My knowledge of Belfast and Northern Ireland was limited to a handful of films about the Troubles that translated into a naive comprehension about its violent past. Thus, before making my first trip to this part of the UK, I had a certain romantic notion that there thrives a fierce underground subculture. To shed some light on my intrigue with Belfast, I was able to enlist two musicians who make music outside of the establishment: Neil Brogan of Sea Pinks and Joe Greene of Documenta for this feature.


Sea Pinks

What began as a solo project of Neil Brogan in 2010 while playing the drums for Girls Names, Sea Pinks blossomed into a bonafide band with the addition of Steven Henry on bass and Davey Agnew on drums in 2013. With the release of their fifth album this past January, Soft Days, Sea Pinks' breezy dream pop is finally reverberating outside of Northern Ireland and UK.

Brogan talked briefly about the process of releasing the latest LP before giving us a little tour around Belfast:

"We recorded it last spring in the Cathedral Quarter area in a studio called Start Together; Girls Names and Documenta also recorded albums there. I'm just relieved that it's out because we recorded it six months ago or longer so the process of it was gestating over that time. You're sort of pregnant with an album! When it's out in the world, that's when it feels like it's finished. It just took a bit longer to organize this time, our PR wasn’t going to be available until January, and the distributor also. So that's really a prosaic reason why it ended up coming out when it did. But I'm glad it did now because it feels like a new thing – at the start of the year rather than at the end of the year, when it feels like an old thing really quickly. So it's worked out quite well.”

Belfast Places + Sea Pink

Old Art College – It's where the art college was, it's being demolished as you can see. It used to be a ballroom back in the 1930s, among other things. So it was a really old building that was still functional. It's being knocked down as part of the redevelopment of that area in Belfast which is a real shame. I don't have a personal connection apart from the fact that my girlfriend studied there. I think my grandparents went to dances there too. I've always been drawn to buildings getting demolished for some reason, it's kind of interesting to see the interior of a building, being ripped to pieces. So just from an aesthetic point of view apart from anything else, it's interesting. There's a lot of creativity that happened in that building so you wonder about what's going to replace it. Will it last as long? Probably not.

Belfast Places + Sea Pink

Practice Space (an abandoned office space adjoined to an old church at Carlisle Circus) - It's a complete hellhole! We started in the basement and now we're in the next level up because the basement ended up being completely uninhabitable - full of rats! It sort of has that weird New York 1970s vibe because it's cold, full of rats, pretty spooky. We started practicing here about 2010 when I was with Girls Names, and they're still here. And now Sea Pinks and Documenta practice here too so we’re kind of killing three birds with one stone. When Sea Pinks are here, we don't spend more than two hours – because it's horrible, but it forces you to focus on your practice and hopefully it makes you a tighter band because you want to get out of that horrible place! But it's so cheap, and there just aren't that many practice space options in Belfast. We all bitch about it, but it has been a useful place.

Belfast Places + Sea Pink

Sick Records – It's a new record shop – been here not even 2 years. Belfast didn't really have a shop that stocked new, independent records for a long time. It had a few second-hand record shops but didn't have new vinyl, and they're really fussy about getting really good stuff in here. And they're nice guys. [Soft Days was their Record of the Month at the time of our visit in January].

Van Morrison House – He was born a few streets from where I live now in East Belfast. A lot of the songs on Astral Weeks were inspired by this area. He’s kind of one of these people, you have to separate the artist from the person - so you can be a fan of his music, but him personally, you might hear people who knew him in Belfast telling anecdotes about him being difficult. Personally, he’s an inspiration so it's cool that he's from around here.

Belfast Places + Sea Pink

Comber Greenway – A place I walk down sometimes on my way to different places. It probably has inspired some songs indirectly just walking because it's a bit of green space in a very built-up urban area. And there aren't that many places like that in Belfast. It used to be a railway line about 50 years ago. It's a cycle path, people walk their dogs… it's nice because you can see the seasons there. At the moment it's completely dead because it's the dead of winter. I think “Depth of Field” was partly inspired by walking along here.

Sea Pinks' Soft Days is out now via CF Records. Catch them in London this Friday, February 12th at The Shacklewell Arms.


