Villagers is the nom de plume of one Conor O’Brien, the young Irish gent with the piercing blue eyes positioned above these words. Having released his debut album Becoming A Jackal on Domino Records last month to widespread acclaim (surely topping the album charts in Ireland is nothing to be sneered at), O’Brien has been steadfast in moving his Villagers around the country, like a pack of wayward Irish gypsies.
A beautifully orchestrated record, …Jackals is a wild, vibrant ride from the hushed, understated tones of the title track, to the rollicking Arcade Fire-esque brilliance of “Ship of Fools”. Already in the throes of on an extensive tour of Europe and America, Chris Berkley of Static sits down to chat (in opposite hemispherical corners it should be made clear) with O’Brien as he explains the birth of the band, the origin of the name, the surprising popularity of Miss Fast Car herself, Tracy Chapman, and how to unleash your inner werewolf.
Are things looking a bit hectic now? You never know where you are when you wake up in the mornings?
Yeah. I’ve been travelling a lot at the moment. It’s a good time. I’ve never done it before. It’s all new (laughs).
You brought this busy schedule on you anyway, because you used to be part of a four piece band. Are you having to handle everything for Villagers?
Yeah. I have brought it on myself. I’ve been thinking that recently. I pretty much do all the writing and recording and all the creative parts but in terms of actually touring and everything it’s very much a band show. I let go of the reigns a bit when we go on tour, which feels nice.
But all that means is that the band turns up to play and drink your rider. You’re getting the raw end of the deal here.
(laughs) Well our rider’s a bit of water, a bit of ginger, a bit of honey. It’s ok. I don’t mind.
Were you ready to leap back into having band mates around again? You were in this band called The Immediate a few years ago which seems, from what I’ve been able to piece together, to have dissolved. Did you go out on your own after that or were you always looking to be part of a band again?
When The Immediate broke up that was my childhood band, they were the guys I went to school with and were my best friends since we were very young. It’s a big deal in someone’s life, I guess. I didn’t really want to start a band. I just started writing songs. I didn’t even know if I was going to release them or get anyone to play them. Then I went on tour as a guitarist with a girl in Ireland called Cathy Davey and during that whole period I was writing the songs for the Villagers album. And when I’d gotten a bunch of songs together I thought I should put them up on the internet and when I’d put them up people were asking if I was playing shows. So I called a couple of friends of mine and asked them if they wanted to play and they did. It was very gradual, I hadn’t really thought it through, it was step by step. I didn’t really want to make music with anyone else I was a bit scared of that.
Did you play some shows on your own as a solo troubadour or did you never had the guts to do that?
The first time I did a solo show was in front of five thousand people in Nantes, France, opening for Tracy Chapman. So that was a bit freaky. I also had to get there through walking through all these motorways. I just made it but it was good.
I’m amazed Tracy Chapman was playing to five thousand people in recent times. That’s incredible.
Oh yeah. She’s got a proper solid fan base. I toured Europe with her.
Were you sort of bricking it then being solo on stage after having different people around you for all those times?
I wasn’t really bricking it. It’s a nice mixture of a new found freedom. The thing that really struck me was that you don’t have anyone else to bounce ideas off in the songwriting stage. That was something I had to get used to. But it also can be quite liberating. Which is what I tried to focus on.
Is it liberating in the fact that there’s no one telling you that you can’t do stuff?
Yeah, you’re looking at blank page and it’s your blank page. You can do whatever you want with it.
How did you settle on the name Villagers were you always going to use a band name? were you nervous about going out under your own name?
That was after I recorded a bunch of demos, and I’d played all the instruments myself — there was drums and pianos, organs, bass, electric and acoustic guitars. I figured if I was going to recreate this live I’d have to get a band together. So I named it before I even got the band together. I wanted something describing a group of people, a really anonymous name, something that wouldn’t affect the songs, wouldn’t tie the songs down. You can’t really tell what the music is going to be. It’s just a really nice faceless, anonymous name. I want the music to change and grow as well and I think that name will help it.
From listening to the Villagers album you seem quite self aware of the art or the act of storytelling. The album opens with song like “I Saw the Dead” which sets the scene, it’s very conversational in tone. Did you learn that from being on stage and presenting songs — the way to reel people into your music?
Yeah actually a lot of the stuff was written with the very specific idea of singing the song to a group of people in a room in real time. I was thinking that while I was writing the songs. I think that helps in terms of how directly communicative your lyrics can be. I definitely had an idea of performing it as I was writing it.
Do you find there needs to be that connection between storyteller and listener? A song like “Meaning of the Ritual” has that first person narration about it. Do you find it easier to write that way?
Sometimes it can be really helpful. I think first person is a really interesting tool to use in writing. Because the way I see it, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re talking about yourself. You’re using it as a way of getting inside someone else’s head or inhabiting other characters of people you’ve seen or known. So with “…Ritual” it made sense to say “I” but it could’ve just of well been “He” or “She” or any of those things. They’re all the same really. That’s the way I see it. I think everyone’s walking around with these massive fantastical palaces in their head and none of us ever communicate them to each other, so these songs are my way of doing that.
I also like the fact that some songs go beyond words. The wolf howls on “Pieces” tell the story even more so than words.
That from another demo experience I had. It went through a lot of phases, I think there were six of seven different arrangements and the version that made it to the album was the final one. I remember recording it at three or four in the morning and losing it a little bit and really, really, really enjoying it. It was a really pure, joyful experience getting that version down. Which contrasts with the lyrics quite a lot, but that’s kind of the way I like it. I think some of these songs may sound sad or tortured or whatever but they really weren’t when I was making them. They were the most joyful, blissful experiences I’ve ever had.
Hearing you let your werewolf loose is great, have you got to the stage yet where a lot of people know that song and are howling back at you? I can’t wait to see audiences do that to you, Conor.
(laughs). I can’t wait either. I don’t think I’ve seen it yet. Maybe they do. Usually my eyes are closed at that point.
You’re on tour forever at the moment. I hope you can come down to Australia sometime, there’s plenty of werewolves and other animals down here… so you can release the beast down under.
I’d love to come to Australia. I’ve never been. I’m looking forward to it.
First broadcast on Static on 17/06/10. Static can be heard on Sydney’s 2SER (107.3 FM) and via the Internet (www.2ser.com) every Thursday evening (AEST).
Transcription: Caleb Rudd