Ex-punk Rory Friers once thought prog rock old hat, but his band ASIWYFA now plays it
Rory Friers started out as a punk but his band ended up playing a genre of music enjoyed by his parents, the guitarist tells Charlie Carter
PUNK ROCK HIT THE headlines in a foul-mouthed stream of four-letter words. But there was one they'd never utter: prog. Progressive rock - the complex music played by virtuosos in epic songs weaving Tolkien-esque tales - was strictly forbidden for the spiky-haired pop anarchists after chief punk Johnny Rotten wore a T-shirt bearing the slogan, "I hate Pink Floyd".
So it was with more than a little consternation that Rory Friers, one-time teen punk and now lead guitarist for post-rockers And So I Watch You From Afar (ASIWYFA), had an unsettling epiphany in his 20s. "I remember waking up in a cold sweat one night when it suddenly hit me that, 'Oh my God, I might be in a prog-rock band'," Friers admits over the phone from his home in Northern Ireland.
"I think I have sort of embraced it," he goes on, warily. "It's almost as if there's no choice, it's like 'Well this is it, this is the hand we've been dealt and this seems to be what makes us happy and I guess this is what it is'."
Friers went with his gut feeling and ASIWYFA, who make their Hong Kong debut at Hidden Agenda on March 8, are now among an elite group of bands that have managed to merge the energy and emotion of punk with the musicianship and attention to detail of prog.
The four-piece have been bracketed with such diverse bands as Scotland's post-rock stalwarts Mogwai and American emo growlers At the Drive-In, one of the band's key influences.
Over largely instrumental songs that eschew prog's synthesiser noodling for a battering ram of guitars, the band kick up an emotionally charged sound that is cerebrally riveting.
"It's a strange sort of concoction of a few different musical personalities that has gradually incorporated bits of other people's music we like - it's a bit schizophrenic, sort of a Frankenstein sound all thrown together," says Friers when asked to define his band's style.
Formed in 2005, ASIWYFA got together in their coastal hometown of Portrush, County Antrim, with Friers, Johnny Adger on bass and Chris Wee on drums. Co-founder Tony Wright left and was replaced by Niall Kennedy three years ago.
Their teenage love of heavy rock gimmickry led them to adopt pastiche heavy-metal stage names (Friers was Bone Crusher and Wright was Face Eater). Their music was equally as heavy; their first recording, a joint EP with Belfast-based bands, was suitably titled Tonight the City Burns.
It didn't take long before Friers gave in to the lure of the long-winded muso tracks that his parents would play him as a youngster; bands like Yes, Jethro Tull and King Crimson. But it was pile-driving Texan band At the Drive-In that eased Frier's tortured musical soul. "They showed you could be punk, but you could still play your instrument well," he says, before uttering words his younger self would never have imagined himself saying: "Prog is not a dirty word."
Three albums into their career, ASIWYFA are darlings of what's become known as the math-rock scene - a small but growing genre that includes fellow punk-inspired prog lovers such as 65daysofstatic, who played their debut Hong Kong gig last year.
"We certainly feel very cut off from what most of the world would consider music," says Friers. "There's the group of bands within that realm, and by its very nature there are bands that have their very own take on things, too. In the world of experimentation and progressively styled music, it's such a lovely, cool thing to be part of, because there's the weird and wonderful and the exciting and strange."
Despite the complexity of their music, none of the band is formally trained in their instruments. It's something Friers was proud of in his early career.
"No, none of us has had a lesson in our lives," he says ruefully. "When I was younger I didn't care at all, but now I would love to be able to read music. Like most musicians, when I was younger and learning to play, so long as I could play Nirvana songs I didn't really care. It was like the worse I could play guitar, the cooler it was. I wanted my guitar to have holes in it and be a bit out of tune."
He's changed his tune over the years as he's sought to improve his songwriting skills. "The only reason any of us got better at our instruments was so we could write better songs and be better than the last song that we wrote."
ASIWYFA will cap their first tour of Asia here. The overseas experiences are becoming a subject matter for the band's material, says Friers. "As children growing up in small seaside towns, it was mind-blowing to even travel to Belfast, and be in the capital city of Northern Ireland," Friers says. "It was like, 'Wow look at all the shops'."
Since then they've criss-crossed Europe, and toured the US and China. "Once we started getting to places that were profoundly different to home, we started to make an effort to soak them up. To begin with, you play a town in Belgium, and it looks like home. But when we started to get to these different places it was like, 'Look - there's the Alps'."
And So I Watch You From Afar, March 8, 8pm, Hidden Agenda, 2A Wing Fu Industrial Building, 15-17 Tai Yip Street, Kwun Tong, HK$350 (advance), HK$400 (door). Inquiries: hiddenagendahk.com