AN ARCHITECT, a university lecturer, and a fine artist hardly sounds like a combination that could create thrilling, high energy, indie-electro dance music, but these are the day jobs of Belfast’s Not Squares, and that is the kind of music they make when they are together.
The trio - Keith Winter (drums/vocals ), Riki O’Rawe (guitars ), and Michael Kinloch (keyboards/vocals ) - are set to launch BOLTS, the album that will define who they are, where they are going, and why they matter on the Irish indie scene, when they play Strange Brew in the Róisín Dubh on Thursday April 9 at 9pm.
BOLTS comes five years after Not Squares debut Yeah OK. While a two/three year gap between albums is standard, five years is a very long time, especially for a band that was just beginning to establish itself.
“Life got in the way,” Michael tells me during our Monday afternoon interview. “We all have day jobs apart from the music. Keith is an artist in London. I work in architecture, and Riki is a lecturer in Queen’s University Belfast. We were worried that a drive had been lost between Yeah OK and BOLTS, but we’re here now and this is it. We’re more concerned with the music rather than the business side of things. Music for us is not a hobby, it’s a passion.”
The band also spent all and any free time over the last five years honing and developing Not Squares. “The first record came out in 2010, but it was late 2010 and we spent the next two years playing gigs promoting it,” he says. “All that while we were recording and writing, and we also changed what we were doing a wee bit.
“The first album was us recorded live in a room, but for BOLTS we went in a different direction, more studio based, more a collage style of writing and recording. That was on purpose. Because we’re split between different places, we’d have to email ideas back and forth, so that creates an interesting way of working.”
BOLTS is the album where Not Squares have truly come of age. Whereas Yeah OK straddled rave/techno and post-punk without knowing really what direction to go in, BOLTS plunges exuberantly and single-mindedly into indie-electro, with the post-punk elements reimagined through an electronic lens or transferred into the bass lines, resulting in a confident, cohesive, and assured sound.
“It came organically,” says Michael. “After Yeah OK we learned more about dance and programming. We started to do more with synths, vocoders, and drum machines. BOLTS will probably sound drastically different to some but to us it still sounds like the same band. The sound we have now though, I couldn’t see it changing. I don’t know what we could do different.
This move towards dance and electro however does not come at the expense of the band’s trademark energetic, full-blooded, live shows. “When we play live we still have drums and guitars and that’s because dance music live is often little more than watching some guy behind a laptop. It feels flat,” says Michael. “We come from an indie background, where you go out to see people perform. Me and Keith were in a post-rock band, playing instrumental guitar music and 10-minute long pieces. Riki is from punk. We come to dance music from that side where you have song forms. We’re not afraid to experiment and try different things and shake it up.”
Public reaction to the band’s new sound has been deservedly positive with the 2013 single ‘Fall Far’ now established as a live favourite, while the more recent ‘Oops Said Hi’ has won praise from music journalists and bloggers.
As well as being one of the highlights on BOLTS, ‘Oops Said Hi’, also contains one of the album’s most memorable moments, when towards the end, the song breaks down to just a drum beat, over which Michael lays down some seriously funky bass. “That was me in my little music studio...in my bedroom...” he says. “It was just me noodling one night, and just wanting to put something different on the track. Chic’s bassist Bernard Edwards would be a hero of mine and that comes through in the playing, that whole seventies New York thing.”
‘Fall Far’ was one of the earliest tracks to indicate a change of direction for Not Squares, but despite its popularity with audiences, the band themselves were not originally enamoured of the song.
“It’s our idea of a pop song, and the closest we’re going to get to a pop song,” says Michael. “It’s in a French electro style, rather than indie-pop. We didn’t know if it fitted in, but we thought we could make it stronger if we tied it in with other pieces of music. Yeah OK was 10 tracks, all individual things, but for BOLTS we wanted a party record, with a lot of tracks queued together, make it run as if it was all one piece, make it a more uplifting experience, more urgent. Our producer Tom Fox did a great job on it.”
Galway and Belfast - home from homes
BOLTS is released through Strange Brew Rekkids, the independent Galway label run by Róisín Dubh music promoter Gugai. What persuaded the Ulstermen to go with the Galway imprint?
“We had ideas of putting BOLTS out on bigger labels, but we just wanted to get it out there as soon as we could,” Michael says. “Gugai had championed us for years, back since 2009 when we played our first gig in the Róisín, and Galway has become our second home. We’ve always gone down really well every time we’ve played here. We knew Gugai had a record out [Elaine Mai’s debut EP], so we mentioned the idea to him and he was enthusiastic about it. We’re really happy he agreed to it and that it’s coming out on an Irish label. The good vibes Gugai has brought to putting this record out is something you can’t put a finger on.”
The Northern Irish music scene is the healthiest and most creative it has been since the late 1970s. Back then it was the punk movement, born of reaction to the violence and political turmoil of ‘The Troubles’. Today, despite the continuing political sores of “flags, parades, and the past”, Northern Ireland is much more stable, with the peace process firmly embedded. So what accounts for the health of the current alternative scene?
“It’s hard to know,” says Michael. “There are good facilities for bands here, with the Oh Yeah Music Centre in Belfast, and the involvement with people from Snow Patrol, Ash, and Stuart Bailie. They run shows, have rehearsals spaces, and have seminars for bands on publishing, but there are always bands popping up in Belfast, it’s always been healthy.”
Tickets are €10/5 through www.roisindubh.net, the Ticket Desk at OMG Zhivago, Shop Street, and The Róisín Dubh. Gugai will be DJing afterwards.