Adventures in dramatic electronics and familiar baroque pop with Villagers.


With his sophomore effort, ‘Awayland’, released this month, Irish baroque pop auteur Conor O’Brien is in the sort of fine form we last saw him in in 2011. Emerging from the ashes of Dublin indie quartet The Immediate, his Villagers project has enjoyed a stellar couple of years by any standard, with debut album ‘Becoming A Jackal’ making the 2010 Mercury Prize shortlist and the record’s title track going on to win an Ivor Novello award for Best Song Musically and Lyrically in May 2011. Wall-to-wall critical acclaim and tours with Elbow and Grizzly Bear bookended his first solo campaign, but despite this, O’Brien’s feet have remained firmly on the ground. He is charmingly self-effacing. For example, when I mention the band’s magnificent Brixton Academy support slot with Grizzly Bear last October, his modesty and perfectionist ethic are hinted at as he plays down the performance’s impact, focusing instead on its flaws. “It was a good show,” he says, “but it wasn’t the best of the tour. It felt like a big echo chamber and you couldn’t really hear the detail. It’s such a cool room but it’s such a hard place to play because it’s just so echoey.”

Conor is also gracefully level-headed when it comes to the concept of awards and their accompanying baggage. He says: “They’re obviously important, I guess, and it’s nice to get recognition, but you have a strange relationship with them when you’re a writer. Anything that is related to your writing can affect your ability to write the next time you do it if it affects you mentally.

“My initial reaction is always to bring the guard up,” he’s says, “which is strange to people because they think you don’t care about it or you don’t want it but it’s not that. You just have to make sure that it’s not the reason to write your next album. I have mixed feelings about those things.”

When asked how this album differs from its elder sibling he also shuns hyperbole, wary of casting ‘Awayland’ as a volte-face. You get the impression he wants to avoid the pressure and restrictiveness of labels, so while the computer-driven energy of lead single ‘The Waves’ has elicited raised eyebrows from a blogosphere that has grown accustomed to almost purely acoustic sounds from O’Brien, he’s quick to reassure that the album is by no means a move towards electronica. “’The Waves’ is the most electronic on the whole album,” he notes. “The rest of the songs have elements of it but that one was a red herring that we threw out there first.” And yet, ‘Awayland’ is far from business as usual for Villagers. While O’Brien is sceptical of change for change’s sake, he’s conscious to point out that there was a shift in tack when approaching this album. “I didn’t sit down and think of the reason why I was using these new technologies and methods,” he says. “I just started experimenting and spent months and months and months making 20-minute long grooves and ambient soundscapes.”

Rather than an out-and-out defection, then, ‘Awayland’ is a marriage of man and machine; richer in texture and far fuller in sound as a result of the bionic symbiosis.

“What’s the point of making another album unless you’ve learned something new and you’re trying to bring it on a little more?” O’Brien asks. “I needed to give myself a broader palette so I learnt how to use samplers and drum machines and synthesisers. That’s how the album started. It wasn’t in any way trying to be classically written songs at the beginning. At least in my head it was going to be a funky psychedelic trip, with perhaps long passages of music and not many words. That was the first thing that came into my head. I didn’t really want to make the same album and I had writers’ block and didn’t know what to write with an acoustic guitar. Very slowly I reverted back to my acoustic when songs started forming,” he says. “It’s quite layered.”

But you get the sense that O’Brien is doing himself a disservice as he describes his retreat towards the guitar. Since the warm, beguiling folk of ‘Becoming A Jackal’, Villagers has drip-fed three singles as teasers for ‘Awayland’. While the most recent of these, ‘Nothing Arrived’, is relatively familiar terrain, ‘The Waves’ and ‘Passing A Message’ are brutal, stingingly cathartic affairs and it’s in these that the nascent avant garde leanings of ‘Awayland’ emerge. The former achieves hostility through ominous electronic oscillations that build to screams, while the menacing, poly-rhythmic folk-funk of the ‘Passing A Message’ is angrier and more unnerving than anything you’ve ever heard from the Villagers camp.

