There are more than a handful of names from Belfast that come to mind when the term ‘legend’ gets thrown about. The city itself is a cultural hub and is way ahead of many parts of Ireland in terms of clubbing. From DIY clubs with gangs of youths being created from the days of the troubles, to David Holmes playing records to hundreds that his mother got on a trip to Chicago, Belfast was always a step ahead. Orbital even named a track after a heavy weekend in the city!
It was well and truly bursting with talent in the form of Phil Kieran, Timmy Stewart and co, but although these are quite prestigious names, none would go as far as to reach the same heights as two young lads called Matt and Andy. Down the line, the two would set up a music blog with the help of childhood friend Rory (Hammer) just as a way to share underground music with mates, thus creating FEEL MY BICEP. It must seem like a lifetime of hard work for them, but for us, it’s hard to get the grips with how bloggers can become world-renowned artists so quickly. Countless number ones on Juno, an Essential Mix, BOB Best Track 2015 voted by Mixmag, and now an album, these guys have certainly climbed their way to the top.
I’m delighted to say I’ve watched this duo grow and slowly become my favourite electronic artists ever, with the slight bonus that they are from the same little island as me. In a crazy year of my life where I would interview names like Moderat and Denis Sulta, it was always my main goal to get a hold of the Bicep boys, so when that opportunity came about, I clung onto it for dear life. It did take me a long time, but as I travelled up the M1 motorway on my way to watch the guys play their debut album live at Ulster Hall, I listened to the album for what must be the 200th time. Of course, the very first thing I did was congratulate them on an album that will go down in history.
Matt: “Cheers man. It was a funny one because we really didn’t know what to expect after making it, we thought it was pretty chilled out, and that some people would think it’s too mellow, but we’re really chuffed with the reaction. We had like stretches of two weeks where we were just hitting dead end after dead end. Seven tracks in a row would be complete and then we would get pissed off and write like three really hard techno tracks. Some days we would write something we really loved, some days we wouldn’t, but that loop just went on for like a year.”
Photo credit: Ben Price
Almost taking your anger out writing techno tracks? (I asked with a regrettably chirpy laugh)
Matt: “Yeah! We’ve got loads of B-sides, some are really storming techno, but we need to finish some of them.”
Watering at the mouth at the mention of more unreleased Bicep, I needed to know would any of these be released.
Matt: “Aye! We might put them out under a different name or as B-sides. We got a couple coming out later in the year but they’re a bit more musical. We’ve definitely got some heavy ones alright but we would probably have to try them out a bit first and we’ll see from there.”
Photo credit: Grant Jones
Since the show at Ulster Hall was first announced, I couldn’t help but get butterflies with the excitement about how good it was going to be. It matched all my expectations. Beforehand, I wondered with the amount of shows the lads do, will they get nervous before the big homecoming.
Andy: “It should be really good! We’re bringing over lighting and laser guys who are all travelling together. We can guarantee it’s going to be great. As for butterflies, we went live on BBC Radio 1 a few nights ago, and we were bricking it for that. You can kind of get away with mistakes in a dark club when everyone is drunk but there’s just something about playing totally sober live on radio… Primavera and some of the first live shows this year were pretty nerve-wracking, but we’re pretty comfortable now.
Once we actually had the music totally cut out on us, it only happened for a couple of seconds due to a laptop glitch. It’s your worst ever fear, but once that happens, you’re over your fear. It actually wasn’t that bad. You need to have at least one ropey moment.”
Photo credit: Grant Jones
Speaking about the their live show, I almost interrupted Matt because I couldn’t hold my tongue and needed to know what their set up consisted of.
Matt: “Hardware wise we’re just adding in bits and pieces like FX pedals and stuff, but it’s roughly the same as always. We’ve got a proper 808, 606, mixing desk, pedals, controllers, Boomstar synth and more. In terms of the show we’ve really worked on the tracks, added in bits and bobs so it doesn’t sound anything like the one we played before.”
Some of Bicep’s studio equipment.
Growing up I was always into electronic music due to a number of things including my parents, being born in the golden rave era of Dublin circa 1995, and my neighbourhood. These things dictated my music knowledge and taste massively. This had me thinking about just how much Belfast has affected Matt and Andy…
Andy: “If we think back to things like Phil Kieran’s essential mix, big techno artists playing Shine, resident Timmy Stewart, Alan Sims who runs the place, all these guys were really influential on us, in terms of our earlier start to music. They would have introduced us to big artists that we would never have heard of. We were lucky enough to be started DJing before the whole digital thing came in, and we’d developed a real love for buying vinyl, going to record shops etc. That was always available when we first started, so that mentality has always stayed with us. When you go into your record store, you don’t know if you’re digging for something five years old, 10 years old, 20 years old, you’re just going through crates.
Whereas now, kids get into it and go onto Beatport. You’re only listening to music from the past month, you know? There’s just no depth. So yeah, definitely those early influences in Belfast help shape us into ourselves and our tastes.”