Documenta:

Joe Greene is a man of endless stories and musical metamorphosis. His current project, Documenta, unleashed its second full-length, Drone Pop #1 last November (Friday the 13th). Greene witnessed the effects of The Troubles firsthand and how the creatives persisted through the years: “We have a quite a small community of artists, musicians, filmmakers... it's small, but Belfast has always had this strong scene of creativity that's quite opposite to religious intolerance and sectarianism which we're famous for - you know through bombs and all this nonsense…”

Before checking out Greene's favourite spots in Belfast, he gave us the lowdown on Documenta:

"We're a seven piece: I sing and play guitar, Steven Henry plays guitar, Paul McStravick plays guitar, Stuart Watson plays guitar – we have a lot of guitars! It was the ideal of a guitar orchestra when we started it, because human beings are much more interesting when they repeat things – over and over again – they start to find their own little groove. Then we have Roisin Stewart on vocals, James McConville is our drummer, and Jonny Agnew plays the bass and the cello."

"We're making three records as Documenta because I think the constraints – the artistic the sort of boundaries that I put on the project – anymore it would be a repetition, we would repeat ideas – I think that's kind of foolish. Plus I do think that a band can have three great records. And then I feel a lot of bands, not all bands, start to diminish their returns; they're not as focused. So we decided to make three complete records as a finished statement. A lot of the bands I like - they'll have three records that are really good and then lots of other stuff which is not as good. And I like the number three."

"After Documenta, we are still going to work together because the musicians assembled are very talented and they're very open. We like a broad spectrum of music. The music we're making at the moment is vaguely psychedelic and pop music but there's lots of other things we want to explore, but not as Documenta."

Belfast Places + Sea Pink

Dragon Records - This shop is run by a very dear friend of mine, Jeff Doherty, who I've known a long time and has an encyclopedic knowledge of music. His shop would be best for second-hand records in Belfast. And he buys very, very wisely. Stuff like the Big Star record – the original press of Big Star's second record which is a very rare thing. Like it sold 300 copies in the US. It's a great place for finding gems. And he does help people: if you're a kid and you don't know, he's very free with his information. Plus, he's a great character!

Belfast Places + Sea Pink

It's kind of nice at the moment in Belfast because there were no record stores for a quite awhile. We now have a few decent record stores again. There used to be lots of good record stores, but they all closed down as people didn't buy vinyl anymore. It's nice to see them sustain themselves which is the important thing. They're also important meeting places for musicians. If you're a band in this fucking backwater, you have to go down to these places; they'll stock your records for you and help you get your name out there.

Anyone that's in town to play, this is one of the record stores they'll go to. Dean Wareham and Thurston Moore bought bunch of stuff here when they were in town.

Belfast Places + Sea Pink

Sunflower – It's a relatively a new bar in Belfast; it's beautiful! It's run by really nice people. It's very inclusive. It holds a lot of the Belfast charm like the lovely security gate at the front, which the Council was trying to get it removed because it was “unsightly”. But that's sort of saying nothing ever happened here in the past! Bars used to have security guards, security grills, and cameras. In my lifetime, when I started to going to bars, you had to buzz the door because they had a habit of going in and shooting people with machine guns! So it was a necessary precaution. They painted it green - it's not unsightly; it's very pretty and charming. Plus, it hasn't been populated by the masses yet because that will happen after a while. It's not full of squares yet, whereas lots of other places are. And it's lovely for traditional Irish music, and it's young kids playing the traditional Irish music which is not so much a thing that we would particularly be into, but it's nice to see the kids just fucking doing it.

They also do amazing pizza. It's much nicer when it's not raining, and you can sit out in the back – it has a nice beer garden. It got attacked by a bunch of jerks a few years ago - by people who don't like gay people - sensible people… there's a lot of people who don't like that around here – it's like pissing on the bible or something.

Belfast Places + Sea Pink

Cregagh Glen - It's just a beautiful place! In our music, we have this thing: exploring duality - the dark and the light, and the fact that we're all going to die. But we smile, have fun, and enjoy life… It's sort of a nice thing that we live in a city and five minutes away, there is this beautiful, bucolic scene – it's really nice – you don't have to go far to see nature. I think it helps everybody's sanity if you can do that.

Documenta is scheduled to appear at Liverpool Sound City (28/29 May), Kendal Calling Festival (29-31 July), and Electric Fields Festival (26/27 August).