Deadheading got to have a chat with Axis Of about their love of traveling, touring with Frank Iero, and celebrating their 400th show in their hometown of Portrush, amongst other things.
DH: Why did you choose “Wetsuit” as a single?
NL: It was probably one of the earlier songs in the writing process, and it was quite unique. From the first album, it was a really big departure, so it felt really good to be writing something that was so different than what we usually do, so that made it a bit special in our minds. Then we brought the finished version to Smalltown (America), our label, and they were loving it, they had a really good vibe on it. I think it has a really good chorus, and I always like the idea of dropping something from a new album that will get people’s attention, in a positive or negative way, so when people heard it they were like “That doesn’t sound like Axis Of!”. A lot of people said they listened to it, and didn’t actually like it at first, and then it grew on them, so it was like shock value, almost.
EF: It was actually Andrew, I remember Andrew, the head of the record label, we had like three singles that we were talking about, and we were like, “Oh, well we could do this one, because it’s a bit like ‘Finding St. Kilda’, the other album, and it could kind of bridge the gap, or ease people into a new album.”, and he was like “Nah, don’t.”, as Niall said, shock value, get the most different song out there first and grab people’s attention, so it definitely did, you’re right, people were like, “This doesn’t sound like what we know.”, but people did come around to it, I think.
DH: How exactly do you think the North Coast has shaped your sensibilities, musical or otherwise?
EF: I mean, I think the defining thing is our love of travel and we’re shaped by that, our wider view of the world, but it does always come back to this idea of home, and there’s a lot of that on the album, the idea of returning home. I think it’s impossible to escape around here- you know it yourself, walking around Portrush, or just generally, you’re so immersed in it, and the distinction between nature and civilisation is much more blurred than it would be in a city, like you’re walking on the cliff when you’re even in the town. I think the raw power of the coast is so inescapable, and that’s probably why we’ve maybe absorbed it the way we have.
DH: How did the tour with Frank Iero come about?
EF: We have a friend who was helping him on his European tour, helping with some of the logistics and personnel, in terms of the crew he might have when he came to Europe, and that guy got our record and he said, “Oh, here, check out Axis Of if you’re looking for a support band.”, and Frank listened to it, and he liked the band, simple as that. He needed a band to open the tour, and he trusted this guy’s word on it, that we were a nice bunch of chaps, so we got the tour.
DH: What kind of an experience was touring with him?
EF: It was brilliant, I mean, he has such a dedicated fan base and they were there from seven in the morning, or sometimes the night before the show, so there was never any question of “Will we get to play to people?”, and that’s something that’s always asked everyday on our own headlining tours, or even some of the support tours that we’ve done, it’s always “Do you think there’ll be anyone here?”, “Will we play to anyone?”, but that was never an issue, so having that being sorted off the bat was amazing. We could focus on how we sing, we could focus on how we play, and various technical things, because we didn’t have to worry about drumming up a crowd, which was cool. And then, we got to travel in their sleeper bus, which was amazing, because it was the most luxurious, comfortable way to travel, and surprisingly, say there was three of us, and then there was a tour manager and then there was his crew, and none of the three parties had met each other before, but everyone got on so well. We were effectively living and working together for a month; I don’t think there was one argument, there were no disagreements. Everyone just got on, everyone got on with their work, I remember telling my mum about it, and she was like, “That’s so lucky.”. I mean, you’ve got people from Ireland, someone from Italy, and then a whole crew from America, and it was so surprising that everyone got on as well as they did.
DH: How do you feel about tonight being your 400th show?
NL: Good. It’s mad, isn’t it? It’s just like, that’s insane. That’s our growing up, that’s all of our adult life we’ve been in this band. We were 17 when we started this band.
EF: It’s amazing, we’ve seen so much over those 400 shows, done so much, changed so much- I’m really proud. Pride is the overwhelming thing, and then, I think our band is very obsessed with documenting our own history, as it were. I nerd out on bands anyway, so I’ve got a list of all those gigs, and I’ve got little bits written about all of them, so just having that, it’ll be incredible for us to be able to look back on in years, and think, “What amazing memories.”.
NL: It was funny, we were talking earlier about the widest scope between the styles of gig we’ve played. We were trying to work it out, and I think we said, Mandela Hall, with Twin Atlantic, maybe Vicker Street, with Therapy?, or the Ulster Hall, and then going from that into this squat we played in Amsterdam, and there were more dogs than people there. It was behind this big barricade, so it was like a squatted school, and it was one of the most fascinating places I have ever been to, it could not be more different, but it’s cool, because I think not all bands could really get that, we’re lucky in the sense that that gig wasn’t good for us in a financial or a business sense, but in terms of us getting to do interesting things that we wouldn’t get to do outside of music, it was the best gig we’ve ever done, you know? Just an utterly bizarre, otherworldly kind of place.
