Axis Of, The Mid Brae Inn
'I love chatting to some random person in Germany about music you wrote in your bedroom in Portstewart.' Trio on touring, writing about home and releasing new album on Smalltown America
While some bands never stray far from their trademark sound – Motorhead’s 40 years of high-decibel rock ‘n’ roll springs to mind – others, like Radiohead, for example, evolve from album to album, growing in new and unexpected ways. With its second album, The Mid Brae Inn, Portstewart's Axis Of shows signs of steering into new waters.
Two years after Finding St. Kilda, a ballsy debut that wore its punk and hardcore influences on its sleeve, bassist/vocalist Ewen Friers, guitarist/vocalist Niall Lawlor and drummer/vocalist Ethan Harman return with a more personal offering.
There is still a punkish energy in the music, but the writing process and the results, as Friers and Lawlor explain, have been a little different second time round.
‘The first album spanned a long, long writing period and a long forming of the band,’ says Friers. ‘Right at the end of that album there are a couple of songs, a few ideas and maybe a method we were using that kind of hint at this album.’
During the making of Finding St. Kilda, Axis Of never really stopped gigging, but for The Mid Brae Inn the trio took time out from the live circuit to concentrate on writing. ‘It was an organic thing to not tour until we had fully realized the record,’ Friers relates.
‘We had 15 to 20 rough songs and we could have just kept doing that forever,’ adds Lawlor, ‘so we had to draw a line and take a week to sort it out. We went into the studio with really clear heads and we knew what we were trying to do.’
The Mid Brae Inn is, to be sure, instantly recognizable as an Axis Of album, but in a nutshell it is simply a more artfully crafted set of songs.
‘The first album was riffs with songs built around them, whereas this album is more songs with intermittent riffs,’ Lawlor reveals. ‘It’s very much about the melodies and how the songs are set up structurally, rather than shoe-horning ten riffs into one song.’
Friers and Lawlor acknowledge that the influence of a lot of the bands they were listening to around the time of Finding St. Kilda worked its way in to the music, sometimes overtly so. The Mid Brae Inn, however, is another story entirely.
‘We were trying to write songs that have beginnings, middles and ends,’ say Friers. ‘This time it was more about the song than the riff. The Mid Brae Inn feels more like a real album. I’m really pleased with the way it sounds.’
There are plenty of meaty riffs on the 11 tracks to satisfy long-standing fans but the music has evolved. ‘You can have really abrasive, heavy music that has a strong song structure,’ says Lawlor. ‘It’s not one or the other. The riffs and the vocals are all about complementing each other.’
Melodic and energetic, the new album leans more towards anthemic indie-rock than the screaming hardcore that colored much of the band's debut. Lyrically, the songs cover wide terrain, though the sea as a source of fascination and danger is a recurring theme.
‘We can’t escape our coastal roots,’ admits Friers. ‘It’s always been the tool, the prism by which we see the rest of the world. Maybe that’s what people do wherever they’re from. It’s who we are.’
In ‘Wetsuits’, there is a dark undercurrent, barely concealed. ‘Every year there is tragedy at sea. It’s part of the human history of coastal areas,’ says Friers. ‘We really love the sea but there is danger and tragedy in it, and that contrast you find in the lyrics and the uplifting-sounding music.’
On the unplugged ‘Beachcombing’ the ‘benefactors of the storm’ recognize ‘the power of surviving’. Unplugged, and recorded on a mobile phone, ‘Beachcombing’ qualifies as the least typical of Axis Of’s songs, but also one of the most personal.
Lighthouses, Rathlin winds and hidden paths up sheer cliff faces are all grist to Frier’s lyric mill, but the imagery he draws upon is vast, poetically framed and dense. On ‘Super Resurgence’ he sings:
‘Heard of ailing altitudes and Death Road in Bolivia,
Purposeful technological feats and astonishing trivia.
And don’t we beam to hear the complex use of Tylenol
Humans pickled in alcohol,
He gazes out to see/sea’
Elsewhere, the lyrics reference black and white film stars, animal activists, show bands, firing squads, flintlocks, spade-mills and cyber-crime, and evoke North Antrim, Tuscan and Scottish panoramas. The meanings in the songs, suffice it to say, are open to interpretation.
‘The lyrics are hard to decipher,’ recognizes Friers. ‘People will interpret them in lots of different ways. They have with the older stuff and they’re starting to do that with this album too.
'People put a lot of effort into trying to pluck their own meaning out of it and that’s great. It makes you feel the music and the lyrics are kind of alive, constantly being moved and changed. People have come up with some really crackpot ideas and that’s fantastic. That’s the whole point.’
The Mid Brae Inn is named after a bar in the Shetland Islands where Axis Of played at the tail end of 2013.
‘We played in the corner of a pub on the floor. There were maybe 15 people there,’ recalls Friers, laughing. ‘It was in no way a remarkable gig but that trip encapsulated a really good time for the band. It was an incredibly productive three-day journey so it was appropriate that this little inn would provide the name for the album.’
Should Axis Of ever graduate to U2 levels of fame then The Mid Brae Inn will likely be besieged by trophy-hunting fans. For the time being, all is relatively quiet for the Shetlands pub. ‘It’s not quite a pilgrimage site just yet,’ quips Friers.
Now that the album is wrapped and available to purchase, the time has come to promote it, with the band now at the start of a UK tour, also taking two dates in Belgium and Switzerland. The road is where Axis Of feel most at home.
‘We love playing shows. That’s where our heart is,’ Friers confirms. ‘It’s the one thing you can’t download – going somewhere with all your friends and watching a band.’
For Lawlor, there is romance in all the travel. ‘The thing I love about touring is the impression you get of a place through the nightlife and meeting the people, chatting to some random person after the gig who’s telling you about your music, music that you wrote in your bedroom in Portstewart, and you’re in the middle of Germany or Switzerland. It’s a really cool thing.’
As with Finding St. Kilda, The Mid Brae Inn is out now on Derry-based Smalltown America, a forward-thinking label founded by Jetplane Landing frontman, Andrew Ferris. It has really taken Axis Of under its wings.
‘It’s a very personal label and absolutely zero pressure to follow any scene or style,’ says Lawlor. ‘We could release any kind of album and that’s very exciting. They have creative input but only if we want them to. They’re very open-minded.’
Friers concurs. ‘The thing that excites Smalltown America most is creativity. They want to put music out that they’re really excited about and inspired by. It’s a great relationship we have with them. Our motivation is to write music that is artistic and important ideas-wise. Smalltown American let us do that and facilitate us doing that.’
It will be interesting to see how people respond to The Mid Brae Inn, but concern for the music’s reception was never a factor during the writing and recording. ‘Older fans’ tastes can change and new fans can find the music,’ says Lawlor. ‘By doing this album I’ve come to really appreciate why bands evolve. I would hate to write the same album all over again.’
Friers nods his head in agreement. ‘We started the band when we were a lot younger and you change a lot over time. There’s nothing appealing about writing the same thing over and over again. We believe we’re a band that has more to offer than that, so we’re happy to change.’
Friers and Lawlor hint that there are a number of creative projects in the pipeline but remain focused on their current tour. Beyond that, they’re already looking towards new music.
‘After the tour we’re going to get straight into writing again,’ says Friers. ‘We’re starting with a completely fresh canvas. In some ways, it’s daunting, but it’s also a very exciting time.’
Help save Culture NI by telling the Arts Council of Northern Ireland why you love the website using this online form. An email will be automatically sent to the Arts Council and the Department of Culture, Arts & Leisure.