A question-and-answer session with Rory Friers about the making of And So I Watch You From Afar’s Jettison album and the pioneering audio-visual experience that launched it.
By Addison Patterson.
There was a substantial period of time between the Jettison preview at the MAC and its London launch/the rest of the tour. How did it feel to sit with the piece for that long between its unveiling and proper birth?
Yeah, it really felt like a long time. Usually we’re chasing a release date and things are all delivered and finished in a sort of flurry of activity right before things go to press followed by a load of touring but with this we were sort of ready to go and then next thing pretty much two years have passed by. But in other ways the plan was always to perform it first and have the whole show and music be a complete unknown to people so that has been a dynamic we were able to really keep and I’ve enjoyed that. With so much having happened since its creation it feels like its almost absorbed all this stuff now and I think the fact its had so many challenges meant we had to really keep believing in it the whole time and that definitely makes it feel more special at this point.
The piece walks through so many aspects of experience emotion. I can’t help but think of the preview’s timing, just before the pandemic, and its unknowing relevance to what was to come. I’m thinking particularly of the closing line, “I miss you”. I wonder how it felt to reflect on after the fact?
I think when we were writing it, it felt like one thing and because of everything that’s happened since its become something else to me. We postponed the original tour because we’d had some really heavy stuff happen in our personal lives, the show we played after that was very emotional for us all. And then of course Covid comes along and it takes on all this other weight. But it was a constant through these hard moments and I’m really grateful for that actually, it’s been an amazing focus for everyone and it feels like a more beautiful thing because of that. But yeah, it’s funny how sometimes music or art or words can knock you for six out of the blue, one day they’re just about you in that moment.
The MAC showing was beautifully dedicated to your friends, Lyndon and Andrew, those two years ago. I imagine that holds a big connection for many people, yourselves included.
It does, the show in the MAC was very poignant because so many of the people there knew both Andrew and Lyndon. It was such an intensely supportive atmosphere, and you could just feel there was an immense amount of unsaid caring and understanding between everyone. Playing the music that night was almost unbearable at points, just how intense it felt playing it for the first time and what all the parts felt like in context. Finishing the set though was kind of euphoric and felt like such a huge pressure had been released, we all had a good cry. It was a show I’ll never forget.
As an audiovisual immersive experience, Jettison is the sum of many solidly married parts. I’d like to go back to the beginning, the moment of its conception, so to speak – can you pinpoint the moment it came to you?
Weirdly enough I actually can remember the exact spot, and it’s funny because it’s not very inspiring at all, but I was running on the Boucher Road. I had a marathon coming up and was out on a super long run and was just thinking about some of the music I’d been writing and there was this particular track that I really wanted to extend and turn into an EP but split into three parts. A continual piece of music for like 15 minutes. I’d been starting to get a little better at composing strings with some of the film score work I’d been doing and thought it would be cool to try and make some for the band. We’d performed with the Ulster Orchestra the year before and had absolutely loved it. Then it kind of hit me that a really cool concept would be to try and write and score a long form piece of music that flowed like a good narrative arc of a play or film. Then almost have a visual accompaniment reverse engineered from listening to it. I wanted the music to inform what was seen instead of the other way around. It felt like a cool idea and it just started to grow legs from that point.
Working with Sam Weihl and Arco String Quartet, how did the composition build in terms of the collaborative elements, was it somewhat symbiotic or did the music come first?
The core music, as in what is played by the band came first, all be it in a way more skeletal form. The original composition that I sent to Sam was probably only 20 or 25 mins long. That gradually grew into much bigger piece, around 40 minutes. There was reworking to create more dynamic and space in the whole thing, to make sure it didn’t end up a big mess or worse a total bore or completely self-indulgent feeling. I really wanted it to be something that was listened to long term, not just a live thing. Once we started to hear the finished arrangement come together I began to feel good. For me it’s four distinct parts and we approached them all like that to really emphasise the changing feel as you go through it. I worked really closely with our orchestrator Connor (O’Boyle) on making sure the actual score flowed properly and read correctly and made sense for the quartet when it came to recording. When we got to the studio and started to hear the first run-throughs that Arco were playing, it was a proper, pinch-yourself moment. After all the work to get to that point it was quite moving to hear it all come to life right there in front of you and jump off the page into the real world. It helps that they are absolutely mind-blowing players too of course!
In terms of narrative, did its trajectory change at all in the process, or was what you wanted the work to do (and say) very defined from the off?
We really tried to only paint a loose picture for Sam in terms of the reasons and narratives we had in our own heads but keep a lot of it just for ourselves. That way we got a true artistic response reflected back at us in Sam’s work and that’s the sort of thing that excites me most.
The whole piece came from a more specific concept that we all spoke about and focused on when we were writing the music. We often do this as a starting point and we write to those ideas privately. Which sounds weird, but it helps write with meaning and intention and helps make certain creative decisions at times. Beyond that though, for us, music should remain completely democratic and nothing to do with us really. We’ve never been a band that want to talk about ourselves or be super prescriptive. If you’re going to just tell people about you all the time you really need to be saying something important other wise it’s so self involved and leaves no room for the actual exciting bit which is people having space for their own lives in there.