EF: It’s like, I think primarily we view our band as a vehicle to see and experience the world, and we just happen to do it within the eyes of the band, and that’s the way we do it. Not only that, but we’ve met people that there would be no iota of possibility of us ever meeting these people had it not been for being on tour. Like we’ve played in Germany, we’ve played in Italy, but you could go there as a tourist and you wouldn’t see a single thing that you would see if you were a band touring that place or meeting people in that way, so it’s a really unique way to view the world, and all 400 shows have been a part of that story, so yeah that’s amazing.
DH: What, if anything, do you miss most whilst you are touring?
NL: Someone there in Europe asked me this, and I said seven-a-side football. In a more general sense, it’s because I really like jogging and I really like swimming and I love playing football; I can jog while I’m on tour, and I can swim the odd time, but I can’t play football, so it’d probably be that.
EF: I’m into nature and hill-walking and that, so I would miss the North Coast a bit, but then by the same token, I don’t think we really pine for things. Like the odd time, we’d say “Oh, I wish I could do that.”, but generally you’re just so wrapped up in it you don’t have the chance to miss anything. Unless the tour is really bad, then you probably do miss things.
DH: What’s the worst tour that you’ve ever been on?
NL: I think it’s better looking at it through gigs.
EF: We’ve done really bad gigs. Like sometimes, a bad tour can be saved by one great gig. We’ve done some really, shockingly bad gigs over the years, it happens. I mean, in our first year of being a band, we played in this venue on winter nights all the time to no one. We used to do it all the time, like, “Aw yeah, do you guys want to play here again?”, and we were like, “Yeah, we’ll go play.”, so some of those were bad.
NL: Well actually, last week we played in Manchester, at a festival, and it was a really weird atmosphere, because it was in this bar and half of it was a bar and the rest of it was stage, and then a standing area. So there were a load of people in the bar, so we thought, “They’re all here for the bands.”, but no-one was there for the bands. Everyone was just sitting there, having their pints and ten metres away, a band was playing. But it was like that for all the bands, so it wasn’t a one-off for us, all the bands were playing to a full bar where no-one was listening. Whilst we were playing, a guy brought up a note onstage, and it said, “You guys are shit. Love, Ronan”.
EF: It was a strange thing to do, but there you go.
DH: Whenever you’re writing songs, do you think about what would work live?
EF: Yeah, there’s a bit of, “I think this would be good for crowd participation”. We were thinking more about how the songs would sound live when we wrote and recorded our first record; on the next one we tried to think more methodically, like, “Let’s write the best album we can, and worry about playing it after.”, but I think you’re always conscious of that. Some people would say that we write catchy choruses, at least, the odd time, but you always have to think about how that’ll be live, and even about riffs and stuff as well.
DH: Which record did you find the most challenging to write?
EF: The next one. But out of the two, I would probably say-
NL: Probably St. Kilda. I don’t know, I can’t really remember any struggle. There was one stage when we were writing the Mid Brae Inn, and I was a little bit anxious at the idea of moving away from the super-heavy vibes we were going for, but then it was only like fifteen minutes, so I can’t even say it was an issue. The writing process for Finding St. Kilda spanned quite a long time, so there was always, “Will this fit with this song?”, “Will this work?” or “Is this new style too difficult?”. A lot of that was going on.
DH: Was striking a balance between heavier music and pop elements a conscious decision, or did it occur naturally?
NL: Yeah, I think it came naturally.
EF: A bit of both. As much that it’s conscious in that you listen to a band that you like that’s really poppy, and you go, “Oh, we should do something like that.”, nothing more than that. We didn’t say, if we do this, then this many people will like us, it’s just, you get really hyped on a style, or even a device in a piece of music, and you go, we should put that in one of our songs, but then you interpret it through the eyes of what Axis Of is, and then it sounds different anyway.
NL: In quite simplistic terms, I like a lot of metal, and I like a lot of pop music, so it’s going to happen.
DH: Who has been your favourite band to tour with so far, and if you could tour with anyone, who would it be?