On that topic, I told them that their music gave me those nostalgic feelings of being a raver in the early 1990s, and that I could never get my head around how they grasped that sound, no matter the genre.
Andy: “In our heads, it’s more a case of the musicality behind it. There are definitely loads of sombre/melancholic chords in all those types of music but they’re just contextualised quite differently. We basically love all genres so if we find a really nice chord progression, we won’t do something similar but we’ll use it as a motif and make it into let’s say a techno track. That’s basically how we approach stuff, we will make our own chords before we even lay out a track, even getting vocalists in first, we will always get the core elements down first and then work off that. That’s what a lot of people did back in the day because they spent so long recording, that the core elements had to be so tight before they laid it down and stuck to it.”
Photo credit: Ben Price
Recently there has been many discussions online about the so called ‘invisible line’ between the North and South of Ireland. Obviously the duo have played in most cities all over the country, but I had to get their opinion on this topic.
Andy: “We heard the same people say there’s an invisible line around Dublin, you know?! (Laughs)
Andy: Ah, it depends on what city you live in. We know what you’re saying though, Dublin is seen as a bigger city in general and many people will think ‘what’s the point in going to Belfast, it’s going to be grey, rainy, smaller and full of Nordies’!
Matt: It’s kind of weird because we’re lucky enough to play both of the cities (Dublin and Belfast) quite a lot and they are different. We love them both for different reasons, but they’re definitely separate places, Ireland as a whole is very diverse. We did a mini Irish tour recently where we got to go to Galway, Sligo, Waterford, Dublin, obviously Belfast, and you can definitely see a difference between every little part of Ireland. It’s all very Irish and mad as you’d expect, but to be honest, if you’re in a sweatbox in Dublin and a sweatbox in Belfast it will feel very similar. An underlying statement of the madness across the country, that’s what connects it all…”
Photo credit: Grant Jones
Both Matt and Andy are graphic designers and do all the artwork for FEEL MY BICEP. For their debut album though, they brought in a third party, in the form of Portuguese designer Joao Castro.
Matt: “We spent a year and a half working on the album, mixing it down ourselves, and we just knew it would send us bananas making the artwork too. We do all the graphic design for the blog and label, so for the album what we did was found some designers we liked and we worked very closely with them. We went through about 60/70 cover ideas, but we basically asked them, ‘can you make a cover as an interpretation of the album’. If you actually look at the cover, it’s all about repetition, chaos, calm. There are quiet spaces and there’s really frantic spaces, as well as straight lines and wobbly lines. Even though no one really knows and they think it’s just a cover design, a lot of thought went into it. Something we want to do going forward is collaborating with designers a lot more and having fresh inputs.”
Many people believe ‘Vision Of Love’ was what really kicked the guys’ career off, but I tend to disagree. A track that came out almost four years ago now, ‘Nova’ was released on Will Saul’s DJ KICKS. Afterwards came a string of releases on his AUS Music label which included the iconic ‘Just’.
This track must have had a huge impact on your career, I asked Andy.
Andy: “We did ‘You’ with Ejeca, that was a track that wasn’t about referencing anything else, well you could say there was a bit of trance in it but it was definitely it’s own thing. That’s how we first met Will though, from making ‘You’. “Did we do ‘Vision Of Love’ after that?” he asked Matt. “I’m not too sure, I can’t remember. Basically we got sick of everything after that. 90’s house – boring, pianos, organs – boring, for us it wasn’t musical, there was no chords. At that stage we had enough money to start buying some synths, and once we bought a couple of proper analogue synths we weren’t limited as much. Pads, strings, arpeggiators, we weren’t bogged down in one riff, plus we could make them all sound a lot better. That was definitely the beginning and ‘Just’ was the first time that we managed to get ‘that idea’ right. We weren’t trying to replicate anything at all, we were doing our own thing. So much of our career is down to our studio, it’s so important, many of our ideas come from the hardware we’ve got. There are so many tricks that you can do which you could never do on a computer.”
At this stage we were way over our time limit, but I had to bring up their stellar edits (most of which they never release) before we ended our chat.
Andy: “When we go record shopping now, a lot of the time we are looking for cool samples or looking for bits of slowed down trance, etc. Stuff that has good loops basically that we can edit. The big problem is though, people always think that editing a really good track, taking a good loop and adding their own drums will make other people think, “you’ve made a really good track”. For us editing is about getting a track that’s kind of shit, taking the elements, making it into something new, and improve it for our sets. They serve a sole purpose of a track we wouldn’t ever play but if we edit it we will play it, do you know what I mean? That’s why we started digging into all these genres that people hate like Psytrance and the worst parts of Italo, because you can just take little bits, throw your own style on them and you’ll get something new that you wouldn’t have made on your own.”
I like to finish my interviews by asking what artists get up on their rare days off, and that’s exactly what I done here. As you’d expect from a bunch of Irish lads chatting to each other, I was kindly mugged off…
“We do these interviews! (Laughs)”
Words by Jordan Kinlan.
Feature photo credit: Grant Jones