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One Man Leads a Community

Nov 03, 2010 Villagers Bookmark and Share

Conor J. O’Brien has been making music for years, but for the first time, he’s leaving his Dublin hometown to play around the world. He started Villagers the day after his previous band, The Immediate, dissipated. While O’Brien is used to touring the pubs in Ireland, his stateside tour with Villagers is an entirely new experience for him.

In the couple short years since he started writing songs under the name Villagers, O’Brien has been nominated for the U.K.’s prestigious Mercury Prize, and his debut album, Becoming a Jackal, has shot to the top of the Irish Albums Chart and the indie charts in the U.K.

Just before his current U.S. tour, O’Brien spoke with Under the Radar about his childhood affinity with music, how Ireland’s politics affected his outlook growing up, and the elusive process of songwriting.

Danielle Sills: How did you get your start with music?

Conor J. O’Brien: When I was 12 I started playing guitar because my brother played guitar, and I wanted to copy him. He taught me the chords and stuff. And then a few years later I gave up the piano because I was getting bored, and I just kept playing guitar. Now I wish I played piano, but I think I’m okay at it, but I wish I kept it up. It’s the folly of youth. I never really stopped since then. When I was in school, I was playing in bands. Actually, as soon as I picked up the guitar, when I was 12 or 13, I started writing songs. That was it.

Do you remember what your first song was about?

Yeah, I do actually. It was called “Psychic.” It was about being afraid of a psychic friend because they could read your thoughts. It was very strange. It contained the line, “when I’m walking down the street, I feel like a monkey in the arctic.” It’s kinda bizarre actually, seeing as I signed to Domino with the Arctic Monkeys and all that stuff. Maybe I was telepathic.

Maybe you were psychic.

I’m thinking that actually. It’s very weird.

Since then you’ve kept writing your own music. When did you know that was something you wanted to pursue all the time?

Pretty much right from the start. I remember deciding that I was gonna be in a band a week after I learned, like, three chords. I wrote that song, and then I wrote another song the day after. I sorta decided I was gonna be in a band when I got older. And I started playing in school during the lunch break, trying to get an audience. When I got to 16, I started playing in clubs with my friend Dave. And then we went to college, and we had a band called The Immediate. It kinda got popular in Ireland. We did a lot of touring, and then it kinda just ran its course, and we split up pretty amicably. And the day that band broke up, I started writing songs for Villagers. It was pretty nonstop; I’ve never really thought about doing anything else.

Were you ever in school choir or anything like that? When did you practice singing?

I was when I was much younger, very briefly. But it wasn’t really a choir, it was more—they were just trying to get things together for a couple weeks. I remember kind of enjoying it. It really felt quite natural to me. Even when I was like three or four, I remember being brought to films. I remember being brought to the cinema and then singing the songs after. I’ve always been quite… I’ve never really been good at anything else. The only thing I’m really good at is this, so I might as well do this.

Did your family listen to a lot of music when you were growing up? Was there something stuck out to you as an inspiration?

Mainly my brother. My sisters would kind of listen to the pop—whatever was happening in the ’80s and the ’90s with pop—but my brother would be listening to stuff from the ’60s, and that’s kind of what opened my mind up. Although my sister, she used to listen to The Kinks a lot, and I remember being really into them, and secretly hiding away and learning all the words. I remember learning all the words to “Lola,” and not knowing that it was about a transsexual, and like singing it when I was nine, and everyone was laughing all over the place.

You had no idea why they were laughing.

[Laughs] No, I had no idea. I guess it just spurred me on. I thought, “Oh music, it brings laughter. I gotta do this more.”

Other than The Kinks, what music stood out to you as an early influence?

My brother used to listen to a hell of a lot of Pink Floyd. I remember hearing lots of Pink Floyd, and it blew my mind. He had a video of them playing in a theater in Pompeii, and I remember thinking it was the coolest thing. I watched it until the video broke. What else? Faith No More. They were one of my favorite bands for years. My god, they’re so amazing. I still think they’re one of the best bands that ever existed, although you probably can’t hear much of it in Villagers. There’s something in their theatricality; they kind of created their own world. So amazing. I remember we had a school janitor when I was in The Immediate. He was a really cool janitor, like a caretaker, and he gave us all this old Velvet Underground and Love. Mainly kinda ’60s stuff, and that was the stuff that I was mostly into. And then when I got a little older, I got more into contemporary music like Radiohead. Recently, I’ve been getting more into songwriters like the obvious ones like Neil Young and Randy Newman, Nina Simone and Motown stuff, and lots of shit.

Have you ever gotten comparisons to Buddy Holly?

