Monday 21 October 2019

'I'd smoked a lot of weed. I was basically tripping on stage - then the wind blew away the setlist' - Villagers' Conor O'Brien

As he prepares to play the venue again, Villagers' Conor O'Brien recalls his woeful 2010 debut at the Iveagh Gardens and shares his excitement about a forthcoming new single that he believes is as close to a summer pop song as he's ever written

Conor O'Brien of Villagers. Picture by Damien Eagers
Conor O'Brien of Villagers. Picture by Damien Eagers
New sound: Conor O'Brien. Photo by Damien Eagers / INM
John Meagher

John Meagher

The flugelhorn - for those not in the know - is a brass instrument that looks like a small trumpet. It is probably fair to say it hasn't played a significant role in Irish music up to now, but that might change if Conor O'Brien has anything to do with it.

The Dubliner, who for all intents and purposes is Villagers, has been inseparable from his flugelhorn of late. It was the sole instrument he packed when he took time out in Granada, Spain, earlier the year.

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"I'm obsessed with playing the flugelhorn now," he enthuses. "At the moment, I'm rehearsing with a new band - it's 'Villagers Mark Four' - and the flugelhorn is all over the rehearsals. I just hope to be playing in tune by the time we go on the road!" Villagers are embarking on a summer festival tour that includes dates at Dublin's Iveagh Gardens and the Galway International Arts Festival. Trying to master the instrument has led him down a jazz rabbit-hole that is likely to inform his next album. It has also brought him to Duke Ellington and, right now, O'Brien can't get enough of the jazz icon.

"It's only lately that I've really got to know his stuff and I feel that I've missed a beat all this time. There are so many eras to go with - he kept reinventing himself and I'm just really inspired by his melodies and chords.

New sound: Conor O'Brien. Photo by Damien Eagers / INM
New sound: Conor O'Brien. Photo by Damien Eagers / INM

"And I didn't realise he had a buddy called Billy Strayhorn who co-wrote a lot of the tunes that everybody thinks Duke Ellington wrote himself alone. It made me think that no one is an island - you've got to let people in."

If his most recent album, The Art of Pretending to Swim - released late last year - was almost exclusively the work of O'Brien himself, the next one, he believes, is likely to be much more collaborative.

And unlike the last one, he doesn't think he will spend quite as much time in the tiny studio he created in the attic of his Dublin apartment. "When I was making the album, I was in there all the time," he says. "It's this little cocoon that you can barely stand up in, but I've made it all kind of work. You can barely stand up in it. I really love doing that stuff, but I don't think I'm going to do it with the next album. I become obsessed with getting the music right, every little sound, and when you can't let go, it's not good for your brain. I'm going to do something different next time, maybe sketch out the songs in the attic and then work with the band in a normal studio."

He is excited about new work, including a forthcoming single - as yet untitled - that he feels is as close to a summer pop song as he's ever written. He played it at a show in Paris last month and was tickled by the reaction to it during the soundcheck.

"It was at Hôtel de Ville and people - tourists and whatever - could just wander around while we were doing the soundcheck and as soon as we started playing this song, a group of girls ran up to the front of the stage and started to jump up and down. It was like a scene from that Tom Hanks movie, That Thing You Do! - a sort of Beatlemania. We looked around at each other and thought, 'This song will do!'"

But he insists he won't make an album of big pop songs. "Oh no… I'll make it weird and f*** it up."

For a decade or so, O'Brien has been at the very front row of the Irish music scene. He cut his teeth in the short-lived band, The Immediate, and earned rhapsodic reviews for his 2010 Villagers debut album, Becoming a Jackal. Each of the following three - Awayland, Darling Arithmetic and The Art of Pretending to Swim - has also enjoyed widespread acclaim, both in Ireland and overseas.

He has been on the roster of the revered UK label Domino since that first album and he feels it's an excellent fit. "They've given me a freedom to create," he says. "They haven't ever stepped in and told me to put the chorus 30 seconds earlier or anything like that.

"I don't like most mainstream music, so they're like the perfect fit for me. They're happy to let me tinker away with my stuff. Sometimes I'd prefer to be a bit more prolific, but I can't leave things alone and I keep changing stuff."

He also admits that he would be more productive if he could put his phone away more often. A central theme of his last album was how the online world can divorce us from reality. He says he is as guilty of living through social media as anyone.

"I haven't found a solution," he says. "I'm addicted. It's terrible. I find little periods where I manage to give it up for a while. I have a little seat in my apartment where I have a book and a light over the chair and I put my phone away and I try to read… but soon it's back to the phone and checking everything and I go down little YouTube holes. Algorithms are both the bane of my life and the most beautiful thing in the world."

And the algorithmic nature of Amazon, YouTube and a slew of other everyday websites led him to write a song about the 19th-century mathematician, Ada Lovelace. "She's kind of seen as the beginning of computers and when I started to learn about her - after I'd written all these songs about being addicted to the internet - I realised that song ['Ada'] would be a perfect fit."

Radiohead's 1997 album, OK Computer, predicted a world where technology would rule and for the then 14-year-old O'Brien, it was a pivotal release. "The first gig I ever went to was Radiohead in the RDS [Dublin] the year OK Computer came out. It was the sort of show that left a deep impression on me and for a long time, Radiohead was the band I was listening to all the time."

Radiohead informed his early attempts at songwriting, too. "Recently, I found old tapes I had made and a friend gave me his old Tascam four track [recorder] which is the only thing you can use to play the tapes and there's definitely a lot of three-part, operatic stuff going on in those songs [inspired, he adds, by OK Computer highlight 'Paranoid Android'].

Later, he would fall hard for the likes of Bob Dylan and Planxty, and when RTÉ approached him to take part in a series exploring Ireland's most popular folk songs, he was happy to be involved.

"They asked me to take on 'On Raglan Road'. I sing that song all the time so I felt very comfortable with it. I turned up on the day and decided to make up new chords there and then. It riled a lot of people! When you go near tunes that people hold dear to their hearts, and f*** with them, people get annoyed - maybe rightly so."

He says he is looking forward to the pair of Irish dates lined up for the summer and feels that the songs have evolved in a direction he is content with since the recruitment of his new band. He is especially keen to deliver a good show at the Iveagh Gardens because he admits that his debut performance there in 2010 was woeful.

"It was the first getting-paid-to-do-a-gig gig and I was supporting Josh Ritter," he says. "It was just me on stage doing a solo set and I'd smoked a lot of weed. I was basically tripping on stage. Then the wind blew the set list away and when I tried to sing, I got flappy mouth. I walked off about 15 minutes early.

"I can't touch weed now and maybe that experience has something to do with it. I was at a different stage of my life then, living in a house with a lot of other people in a sort of commune vibe. It took me about a year to train myself not to take a joint off someone."

O'Brien meets Review a few days after the local and European elections and he is heartened by the strides made by the Green Party.

"There's so much bad planning in this country and one of the upshots of that is how it's very hard for creative people to afford to live somewhere like Dublin. I'm lucky, but many of my friends are not. They're getting out - and they will never be coming back. They [politicians] seem to forget that a city's creative life is very important."

He says he is "not massively politically minded" and with the exception of his song 'Occupy Your Mind', which he wrote to protest the anti-gay rhetoric in Russia prior to the 2014 Winter Olympics, he stays clear of political songwriting. "I'd only really do it if it's authentic in my creative process - I don't want to try to force anything out. It just wouldn't work on any level."

Villagers play the Iveagh Gardens on July 12 and the Galway International Arts Festival (with John Grant) on July 18

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