Of course, that Ivor Novello was bestowed upon O’Brien as much for his lyrical composition as his sonic craft, and Villagers’ output is set apart by its poetic, at times archaic, lexicon and the minute detail of its episodic narratives. Whether it’s the invitation to the protagonist’s “unmade bed” in ‘Becoming A Jackal’ or the scattered, broken pieces of the city’s statues in ‘Cecilia & Her Selfhood’, O’Brien’s storytelling is imbued with a laser focus that is always delightfully engaging. What, then, about the subject matter on this record? Have the themes changed?

“This one travels a bit more,” he says. “There’s more geographical references and, for me, there’s a general feeling of musical landscapes and wide open spaces. It’s quite an expansive-sounding record.”

And the title; is the idea of otherness important?

“I came up with that after I’d written the album. I wanted it to be a made-up word and something that was childish sounding. I liked the way it was the opposite of homeland and all the baggage that that word comes with. I didn’t want it to be a specific thematic, academic thing – I thought the first album was a little bit more like that.”

For newcomers to Villagers, O’Brien’s plural nom de plume may confuse. However, while ‘Becoming A Jackal’ was essentially a solo album, recording was more of a group approach this time around. “[The process] has changed a lot,” he says. “Just before we went into the studio to record the songs as a band I spent a long time working on them myself as demos. If anything, I worked these demos to a higher degree than the Jackal demos because I was also learning the technology. It was almost ready, the album, before we went in to record it, but we decided to go further with it this time so I got the band to learn the parts of the demos and then we got together.”

O’Brien and the live band then cloistered themselves away in County Donegal in the North West of Ireland and rehearsed meticulously, “almost pretending we had a tour in a week.” After a few days the chemistry kicked in and the songs began to evolve. “It was more collaborative. We were all together in the studio, which was another main difference this time around. I just did all the last one myself. Obviously, with five people there are ideas coming from everywhere.” O’Brien’s voice bristles with satisfaction as he talks of the benefits of this new way of working. “I’m glad we did that because the guys are awesome at their roles and it allowed me to be free to think about more textural aspects rather than worry about playing. It was more of a factory, really, between all of us.”

In his press release, O’Brien states that ‘Awayland’ is a journey: “It travels through space and time and leads you back for dinner. Maybe try it on headphones first, without interruption.” While it sounds a little facetious (when I suggest that his tongue was firmly in cheek when he penned these lines, the inevitable retort comes: “My ass cheek.”), it seems that O’Brien values the idea of the album and I’m keen to sound out his feelings on the format and its place in today’s musical landscape.

“I really like albums because they’re a really nice length of time,” he says. “It feels like they’re the right amount of time to make a statement. But maybe my listening habits are different.”

With the recent launch of Spotify in Ireland, O’Brien sees the album as a framework that will be sticking around. “I can’t really see it disappearing because, from a consumer’s point of view, why would you fill a hard drive up of mp3s when you can just listen to any album you want at any time for a tenner a month. I can envisage, in a few years’ time, maybe streaming and vinyl being the two main sources.” On his current listening habits, however, he is a little coyer. He mentions Julee Cruise and Cole Porter, half-embarrassed that he can only think of “old music” when pressed. Nas and Kendrick Lemar are quickly name-checked, though he disappointingly (!) rules out the possibility of any skits on ‘Awayland’, “unless you play one of the songs backwards and then you hear the sound of am … no, no, I’m lying.”

What about the future, then? Everything seems to be mapped out for 2013 and Villagers’ excitement is palpable. “We’re pretty much going to just tour,” he buzzes. “That’s all we’re going to do. We’re going to go to Japan for the first time at the beginning of February, which is amazing. I can’t wait to do that.” It’s a refreshing counterpoint to the oft-lamented ennui of live artists as he verbally traverses the globe in an enthused string of ands. “We’re doing European dates and then we’re going to do UK dates and then Irish dates and then after that, when it gets to April, I’m not sure what’s happening but it’s definitely going to involve touring. I think there’s talk of doing stuff in the States – I think the album’s going to come out in April there. I’m just going to try and keep – or at least start  – writing again. I kind of took a break from that recently but I want to see if the juices are flowing.” It’s emblematic of O’Brien’s positive yet practical approach that he won’t let any relapse of writers’ block get him down; “But if they aren’t then I won’t force them.” And why should he? If ‘Awayland’ grew out of a period of creative fallow, O’Brien has every reason to remain confident.

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