the Unsigned Guide

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I started writing here by saying ‘this is Belfast‘ – amongst all of the possible openings I could have went for, I think that this is certainly the most direct route to have taken; and I have a clear point to make in doing so.

Over the last few years and being pulled up through the cultural annals of decades long gone, a collective thought exists here (one which is still fresh, emerging) and Northern Ireland has underwent several forms of revolution through it. Music is important to us. Music is not just a small part of our lives but inhabits it in a very present manner. Our lack of infrastructure has made people fight the individual battle, has hardened the processes of creation and those following these paths. Distilled it even until what is left has a thicker skin for the world ahead. Not necessarily a better skin (environments are fickle like that) but one which has thrived, bred similar minds and is now pushing to survive in the sometimes harsh creative climate that is a music ‘business’.

Over the last few months I have spoken to a cross section of people who I am going to reference in these monthly round-ups at leisure – mixing recent event with future speculation and past comment. I feel it will be interesting as the year progresses and expectations or thoughts measure up and move in real time.

Kicking things off is a short comment on the year just past by Varin Marshall of Botanic Media.

VM: “I think it has been a triumphant year for all the people concerned within the industry (which is not really ‘complete’ yet). We have a lot to learn and so much more to gain. We should be wise to those who are not and come together as an example to the rest of the mainland and the world at large. Our country, however divided it stood has now the determination and motion to unify minds. To set high standards within world class music.”

…and twinned up with this sentiment is one reflecting on the current strength of communication that bands here can play into, from BBC Introducing’s Rory McConnell, speaking last year.

RMcC: “It used to be impossible to get people to turn their heads our direction when it came to finding new music, and I really admire the stand In Case Of Fire took when they basically said ‘…if you want us, come and get us’ and secured their management deal in Belfast. The world is a much smaller place these days and geographical location is fast becoming irrelevant, especially with the ease of social networking and file sharing. A great example of this would be how Joe Echo from Magherafelt can co-write a song with Madonna, which surely has to be encouraging and inspirational for any band hoping to break into the industry.”

Certainly bands here have been taking a more confident stance of late, clearly bolstered by the recent successes, and the long standing thought of “you have to up sticks to get somewhere” is quickly becoming redundant. Of course this should not be viewed quite so literally as a ‘don’t tour’ sentiment – because the reverse of that statement should be written as a commandment, brought down by the great prophet that is common sense.

The usual early lull of the new year music calendar was quickly brushed to the side with some fantastic shows in the form of A Northern Light storming Auntie Annies to a strong crowd filled with Strabane faithful, the You Are Music Festival, and the début of the Belfast Electronic Music Festival; a six hundred punter strong all day rave which firmly cemented the notion that we actually do like to party until five in the morning round these parts. One of the particular highlights for me was The Assailants‘ popular performance just at the start of this month (not technically a January gig, forgive me), with the opening of the new season of RADAR. One which, as the most established music night in Belfast, will I’m sure continue to deliver more of the same.

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The dust has settled on the A Plastic Rose led charge for grass roots music that was the You Are festival. It began as a set of small gigs situated in bars and venues all across Northern Ireland, and with a minor setback of the finale from the middle of December to January 27th due to the decidedly epic fall (fail) of snow we received – it eventually reached the pinnacle of its force last Thursday in the Mandela Hall, Belfast.

A self induced undertaking with the help of their friends and colleagues, the month long (which technically stretched out across two months in the end) promotion of a series of interconnected local music events was a push to raise awareness not only of just the sonic-wares that local bands had to offer, but primarily was there to make a statement about doing it yourself. Over the weekend, and given the time to relax and collect their thoughts I caught up with David Reid, Ian McHugh & Troy Heaton of A Plastic Rose for a few brief words on just what sort of work went into undertaking such a project; one which allowed them to finally grace the stage at Queens University’s premier music venue.

TH: “To promote the Mandela Hall gig specifically, we went out on the town handing out flyers and sticking up new posters every night; including massive ‘day-glows’ and extra ‘You Are‘ posters that we paid for ourselves. Outside that, constant plugging on social network sites…and then some Buckfast to rest up with after. Hard work pays.”

DR: “Interviews with local press and radio stations and yeah, we were just plugging the absolute crap out of it!”

Enthusiasm runs rife here in bands both young and old, but this current crop of musicians are not scared to stick the foot in, shout out at their prospective audiences and in some cases give them a rough nudge with a little bit of force. It’s not unwelcome, but can be a scary idea to approach for bands unsure of their standing. A confident group attitude is perhaps key, and something that we are in my opinion blessed with as a result of any number of combined influences – not least of all, the work ethic of what some would call the previous generation of bands to graduate from here. We have plenty of friendly alumni to follow in the footsteps of, and who deserve to be held in such high regard. Case in point, And So I Watch You From Afar.

IMcH: “Don’t wait for anyone to help you. Book your own shows; do what promoters do, but better. Contact the venues directly, get your own posters and paint the town in your colours. Contact local and online press directly. Get a good demo and make sure it gets into ‘everyone’s’ hands. Brainstorm about unique ways to promote your shows and put your ideas into action. Not tomorrow. Now.”

Strong words, and in some cases – taken as a leap too far for bands wet behind the ears. The ability to work as a unit, spreading the cost (creatively, emotionally, financially and physically) is perhaps glossed over in the modern presentation of music. We’re shown the workforces behind the big players without the context of exactly how that actually takes effect. Advertisers, managers, promoters – a team behind you is all well and good, but the ground work for the most part is there to be taken hold of by grass roots musicians.