Only one particular song that we have called “The Pact.” I’m told it’s a little bit Buddy Holly-ish. And actually when I was writing that song, I was listening to a bit of Buddy Holly because a friend of mine gave me a compilation. But only in the sort of arrangement, rather than the songwriting. I think it’s more the clunky bass. Although I was trying to copy Serge Gainsbourg more with the clunky bass. Can you hear Buddy Holly in Villagers?

I hear it a little bit in your vocal intonation—how it just kind of pops out to me.

Cool. I like Buddy Holly. And Roy Orbison. He’s a favorite of mine. There’s a bit of doo-wop going on in Villagers as well. When I was writing Becoming a Jackal, I was listening to a lot of doo-wop music because my drummer, James, is a master of sound, and he always feeds me with lots of doo-wop stuff. I try to go down that avenue, just in terms of the spiciness of their arrangements and the directness of their songs. I find with writing you can get a little cryptic while you try to get to whatever place you’re trying to go, and I kinda try to keep a certain directness in the songs, so they can be understood on the first listen. I don’t want it to be elitist in any way. I want it to be something that everyone can sort of take on his own terms.

You say you admired Faith No More growing up because it put you in this world where you’re kind of immersed in it. Is that something you also try to do with Villagers?

Yeah. A lot of times when I’m writing songs, it’s a very kind of visual experience. Each song to me is its own kind of movie to me. Like for instance, the song “Becoming a Jackal” originally was a drawing that I did, like a sketch, and then it became the song, and then it became the album artwork as well. I did the sketch and made it better and spent more time on it. So to me, it’s quite a visual thing. I have to immerse myself in the song that I’m trying to write. And a lot of the time, that is a very long process. I’m not really the fastest writer in the world. I tend to take my time with stuff. The initial idea might be quite fast, but then it might take a few months to flesh it out and try different arrangements. I guess it’s a labor of love to a certain degree.

Is it often the lyrics that come first for you, or the music?

It’s different every time. What I tend to do, is I always have notebooks around me. I try and keep a notebook wherever I go, and if I have an idea lyrically, I just scribble it down. And then if I have an idea musically, I just try and record in my computer if I have it nearby, or my phone, or whatever I have. Then, usually gestate because I’m busy with tooling or playing or doing something else. I often find that if you let them kind of gestate in your head for a while, happy coincidences start happening, and you realize that you wrote a piece of music for a lyric that you perhaps wrote a year ago. You find it, you go back to your old notebook, and you realize the rhythm of it works really well with this new music. If you kinda stay obsessed with it, these coincidences happen more and more often, and then the songs gradually make themselves known to you. I try to let them write themselves, but it’s also quite a lot of work because it requires a lot of discipline and sacrifice. You have to spend a lot of time daydreaming about it. I’ve gotten pretty good at writing stuff on various forms of public transport because I’m moving a lot. That’s a new thing, but I’m learning how to do it.

Do you think that public transport plays into your songs a little bit if you’re writing your songs on them?

Well, I wrote a song when I was getting a boat to Vancouver Island from Vancouver, and I wrote a song on the way over. It talks about the scenery outside, and I kinda used that because it was beautiful. It was probably the most breathtaking scenery I’ve seen in a long time, just looking at the Americas and all that. It kinda became something metaphorical in these words that I was writing on the boat. It’s probably one of my favorite songs so far. I was kind of glad that it really broke through a wall that I was having. I was having troubles writing because I was touring so much, but since writing that song [it has been better]. See the problem is I don’t want to write a second album about touring. You know, most bands come out with a really bad second album because they’re so busy. So I don’t want to write about that. I want to find a way for all these new places—because it’s exciting, you know, I’m getting to feel these new places and travel, and I’ve never done that before. But I want to let that feed into the songs in a positive way rather than a negative way. I feel like I’m always changing and growing, and I feel like if I ever feel like I’m not learning anymore, then that’s the day I’m just going to quit. I don’t want to feel like I’ve achieved anything ever, you know?

Mhmm. What’s that song called that you were writing on the boat ride?

It’s called “In a New Found Land, You are Free.” I used “new found land.” It was actually on the complete opposite side of Canada, but I just thought it was a beautiful name for a place.

Have you started playing that song when you perform?

Yeah, I was playing it because it felt very current to me, and I’ve got a bunch of other songs but I don’t want to play them yet because I feel like this album isn’t over yet. I feel like I still have a duty to this album’s songs because I’ve let them develop and grow on the road. I’m going to stick to this Becoming a Jackal album for a little bit longer. But that song felt really current and personal to me. I wrote it as a reaction to a bereavement I had, which affected me obviously quite deeply. It was a family bereavement. So perhaps it’s a form of therapy, but it feels amazing to sing it every night. But I think I’m going to put it to bed for a while because it’s done its job and I hope to save it for the next album.

