Countless bands will attest to And So I Watch You From Afar’s influence on their own music; in 2009, the predominantly instrumental Belfast-based outfit released a self-titled record that few heard but almost every single person who did immediately took it upon themselves to start a band. As a result, they have had a direct effect on making math rock and instrumental music blossom into the modest but fertile scenes that they are in the UK today. Thanks to a myriad of local DIY independent movements and festivals such as ArcTanGent and Strangeforms, a style of music that could easily have just been seen as a small blip in the annals of music history has bloomed into something that can be genuinely regarded as a world-wide recognised movement.
For many, the Irish quartet, alongside bands such as Adebisi Shank, You Slut! and Maybeshewill, made the prospect of music with no vocals (with the exception of the odd yelp dotted hither and thither) exciting, by injecting it with a frenzied frenetic frisson and refusing to ever give the listener time to get remotely bored. Whilst the music they make is almost certainly too esoteric for it to ever be considered ‘mainstream’ (whatever that word even means in a modern context), they are originators and innovators in a genre that is adored by a modest but loyal and dedicated following of music aficionados. Their fifth album The Endless Shimmering, is available on Friday 20th October via Sargent House but you can stream the album in full below 3 days before it’s official release, exclusively with The Independent.
The Endless Shimmering ushers in a new chapter in the life of And So I Watch You From Afar. Broadly speaking, it’s possible to group the band’s previous four full-length albums into two distinct groups; their 2009 self-titled debut and 2011’s Gangs serve as an introduction to the band infusing predominantly instrumental music with a ferocious, exuberant youthful energy that has more in common with punk rock than post rock. Similarly, the colourful, schizophrenic, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink sugar-rush of 2013’s All Hail Bright Futures and 2015’s Heirs are natural bedfellows. The 9 songs that make up The Endless Shimmering are cut from an altogether different cloth, which guitarist Rory Friers puts down to the way in which these new songs were constructed.
“Heirs and All Hail Bright Futures were both projects where the songs were predominantly written in the studio, so we used more recording techniques and took advantage of being able to add more layers and extra instrumentation. We went in to the studio with songs that weren’t fully finished and we allowed them to come to life in the studio. That whole world is a really exciting and fulfilling one but as with everything, it’s not an approach that we want to take every single time. So this record felt like a natural point for us to step away from that studio environment when writing the songs. Before we started writing The Endless Shimmering, we knew that we wanted to spend a long time writing and rehearsing, essentially getting these songs to sound as amazing as possible as a live band.”
This approach gives the songs on The Endless Shimmering more space and room to breathe; these 9 tracks are And So I Watch You From Afar’s most focused and taut songs to date and yet they still sound thrillingly vibrant and full of life. Both Heirs and All Hail Bright Futures took ‘weeks and weeks’ to record, whilst the band experimented with adding various bells, whistles, vocal lines and layers. Gangs was recorded in ’10-11 days’ but then took an additional 3-4 weeks to mix. In contrast, the band recorded andmixed The Endless Shimmering in just 9 days, making it the quickest And So I Watch You From Afar recording experience by a long shot.
“All the work was done before we came into the studio” says Rory, “there was never a moment where we’d sit around and ask ourselves ‘what should we be doing now?’ It was a very pre-meditated approach this time around and by the very nature of how we wrote this album, essentially the four of us playing live in a rehearsal room, the songs had to stand up on their own. They were generally recorded in one or two takes, in some cases maybe three and it felt as if we’d explored every possible avenue with each song before we entered the studio, so we knew as soon as we went in exactly how each song needed to be.”
