Bell X1 release their seventh studio album, "Arms," on October 14, and it's been worth the wait. The long awaited follow-up to their critically acclaimed 2013 album "Chop Chop," it's an unexpected stride into new sonic territory for a band that has always laid it all on the line. Cahir O'Doherty talks exclusively to David Geraghty about the unexpectedly difficult but rewarding journey the beloved Irish band has just taken.
“You take the good luck, take the bad luck,” sings Bell X1 at the top of their bruised, bittersweet and hypnotically lovely seventh album "Arms." It's hard won advice from a band that has experienced just about every career peak and valley that rock and roll can throw at you and have still somehow weathered them all with an enduring grace.
That's because for Bell X1 it has always been about the music first and foremost, the sheer joy of it, its brittle purity. It's why the band has such an ardent longtime fan base, and it's why there are songs on "Arms" that have the power to stop you in the middle of your day and, if I'm honest here, sometimes make you bawl.
But the unexpectedly long and difficult process of making the album, which happened in fits and starts, was part of the process, band member David Geraghty tells our sister publication Irish Voice.
“Originally we were getting together in my little home studio, the same place where we recorded 'Chop Chop,' just at a very informal level and atmosphere because it was one of our homes,” Geraghty said.
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The first sessions for "Arms" began quickly enough, and the band soon decamped to legendary producer Tommy McLaughlin's studio in Donegal (he's worked with the Villagers and Soak) to lay down new tracks. But then something unexpected happened. They scaled back.
“At this point some of the band members were saying, maybe we're recording these in the studio a little too early. But then we were saying, let’s just roll up our sleeves and get going. That was January 2015,” Geraghty said.
The plan was to deliver the final album in June of 2015. That was the date they'd confirmed to their manager, but a year and a half later they were still edging toward a release date. "Arms" was the album that took its time to be born.
“It swung wildly. 'Chop Chop' was the quickest one we ever recorded and 'Arms' took us the longest. I suppose we're still very erratic with our methodology and approach,” Geraghty says with an understated laugh.
Irish fans aren't likely to have forgotten them. One of the most striking things about the band is how big and passionate their Irish fan base actually is. National tours sell out, opera houses and town halls are packed.
“The message of the first song on the new album is a sort of mantra for us. It's album seven, right, let's keep going here and doing what it is we love doing. We have fans out there waiting for a new album,” Geraghty explains.
Although Bono is unlikely to lose sleep over the threat to U2's global preeminence, Bell X1 has nevertheless amassed a significant international fan base that anyone would be impressed by. Currently they're one of the top selling Irish acts in the world, and they're also one of the most unaffected.
“So what if we're not zooming around the place in private jets or playing the enorma-domes in every city that we roll into,” Geraghty laughs. “Like Samuel Beckett said, 'fail again, fail better,' keep going. In a light-hearted, jokey manner, that was the mantra behind the album.”
Musically the opening song is a sort of quick shot glass or prelude to announce the album. Highlights in the final track lineup include the transcendently gorgeous “Take Your Sweet Time.”
“That was a song that came about after Paul showed us a video about a medical breakthrough that meant that people who were profoundly deaf, who had never heard in their lives, were suddenly hearing for the first time,” Geraghty shared.
Footage shows an English woman who is 40 years old reacting to hearing sound for the first time. “It made us reflect that something we just take for granted – music, hearing – some people don't have it. It's been a universal language for so long, spanning times, cultures and date lines. That's what ‘Take Your Sweet Time’ is about.”
Listening to the new vinyl pressing of the album for the first time himself this week, Geraghty can see that the wait was worth it.
“It's the one album by us that I can actually listen to myself. Normally by the time we finish one it's the last thing I want to hear. But sitting down and listening to it that song was one of the ones that absolutely stood out,” he said.
At its best "Arms" takes you outside of time, and when that happens – and it doesn't happen very often in music or in life – it's a major achievement. Like the most successful albums, "Arms" is its own environment, its own world.
“You're the first person I've done an interview with in advance of this album release, and the worry is that the longer you work on an album the more you massage out the interesting creaks and things that make a piece of art interesting. You start questioning the little characteristics,” Geraghty said.
Last weekend the band played Electric Picnic, Ireland's answer to Coachella and Glastonbury, on the main stage before Noel Gallagher and LCD Sound System. Their status as one of Ireland's biggest bands is not in doubt.
“We're planning to announce some U.S. dates very soon for early in the new year to tour the new album. We really love touring the States. I love traveling from state to state, city to city, because it feels like a lot of countries stuck together,” Geraghty feels.
“People are very open-minded there, which I love. On our Facebook page Bell X1 are described as a mixed bag stylistically, and in some places that confuses music industry types who don't know how to pigeonhole us. But in America people have such open minds we feel instantly at home.”
Every Irish person has a dream of America, and Geraghty is no different. For some it involves skyscrapers, shopping and Magnolia bakeries; for others it’s the open roads and the endless highways. For Geraghty, rock and roll wrote the roadmap and he's eager to return.
“When we write we never really have a manifesto. We let the songs lead us,” he explains. “The idea then is that a shape or color or atmosphere emerges. 'Arms' could have been a continuation of 'Chop Chop.' We had other songs from those sessions, but then a new bunch of songs arrived and for a while we didn't know what we were doing.”
That's when Bell X1 invited an Irish musician named Glenn Keating along for the ride, drafting him in for his keyboards.
“He's big into analogue synths. On most of the songs we let him at it and he brought color to the album. Listening to other bands was part of the process too. We went on a treasure hunt and that opened a new door for us. Our songs started to take shape and the album started to become a cohesive piece of work.”
Geraghty has given the album to a few hand-picked friends to listen to, and they've all agreed that even though musically it's a new departure for the band, it's still overtly a Bell X1 album. They won't be alienating their base.
Meanwhile, Geraghty has a message for the bands legion of US fans. “Stay in touch us on Bellx1.com. Write to us so we can get in touch with you. We'll tell you when we're coming to an enorma-dome near you. Come and boogie with us.”
"Arms" will be released on October 14, you can pre-order it on the Bell X1 website.