BELL X1 – The Making of ARMS

It starts in a renovated garage in north Dublin, with Paul Noonan, David Geraghty and Dominic Phillips, the three members of Bell X1, on the cusp of recording their seventh album. Standing in a suburban garage which had been converted into a studio, they stare at one other and wonder what they are going to do.

The owner of the garage where it all began, guitarist Geraghty, explains, “it’s a studio called The Numbers Station in the garage and extension of my house in a residential area so the idea at the start of being pesky teenagers banging drums and playing guitars to annoy the neighbours was quite funny.”

For album number seven, the band was looking for a new start. “It was the most difficult album we’ve made,” admits singer Noonan. “There was a touch of “What the Jaysus do we do now?! and it led to a lot of soul searching about what kind of band we are, what we have to say, what is the core, the soul of the band. It took a while to find that voice on this record. We needed to unlearn a few things.”

Fast-forward to spring 2016 and ARMS is a Bell X1 album in name and breeding, but which sounds like nothing else in their canon. Produced by the band and recorded by Tommy McLoughlin, David Geraghty, Glenn Keating & Ross Dowling at Attica Audio, The Numbers Station & The BallOfSound.   ARMS was mixed by Peter Katis (The National, Jónsi) with Ross Dowling mixing the song Out of Love.

“Chop Chop and Arms are two very different records. Different musically, sonically and in terms of how they were made,” explains Peter Katis. “Chop Chop was recorded quickly and mixed quickly with everyone there every step of the way. Arms was recorded over a much longer period of time, different places and mixed without the band present. But both records were mixed on my trusty B&W 805s.”

ARMS is a nine-song collection radiating with shabby grace and soft-focus elegance, but there’s also a bruised, bittersweet, romantic mood throughout. Melancholic and lovelorn in places but also spirited, determined and optimistic which speaks volumes about how the band has grown sonically over their storied career.

Dave Geraghty provides some insight into the tracks on the album:

Fail Again, Fail Better
One particular night, the audience reacted so enthusiastically to Fail Again, Fail Better that they began singing along with the chant. Excited at hearing this from the audience, we had the idea of dropping into the studio recording of the song, the energy picked up by the ambient mics. Fail Again, Fail Better features two kits playing off each other. We recorded Paul playing a rhythm traveller kit at Glenn’s BallofSound and then, at the request of Peter Katis, we re-recorded my drum part at The Numbers Station. The reason for the re-record was that Peter felt that a tighter and dryer drum sound would work a lot better for the groove and the overall mix. We chose this song as an album opener as it really sets out the stall for what follows on ARMS. Also, I love how in our striving for sonic hi-fidelity, the album opens with an 8-bit loop made from the Yamaha VSS-30.

Bring Me a Fireking
This song began its life during the first recording session at Attica studio back in January 2015 (yes, this album took a little longer than expected!) From that session we tracked drums, bass and piano. The guitar parts were overdubbed once we had the take. We added the finishing touches in the form of group vocals, cabasa, bells and whistles at The Numbers Station and then the electro drums and Glenn’s keys at BallofSound. The cheeky sax ‘solo’ is a phone recording of one of our friends riffing in the car park. It turned out to be one of those happy accidents as when we dropped it into the song, it fit without us having to transpose or edit it.

The Upswing
This slow jam was captured in one take at The Numbers Station with Paul singing and playing drums, myself on a newly acquired 1971 Telecaster and Dom on bass. I overdubbed some keys. We then took the session to Glenn’s BallofSound where he added some tasty colours and punched out some of the motifs with his vintage synth tones. There was a little bit of Paul’s vocal spill on the drum overheads, which only became an issue when Paul changed some of the lyrics. So we undertook the difficult task of re-recording the drums by playing along with the existing guitar and bass.

