Interview with the Villagers
As the founder and essentially focal point of Villagers, Conor O'Brien is a man on a mission. Already bitten once by the harsh realities of the music industry after the sudden implosion of previous outfit The Immediate, his latest project looks set to finally establish him as one of the most promising songwriters of his generation.
Recent single 'Becoming A Jackal' received a modicum of critical acclaim and his forthcoming album, also entitled 'Becoming A Jackal' looks set to do the same when it hits the shops later this month.
Contactmusic caught up with the softly spoken O'Brien at this year's Camden Crawl Festival, and unsurprisingly found him a little embarrassed rather than daunted at some of the recent Conor Oberst and Elliott Smith comparisons..
You're playing several UK festivals this summer, although I believe Camden Crawl is your first ever in this country as Villagers?
That's right, although we did play Electric Picnic in Ireland last summer, even though that did come about somewhat by accident!
What kind of response did you get considering you are even now, still something of a new project?
It was really good. We did two shows there, the first one was in this little tiny ravine and the second was in this massive tent, which is the first time I'd ever played to that many people. It was an amazing experience to be honest, something I'll never forget.
You're currently receiving a lot of plaudits for 'Becoming A Jackal'. Did you expect so much widespread recognition so early on in Villagers career?
I try not to expect anything. I literally wrote the song and everything seems to have happened gradually as a result since. I tend to let my manager deal with all the attention. My focus is on writing.
The album is set to follow in a couple of weeks. Will there be any more singles taken from the record in the future?
Definitely. We had a discussion about that with the label over the last few days and we've settled on 'Ship Of Promises', which I'm really happy with. It's perhaps not the most obvious single in terms of radio play but I think it's definitely an exciting choice.
You've been compared to the likes of Bright Eyes and Elliott Smith. Do you feel there's an increased burden of expectation on your shoulders as a result?
I guess it probably does. I'm a really big Elliott Smith fan and I quite like some of Bright Eyes records too. I guess I'm cursed, because I sort of look like a more hamster sized version of Conor Oberst, and I have a very similar name and play an acoustic guitar, so it was inevitable comparisons like this were gonna happen. They're nice comparisons I guess, although I'm quite embarrassed to be mentioned in the same breath as such legendary performers if I'm brutally honest!
In terms of where you are now musically and where you were a couple of years ago as a member of The Immediate, what influenced the change in direction?
I'd already started writing the songs for this album two years ago, and at the time The Immediate were about to break up, which felt a bit strange, as I'd been with them since I was very young. It was the first time I'd ever tried writing on my own - previously I'd always collaborated with other members of the group, and that influenced me big time because I was completely solitary and had no one to bounce ideas off. At first it was a weird experience but as time went on I gradually become used to writing on my own, and looking back I'm happier with the results more than anything I've been involved with beforehand.
I guess with Villagers being primarily your project, even though there are up to five members contributing at various times, the dynamic must be totally different from when you were in The Immediate.
In The Immediate it was mainly a 50-50 split between Dave Hedderman and me. We'd been writing together right from the age of twelve so when that broke up it was a big deal, almost like the end of a relationship. I mean, we're still really good friends, but the working partnership is no more. With Villagers, not only do I write everything, I also play all the instruments on the recordings too. I then give it to the band to learn when its finished and when we play live, I'm quite open to them changing their parts slightly so as to add their own interpretative stamp if you like. I think that is healthy in order to help the songs grow and develop, plus in terms of the live show it means you get to see a real band performance rather than just me and a group of helping hands.
Do you think your experiences with The Immediate have made you much wiser in terms of understanding the music industry and its many pitfalls?
I think so. When I was in The Immediate I think I took things far too seriously. It was the first time I'd ever experienced any kind of adulation in a musical sense and I think I started to panic when things didn't quite fall into place how I'd expected them to. The one thing I won't be doing with Villagers is taking anything for granted. I think the industry can be quite fickle and so I'm more prepared for any knockbacks this time around I guess.
What kind of advice would you give to new bands that are just starting out?
I'd say take other people's advice but only take it with a large pinch of salt! You should have your own path and should be constantly following that. Everyone is going to have completely different opinions about what you do but that doesn't necessarily mean you have to listen to any of them at all.
You've also spent time playing guitar in fellow singer/songwriter Cathy Davey's band. What kind of experiences did you learn from working with her?
I picked up so much from working with Cathy. I saw the way she structured songs, and realised that she was coming from a completely different angle to anything I'd done previously. We also worked together quite closely in terms of the live show. We seemed to have a mutual admiration for each other that was quite refreshing. It was also the first time I'd played with new musicians outside of The Immediate, some of whom I've since stolen from her as part of my live band!
How did she react to that?
Well, we're sort of trying to figure that one out at the minute! They're technically still in her band as well and Cathy's commitments come first, so it looks like a few of my shows this summer will be solo, as I know they're gonna be on tour with Cathy at various points.
Is she quite supportive of what you're doing as Villagers?
She's been overly supportive. Some of my earliest demos were recorded by Cathy in her house a good eighteen months or so ago. She had a few days off and invited me over, and it was the first time I'd ever recorded with pro-tools and spent eight hours every day recording my songs.
You've recently signed to Domino, who boast one of the most exceptional rosters in music with the likes of Pavement, Franz Ferdinand and the Arctic Monkeys among their ranks. How did that come about?
Funnily enough we're supporting Pavement next week.am I excited? You bet I am! The link with Domino came about mainly through my manager, although I hadn't actually agreed for him to be my manager at that stage! We were supporting Cass McCombs - Villagers second ever show - and he managed to persuade one of the Domino guys who works in Ireland to come down, and he just caught the end of the set. He then told Laurence Bell, who runs the label, about us and he came to a few of our shows and after we played a particular one in London he offered us a deal.
I guess one major positive about signing for a label like Domino is the creative freedom you're given.
Totally. We actually recorded the album in our guitarist Tommy McLaughlin's parents attic in Donegal, and when it was finished we delivered the record to the label and they never batted an eyelid about how we'd recorded it or where! I think after hearing the demos they just believed in what we were doing, and the only input they really had in making the record was choosing someone to put together the final mix.
The music press have been very supportive of Villagers so far. How would you feel if they turned against you?
I think if they gave us a bad review I'd probably be inclined to agree with it! If you look at a Youtube video of Villagers and see all these lovely comments then in the middle there's a bad one I tend to think they're right! Any negative reviews or comments about my work are the ones I focus on the most.
Would you ever change the way you write in response to something of this nature?
I hope not. You have to try and be completely pig-headed when you're creating music or else it will just become a watered down version of someone else's ideas.
The album 'Becoming A Jackal' is out on Monday 24th May through Domino Records.