From rabble-rousers to music veterans, how punk trio have marked a real turning point
As they prepare to launch their new album next week, local rockers Axis Of tell Chris Jones why they're leaving their youthful exuberance behind for a rather more poetic look at the things that still matter to them.
Ever since their inception back in 2007, north coast punks Axis Of have liked to do things a little differently from most bands. They self-released a full-length album while still in their teens. They sang songs about animal rights and invited Friends Of The Earth to set up a stall at their gigs. And their new album - being launched on New Year's Eve at The Empire in Belfast - was inspired by a tour to Shetland, involving 14 hours each way on a ferry to a windswept archipelago closer to Norway than Scotland.
"I think a lot of bands offered the opportunity to go to Shetland would ask 'Why'," says frontman Ewen Friers, not unreasonably, when we meet in his Belfast flat. "But as soon as that opportunity came to us it was like, 'Yeah, let's do it! It'll be such an adventure'."
The trip made such an impression on them that they decided to name the new album after one of the venues they played in, a small pub called The Mid Brae Inn.
"It was a happy time for the band," says Ewen. "We really enjoyed ourselves and we got on really well. The idea behind the album title is that the trip to Shetland felt like the end of our first album and the start of this new period. I think (the title) sums up a positive vibe within our camp and also that idea of seeing something that you wouldn't see otherwise.
"And aside from that, the album is thematically based around the sea, and for our band that's been inescapable."
In fact, like so many other notable bands in Northern Ireland over the last decade - And So I Watch You From Afar, LaFaro and Panama Kings to name but three - the band hail from the sea-bashed north coast of Northern Ireland. They cut their teeth as teenagers playing around Portrush and Portstewart, having spent their childhoods gazing out at the Atlantic.
"I've always had a fascination with the sea and I think Niall (Lawler, guitar) and Ethan (Harman, drums) are exactly the same," says Ewen. "Where we grew up, you could see it from our bedrooms."
Although Ewen hesitates to call The Mid Brae Inn a concept album, sea spray touches every nook and cranny. Most explicitly, lead single Wetsuit is a cautionary tale about the dangers of the sea - something the band have been aware of all their lives - while elsewhere maritime references abound. There's the image of "a ball bobbing in the tide" in The Grey Man's Path At Night, the spare acoustic song Beachcombing, and in Quarrel Reef Ewen lists the familiar locations from the Shipping Forecast - Fastnet, Malin, Hebrides, Biscay and the rest.
"The theme of the sea runs through our band before we write the lyrics anyway," he says. "Any time we go on tour, we have to cross the sea. You can't escape the sea in Belfast and it's such a big part of the city here. The north coast is the same. I just wanted to write lyrics that reflected that. The sea permeates every song in some way. It's framed by it."
The poetry and sensitivity of the band's lyrics on this album are a far cry from how they first appeared on the scene as fresh-faced, politically charged rabble-rousers.
"We weren't very subtle about it," Niall admits. "We saw ourselves as a hardline political band and it was really exciting to be introduced to those ideas. We were 17, so we can be forgiven for saying stupid stuff!" Ewen adds.
"Everyone else was going to uni and getting jobs and we were like, 'We're going to fight for the earth!' and all this stuff," says Niall.
"That's just the way you are when you're young, and it's easier because I guess when you're at home living with your parents, you've got less focus on other things. But I think as we've got older the band has changed its angle. The lyrical focus is a lot more varied, and those aren't the only things we shout about. But those things still matter to us, we're just a bit more subtle."
It's interesting to compare the evocative lyrical approach of Ewen, inspired as he is by nature, politics, animal rights and, well, ideas in general, with his older brother Rory Friers, the guitarist and spokesman of And So I Watch You From Afar - an instrumental band with no lyrics at all. The two are close - they are now flatmates - so why such a difference? Niall pipes up with a mischievous answer at which Ewen laughs but doesn't argue: "Rory doesn't read books, Ewen does."
Axis Of began to make themselves known in Belfast in 2008, at a time when Rory's ASIWYFA were establishing themselves as a force to be reckoned on a then-febrile local rock scene.
In November of that year, ASIWYFA put on a weekend-long festival at Queen's University Students' Union, named it A Little Solidarity after one of their own songs, and put Axis Of on in an opening slot on the Friday night. The ethos of the whole festival was something that has served both bands well in the years since - taking your music to the people and being in control of your own affairs.
"Rory, like many other musicians that we know, has mentored us and given us advice," says Ewen. "And I like to think that we've given them advice and criticism when they needed it. I think that comes from not only being so close to Rory and the boys, but what they kickstarted with the whole 'Solidarity' thing.
"Those were our next steps into the scene here in Belfast, and from then on it never felt weird to contact a band in Belfast that you knew of but didn't know and ask them, 'How do you do this?' or 'Can we come and do this?'. That's probably helped to create the band that we are.
"I always think it's good for bands to advise each other, and they've definitely been a huge help for us."
Six years on and with their second album due for release, Axis Of are starting to look like elder statesmen themselves, despite still only being in their mid-twenties.
"In a way, I guess we do," says Niall. "I think the younger bands would see us as the older heads in the local scene, and I'm more than happy to play that role if anyone asks us for help or wants to support us at one of our gigs. But I'm not under any illusions that we're the biggest band in Belfast or anything. Even if we were, what does that mean? It's great, we've ended up with a good-sized following in Belfast, but that's never been what's defined us. We've always tried to play in other places and go on tour."
And before the next trip to some remote outcrop, there's the small matter of that New Year's Eve show, another unusual venture from a band more likely to create an unholy racket than soundtrack the New Year festivities. Niall certainly isn't fazed by taking responsibility for a few hundred people's New Year night out. "It's almost like there's less pressure," he says. "People go along like any other night and then remember it's New Year's Eve and go, 'Hang on, we're actually having fun on New Year's Eve! How did this happen?'.
"The thing about New Year's Eve is that people who go to gigs don't all get to be together because there's never a gig on," adds Ewen.
"We wanted to get the announcement out early, get some really good bands to play and put on a show."
- Axis Of play The Empire, Belfast on New Year's Eve with support from More Than Conquerors, Team RKT, Beemicksee and ASIWYFA DJs. Tickets £6 advance/£10 on the door
Location, location, location ...
Despite their Shetland gig, Axis Of aren't the first band to play in far flung or unusual places ...
- Ash - five years ago, the Downpatrick rockers declared the end of the traditional album (they've since reneged and are currently working on one), releasing 26 singles labelled A to Z and toured 26 tiny UK venues in alphabetical order, from Aldershot to Zennor
- British Sea Power - never knowingly less than eccentric, the indie rockers have had their fair share of unusually located gigs, including the Scillonian Club on the Isles of Scilly, Grasmere Village Hall in their native Cumbria and the Czech Embassy in London
- Katie Melua - in 2006, the Belfast-educated singer broke the record for "the world's deepest underwater concert performed in front of an audience" (a life-long ambition, we're sure) when she performed 1,000ft under the North Sea inside the concrete leg of an oil rig. "This was definitely the most surreal gig I've ever done," said Katie with admirable understatement
- Johnny Cash - 13 years after having a hit with Folsom Prison Blues, Cash made good on a long-held wish to perform at the prison. Backed by June Carter, Carl Perkins and The Tennessee, Cash did two shows in one day and the resulting live album was a critical and commercial hit - as was the version of Folsom Prison Blues