because you don’t want to just repeat yourself, and partly to keep yourself interested and excited and then, what’s the point in doing something you’ve just done?”
From Clonakilty to Croker
A strong desire for variety and experimentation is not only a tenet of their song-writing philosophy; there is a marked contrast in the size and style of performance space that the band have used in the past decade too, ranging from relatively miniscule venues like Cork City’s The Pav and Clonakilty’s De Barra’s, to mid-range theatres like the Olympia, to the gargantuan Croke Park – a venue the band have played twice as a supporting act.
One would think that there would have to be a stark difference in the mental preparations that precede a hooley in the snug of a Clonakilty pub and a warm-up gig in the national stadium for Ed Sheeran. Phillips is pleasingly unconvinced by my logic: “It’s mainly logistics really, I mean three of us get in a car with a sound guy and we go play music somewhere with a few bits and pieces, or you turn up with a bunch of crew and a bunch of guys and a bunch of gear. So that is the main difference, really.”
As if his initial response wasn’t already impressively blithe in its indifference to the daunting prospect of stepping out in front of a horde of tens of thousands, Dom continues. In a markedly calm tone, but not seeking to impress in the slightest, he says: “When you look at it on a calendar of upcoming stuff, you go, ‘Well I’m busy that week, not that week,’ and you just sort of turn up on the day and do whatever’s in front of you… It’s exciting to do the different format and the nerves can hit easier for a De Barra’s then a Croke Park in that… you’re looking at a couple of dozen people in the eyeballs, as opposed to playing at a wall of a stadium.”
These smaller shows helped spawn a strippeddown live album, Field Recordings; a 2012 release which sampled songs from gigs in venues from New York and Toronto to Utrecht and Galway. Playing acoustic gigs in unassuming venues has become something of a stepping stone between albums for the band in recent years, one that nicely punctuates the writing process. “It sort of started out as a vehicle to try new stuff out in front of actual people and we just did it acoustically because it was easier to just pop down to places and just do it. It’s a lovely thing to do, the cycle of writing, recording and performing. As soon as you’re getting sick of one, it’s time to start the next.”
For now, however, it’s “full-on shows for the foreseeable”; by the time Motley has gone to press, the three lads and a cohort of musicians drafted in for live gigs will have embarked on the Arms tour. The tour begins with sold-out gigs in Live at the Big Top in Limerick and Cork Opera House on the 28th and 29th of October, respectively. The tour culminates in two January gigs in Dublin’s Olympia Theatre, with shows in Belfast, London and Australia squeezed in along the way.
Who needs the approval of mammy and the local pub quizmaster, anyway?
Arms is available on iTunes and Spotify and in all good record stores. For details of Bell X1’s tour, see bellx1.com.