NL: This is a tough one, because I think The Bronx are the best band we’ve toured with. They’re an amazing band, we got on really well with them, but we were touring in our own vehicle, and they were in their van, but it was a great tour with Frank and the guys. They were lovely, and really helpful, supportive, but different bands bring different things. I mean, we loved touring with And So I Watch You From Afar, the few times we’ve done that.
EF: Yeah, that’s always good, just like there’s banter and that going on.
NL: Yeah, they’re our friends and our relatives, so that’s always good. I’m trying to think, any band that we could tour with… Queen.
EF: Any band, ever? Yeah, Queen.
NL: Would you like The Clash more?
EF: Ah, yeah, The Clash. Or like, because you’re going into the territory of do we go on tour with any band because of their crowd size, or because we love the band?
NL: In an all-round sense, I think Queen would be a great tour. Like massive, humongous shows, hanging out with the lads.
DH: What made you want to form a band in the first place?
EF: Basically, what happened was, we were both in teenage, kind of punk bands, two different ones, and we were doing pretty much the same sort of size gigs and the same sort of things, and Niall seemed like the guy from his band that, whenever that band would die away, that he’d keep continuing to do music and keep pursuing that, in a more serious way. And then I was the guy in my band that wanted to do that: I wanted to go on tour; I wanted to release records, so we kind of spotted each other. Then we had similar taste in music, and similar ideas about what our new band would be, so we just formed a band together, and that was it.
DH: Was a career in music always your end-goal?
NL: Pretty much when we started the band. We were in, say, upper-sixth at school when the band started, and we were making decisions like that anyway. I was going to study music technology in Belfast, so it was like, maybe we’ll move the band to Belfast and see what happens there. Those decisions kind of came to the fore anyway.
DH: If you hadn’t ended up in music, what would you be doing?
EF: If I hadn’t ended up in music… I thought for a time that I really wanted to do some kind of environmental studies, like renewable energy or something like that, I think there’s an interest there.
NL: When it came to deciding what things to do, I’m always very non-committal, I just don’t like taking things seriously, so when I was asked what in Career Studies, and everyone else was writing teacher or social worker, or something like that; I think my first one was musician, and my second one was football pundit, and I literally meant football pundit, like I’m going to be on Match of the Day. I was joking to a certain extent, but maybe something down that road. I like the idea of how simple it was; I’m either going to be on TV, or I’m going to be a rock star.
DH: What has been the most difficult aspect of committing to Axis Of full-time?
EF: Ask any band that does what we do. We don’t pay our rent with what Axis Of make, we don’t buy our food with what Axis Of make. This music, particularly at this time in the music industry, it’s not financially secure, so you’ve got to busy yourself with other bits and pieces, so that struggle between part time jobs and that kind of thing, that’s the hardest thing about it. Some people just can’t live the way we do.
NL: I think it would be impossible for some people. It’s manageable for us because we don’t have expensive lifestyles. It’s not like, “God, the band isn’t selling enough records, we can’t go to the Caribbean again!”.
EF: That’s the most challenging thing about the band and where we’re at, because we’re not quite in the place where we can just quit our jobs, so we do other bits and pieces, which is all kind of linked in with music or in the media world, it keeps us going, but we’re not a big enough band to be making money off just Axis Of-
NL: But we’re not small enough to just do the odd gig every six months.
EF: I don’t think we could have had three people in Axis Of doing nine to five jobs, who meet every once a week to have a practice; it’s a bigger commitment than that. It’s walking that line between, we’re not making that much money, but we still want to go on tour a few times a year and spend some time in the studio, so it’s a big commitment.
DH: Do you always think that music will be your primary focus?
EF: I don’t think you should ever think like that. Like you know what your end game is, and you know what lies ahead of you. Right now, who knows? I think that for me, personally, I always think that something creative will be my primary focus; whether or not that’s music, who knows?
NL: One thing I’ve noticed through playing music is if I do end up in another career, I’ll want it to be a career that helps me travel, or that at least doesn’t prohibit me from traveling. I like the idea of being able to go different places via something I’m working on.
DH: What comes first: the lyrics or the music?
NL: We write independently of each other, so obviously we’d play the music first, but the lyrical ideas might already be there, so I’d write a song or Ewen would write a song, and then we’d bring it to the full band and then we’d put the lyrics on top, but the lyrics might already be there.
EF: There’s ideas for lyrics, maybe, in the beginning, then comes the music and then the fully-formed lyric, and so on.
DH: Is song writing something that you approach spontaneously, or do you actively seek out subject matter?
EF: We don’t sit down and think, “Today I’m going to write a song”. As long as you play a lot of guitar, just sit and play it, that’s how it happens.
