Towards the latter half of last year Belfast’s CATALAN, the rock alias of one Ewen Friers, set free a debut album. The result of a few years of labour and a handful of singles, Veritas is an album wide in scope and heavy in big tunes. CATALAN’s sound is unmistakable, combining laser-sharp guitar lines with quick, smart lyrics that tackle all manner of eclectic subject matter. Amongst the Veritas’ 14 tracks are rock songs like the off-kilter, shouty ‘Ungoogleable’, the hook filled, riffing ‘Solstalgia’ and poetry in the form of ‘Vegetables of History’ and ‘Gare’. Bar these quieter spoken word moments, there is barely a let up from CATALAN’s kinetic rock music.
With the release of a Live and Rarities EP in the aid of charity, we thought it was high time Ewen gave us a more detailed analysis of CATALAN’s first full length. Here he gifts us the stories and the thoughts behind these songs.
“As you’ll read I’m deeply focused on the lyrics of the album, I strive to create large and somewhat interpretable scenes, stuffed with ideas, locations and references. Perhaps the most rewarding part of this approach is that once the album is out, the listener tries to decipher and decode their own meaning. So to allow that magic to continue I’ll not explain the lyrics away too much, just give some reflection. Often the audience’s theory on what a song means is actually much more interesting than what I intended in the first place!”
Spotted behind a museum in Poland in early ’19 was a pile of frozen vomit, it had a cabbagey look to it but the sting of booze was unmistakable. And so the line “Right back up the sauerkraut came” found its way into my notes. There is some dark poetry in the idea of wandering around an art museum looking at some of the greatest masters before spewing hot alcohol infused leaf veg into the snow.
This, along with Cornelius, Espionage and Alive, are what I consider to be “CATALAN! round 1”. These four tracks were recorded in earlier sessions and I went back and fourth about whether to include them. It only occurred to me recently that the line “if you know your history” is pretty much a Bob Marley line from Buffalo Soldier. I didn’t knowingly plagiarise, perhaps I did subconsciously! I love that song and I love how ideas get passed along through music as the years go by.
This one really showcases the gifted musicians I have around CATALAN! I liked this track in demo format, but my band really brought out the best in it. Ryan and Cheylene of Beauty Sleep beautified the choruses with ethereal dreamy vocals as well as adding that rich, chordal, juno synth-ness to the bridge. Allan Starrs showcases his astonishing drum skills across the outro. I composed those drums as a bit of a joke to see if Allan would even attempt to learn the part – joke’s on me, he quite literally smashed it.
Vegetables of History
Sometimes you like the lyrics so much that you get worried the music will distract the listener. A good way to avoid this is remove the music completely. Whilst I never want to simply give away the “message”, if indeed there is a message, I will say that this is not, as one reviewer thought, about food I’ve been eating on my travels!
No song makes me miss playing live more than Ungoogleable. The urgency, the stomp, the discordant racket. The concept of “the ungoogleable” is inspired by those super niche, specialised, amateur historian or local interest books you get in country cafes. Not the history of a town, but highly specific things, like the history of a street, between 1760 and 1840. There’s something re-assuring about good stories, interesting facts or engaging “content” that hasn’t found it’s way onto the internet yet. The quaint idea that you just have to read the book or just talk to people to access this information is strangely reassuring.
It would be a missed opportunity not to mention how we have a 6 minute extended mix of this track about to come out on a bonus EP of rarities, rough cuts and live tracks from across the Veritas recording period. The little scene where I “Pulled the van onto the sand, just beyond the Rio Grande” is true. I was driving a sleeping ASIWYFA over the Texas, New Mexico border at ungodly hour when the border cops pulled us over. Our rental van was from the East Coast and on seeing our plates the officer opened with “Massachusetts? You’re a long way from home.” To which I responded “Further than you’d think “We’re from Belfast” They didn’t see the funny side and proceeded to inspect the van!
I suppose you could call this the heaviest song on the album. On our last shows before COVID-19 we’d been closing the set with this and it’s a pretty tense ender. The electricity levels and buzz would be high as we came off stage giddy and sweaty. I remember rushing out of the venue in Paris and onto Rue De Malte, off La Republique, we cracked open a bottle of Green Spot from home and passed in around in the cool evening air, we truly did feel Alive. Christ, I miss the world!
A few times on this record we tried to replicate very specific little elements from the demo versions but they often seemed to fall short and lacked whatever magic was captured in the initial recordings. In these cases we’d just end up moving whatever field recordings, logic stems or phone recordings contained the original charm and drop them right into the mix. The acoustic guitar here was recorded in LA on a day off on a tour, it’s just a basic phone recording and if you listen carefully and you can hear dogs barking in the background.
The background street noises here were added later. I actually recorded this in my attic in Belfast at the beginning of the first lockdown. With a track that has so much geographical scope thematically it seemed right to add some bustling cityscape noise, especially at a time when everyone’s worlds had shrunk, all our cities streets were deserted and buzz-less and we were beginning to crave that escapism. I managed to get some fitting stock audio to layer underneath and it was only when exporting for the final mix that I realised the recordings had been made in Barcelona’s Plaça de Catalunya – Beautifully appropriate.
Judging by the lines here about Marco Polo using wikipedia (and Abel Tasman and James Cook using Google Earth in Ungoogleable) I had some interest in how explorers might react to our hyper connected world and their legacies, for good or bad, within that. I put together my initial lyrics fairly quickly now and sometimes I’ll forget the specifics of what I was getting at when writing. Coming back and trying to decipher my headspace or the meaning is always fascinatingly self reflective.
Niall Lawlor (of my preceding band Axis of) had been around for the recording of Veritas, hanging out on the North Coast with us in the big house we’d got our hands on to make the record. In addition to the use of a very particular guitar pedal of his on this track, you can hear Niall contributing gang vocals right at the end of the song. Niall was just coming through an unspeakably difficult episode at the time and whilst this track deals with a lot lyrically it makes me think of Niall’s endurance and his story of hope and recovery.
I remember this joyous little chord progression and melody came to me in Provence, on the edge of the Luberon National Park. The influence of the years of touring and world travel, I was so fortunate to do before writing Veritas, is clearly stamped all over the lyrics. But Provence in S.E France is especially important to the project. It’s been the location for some major creative breakthroughs for CATALAN! and the place where I started working on songs for Veritas in earnest. Friendly village markets with the freshest vegetables, scents of lavender, rosemary and thyme blown around on the dry Mistral wind, liquid gold in the form of olive oil and dirt cheap wine of the gods, stunning hikes and hip jazz cafes? How could I not feel inspired?
When I wrote this I loved the cheesy Thin Lizzy-inspired-harmonised-descending-lead break halfway through. I also immediately identified this section as a potentially explosive place to make mistakes live, not being a natural guitarist. Sure enough on it’s first live outing I butchered it, all of the 11 notes clashing with Ryan’s beautifully played rendition. I’ll never forget the looks of panic on my band member’s faces before it gave way to all out hysterics.
There Are Bands
This was a latecomer in the writing process, we never played this as a band and I remember Allan was experimenting with drum fills right down to the time of tracking. The roll call of exotic locations right at the end of this track is a kind of end credits of the album as a whole, it’s a vast world out there and I’m just trying to revel in that richness.