Andrew Johnston talks to the eco-friendly punks from the north coast. Click Play Audio to listen to single 'Brobdingnagian'
There must be something in the water up Portstewart way – at least in the Friers household. Local noisemakers And So I Watch You from Afar, featuring guitarist Rory Friers, are one of Northern Ireland’s most striking recent success stories. In the space of just a few years, the instrumental rockers have gone from playing for peanuts in Portrush pubs to headlining Belfast’s prestigious Ulster Hall. Now, Rory’s younger brother Ewen wants in on the act.
The junior Friers is the singer and bassist in Axis Of, a politically charged punk band from the north coast. Based in Portstewart and Belfast, 20-year-old Friers is joined by Niall Lawlor, also 20, on guitar, and drummer Gybb Harrison, 25. The trio lay siege to Auntie Annie’s Porterhouse in Belfast this month for two special shows – one, on January 12, to launch their new ‘Brobdingnagian’ single, the other, on January 24, to help raise funds for the Northern Ireland Green Party.
Speaking to CultureNorthernIreland during rehearsals for the gigs, guitarist Lawlor insists that Axis Of don’t want to overstate the ASIWYFA connection. ‘We had a strong fan base in the “triangle” area [of Coleraine, Portrush and Portstewart] before And So I Watch You from Afar were anywhere near the size they are now,’ he says. ‘It did help us get a foot in the door, but I think people genuinely have to like us to come see us or listen to us.’
Axis Of, who list Converge, the Clash, At the Drive-In and Mastodon as prime influences, have their roots in Ulster’s rough and ready pop-punk scene. The members’ former bands include Man Over Bored, Bulbous Head and the Dragged. Since adopting a more serious style, the three-piece have unleashed an EP – 2007’s Applemeat – and an album – last year’s The Echo Conspiracy. Lawlor believes that ‘Brobdingnagian’ is another step up.
‘We always used to get compliments on our lyrics, but it’s only recently that the music has started to stand by itself,’ he says. ‘Our message is definitely going to be less intriguing if the songs are dull or unoriginal.’ Still, Lawlor insists that Axis Of’s lyrics – which cover everything from the swine flu pandemic to the recent killing of some of Ireland’s reintroduced white-tailed sea eagles – remain a key part of the band.
‘Eventually our message will get through to people,’ he says, ‘and it’s their choice whether they take it in or ignore it.’ Axis Of hope to avoid ‘preaching’ to listeners, however. ‘The lyrics are our thoughts, our opinions, stories, maybe recommendations,’ says Lawlor, ‘but never instructions.’
Friers, Lawlor and Harrison conjure an impressively colossal sound for a three-piece, and ‘Brobdingnagian’ – named after the fictional land in Gulliver’s Travels – is an apt title. Lawlor says the main challenge of being a trio is ‘competing with all the four- and five-pieces we normally play with. I think a lot comes down to how much care you take with your sound. In terms of touring, a three-piece makes things easier. Promoters are a lot more accommodating, money shares better and travel is much more comfortable.’
The band certainly seem more sussed than most. The Big List described Axis Of as ‘the politically motivated clenched fist of youth’, while even AU magazine and BBC Radio Ulster’s Across the Line programme are taking notice. Again, Lawlor stresses it is due to the strength of their music, not their relationship to ASIWYFA.
‘Even when we were promoting our album – which we’d be the first to admit wasn’t up to scratch – and our link to Rory hadn’t been emphasised, ATL and AU gave us some decent coverage. You hear about how they overlook the punk and metal scene a lot, but I wonder how many of the punk and metal bands simply don’t ask for coverage.’
On tour, Axis Of have played with the likes of Propagandhi, Leftöver Crack and the Mad Caddies. They also completed a UK tour opening for ASIWYFA. ‘I love mixing up the kind of gigs we play,’ says Lawlor. ‘For example, our first gig of last year was supporting the Restarts, whilst our final gig of the year was supporting In Case of Fire – both equally enjoyable. Even when we toured with ASIWYFA we still played a few gigs by ourselves, one being a brilliant squat in Leeds, which was one of the highlights of the tour.’
For those encountering Axis Of for the first time at Auntie Annie’s, Lawlor promises ‘a high-tempo rock gig, with a lot of unusual aspects. We try to engage the crowd as much as possible, and really put on an intense show. It’s extremely important to us that the live show at least matches the recordings, and hopefully betters them. We want to reach out to everyone possible. I’d be just as happy playing to a punk as I would to a 45-year-old traffic warden!’
Axis Of perform at Auntie Annie’s, Belfast, on January 12 and 24. ‘Brobdingnagian’ is out now. For more information, visit the band’s MySpace page here.