DH: Outside of music, what do you tend to draw influence from?
EF: A huge pool of things. I mean, if I had the lyrics now, I could sit down and pick out all the little bits that come from it, but I think a lot of it comes from our travels.
NL: It covers a wide range of topics, like the idea of traveling. So you’d be somewhere, and you’re not just traveling, you’re witnessing the political situation of a new country, you’re witnessing the nightlife of a new country, or you’re witnessing the environment of a new country, so with that landscape it gives you the freedom to go into other areas.
EF: If you’re someone who is interested in travel, what does that mean? It means you’re interested in the science, or the architecture, the art, the culture, or whatever it is. Traveling is like experiencing the world and all of its facets, so that’s why our songs are so crammed, so abstract and reference-heavy, in regard to music and politics and everything. We’re basically an encyclopaedia of knowledge: an encyclopaedic band.
DH: What was the first song you ever learned to play?
EF: I learned to play the bass for Teenage Kicks. It’s so clichéd, like the first thing you ever learned.
NL: I think it was Barney the Dinosaur on piano. On guitar, it was probably Seven Nation Army, but I remember getting into secondary school and being in music class, everyone was like, “Does anyone know any songs?”, and they were like, “No, no-one.”, and I was just like, rocking out Barney! I can still play it to this day. If someone gets me a keytar, I will play it.
DH: When you write songs, is there ever a disparity between what you intend to write and what you actually end up with?
EF: That’s a great question. You think there is?
NL: Yeah. Between what I write and what I attempt to write?
EF: That’s deep. I think, one thing close to that, particularly when I’m writing something on my own at home, I’ll write it on an acoustic guitar, so I don’t even know what it sounds like on an electric guitar, and then I’ll work out a bassline or something and I’ll imagine what the drums are, and I’ll have that in my head. Then you take it to the band, and it always sounds different, but occasionally, good. I don’t think I ever know what a song is going to sound like in the end.
NL: It’s like, in my head, I’ve got all the drums, and I’ve added all the bass and stuff, and then you bring it to the band and you’re like, “Wow, that sounds awful, that’s insane.”. Not all the time, but definitely on occasion.
EF: I think when I first wrote songs for my old band, you did just write a song, write the structure, tell the drummer what to play, tell the other guy what to play, and that was it done, whereas that’s never what’s happened in Axis Of. We’ve never had an idea and it’s just been done, it always needs tweaked, and I think that’s important as a much more mature band. It doesn’t frustrate me when it changes. For example, “All My Bones”, the first song on the album, it was a lot different once we actually finished it, and it took six months, and it’s such a simple song, but we changed the structure every practice, so that kind of gets frustrating, but generally speaking, it’s great that it changes, that’s the whole point.
DH: Is creative control something that’s very important to you?
EF: I think we’ve learned to compromise, and I wouldn’t be in a band with Niall if I didn’t think he had great ideas, so obviously, if he suggested them, you’ve got to speak to each other. Occasionally, there are things where we just wouldn’t budge on a thing, like, “We’re going to do it that way, or we’re not going to do it at all.”, that happens to, but I think we’re better at talking about it than we used to be.
DH: You’ve gained quite a following, especially in recent months. Has the reception been anything like you had anticipated?
NL: No, I guess I didn’t really anticipate the reception we got. I thought that it would be quite divisive, and it has been, to a certain extent. There’s a lot of people in Belfast that follow more indie, or pop-rock stuff, and those people like us as their punk band, so when we get a bit lighter, it’s like, “Oh, but I like it when they’re heavy.”, but then there’s people who are really into heavy music who might not like us too much, so it’s kind of weird. It’s been cool, especially going on that tour and playing to so many new people, so to them we’re a new band, there’s been no history, there’s no preconceived ideas about what we do or what kind of sound we have, and they all loved it. So it does make you think that yeah, we are writing really good music. I totally respect that some people like a certain style of music and they wouldn’t be into it, but we’re still going to write whatever we want.
DH: Do you resent being a token kind of heavy band for some people?
NL: No, definitely not. It’s cool, I guess, that’s what gave us the leg up in Belfast, we played with loads of indie and post-rock bands, and we came out with really heavy guitars and were screaming, and people were a bit shocked then. If we play with a load of other bands who are screaming with heavy guitars, then we’re just going to be seen as another run of the mill band. So no, I don’t resent that at all, actually, I think it’s kind of cool. If a band lasts long enough, Biffy Clyro being the perfect example, there are people who will swear blind to the first three albums and then say everything after that is god-awful, and then there are people who don’t know those first three albums, who got into them later, but that’s just the way of it.
