And So I Watch You From Afar: The Ukrainian army shoved guns in our faces
After some hair-raising experiences on tour, Belfast band And So I Watch You From Afar are just looking forward to a quiet gig at home this weekend, discovers Claire Savage
Having toured the world for the past five years, anyone could forgive And So I Watch You From Afar (ASIWYFA) if their zest for performing might be succumbing to fatigue. Not so for this Belfast-based instrumental rock band, though, as their enthusiasm for not just music, but "really intricate and cool music", is as strong as ever.
And when it comes to seeing the world, ASIWYFA don't limit themselves to run-of-the-mill venues. The likes of China, Russia, the Ukraine and Belarus have recently been added to their repertoire of far-flung, seldom-played places and, along with North America and Europe – and a gig in Belfast's Limelight this Sunday – brings their total show tally close to 500.
"With touring, our reasons for doing things are slightly different," says guitarist Rory Friers. "We've never chosen our path in a very business-minded fashion. When we're going to play somewhere, usually finance and business is the last thing on the list.
"I guess we just follow our gut instinct. We've quite an in-built ethos of adventure – wanting to see the world – and to be able to do that while getting to do your favourite thing in the world, your music, is like a great marriage. So, when someone gives you the opportunity to go to China..."
He is, however, the first to admit that every location has its "adventures and scary moments". Travelling through less-trodden touring territory has certainly seen the band experience some moments of misadventure.
"Well, there was the day the Ukrainian army pulled our vehicle over," says Rory. "We were all half asleep and these two rifles were shoved in, pointing from one to the other of us, and the guy shouted 'passports' in Ukrainian. We had just woken up dreaming of coming all the way from home to the Arctic tundra ... It was like something from the Bond film Goldeneye!"
ASIWYFA have also regrettably encountered racism during their trips, something Rory describes as "a poignant experience". Although quick to point out that it wasn't "hardcore racism", he recalls a particular experience, when the band felt "very much the odd ones out", in the depths of western China near the Burmese border.
"It was very much untouched by the West," says Rory. "I remember asking our translator, 'What's this word we keep hearing'. I guess it was a bit of a racist slur – like 'white foreigner'. I would like to say that generally, though, China was lovely."
He adds: "Growing up where we do, in a very safe Western world, it's quite a profound experience to be a minority."
With such situations arising on the road, it stands to reason that ASIWYFA are a close-knit group who have each other's backs. However, with any group of guys crammed into close quarters for extended periods of time, inevitably friction will feature at some point along the way...
"Touring just sort of amplifies every emotion," admits Rory. "You all love each other to the absolute 'nth' degree but at the bat of an eyelid, you can hate each other to the same degree. Everyone is very protective of everybody, though."
The band's line-up is back to being a four-piece, following the departure of guitarist and co-founder of the band, Tony Wright, in 2011. Ex-Panama Kings guitarist, Niall Kennedy, from Ballymoney, was subsequently drafted in as his replacement, and is now a full-time member of the band, alongside Rory, Jonathan Adger (bass) and Chris Wee (drums).
Niall was, perhaps, always destined to be a part of ASIWYFA, as he and Rory had often talked of forming their own bands when they worked together in a Portrush bar some years ago.
"We both decided we were going to quit our jobs and form bands and move to Belfast," says Rory. "Niall ended up forming Panama Kings. He has been on that journey from the start and we've been best mates forever. Niall was living with us at the time Tony left, so when I asked him to join the band I just had to walk out of my bedroom and ask him if he could play all the songs."
The most important thing, he adds, was that Niall had an understanding of what ASIWYFA was about, beyond the music.
"He knows the vibe and how we conduct ourselves. There's a million people who can play guitar, but only a handful that can fit into what is essentially a very strange family and strange way of life. It's not a part-time thing – it's very all-encompassing and consuming."
Since forming in 2006, ASIWYFA have worked hard to carve out a place in the ever-competitive Northern Ireland music market. Their third album, All Hail Bright Futures, was released in March by the band's new label, Sargent House, and was nominated for the 2013 NI Music Award. Their previous album, Gangs, also saw ASIWYFA receive their second Choice Music Prize nomination for Irish Album of the Year 2012. So, one could say their past and, indeed, their future is certainly bright.
"It's all a bit mad when we look back at all the things we've done so far," says Rory. "But we never quite take things in as we go. We're always thinking about what the next thing is. When we started, we were super ambitious, but our expectations were very low.
"We got our heads down and grafted, not waiting for a big break, just gradually collecting things and people around us. Now we're able to release music to the world and we're so grateful."