Brand New Friend: From The North Coast to Ward Park
“Awk mate, what’s happening?” is my only warning before I am wrapped in a hearty embrace, the giver being one Taylor Johnson, frontman and singer of North Coast indie poppers Brand New Friend. It’s the type of greeting usually reserved for a close companion, yet Johnson dishes them out at will, eager to share his relentless enthusiasm. It’s no wonder then that his band has such a strong, familial sense to them. Granted, the group is fronted by Taylor and his sister Lauren, but the connection between the Johnson siblings, Aaron Milligan and Luke Harris is a strong, warm one.
When it comes down to it we have each other’s backs.
As Taylor leads me inside the groups’ warm rehearsal group (they’ve just finished for the night), jokes and insults fly with a reckless abandon, always followed by a grin or an ebullient laugh. It’s hard not to be infected by their charm, which is something Taylor attributes to growing up in Castlerock. “I think it’s instilled a ‘gang mentality’ in us,” he muses “but when it comes down to it we have each other’s backs. Not just because Lauren’s my sister and I love her to bits, but I love these guys too and I think in the North Coast there’s an element of that. Because everyone up there is friends, everyone in the bands is all good mates and they’re always at gigs together.”
It was in this open community on the Atlantic coast that the riffs and melodies that have powered support slots for Ash and Snow Patrol were born, and Johnson feels that he owes it entirely to his home. “I love playing in England and saying ‘We’re from Castlerock’… musically, we are 100% from the North Coast.”
“I first became aware of Taylor when Luke and I were in another band and BNF, which was just Taylor with an acoustic guitar at the time, were…”
Taylor then interrupts with, “Oh no.”
“…opening up for us in the North Coast, in the Atlantic Bar, and we’re trying to soundcheck when some idiot [Taylor’s face is pressed firmly into his palms] ran up the stairs, being really loud. Like, shouting “HOW AMAZING IS THIS, THIS IS SO GOOD, IM HAVING SUCH A GOOD TIME” and we were sitting there like ‘Who is this idiot shouting over our soundcheck?’ That was my first experience of Taylor.”
Milligan’s story raises good-natured laughs from all present as they reminisce over how they first encountered one another (“Lauren and I became aware of each other in 1997, this ***** came into my house and I was like “get your own home!”). The night continues as such, with anecdotes and stories pouring out of the quartet. And yet, despite two of the members (Milligan and Harris) not being natives of Belfast and the Johnson siblings having resided further inland initially, all roads seemingly lead back to the Atlantic shoreline.
All four members have strong emotions associated with their memories of the NC [North Coast]. The Johnson’s still live there and are regular attendees of gigs, while their bandmates love returning to play the odd show.
Milligan, a resident of Belfast, vividly remembers his first time attending a gig in the NC. “The first time I saw Little Arcadia, they played an acoustic set and they came down and talked to everyone after, they were like “This is amazing, are you in a band?… like I played a couple of gigs in The Empire and people were saying ‘This is your night to impress someone’ and I didn’t want to impress anyone, I just wanted to have a laugh. Whereas when I went up to the NC, they were like ‘Ah. Welcome. Do you want a pint?’”
This inclination toward affability was enough to win him over, as and he and Harris would soon become usual attendees. The Johnson siblings, however, feel a particular inclination towards the NC. “I always say we’re from NC because that’s where the band was formed,” according to Lauren “I wouldn’t have any musical memories associated with where we lived before.”
Taylor meanwhile, has a certain attachment to the physical locations of the North, particularly his old/current stomping grounds. “Our first ever full band gig was in a wee place called Bertha’s Bar, which was at the corner of our street. it was this little working man’s pub by the sea and that was the first BNF gig as a band, not just me and Lauren, which is cool. My favourite memory is probably playing the Atlantic Bar.”
What is it then that spurs such loyalty from a group that has travelled all over the UK and Ireland, and played with some of the biggest acts in the world? In a word: Community. I should have guessed.
“In order to fill The Atlantic Bar, everybody just needed to bring their mates and at the gigs, everyone would talk to each other and become friends with each other. it became this community where people would all go to the same gigs and you’d say ‘can you bring your other friends from school.’ Everyone wanted to have a good night.” reminisces Lauren. “The gig nights we went to would be on every week in the Atlantic Bar, but there was no sense of completion or rivalry, we all just wanted to have good craic, be mates and help each other out.”
At times, it is hard to differentiate the fan from the band with Brand New Friend, whose enthusiasm reaches new heights at the mention of their contemporaries. “I was influenced greatly by Little Arcadia and Sleeping Outside, they inspired me, I would go see a SO [Sleeping Outside] gig and come home and not sleep until I wrote five songs” laughs Taylor.
