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Going Supersonic

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Rock trinity: Bell X1 (from left) David Geraghty, Paul Noonan and Dominic Philips are second only to U2 in Irish ticket sales

Rock trinity: Bell X1 (from left) David Geraghty, Paul Noonan and Dominic Philips are second only to U2 in Irish ticket sales

Rock trinity: Bell X1 (from left) David Geraghty, Paul Noonan and Dominic Philips are second only to U2 in Irish ticket sales

Taking to the stage of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival Marquee in Custom House Square would be a major moment in most musicians' careers but for Bell X1, tonight’s show will be one of their more compact bookings.

In the Republic, the hard-grafting Kildare trio are massive (among Irish acts, they’re second only to U2 in terms of both airplay and ticket sales) to the extent that they will be headlining one of the summer’s most anticipated gigs at Marlay Park in Dublin in August.

But singer-guitarist Paul Noonan, lead guitarist Dave Geraghty and bassist Dominic Phillips have no problem playing smaller venues. Indeed, their 2011 touring schedule takes them everywhere from Glasgow’s couple-of-hundred-capacity King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut to Seattle’s ‘living room of grunge’, the Crocodile Cafe. And frontman Noonan loves it all.

“I much prefer the smaller gigs myself,” he says. “There’s an intimacy there to be able to look everybody in the room in the eye that you don’t get from the massive tent shows. But it has its different payoff. Ten thousand people singing a song in full voice back to you is also incredible.”

The CQAF slot continues a love affair with Belfast long enjoyed by Bell X1 (they’re named after the world’s first supersonic aircraft, in case you were wondering). The outfit have played the city on each of their four album tours, and are looking forward to performing material from their fifth long-player, Bloodless Coup.

“We’ve played everywhere from Auntie Annie’s to the Empire to the Mandela Hall to the Black Box,” says Paul.

“The only issue has been the fact that our records tended to come out at a different time in the UK than down South. But then we’d find that certain independent record shops would order directly from the South, so they’d actually have the records by the time we got to play. We put our first EP out ourselves and there were a couple of shops in Belfast, and one in Londonderry — Cool Discs — that were really supportive of the band.

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“There seems to be quite a strong culture of supporting independent record shops in the North generally.”

Following stints with major labels Universal and Island, Bell X1 are now back on their own label, BellyUp, which Paul says has been “empowering”. “We own our own work, and we can find smaller partners worldwide that we feel have a fire about them and will go and really believe in something and passionately push it, as opposed to plugging into a huge machine where people in regional offices are told what they’re going to put out and the cogs slowly grind on,” the lead singer says.

“It definitely feels a little more in touch with the root of why people are into music.”

The album — the group’s second without founding guitarist Brian Crosby and the first to feature live sidemen Rory Doyle on drums and Marc Aubele on keyboards and additional guitar — was written and recorded with as little fuss as possible, a reaction against some artists’ overuse of technology in the studio.

“It was refreshing,” says Paul. “We have tended to get bogged down in the trench warfare of tweaking endlessly and not really knowing what’s good any more. For this record, we changed two things — we worked with a producer [Rob Kirwan] that we knew would really take the reins and generally be an enforcer, and also we rehearsed a lot more and got to a far more developed place before getting into the studio.

“Technology is a wonderful thing, but it can promote laziness.”

The approach was inspired by a documentary the threesome watched about the behind-the-scenes session musicians who played on dozens of hit records for the Motown label.

“The quality of musicianship was incredible,” marvels Paul. “It was quite humbling to see how those guys played together. There was this language between them, an ebb and flow to their playing, and they all listened to each other. It was a very organic thing that can be diluted with all the technology.”

Bell X1 recorded Bloodless Coup in Ireland — as much for practical concerns as for the aesthetic values.

“We’ve all got kids now, so going home at weekends was a bit of a bonus,” smiles Paul. “We have tended to leave the country — not anywhere exotic — but with Grouse Lodge in Westmeath being a nice residential place it seemed the perfect place to do it. It was definitely a good idea to get out of Dublin, where you tend to get distracted with all kinds of visitors and people dropping in.”

But soon the band will leave behind their home comforts for another major US and Canadian haul. Over the years, Bell X1 have established a strong following in North America, helped along by the inclusion of their tracks in television shows and movie soundtracks (one was used to accompany a lesbian kiss scene in teen drama series The OC).

Though the first time they hit the States the lads from Co Kildare were astounded by how massive the American landmass is. “It’s a bunch of different countries that happen to speak the same language,” reckons Paul. “The size of it and the distances you have to cover between some of the shows is mind-boggling.”

Bell X1 play the Festival Marquee in Belfast tonight. See www.cqaf.com for details


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