Rory Friers is laughing. We are in week 6 of a national lockdown and like all of us, he’s at home, self-isolating. The long serving, guitar slinging talisman of the North Coast’s most successful band is working from home and he’s actually enjoying himself.
“I’m lucky I’m self isolating with my fiance and we’re both working from home. It’s been okay, but hopefully it doesn’t last too long. Like everyone I’ve been trying to figure out little routines and find a new normal.”
Part of that new routine has seen the introduction of Beach Comber, a solo project born years ago in a small attic above North Antrim mountain tops. Inspired by his sister Ciara and her partner Dara’s trip around the world, it’s fitting that debut album ‘Parting Cuts’ arrives amidst this period of isolation. It brings the project almost full circle, as Rory drafted the songs alone, with only his guitar, a microphone and ‘some stuff to shake and bang’ for company.
“I was completely alone. I knew I had a finite amount of instruments in this room and a finite amount of time to finish the songs. Me and all the guys (back home, in his native Portrush) have a tradition that we would create music for each other as presents. It comes from being younger and not having any money to buy anyone anything! We would make ridiculous songs for people, mainly thrash metal or parody rap sort of stuff. I’d been making bits and pieces of music on my own for a while, I was inspired by The Dodo’s, Sufjan Stevens, The Middle East…that kind of stuff.”
As Rory quietly compiled a back catalogue of tunes for a rainy day, the perfect opportunity to carry on this childhood legacy presented itself.
“Our family had been separated and had kind of an amazing year, but also a personally difficult year. There’d been a lot of tragic circumstances. I wanted to put that into this song I was writing, but I realised there was far too much of this story to fit into one song, so it turned into whatever this is, sort of an album?”
With his sister Ciara and her partner Dara’s wedding coming up, the idea for Beach Comber began taking shape. He would write them a record, chronicling their worldwide adventure, every high and low of a remarkable year. A testament to their love and the family waiting for their return.
“I knew for one song that it needed to sound like the South Pacific, for another that they were hiking to the top of Machu Picchu and were getting some bad news while they were doing it, you know?”
He goes on, “it’s not an exact documentation of what happened, it’s almost like using your imagination to create what it might have been like. I knew there were these key things and a geographical trip that they took. It was fun to tell this story inspired by it.”
One of the most self-effacing Northern Irish musicians around today, Friers songwriting is not restricted to the instrumental behemoth he formed with his friends 15 years ago. In 2018 he scored the original soundtrack for the Ellen Page starring thriller ‘The Cured’, making its debut at the Toronto Film Festival. Later that year he announced the arrival of ‘The Future in the Seventies’, a woozy, post-rock side project with long time collaborator and ASIWYFA producer Rocky O’Reilly.
With an iron will to propel ever forward into the next project, and a nod to the days before success took hold of his band, Rory started work on Ciara and Dara’s present. It would become ‘Parting Cuts’, a coruscating epic of a record, not that he knew that yet…
“Like pretty much everything I do, I put it into the pile of stuff I write that will never see the light of day.”
That didn’t mean he couldn’t have a little fun with it first. Keen to give the record an even deeper personal touch, Rory looked towards the rest of his family to put the finishing touches on the album.
“I tried to get everybody on the record so it’s like a little gift from us all. My family are amazing, they’re the best. From my earliest memories my Dad would have bits of recording gear around the house and he was always coming up with stuff for us to participate on. I have really early memories of me playing drums on a cover of Cream – ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’! I actually sing it as well and I’m about 6 years old and obviously that song has some pretty adult themes…”
He tails off, momentarily 6 years old, sitting behind a drumkit. I wonder, what was the recording process like once all the Friers got involved?
“They were just down for the fun of it all! There was no pressure. My Mum sings on the first track, she sounds great. I really loved listening to those tracks again. I’m laughing here, imagining a track with my wee Mum singing on (hugely popular US Music/Culture website) Brooklyn Vegan, going out to a million people around the world. I love thinking about all the hipster online sites who are featuring the record, and they’re hearing my Dad playing the flute. That’s just crazy. My brother Ewen (of ‘Catalan!’) is on there too. It made it really special.”
Believing ‘Parting Cuts’ to be too distant a departure from the mind behind songs like ‘Big Thinks Do Remarkable’ and ‘Set Guitars To Kill’, Rory was happy just to share the album with those closest to him. Until this year.
“It’s funny, a couple of years ago a record label was keen to bring this record out. I mentioned it in passing one day and told them Ciara and Dara’s story, so they demanded to hear it. I played it for them and they said we had to release it, but they wanted me to tour it and straight away I thought, ‘man, I don’t think I could ever be the guy who sits and sings, be the front and centre of everything.”
He continues, “A lot of friends encouraged me to put it out, they said it was a good record. Then, this year, the world changed. Suddenly it really did seem like a good time to put it out there.”
Serendipity is a strange thing. As our world got smaller, and the distance between us grew longer, the heartache and hope at ‘Parting Cuts’ core became more relevant than they’d ever been.
“There’s themes of missing people you’re close to and looking forward to that moment when you’re all going to be reunited, I thought that had become something that was a bit wider than just me and my family.”
It’s this feeling that makes ‘Parting Cuts’ such a captivating listen. Not just the first time around, but the second, third, fourth and more. Like all great albums, you find more the further you dig. His Father Julian’s outro on the titular opener. ‘Two Come Home’s Paul Simon-esque calypso shuffle. ‘Two Set Sail’s unbridled joy. It’s a touching, tangible adventure of a record; made all the more remarkable when you consider these are largely uncharted waters for its creator.
“I don’t mind singing, if you’d told me when I was writing the record that I would one day let more than 10 people hear it I would have probably stopped recording it there and then! I’m not really a confident singer and I’m really not a confident lyricist…there’s a lot on this record that probably leans on my less confident side of music.”
“I’ve always had such an admiration for people who can write a song that’s moving and resonates with you, that’s super simple. It’s like, being able to cook an amazing meal and not rely on fancy spices or expensive ingredients. Just that real art of ‘here’s three things and we’re going to treat it with total respect.’ Great song writing does that. I’m chuffed if any of the songs on this record succeeds in feeling like good songs, even though at their heart, they’re very simple.”
There is a beauty in simplicity. In ‘Parting Cuts’ case, this lies principally in the concept. One spawned from having no money to buy presents as a kid. From having a laugh with your mates. From showing you care and a loved one’s return.
Given the extra time we’ve had on our hands of late, what else has been going on inside the mind of Rory Friers?
He takes a moment to compose himself. “I’ll tell you what I’ve really felt during this lockdown. I’ve always appreciated the people who love our band, but my appreciation has just increased tenfold towards them recently. The people who support us, who come out to the shows, who make everything make sense. All these songs and bits of music, without those moments of congregation and being able to have this experience together, it seems like a bit of an abstract concept.”
“It’s standing on a sticky floor, with a plastic pint glass filled with some terrible beer. That’s the spirit of it, having someone in front of you express themselves, doing something they really care about. I can’t wait for it to come back and I think it’s going to feel even more special now.”