So you’re the main songwriter of Villagers. Does anyone else in the band help you write, or is that mostly your duty and they fill in the blanks?

The writing process has so far been all me. I wrote it all at home over a period of two years. I was touring with another girl called Cathy Davey at the time when I wrote this. I was her guitarist. I was touring a lot in Ireland, and a little bit in England. During that period, whenever I was free, I’d just write songs and arrange all the songs, and I’ve got this home studio. Well, it’s not really a studio; it’s more like a box that I record in. And I played all the instruments on the album and all the instruments on the demos and stuff. When I bring it to the band, they learn the parts, and we play live. They learn the parts first as they are in the recording, but then when we play live, I’m really happy to let them put their own spin on the music. It kind of develops and changes as we tour as well. It’s just really exciting. I just make sure I chose musicians that I really trusted. We’re also happily friends as well.

Who’s in the band with you?

Currently it’s Tommy McLaughlin on the guitar, and he produced the album as well. It was just the two of us recording the album in a place called Donegal in Ireland. So he’s got a big part in the band. He’s also been tour manager right up until now. He went a bit crazy recently [laughs], so he decided to give up that job. We’re getting a new tour manager. This guy called Cormac Curran. He plays the keys, and he arranged the strings on the album and the French horns. He’s more of a classically-trained musician, so he did all that stuff because I can’t read music or anything. He was a really big part of the album as well. I’ve got James Byrne on drums, who runs the record label which we released our first record on before we signed to Domino. He’s got a little indie label in Dublin. So he was a big part of developing the band and getting it known in the beginning. There’s another guy called Danny Snow on bass. He’s a pretty old friend of mine, and he was pretty much my chauffer during the whole recording process. They’ve all helped out in different ways.

It sounds like a pretty tight knit group.

Yeah. I mean, I’ve had other players in the past when they couldn’t do stuff because in Ireland, it’s such a small [music] community. People sort of share musicians. When we were starting out, sometimes those guys were playing with me and sometimes I’d get a different musician when they weren’t free. It’s been quite loose. But recently, it’s become quite a tight band because we’re touring around Europe, and we’re going to be coming to the States again for the first time as a band. But I always want to keep it loose as well. Like, if any of the guys ever says he wants to go off and do something else, that would be totally cool. We’ll find another way to get someone else or just shrink the show down. I don’t really want it to feel shackled, you know? I want to keep it loose.

Do you think that being an Irish band pigeonholes you into a certain image in the world’s eyes?

Yeah, I think so. I don’t know. It’s a tough question. Do you?

I studied abroad in Spain for a while, and I remember all the music coming from the U.S. was seen in one light, and it was different to see it from that perspective.

Well people probably think of U2. I noticed when I went to the States, a lot of people like you very much when you say that you’re Irish. We got a nice reception in the United States. I think Ireland is seen as a beautiful little green island just off the U.K., which is semi-true. There’s beautiful things in Ireland. And I think when you’re an Irish band, there’s a certain perception of a certain tradition you’re part of. Like a folk tradition. I mean, I’ve toured Ireland to death. You know, with various different bands, so I’ve seen if you get into the center of Ireland, you feel these really old pubs that are still being owned by families, and musicians playing there every night. It’s really quite quaint and old. It’s a certain feeling of freedom in Ireland, which is quite nice, and traditions being upheld. But I’m not sure if I necessarily feel part of that because I grew up in Dublin. At the age I grew up in Dublin, there was this bizarre economic boom. I don’t remember feeling this, but in hindsight, I kind of grew up in a very materialistic place, which didn’t know what to do with all this newfound wealth. There was a real lack of true spirituality, and all these things that people tend to associate with Ireland, the Catholic country that it is. I’ve got a really different view of it. Since the recession has happened, we’ve lost all the money, and I think we’re the worst hit in Europe. People are kind of rethinking what they were doing when they were spending, spending, spending. I’ve got really convoluted ideas of the place because I grew up in a really strange period of history. That’s quite a strange answer, sorry.

I’m sorry for throwing such a heavy question at you.

No, it’s great.

Getting back to your performing, I was watching you on Later… with Jools Holland. You gave off this very intimate, vulnerable vibe, and it just seems like you were very much in that moment. It kind of reminded me of how some actors have strategies to get themselves into character and get in that moment. Do you have you prepare for being in the moment in your performance?