I Go Where You Go
This track was another one that sprung to life in Donegal. The unique live room in Attica played a big part in the sound of the drums. We used Bowie’s China Girl as a reference for the drums. We tracked this with the three of us playing drums, bass and piano. The intonation on the bass guitar was a bit off and as a result a little out of tune up the neck, so Dom re-recorded it but this time on Tommy’s short scale fender and he nailed it once again. Having that big live-room at our disposal, we tried to do as many overdubs as possible while we were there. As well as belting out the group ooa-woahs into the room, we re-amped some keyboards and got some ensemble percussion going. Paul got his groove on with the timbales. Again, the impish VSS-30 in all its 8-bit glory, swooped in and provided the outro keys hook.

Take Your Sweet Time
Ahead of the session, Paul had made a loop on his Boss RC-20 pedal and we used it as the sonic bed and click-track to record to. This song came together quite quickly at Attica but on reflection after the fact, we felt it needed a new tailor. It wasn’t in keeping with the manifesto or palette that we decided on before undertaking the album. So months later at BallofSound, we took the song apart and re-built it leaning more on Glenn’s synth world. Here’s a song that always screamed out to be an album closer but on Peter Katis’s suggestion, it took it’s place in the middle of the album, where it works wonderfully.

Sons and Daughters
The most recorded song in music history, perhaps not… but in the case of this album, it definitely is the song that has had the most iterations. Here’s a prime example of how performing the song live on the acoustic tour finally presented itself in its truest form. My suggestion of starting it again from scratch was met with looks of horror. It was a bitter pill to swallow (as it had already been attempted three times). The song was at last sitting very nicely. It was worth the chase, as it has become one of the favourites of the new material at festivals we’ve played already at this summer.

Out of Love
One of the most exciting aspects of being in this crazy rock ‘n’ roll business is the opportunity to work with a variety of talented boys and girls. In the case of this song, such a talent came in the form of Ross Dowling (James Vincent McMorrow.) We were chasing a particular aesthetic that wasn’t fully realised until Ross stepped in to programme some tasty beats and record some essential keys parts.

Fake Memories
This song is our nod to Kraut-rock. Again this song came screaming into the world at Attica at the beginning of 2015. (Did I mention how long this album took?) I created two loops by tapping an open tuned electric guitar on the seventh fret. This provided a pulse and set the scene for a much cooler drum and bass vibe that was re-recorded at The Numbers Station. The only whiff of the very different Attica version was in the exploded pyscho-billy section after chorus two.

The Coalface
This track is the only one on the album that once fully realised at Attica, remained untouched with no overdubs. To achieve that hypnotic saggy drum sound Tommy pitched the drums down an octave. This one felt so at ease with itself, Paul took to the kitchen to transfer his talents to the legumes. I re-recorded the piano on a creaky old upright (as it was originally done on the studios grand piano, that apart from not sounding right, had a brilliant white veneer finish – it would’ve made Elton John blush). It is on that track that you can hear the spill of my mobile phone going ‘ding’. I think it was Paul texting me to say that the dinner was poured out.

Recorded at:
Attica Audio Recording, Ireland
The Numbers Station, Ireland

Instruments used:
Bass: sans amp bass driver through Chandler Germanium
Piano: a pair of Karma K10 condensers through the Vintech
Guitars: 30W Dan Electro Amp mic’d with the AKG Solid Tube or alternatively D.I straight into the SSL using Guitar Rig or similar plug-ins
Drums: Kick – Vintage AKG D12 through an SSL Alpha VHD preamp
Snare – Vintage SM7 through an SSL Alpha VHD preamp
Overheads – Pair of Octava ML-52 through Vintech 273 preamp
Room – Neuman 149 or AKG XLS through an LA610 preamp

BallofSound – Glenn used predominantly A Roland Juno 60 and a Dave Smith Tetra.

The Synth’s that Ross used was composed of a few layers of the Dave Smith Evolver and Xpand synth in Pro Tools. The beats are a mix of Superior Drummer and Addictive Drummer with samples layered from Reason and some extra tom programming.

EFX-wise Ross used a combination of 2 plate reverbs and one room verb mixed with three different delays to get the reverbs in the tune.

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