Milligan concurred as he recalled the wild atmosphere that would accompany live shows. “When I first started going up I expected it to be a gig like in the Pavilion where you’d see three local bands just play to each other, and then I went up and Little Arcadia were flipping stage diving and pints were getting thrown and there were mad mosh pits.”
“You could go and watch bands in the NC and it’d be like you were seeing one of the biggest bands in the world that was the reaction,” raves Taylor “The NC is distinctly different and in that sense it has 100% influenced us”
The night soon turns to war stories, as the group loudly declare their allegiance for their favourite venue. “I love playing the Coleraine SU because you have to be clued in the whole time because the stage isn’t really a stage, it’s a load of tables and every time it got a bit louder or the drum speed picked up the whole stage started shaking.” laughs Harris, while Taylor opts for the diplomatic approach “Kiwis is amazing, Atlantic is the OG, Berthas was amazing but I believe it’s shut for renovations.”
A definitive choice remains impossible, “We’ve played everywhere on the NC and we’ve loved them all, they’re all special in their own way. Everywhere we go, it’s good.” I take this time to point out that all four of them mentioned areas close to home, despite having performed in London, Edinburgh and other cultural hubs, to which Taylor offered a knowing grin.
“Whenever we play up the NC, to me and Lauren that’s home, when we play the Atlantic Bar, for example, this is our hometown gig.” The grin soon spread around the band as each member begins to recall their own memories of gigs long past in seaside pubs, and a further story soon breaks out:
TJ: Do you remember that gig we played where we had really bad amp trouble?
AM: Yeah. It turned out my tuner was broke but we didn’t know.
TJ: Everyone stayed.
AM: Everyone stayed and just laughed it off.
TJ: People got into it and it made the gig better, having a technical malfunction because on the NC people are just so happy to see live music.
It was memories such as this that help quantify the tangible love for the coastline. It’s why the ties to the NC are more than ones of convenience, being more similar to labours of love. For instance, despite a workload that sees them manoeuvring between studying, working and performing, the quartet endeavour to retain up to date tabs on the new crop of bands coming through, particularly Taylor and Mulligan.
Lauren informs me “A lot of the bands we grew up with have moved to Belfast for Uni so there are some new acts coming through like Sad Tomorrow, Sweater Cult who are picking up where we left off.
“Sad Tomorrow is my favourite!” interjects Taylor before he is undercut by Milligan’s chime of “They’re not as good as Ferals” which draws a sharp laugh from them all.
“Sad Tomorrow is our brother Logan’s band,” explains Taylor “And there writing some serious, mature pop music and it sounds amazing and they’re getting better all the time.”
“Taylor and I both play on the album, so those bits are brilliant.”
While it’s hardly unusual for music enthusiasts to maintain an interest in their local scene, the allegiance BNF displays is striking. In spite of their workload, their dedication to assisting and monitoring the bands that came after them remains paramount, as they feel they would not be in the same position without receiving similar help of their own.
“They watched us progress and grow and have supported us after, which I think is a part of the NC scene in general” asserts Taylor, who derives great pleasure in helping where he can. “Some of the new band’s now email us, asking for advice, and that’s so cool because it used to be us. It’s always really lovely to be asked.”
Time does as it will, and it passes. As such, I bring up the future of the band. One of their largest shows ever approaches an opening slot in Snow Patrol’s return to Ward Park, alongside some of the biggest names in local music. On the affair itself, Taylor retains a cool head: “You always believe in the music, in how far it can take you but it was never a specific goal (to get this far), we just wanted to have fun and play music. Snow Patrol mean a lot to me, so to play the General Fiasco slot opening for Snow Patrol, their slot back in the day, is almost a bigger deal than the rest of the show. It’s a mammoth thing.”
Indeed, there’s a romantic notion about the whole thing, a brother-sister combo practising their original numbers in their bedroom, lucking into their future bandmates at their friends’ gig and opening for some of their musical heroes.
Taylor smiles at the idea that this was somehow their own doing. On the contrary, whether he’s playing in Ireland, Scotland, England or elsewhere, he still feels that it all comes down to his hometown: “I don’t know if there’s many places that would have embraced us and gave us the same opportunities like the North Coast did. Not that we have achieved anything amazing, but we haven’t forgotten it and we will always come back.
“We’re so proud to be from Castlerock, this small wee weird village on the edge of the earth. We feel so lucky to have been from there.”
The feeling, if I’ve learned anything about it tonight, is surely mutual.
Brand New Friend perform a 3-night residency at The American Bar, Belfast on 24, 25 & 26th January 2019. Tickets & information here.
Brand New Friend will support Snow Patrol at Ward Park, Belfast on Saturday 25th May 2019. Tickets and information here.