For me, the last couple years, I feel like I’ve learned how to control myself I guess and how to really relax if you’re going to play really intimate songs. It isn’t brash or bold. I think I’ve sort of been able to do that. You just have to be able to sort of sojourn this part of you I guess. And a lot of the time, a lot of the songs—when I’m writing the lyrics—like in [“Becoming a Jackal”], I’m saying ‘I was a dreamer staring out windows,’ I’m not necessarily talking about myself. Sometimes I might be because sometimes you feel like that, but I write these songs so that they can be construed or they can stretch and bend in whatever way you want to use them. That’s in regard to the listener and that’s in regard to me when I’m performing them. So the word ‘I’ might mean someone else, and I might be using another character. At certain shows, you kind of feel like you’re embodying something else. I’m embodying a certain aspect of myself, or someone that you’ve seen or known, or anything. One of my favorite writers who does that is Randy Newman, and I think he can just get inside the character. He does that when he’s writing the song, but he doesn’t necessarily do that when he’s performing the song. He’s completely straight when he’s performing his songs, just staring straight ahead. I kinda like to take it a little further and feel the initial reasons that I wrote the song. I try to feel them while I’m singing the song. Also, that particular performance, I remember before they filmed it I was thinking I wanna sing this song to the people I can see in the room (because there was an audience of people in the room) rather than the people who I can’t see in the cameras. I kinda felt once you have an audience it’s easy. You feel it reciprocated from their reaction and energy.

In some of your songs you add a phrase. Like in “Becoming a Jackal,” you add “I’m selling you my fears,” or in “Home” you add in “we’re almost halfway,” and it almost sounds like you’re interrupting the other parts you’re singing. Is that a method you’re using?

Yeah. For that last verse in [“Becoming a Jackal”], I wanted the song to sorta fall back on itself and question everything the song had built up until that stage. I think with “Home,” the way I wrote that song, all I actually had was that phrase, “Can you call me when we’re almost halfway.” I didn’t know what I was gonna do with it; I just kept singing it because it felt good with the rhythm and the melody of the song. So I kept singing it and singing it, and then obviously something like that would suggest a car journey. And then I started the verse with a car and then it became more like a journey through a family’s life. It’s kinda like suggestions. I sort of write one line at a time and let things suggest other things. I don’t really want to direct the songs too much; I want to let them direct me more. It’s a really difficult process to describe because it’s different every time. If you try and nail down a way of writing, you’ve lost the battle already because it has to be fresh every time. You’re not going to get it and start making it into a factory, you know? It’s not a way of writing every time. That’s a way of writing and it’s a real trap. The only reason anyone wants to write is they want to keep being reborn in a certain way and feeling fresh and new. It’s exciting.

It’s refreshing to hear you say that because there are so many songs on the radio that just feel like they’re rehashing what we’ve heard before.

Yeah, there’s a lot of crap on the radio. [Laughs] That needs to change. I think a lot of music is there on the radio because it’s satisfying to the advertisers and this kind of monetary system that’s everything. I think that needs to change. I’m going to start the revolution.

How did you feel when you found out you were nominated for the Mercury Prize?

I was excited. It hadn’t even entered my mind. I hadn’t really thought anything about it, so it was exciting. My manager called me, and I just went, “Oh wow, that’s cool.” I think I was on tour at the time, so I was sort of busy as well. These things, I guess the only thing to do is take them in stride. The thing about competitions and music is so weird. They don’t really go together because music is such a subjective, personal thing when you’re listening to it, and then there’s a competition deciding which one of these albums is the best, and you can’t really take it too seriously. It’s just something that you do for fun. The media circus is there, and you just have to make it through it. I’m making sure that I don’t start thinking about this when I’m writing new songs because the songs will be terrible. They’ll be complete shite.

What are some of the thematic patterns in your songs?

I noticed when I was writing for this album, I chose these 11 out of 20 or something because they kind of linked thematically. When I write songs at a similar time, they sort of thematically link up with each other. I think in hindsight, looking back and listening to the album, I guess I was preoccupied with ideas of growth and change. I think there’s a lot of death, which I couldn’t really help. I’m 27 now, and when I turned 26, I really started focusing on death. I think when I was writing these songs, I was leading up to this period. There were also aspects of how I wanted to write an album about love and hope and beauty, but I wanted to bring them all down to the same level as greed and hunger and all these physical things because I wanted to put humankind on the same level of animals and bring out our more animalistic tendencies and scavenging aspects which I haven’t really explored that much in art. Many times, art tends to put ideas of love and beauty on this higher plane with these incredibly beautiful and spiritually things, and I wanted to bring them back down. I wanted to put them down there with puking and shitting and pissing and all that kind of stuff. That’s what I wrote about. That’s not what I’m writing about now. I’m writing about beautiful things. I’m writing about angels and things like that.



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