“I Don’t Have The Answers, I Just Make The Music” Villagers Interviewed

Conor O’Brien on songwriting, their new album, and an emotional return to the stage...

“At Latitude, I just forgot how to play the trumpet,” Conor O’Brien of indie-folk band Villagers tells me over Zoom. It goes without saying it’s been tough for everybody returning to work post-lockdown, out of practice with water cooler convos and how to work the coffee machine. And it’s no different for musicians – except their awkward fumbles happen in front of crowds of thousands atop stages at festivals.  

“My adrenaline just took over,” he continues. “And when you're playing the trumpet, even if you're playing loud, you have to have control. You can't just blow really hard into it and get sound – and my body just forgot that. So there was a whole period for one of the songs where I was blowing into the trumpet and getting absolutely no notes that were anywhere near the key of the song,” he says with a self-deprecating laugh. “My outer self was really buzzed up and excited. But my inner self was like, ‘calm down, calm down, play the music, just chill out, do the show.’ You have to be match-fit for the shows really and that takes a couple of nights of playing.”

After the best part of two years away from a stage, the return to playing live has felt like a baptism of fire for O’Brien. Not least, the first slew of gigs were in the intimate spaces of record stores across the UK which, he explains, can counterintuitively be even more intimidating than being faced with an expansive, anonymous crowd with the full force of a sound system and backing band behind you: “In one way it’s a really nice, natural way to get back into it. But in another way, it's the most intense possible way you can ever get back into it. Because there's no bells and whistles, there's no division, you're just there in front of people all of a sudden.”

I confess to him I was actually in the audience for one of the gigs, nestled amongst the rows of dust-covered vinyl at Banquet Records: “Actually, that show was the first and I was a little overwhelmed!” he admits. “But I still enjoyed it. We were kind of figuring it out as we went along on that one. You can't hide, you know, it’s amazing. And my keyboard player, Kevin, stole the show a bit at some of the gigs. There were a lot of people coming up to me and they're like, ‘can I speak to Kevin please?’ And I was like, ‘er, I wrote the song?’ He was getting so much looser with the tunes as the week went on – in a really great way – and I found myself holding them down a bit more. We were sort of pushing and pulling musically from each other. So it was a really natural, nice way to figure it all out again and make a few mistakes in front of people. That was kind of cool.”

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I’m speaking to O’Brien from his home turf in Dublin. He apologies in advance if he’s slightly “slow”: “I’m a little bit wrecked. We just did 10 shows in six days so I'm still a bit woozy!” he says with a genuinely exhausted smile. He expresses frustration however that the situation at home is somewhat behind that of the UK: “We can't play any shows here, so that's not so nice. The anger is starting to mount a little bit.”

The band even almost didn’t make their first UK gigs due to their crew not being able to travel for COVID reasons. So was it all worth it to get back out there in front of a real live audience? Did we miss out on all that much only listening to performances via screens from the comfort of our sofas? “I think when you're playing songs to people, and everyone's in the same room or tent or whatever – it's a massive cliché, but it's true – it becomes a collective experience. And you just don't get that on livestreams,” the singer suggests.

“With livestream, you're sort of putting yourself out there onto people's screens and there's much more potential for it to feel a bit more narcissistic and a bit more performative. When you're playing with a group of people in front of you, and you're all there physically, something else takes over. You don't have that same egocentrism. It's probably something quite spiritual or something. It was that that came back to me towards the end of the Latitude show.”

Another reason the return to live performance has been crucial for Villagers was the chance to finally road-test their brand new material in front of real-life audiences in the form of fifth studio album 'Fever Dreams'. Fortuitously, O’Brien had already kickstarted the writing and recording process just before the world became trapped behind closed doors for the foreseeable last March: “It started with just booking a couple of days with the band which I'd been playing with at the time and kind of booking them too early,” he explains. “And that was almost on purpose as well, just to flesh the songs out in a way that I've never done before. And it was really liberating because it allowed me to let go of lots of things which I would always hold on tight to in previous works.”

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A completely different approach to music creation allowed him to discover new corners and edges to his unmistakable Villagers sound, carved out over the last decade since 2010 debut 'Becoming A Jackal': “It was really fun because it was like looking into an abyss and going ‘let's try this now’ and trusting the guys and making music purely. Like trying to try to make music and chord changes that would purely rock the band and make us all feel good in the room.”