Around 30 songs were written for the record before being whittled down to the 9 that appear on the album. It’s tantalising to think that there’s so much material leftover that could potentially be turned into something that might one day be heard outside of a rehearsal room, but Rory quashes that particular notion. “It’s like an artist who wants to make a really cool painting; you’ve got to make several paintings that aren’t quite right in order to get to the really good one. And that’s ok, those not so good paintings are all a part of the process and throwing those ideas around in a room together has got us thinking and set us on the right path to the nine songs that we think of as being the really good ones. When you’re working on an idea, you always tell yourself that it’ll see the light of day at some point. But then, for whatever reason, you move past them and focus your attentions on something else. We’re a band that has very little interest in looking backwards or taking ideas from the past or being nostalgic in any way. The exciting stuff is always in front of us and so those ideas tend to never get to see the light of day. There was an EP that almost got released last year but we just didn’t get round to it and now it feels like we’ve missed the boat, because those songs just aren’t exciting to us anymore. When you play a song in rehearsal a million times, it can lose its lustre.”
Knowing which ideas to throw out and which to keep hold of is a difficult dilemma for any band; when you’re so close to material that you’ve written, how on earth are you meant to sort the wheat from the chaff? It’s something that And So I Watch You From Afar are very aware of and as such, the impulse was to follow their gut as much as possible this time around. “It’s easy to get distracted now at a time when music is thrown in front of you and consumed so quickly and easily” says Rory. “I’m speaking here as a consumer of music as well as a musician; there’s so much at your disposal so instantly and so quickly that it becomes difficult for us to live with records and really let them sink in. It’s got to a point where option paralysis is a very real thing. So I think our instincts for this record were to dismiss anything that’s wasn’t speaking directly to us, to be drawn to the ideas that naturally lend themselves to the way we play and the four personalities that are in the room. Sometimes we might work on an idea where we’re trying something new but deep down we’ll know if it’s natural for the four of us to go down that route or not. We try not to be scared of going down those corridors and exploring them sometimes but I think at some point you have to start following your gut and not force anything, and that’s exactly the approach we tried to adopt with this album.”
The band flew out to Machines with Magnets recording studio in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, about 40 miles South-West of Boston. Just as they arrived, a major snowstorm brought the North-East coastline to a standstill, effectively isolating the band and focusing their attentions, a situation they welcomed with open arms, as guitarist Niall Kennedy explains. “I think it had a positive affect on the album; we’d talked about wanting to have this experience where we go into a studio and completely immerse ourselves in the process. When we’ve recorded in Belfast before, we’d spend all day in the studio, call it a day and then go home to our respective homes where normal stuff and social lives begin to creep in. So we were kind of hoping to create an environment where this album was our lives for the entire time that we were doing it. When we arrived and found out that there was going to be this snowstorm, it just added to the intensity of the experience and forced us into this little creative bubble. It heightened everything and made us feel even more immersed in putting together this record, the focus was on the album 100% of the time. We came away feeling like we’d accomplished everything that we had wanted to; it was a really positive experience.”
The Endless Shimmering is an album where everything is laid bare; one could see it as a ‘back to basics’ record, where the songs have been stripped of any unnecessary parts or vocal lines (of which, bar a tiny sample at the beginning of ‘Three Triangles’, none feature what-so-ever, a first for an ASIWYFA album). There’s been talk of The Endless Shimmering being the band’s most personal album to date and, whilst they’re reluctant to go into specifics, there’s a direct approach to the material here that suggests a desire to cut through the crap and get to the meat of the matter.
“We are fortunate enough to be able to make music that is very cathartic for us” says Rory, “something that is the product of four friends coming together and writing and rehearsing long into the night. Whenever I listen to this album, I can hear everything that went into it; it feels as if there’s a lot of emotion in there. I can associate each song with various different things that were going on in our lives and it makes me so much prouder that we managed to up cycle those events and turn them into something positive. It’s taken that negative energy and made it into 44 minutes of music that, regardless of what anyone else thinks of it, we view as our proudest achievement.”
The Endless Shimmering is released on Friday 20th October through Sargent House and is available to preorder on vinyl, CDand digitally now. The band begin a 40-date tour of the UK and Europe at Patronaat in Haarlem, The Netherlands on 18th October