TH: “The importance of this…I think, is that we got Belfast together in one room to go buck mental. I’m proud of that.”

DR: “It was important for us to do this, because it gave and will give other aspiring musicians from the local community a hypothetical spring board to jump off of and give smaller acts the confidence to say “If they can do it, well then so can we”…”

Perhaps, in standing up on a stage the one thing to keep mindful of is that not only is the audience paying attention – but that they may in fact be looking towards you for some sign, some small reminder that they too can reach out and try. Be it in music or in another discipline.

To echo the sentiments of Two Door Cinema Club, a band which has genuinely strode out from these shores across the planet and back in the last year – “Do you want it all?”

…well then take it.

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This is Belfast, tiny in comparison to its larger cousins of Glasgow, London and Manchester – but none the less intense. I’m sitting in the bedroom of Omar Ben Hassine with two thirds of A Northern Light (Darren Doherty at hand beside me recording guitar and Colm Laverty absent but in the next room, watching a film no doubt). Gearbox, guitars, Macbook and a multitude of wires leading off in every direction makes me feel like I’m sitting in some musical womb. It is a womb of sorts, here they are nurturing their ideas; growing them. It’s their baby.

– You guys have been on the ladder for a while now and have done basically all three of the major options, studio recording, low-fi with a young producer (Clark Phillips) and now you are taking up the charge personally…
OBH: “Well…it’s been going good. We’ve been through a couple of different things, trying it one way, then another. This works for us far more so because we’re a band that doesn’t have a lot of backing. When you go to a studio you can find that you’re extremely under pressure, sometimes you’re coming in to put out your first record, your first EP and you don’t want to be under pressure.”

– It sort of messes with the creative process? You think, ‘I have to do this right away’, rushing things a bit.
OBH: “It does. You also want to come up with the best result and you also have to find your feet as a recording artist at the same time, and as an artist you have to find what works best for you. So, the fact that you can sit and find this out in your room without too much pressure to begin with helps.”

– So you think it’s preferable to find your own feet first before going out to record in a studio and importantly, to spend money – rather than throwing yourself in at the deep end?
OBH: “Just for us really. I can’t speak for everyone, everybody is different, you know. It’s something to be thought about.”

– Obviously, experimenting and spending time with the processes is important. Finding your sound so to speak. Is there anything else you’ve brought into it?
OBH: “Of course, my background is in electronic music, layering, learning the equipment, playing around and being reactive – it may work well for me because of that.”

DD: “In the long journey of us, we’ve always tried to record our ideas along the way and we normally found that often we didn’t have the right equipment or that what we did have wasn’t up to scratch. So we had to make use of studio spaces and their bigger scale. Through time, and through hard work we’ve acquired what is needed to make a good final product ourselves that’s really worthy. One that we can put out, that can hopefully sell. It’s nice to have these tools. We always felt that we were compromising at the time when we were in the studio at this level. We’d get carried away getting on with someone, carried away listening to their ideas – and it can be great to have outside influences but we’ve just felt for a long time that we know what we want our music to sound like. So it’s great to be able to spend day in, day out working on it by ourselves at our own pace.”

– You mentioned about having the tools. Do you feel now as a songwriter that you can have a quicker turn around on songs?
DD: “Yeah, that’s the big thing. From the genesis of this band we’ve recorded all of our practices, all our little jams, all of the song-writing because along the way it’s easy for something to get lost due to the way in which our songs come together. We can break all that down now. It’s easy to work this way from the beginning, to lay down the initial idea, some guitar, layer stuff on top of that. To experiment and see what sounds better, and as you say the turn around on songs is what we’re really going for. Every time one of us gets an idea, it’s literally a day or two later that we can have a finished piece which we can analyse and build on into a live sound.”

– As a drummer, what would you find has been the experience of a quicker turn around time on songs?
OBH: “It’s good for me because I love electronic music, and I can put my ideas into the computer like mapping the drums. It’s a different way of listening back to ideas.”

– Technology has improved the speed of your creative process then too…
OBH: “Yeah, it’s a lot easier now, such as when you’re sitting over in the practice room with a drum kit and you find an electronic idea, we can’t do it there – in here we can do both. I can mix an idea on drums with the electronic idea, and vice-versa so that we can hear how it sounds as it happens.”

– Obviously all of this is working towards your next release, which is coming out when?
DD: “We’re hoping…well, the beauty of all this is that we’re working to our own time frame. We definitely are looking to push for late-February/early-March; a double single. Our main intention for this year is to work towards an album. That’s the definite aim.”

OBH: “With this, come the album if we can facilitate going back into a studio to scale it up – we’ve built towards it, done all the groundwork. There’s a lot to be said for being prepared.”

– …and what about using this experience with other people’s music? Recording, producing…
DD: “We’ll just take that as it comes, there’s a big network of musicians out there in Belfast that we’re friendly and work with but at present we’re going to focus directly on our own production. We’re bursting at the seams with ideas and want to get them out there. Once it’s perfected, who knows.”

From my own experiences with watching the different scales of the recording process I’m definitely in agreement with their sentiments, preparation going into record is key, especially when solid sums of money are involved. Often times getting a record made is a young band’s main expense, and the pressure of going into record for the first time can negate the final result. Learning the ropes before making that jump up into the studio could be the vital element in comfortably seeing your music at its best.

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