In a reciprocal and more fluid process than he was accustomed to, O’Brien would alternate between writing and playing with the full band to refine and hone the sound of each track: “I think we had about four full-band sessions,” he further explains. “And each time in between, I would write stuff based on what we'd done. We’d record the demo jams and everything so it was very layered. I kept bringing a few more words back to the band and then we would have that in our headphones and I would whisper to the guys while they're playing and give directions. So it was all very social. The first day of lockdown was our very last full-band session. Then it was a case of taking it all back and just going crazy with it for a year and bringing it into slightly more delirious places. So we had quite a lot of layers to the process really!”

Having that unexpected extended period to be going over the recordings made just in the nick of time, not only kept O’Brien entertained while cooped up at home, but also led to the songs having time to percolate and transmutate in more weird and wonderful ways than if lockdown hadn’t hit: “It would have been a different kind of record,” he reflects. For example, tracks such as 'Full Of Faith In Providence', “which we recorded as a full band. I guess it was trying to be like 'Exit Music (For A Film)' by Radiohead. It was just this big epic thing. I thought it was the greatest thing we’d ever recorded in my life. And then, when I took it back, after all the band sessions, I realised it was actually just much stronger in my apartment on my piano, with a little zoom recorder. There was this complete silence around my apartment, because that first lockdown had just hit. So I was able to just record that and then send it to my friend, Rachael Lavelle, and she put these amazing vocals on it. And I think if it hadn’t been for lockdown and I might have just worked more and more on the full band version, and it might not have been the kind of intimate moment on the album. So little things like that definitely changed for sure.”

The impact of the pandemic on the making of the record wasn’t only felt in a practical sense but also on the themes of the album. Although the idea of pushing the boundaries between what's real and what is a dream, between reality and escapism were always present, those themes were imbued with new meaning after we were all involuntarily confined to our living space – the ability to be transported elsewhere through music becoming prescient in some respects: “Yeah, that was a nice serendipity,” O’Brien says. “The escapism thing for me was more psychological initially. It was more just trying to write music that was sensory and less cerebral, trying to get out of the algorithmic psychology that the internet has started, trying to celebrate nuance and messiness and complication, and all that stuff that gets lost on screens. That was the initial escapist theme. And then it just took on more meaning when lockdown hit.”

In fact, the album had a completely different title to begin with: “The album was initially called ‘The More I Know, The More I Care’, which is the mantra that repeats throughout the songs.” Although in the end, O’Brien thought “it was a crap title,” that thread remained. “It was definitely the mantra in terms of trying to find all sides of things and trying to take things in and do what the poet John Keats would call ‘negative capability’, which is holding opposing thoughts in your head without reaching after fact or reason. And all that stuff the binary thinking of the internet is depleting a little bit. So it was psychological initially. And then, it was funny, it was like, ‘Oh, I can't go five kilometres from my house,’ so it also became about a physical escape.”

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As with the response to most questions I pose to O’Brien, it doesn’t take much to scratch below the surface to find a wealth of references, deep reflections and richness of meaning behind each lyrical and sonic decision he has made, a treasure trove of gems to be discovered on each listen. And that is no different when it comes to the influences he cites for the sound and improvised approach to the making of the album, in particular his relatively recent appreciation of jazz: “I kind of put jazz on a pedestal,” he says. “I'll always be an indie rock kid. Like, I grew up learning Graham Coxon’'s guitar lines. So now that I've sort of gotten more into jazz and different types of jazz – it's something that's just untouchable for me and I’m kind of in awe of all the time. And it's fed its way into the creation of this, in terms of trying to let the music steer where I was going rather than holding on too tight to the ideas thematically.”

It seemed to be a process of absorbing an eclectic range of different musicians’ work and then distilling it down and leaving it to seep into the record rather a conscious effort to reflect very specific ideas: “There was lots of spiritual jazz stuff, that Floating Points and Pharoah Sanders record was a big one,” he says. “And Alice Coltrane and that her Ashram Tapes. I was more just trying to make sensory music, music that would work tonally and really getting deep into the emotional impact of tones and textures and rather than trying to think too much about having a message or anything. Just trying to make humanist, kind of agnostic, devotional music. I think that hadn't been made. I didn't make a spiritual jazz album but something different, which was my kind of weird filtering of it, I suppose.”

In that sense, what Villagers’ new album also seems to have achieved is to push into new territory while remaining accessible. Does he see that there is a balance to be had between creating something unique without becoming too testing on the listener? “I think, for me personally, that just points towards working as hard as possible,” he replies. “And having layers to the process. So with a song like 'The First Day', which kind of ended up as the obvious first single of the album, I just really wanted to make enjoyable music when I was making it. And that was kind of a novel thing for me. I'd never really started like that before. I was more trying to delve into my soul. But I started that track with a superficial idea of just making good music that someone can boogie to, a song that reminds me of being at a great festival. And that was the beginning of that. But then it went through many, many layers and processes in terms of lots of demos and that's when extra stuff started building into it. So I think it's just hard work and trying to try to have different layers on which the listener can take the song in.”

