TSOFDs: It’s been a good, long while since we reviewed your solo record ‘I Was An Astronaut’. What have you been up to?
WAA: Since Astronaut I moved from Ireland to Scotland, wrote in other mediums, stopped playing guitar, then started again, messed about with some software, moved back to Ireland and now I’ve made two new albums – this one under We Are Aerials and a messy electronic concept album that I’m in the process of mixing. I don’t like all the self-promo stuff musicians ‘have to do’ so I’ve decided not to bother with most of it. That said, I think I need to write.
TSOFDs: We’re glad you’re feeling that need as we’re enjoying the results. Tell us about ‘We Are Aerials’ – how does this differ from Conor McAteer?
WAA: I had an album out under We Are Aerials before and had the idea that it would be more of an indie-rock project and the stuff under my name would be more folky but there was a fair amount of overlap. I decided recently that I just preferred the way We Are Aerials looked written down.
TSOFDs: Gotcha. How does the We Are Aerials songwriting and production process happen? Is it you taking a lead in all of the songwriting, arrangement and production decisions?
WAA: It’s a solo project so I do all the writing. On this one, I wrote the songs quickly and recorded them on the same day or within a few days. I took care of the arrangements. The only exception was with Titanic. I asked Eoin O’Callaghan to play piano so I recorded that with him. I had a good idea what I wanted in terms of the arrangement but Eoin’s a talented guy so I was also open to his ideas. It turned out even more understated than I imagined it would. Paul Casey mixed and mastered the album. The people I got involved in this did a beautiful job.
TSOFDs: Speaking of which, tell us about the music scene where you live/are from – do you ever want to try and make a go of a career in music by living in the more established cities in terms of the music business, e.g. London/LA/New York or are you content with where you find yourself?
WAA: There are a lot of independent musicians here in the northwest of Ireland, working across a range of genres and putting out high quality stuff. The live scene isn’t so great. There’s a real DIY ethos among the artists. A lot of us know each other but it definitely feels like everyone’s in their own bubble. It’s not really a coherent scene, just lots of independent people doing their thing. As far as moving to one of those cities goes, I’ve no interest in making a career out of this. I like that I can just make the music I want to make and not compromise. I’m not interested in trying to sell myself. I haven’t worked out how to do it without feeling mucky.
TSOFDs: Always feel free to allow us to feel mucky on your behalf. If it’s a dirty job but someone’s got to do it then we’ll have a bash, put it that way. Tell us about this word ‘haar’ that makes an appearance on two of the track titles on your new record – it’s a word we haven’t come across before – what’s its significance to you and the record?
WAA: The haar is the sea mist that hangs over some places in northern England and Scotland. In 2018 I spent seven months living in the north of Scotland and five in the north of Ireland. I’d never heard the word myself until someone said it when we were driving in Scotland. The Haar at the Edge of the World is about the idealized vision many people have of living in fairly remote settings. It contrasts this idea with the reality which is always more complex. The lyrics mention the mist itself over the landscape and then use it as a metaphor for narrow-minded views. You get these everywhere, of course, but again, it’s just the romanticized narrative set against everyday life. I should point out that I have a lot of affection for the north of Scotland. It feels like home to me in a lot of ways.
TSOFDs: Thanks for the explanation. Quincy Jones said something along the lines of, on a record, you have to leave enough space for the Lord to walk in or for the magic to happen. We’re not churchgoing folk ourselves but we get his meaning. Did you find you had a lot of clarity in terms of how you were going to approach this record or were you stripping away lots of instrumentation before it made sense?
WAA: I usually have a pretty good feel for the arrangement as I’m writing. A lot of people I talk to mention playing loads of parts, finding their track is too busy, and then having to strip it back. I like my songs to be more sparse. If the instrument isn’t adding something meaningful, why’s it there? Paul Casey got a really good feel for this when he was mixing. He just understood that the songs needed lots of space to give them the right atmosphere.
TSOFDs: Whilst we’re on the subject of talented folk, who are the artists that most inspire you currently?
WAA: I’ve been listening to Puscifer’s Money Shot album quite a bit. It’s brilliant – great lyrics, great melodies and very atmospheric. I’ve also been listening to Mogwai. Then there’s some of the old jazz artists like Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus. I also love Winter’s Gate by Insomnium. This one’s a 40-minute single-song melodic death metal album. Then there are a couple of songs called Didn’t It Rain and Blue Factory Flame by Songs: Ohia. Jason Molina had this way of taking a single chord progression and creating these incredibly hypnotic songs with them.
TSOFDs: Cool. There’s a lot for us to check out there. Tell us about the people that play on your new record and what they brought to the table.
WAA: OK, first, there’s Paul Casey. Paul mixed and mastered the album and played bass on The Haar at the Edge of the World. He has a good solo career and loads of albums that are worth checking out (paulcaseymusic.com). He’s also branched out into production and worked with all kinds of artists from local people making their first recordings to more established people like Chris Rea and Christy Moore.
John McCullough: played piano and Wurlitzer on Gaslight. Paul recommended him. I’ve never met him but strangely, my friends and I used to go and drink whiskey and see his band every Sunday night in The Belfast Empire when we were at university. He was playing with a singer called Ken Haddock and they did amazing covers of songs by Van Morrison, Prince, Hendrix. He’s an amazing player. I think that band still has a residency in The Empire. John has also worked with Sharon Corr and The Waterboys (johnmcculloughmusic.com).
Eoin O’Callaghan: played on and produced Titanic. Eoin is a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and producer. He’s got loads of projects but his minimalist electronica project, Elma Orkestra, is taking priority at the moment. He’s currently collaborating with electronic artist, Ryan Vail on an album/multi-media live show called Borders. Find him at ameliarecords.com.
Conor Mason: drums and bass on Death Squeeze. Conor’s an incredible musician/songwriter/producer. He’s in a band called Ports who are currently working on their second album but you MUST check out his beautiful new solo album, On The Surface (conormason.armellodie.com).
TSOFDs: Brilliant – even more music for us to follow up. Back to the album. There’s some interesting background noise on ‘Numbers’ – was this recorded somewhere local to you?
WAA: The noise at the start was recorded when my friend and I took a trip to Moville in County Donegal – half an hour or 40 minutes from where I live. I just used a portable recorder and edited when I got home. I did something similar for Harbour Lights. Some other background stuff was licensed from the BBC archives.
TSOFDs: You’ve been doing this for enough time to be able to pass on some valuable experience – what tips would you give to any aspiring songwriters out there just getting started, that are suffering from writer’s block?
WAA: For me, sometimes it’s just a matter of pushing through – nothing glamorous, just putting in the work. Other than that, listen to music – different genres. Read. Learn something new, expand your skill set, take yourself out of your comfort zone. Get out and see people. Live life. It’s the ordinary, everyday things people relate to. There’s always something to write about, you just need to find the right angle. Have conversations. There’s poetry in the way people speak if you’re open to it.
TSOFDs: Great advice. Thanks Conor.