You’re no strangers to experimentation, but by nature and format Jettison is certainly your biggest, most fleshed out work to date. To commit to making something so immersive, did it feel big to tackle, or more of a natural progression?
It felt big for sure, but as with a lot of the stuff we end up doing it starts off as a smaller concept and naturally grows. I think if I had of realised the sheer vastness of what it was going to take to not only write and score a piece so large but for all of us to learn how to construct and manage such a huge project and production we would have been pretty anxious about taking it on. But I’m so happy with how it’s been able to evolve and I wouldn’t change a thing at this point.
You’ve now finally had the chance to tour the piece in the UK. What was it like taking it out on the road?
That was great, nerve-wracking, but great. The crew of people involved in Jettison is just some of the most talented and kind-hearted folk you could meet. Getting on a bus with them for a couple of weeks after not playing any shows all year was like leaving for holidays. Then getting to play the whole show every night and hear it evolve and tighten up was such a buzz. A definite highlight of the band so far.
Prior to that – Stendhal Festival. Two pivotal, poignant moments in the return of live music last year. I imagine it was a very different experience to the usual festival headline?
It really was. It didn’t seem like it was a real thing until there we were, lugging the gear out at the side of stage and all these familiar faces around us catching up and checking in with each other. We were all so happy to see each other, it was really lovely. It was totally strange and completely normal at the same time. But a couple of days later was a stark reminder of things when three of our touring party tested positive for Covid and that was upsetting as they were there with us and that was hard to reconcile. We had lost loved ones and all had immediate family and people close to us that had suffered terribly during Covid. Simultaneously we knew people who were struggling badly with their mental health, messaging us and needing some sort of human contact and to be around the things that they would depend on in normal times to sustain them. Having seen the sharp end of both those sticks in the past two years made it very difficult to know when the right moment was to try and do something hopeful like that. But I can’t describe the feeling of that first show and the atmosphere, I’ll never forget it.
From an audience perspective, the both festival weekends felt like a welcomed return to old times, but also as though at any moment it could be pulled away again. As artists, I’m sure this permeated a lot of your year and plans?
Yeah, I think we had something crazy like 12 weeks worth of shows cancelled or postponed throughout the past 18 or 20 months. We actually have a sold out show in Limerick that we’ve been waiting over two years to play now. We had to postpone it Christmas 2019, then we went to play the reschedule in March 2020 and Covid landed, we were literally leaving when our agent called us and said Ireland was shutting everything down. It’s now been rescheduled six times! But I think we all appreciate that we’ve really been very lucky. We all have other things we do outside And So I Watch You From Afar and probably like every band in the world we wrote a lot of songs in lockdown which we’re quietly going out of our minds about. So it could have been worse for sure.
How have you kept up momentum and drive throughout?
As I said, mostly writing, drinking lots of coffee in our rehearsal space and tidying a lot. But we’ve been super lucky having things like the drive in show that we did, some bit of sporadic touring and the odd festival and of course working towards the Jettison release too.
Not to dwell on harshness of the circumstances we found ourselves in, but the reality of the last two years is one of huge upheaval for live music. Positively though, there’s been a lot of talk of a need for new ways within the industry. What kind of changes would you like to see emerge as things recover?
Artists need to be getting a way better deal on their streaming royalties for a start and it’s certainly focused the mind on how fragile things can be if you’re completely dependent on touring to make a living, or even to just sustain the operations of a band. There needs to be more and better support for the touring and live community who make the shows happen. It was devastating to see some of the most skilled and hard working folk I know struggle so hard when everything was pulled. Live events were the first to go and will be the last to return and this sector needs supported.
2021 was packed with big moments for you as a band, all things considered. Not least the marking of ten years of ASIWY. Looking back on it all, what moments stand out as defining who you’ve become as artists?
It will certainly be a period we’ll all look back on one day and have a lot to think about and a lot to say about it I’m sure. The more time passes the more profound a lot of that stuff will feel no doubt. As much as anything the fact we wanted to keep creating music together even when things were so real and scary around us made me sort of proud. I was chuffed that that was still as important to us. So I’d probably say that felt quite a defining moment. Not forgetting the greatest band name pun for the drive in show of course, And So I Watch You From A Car!
And the year ahead, what do you hope to be at? (A lot more than last year, I’m sure!)
Ha! Yes, absolutely! Well, everyone in the band has had COVID so am hoping that we can avoid doing that again at all costs! We’ve a few tours in the diary, we’re in Europe in March and April, we’re in US again this summer and back out to Russia and Asia again later in the year – fingers crossed, they come to fruition. We’ll be heading to the studio for a while in May and outside of the band everyone has a lot going on. I’m scoring more film stuff and collaborating on a pretty exciting installation project later in the year. And then all being well Niall and I will be marrying our besties at the start of the summer after some postponements last year, so yes, a busy one all being well. Hoping for a drama free time over the next while for us all. Love and health to everyone reading.
(This Q&A is included in Issue 7 of Dig With It magazine. Sales and subscription info here.)