For their excellent new album, Bloodless Coup, one of Ireland’s finest bands—Bell X1—got together in the studio to craft 10 more spacious epics. They’re a big deal over in their home country, but in the U.S., they’ve worked for their steady climb throughout the years, earning a core audience through relentless gigging, late night TV appearances, and a stream of sitcom spots for their stadium-sized tunes.
On Bloodless Coup, vocalist-songwriter Paul Noonan and company expanded to a five-piece and played around with vintage synths and drum machines. The result is a well-rounded, eclectic batch of songs that morphs from electronic groovers to synth-pop to IMAX-sized rock, touching on subjects ranging from weighty stuff like death and family to the minute details that bind us as humans (like watching kids play drums to “Billie Jean” on Youtube).
Paste had the opportunity to speak with Noonan as his band prepares for a headlining tour. Along the way, we chatted about writing songs, getting older, the wonders of product placement, and the joys of playing in a band.
Paste: First of all, where are you guys right now, and what’s going on?
Paul Noonan: We’re in Dublin. Summer’s come early…or maybe this is all we’re gonna get.
Paste: Sometimes when people finish an album, they’re sick of the studio versions and just ready to start playing live. Where are your heads at the moment?
Noonan: We’re chomping at the bit. Straining at the leash. Clawing at the chicken wire… Feeling good about the album, thank you. We’ve done a couple of shows at home already, and it was good to play the new songs again. We hadn’t played them as the full band since we recorded last summer, so had to refresh and go through that slightly weird thing of listening hard to your own music to figure out what you did
Paste: What about your thoughts about your upcoming dates? How do you plan on handling these tracks in a live setting?
Noonan: My thoughts are mainly focused on breakfast. I’m a big fan of the Great American Breakfast. In rehearsing for touring the album, I suppose with some songs we went for pretty faithful rendering of the recordings. With other songs, we either tried to come up with a journey that made sense given the finite number of limbs and instruments that could be played at any one time, or stripped them back to much simpler arrangements.
Paste: Do you feel you’ve made your “best album yet”? Are you even able to think objectively about your own music?
Noonan: I don’t know. I can’t be objective about it. It was, for the most part, very enjoyable and satisfying to make. I remember feeling a flush of pride during the mix of “Hey Anna Lena,” thinking we had done good, though I do get plagued by self-doubt when it comes time to put it out.
Paste: Tell me about the album title (and the album’s loose concept). In the press release, you say it’s “about the idea that momentous change often happens in subtle or benign or lateral ways.” And you also mention “stepping up with grace and holding a loved one as they slip away with dignity. Our own country’s economic implosion and frothy soul searching.” Do you think this album is more all-encompassing thematically? Also, from where did these ideas spring? Did they originate from a personal place?
Noonan: I think it comes from now being men of a certain age…we, and a lot of our friends, are having children now. We’ve also watched loved ones lose parents. So the revolving door is very well lit. This sort of taking stock of where one’s at also happens to coincide with upheaval at home here in Ireland, which has raised a lot of questions of identity, as the old absolutes wither.
Paste: On “Velcro,” there’s a lyric that says “Watchin’ a six-year-old on Youtube play drums to ‘Billie Jean; this is the stuff that binds us.” First, that’s one of the best lyrics I’ve heard in a long time. Also, did one of you actually watch a six-year-old on Youtube play drums to “Billie Jean”?
Noonan: Yes I did! And I can’t find it now, goddammit…
Paste: I think “Velcro” might be the first love song ever to use velcro as an analogy. It’s also a really awesome song in general, with those huge-ass synths and that arena-sized chorus. Could you talk a little bit about the writing of that song? When you guys finished it, did you immediately think “This is the single!”?
Noonan: We played the Austin City Limits festival a couple of years ago, on a day when a storm hit that part of Texas and the site was reduced a to a mudbath. Our bus got stuck backstage, and after a while thrashing about in the muck, we had to get two tractors to come and pull us out. We were all out there in the lashing rain, digging under the wheels, filling with rocks. Levon Helm was on stage beside us, and the sky raked with lightening. It was Biblical, dude…So the song is, I suppose, a celebration of that sort of triumph. Stand by Me. Righteous man-love.
Paste: These songs on Bloodless Coup are long. Most stretch over five minutes in length, and some venture even further. There’s a whole lot of texture and a lot of instrumental stretches. Were you guys consciously trying to stretch things out a lot this time?
Noonan: We were actually trying to be snappy…With the last record we were less so, and were into the idea of outros meandering a bit. But with this one, we tried to be conscious of overstaying our welcome, and producer Rob Kirwan was too…with a couple of songs we axed even longer instrumental outros and the like. Though looking at the song lengths, my argument falls to the ground…
Paste: You guys have been playing with electronics for awhile now, particularly on your last album, Blue Lights on the Runway. But on Bloodless Coup, you’ve really gone even further down that road. A lot of these tracks are built on some really excellent, jittery programming (like “Hey Anna Lena”). What led you guys to further embrace this side of your sound?
Noonan: Both myself and Dave had become more interested and better at the making drum noises from boxes, and when we got together in his apartment for those first sketches, the beats were part of the songs from that very early stage. Often with the idea of replacing them with real drums or better samples down the line, but this didn’t really happen.
Paste: With Blue Lights, you wrote the songs in advance on the computer before bringing ideas over to the band. Is that the way the songs worked this time? I’m particularly curious about this since there’s a lot of electronics and synths happening. Were you guys ever sitting around in a rehearsal space, jamming with a bunch of laptops?
Noonan: Myself or Dave would have brought songs in various states of undress: first to his apartment, then to a rehearsal room with Dominic who plays bass, and then with Rory Doyle who played drums and Marc Aubele who played keys and guitar. There were laptops involved, but we tried to use old synths and drum machines to mix it up, as often the groove from music software can be kinda generic. There was also the convenience of having a human (Rory) play that funky music white boy. It was the first time we’d recorded with Marc and Rory, though we’ve played live for a couple of years now. I think they both brought new colours to the thing. It was also the first time we’d recorded as five—often in the past when we’d be recording, we’d have to imagine additional parts going on top of what we were hearing, so this time it was great to have it all there.
Paste: You guys have had great success in your home country, but for many bands, the ultimate goal is still to break through completely in the U.S. How big of a concern is that for you? Does it enter your mind at all when you make an album?
Noonan: It’s somewhere we love touring. The idea of going somewhere new, where nobody knows you, and feeling like you’re winning people over is very satisfying. So we’ll keep bringing it. I don’t think it’s something we’re conscious of when making albums, though maybe there’s some subconscious market-specific songwriting going on. We do mention Dairy Queen…