DH: Have you found any experience surreal so far?
NL: Probably the Frank tour. Frank wore our t-shirt at a gig in Bristol, and that’s just really odd. It’s really cool, but it is odd, because I was never a massive My Chemical Romance fan. I wasn’t mad into them, but they were like one of the biggest bands in the world. When I was sixteen and I was into my punk, I used to really hate emo kids, and it’s funny- if you told my sixteen year old, naïve self that I would be on tour with a guy from My Chemical Romance and that he wore our shirt on stage, I probably would have been like, “No, I won’t!”.
EF: There was a surreal moment on that tour, speaking to Frank’s guitar tech, and he was like, “Yeah, there was that time we went over to Brian’s house, because we had to rehearse for Reading and Leeds.”, and I was like, “Brian?”, and he was like, “Yeah, you know, Brian May.”, and I was just like no, I don’t know him, but I do know who you’re talking about. He was like, “Brian May made me a cup of coffee.”, and I was like, that’s so insane.
DH: How did the Prospect Roads podcast come about?
NL: For me, it was, because I always wanted to do a football podcast, but I felt like I couldn’t really offer anything new or unique, and I remember thinking if bands ever do tour podcasts, because surely there’s something to be said for that, and I said to Ewen about it, and we were like happy days, let’s do it. I think people are interested in the touring side of things, and we get to speak to so many ridiculously interesting people, so why not try and showcase that, and use touring as a vehicle. There are people who might run a podcast, and they’re like right, I want to interview this person in Berlin, but I’ll have to get a flight over, but we’re in Berlin anyway, so we might as well. It’s very convenient, if nothing else.
EF: I’m starting to have this idea, that Axis Of could be bigger than something that’s just a band. I like the idea of, if you went to the website, it’s something that’s quite down the line, and here’s where Ewen and Niall have a lot of things to offer: here’s the podcast that they do, this is their band, here’s their records. It’s a collective and a collection, and if you have those things to offer- I’m really proud of our podcast- and we love doing it. It’s a great outlet, so we’re very proud of it, and if anyone wants to subscribe, then please do.
DH: What, if anything would you do differently?
NL: Nothing. I don’t think we’d change anything, really.
EF: Yeah, I suppose we wouldn’t do anything differently. I mean, I could get out that list of the 400 gigs and write all the ones that we shouldn’t have played, but at the end of the day, it’s all led up to where we are today.
DH: What are you currently listening to?
EF: I’m currently listening to a band called Why? I was in America, writing some music, and I was hanging out with a guy called Henry Cohen, he plays in a band called Mylets, and he was driving me around in his car, and he was playing Why? all the time, and I was just like, I love this, so that’s totally my jam right now.
NL: Kendrick Lamar. I really like To Pimp A Butterfly.
DH: You obviously enjoy working with Smalltown America, but as a local band that’s become quite successful, do you ever feel any pressure to refute the attention of bigger labels?
EF: Well, we’ve never had any choice.
NL: I think if the right opportunity arose, I wouldn’t feel any pressure not to do it. I’d weigh it up, I wouldn’t run out and say that I’d definitely do it, but I wouldn’t let anything other than personal preference decide that.
EF: Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it.
DH: If you could transcend space and time, what artist would you see live?
EF: The Clash, definitely.
NL: A tour between Nickelback and GG Allin, but they’d have to be on the same bill.
EF: No, GG Allin fronting Nickelback, because he’d hopefully ridicule the rest of the band.
DH: Have you ever actually visited the Mid Brae Inn?
EF: Yeah, we’ve played there. We’ve played two gigs in Shetland, and one of them was in the Mid Brae Inn; it was this tiny bar, with a handful of people here. It was less about the venue, because it’s similar to somewhere like here, but it’s more about the trip itself, we wanted to take something with a Shetland theme. It was a great trip for us, it encapsulates the whole ethos of the band, going to those weird and wonderful places, seeing different things, meeting cool people and interpreting our landscape that way, but it had to be about Shetland, and the Mid Brae Inn was one of those names that just popped out.
DH: Is there anything that you wish I’d asked you?
NL: “Would you like this big bag of money?”
You can order Axis Of’s new album, “The Mid Brae Inn”, here: http://www.independentmusic.com/products/546075-axis-of-the-mid-brae-inn
You can also subscribe to their podcast, “The Prospect Roads”, on Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/the-prospect-roads