A standout song that captures much of the sentiment of the album is 'Circles In The Firing Line', which, I suggest, the singer has a discernible fire in his belly on. He calls it a “Trump-era song”: “I don't want to say his name!” he exclaims. “But it’s about just watching dialogue become less sophisticated on all sides of the political spectrum. Because this person was one of the most powerful people in the world and watching that butterfly effect and how we're still at this early internet age and how that's kind of dangerous. We have to sometimes step away from the screens. Being vigilant against that was trying to read literature again and trying to read long-form things and trying to keep my brain fit. But I find myself often getting sucked into the increasingly tribalist discussion online. And yeah, that song was kind of breaking away from that.”

His return to literature led him to the surreal humour of Flann O’Brien, and even run a book club alongside the making of the record: “It was just a really nice way to revisit stuff I’d read previous to lockdown and during lockdown as well. I’d do a book review like I was in school again and it was actually interesting because I felt like it allowed me to understand the books a bit more. Also, I did English literature and Sociology in university years ago but I realised in the last few years that the majority of what they gave me to read was men. So in the last couple of years, I'm trying to focus on reading more women. And it's sort of blown my mind a little bit because I'm realising I was only getting half the story. And that was part of the book club, being excited about that.”

Another beautifully crafted track is the languidly summery 'So Simpatico'. That song he started writing in Granada in Spain: “I was on a very rare holiday, a once every four years holiday,” he recalls. “And I was just taking in everything, just the scenery and going for long, long walks. I ended up staying in the son of the painter Maria Morales’ house. She was a surrealist painter, and her stuff reminded me of LS Lowry. She'd do an almost quite childlike painting of a wedding happening somewhere in Granada in the mid 20th century. And then some of the characters might be floating in the sky or something and it's just really bizarre with, interesting, slightly dreamlike aspects to it. And the song was just a love letter to her home. It also came from reading Federico Garcia Lorca, who's the Granadan poet.”

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But it was also another piece that went through many forms before it made it onto the album, whose seeming simplicity can be deceiving: “I came back and brought that to the band and it just had way too many words. It was just a bit of a mess and I nearly gave up on it. And then my drummer Ross just said, ‘No, no, there's definitely something there. We just need to play it.’ And so we just kept playing it. And then I kept realising, ‘just get rid of all the words and just use the hook.’ And then, suddenly, it felt so fun to play. So it was just this really kind of gradual, natural thing, but there's probably a lot more weird stuff bubbling underneath because there was so much taken out of it.”

One of the most unique tracks is Song In Seven which was borne out of an obsession of sorts with the number seven: “We were backstage, doing a double headline with John Grant in Galway, and Danny and I were jamming 'Song In Seven' before I'd gotten a name for it,” the musician tells me. “And Danny just went ‘Oh, is that in seven.’ I hadn't figured out it was in seven but then I was like, ‘Oh my God, that's amazing.’ Because the number seven just kept appearing in my life. And it still does. It was so weird. It just keeps appearing. And I don't think I'm looking for it. I started looking into the number seven in all the world religions and I started just seeing it everywhere. And then I started mixing the album in multiples of seven – maybe this is lockdown insanity – but a lot of the stuff is planned in seven or 21 or 14. And then we went to play a show in Holland, and we went swimming in the North Sea. It was really warm and a magical night and we just looked up and there were the seven stars of Ursa Major in the sky. And my mind was blown. And then that started making its way into the song. I still don't really know what it is, but I really, really enjoy singing it.”

That dreamlike, undefinable quality to Fever Dream’s songs are both a product of O’Brien wanting to capture a feeling in each song, rather than a concept, and wanting to leave their interpretation to the reader rather than be prescriptive: “I think that's music for me,” he says. “That's the beauty of creativity and trying to be as far away from an ideological stance as possible, and trying to find something different and inspire some sort of intellectual curiosity. Trying to make the listener do a bit of work is kind of nice, I think.”

As for the music industry getting back on its feet post-lockdown: “I feel tentative a little bit because it's not really just the artists,” he suggests, “it's kind of more so the crews and the people who put up stages – they're the people who are really suffering. And in Ireland the debate’s getting more aggressive. So it's a little difficult to see through that fog at the moment. But, I'm pretending that everything's going ahead. And I'm super excited, just on a pure, egocentric level to tour. But it's difficult to not have a caveat of like, but what about my home country? So slightly tentative, but hopeful.”

And it’s quite the UK tour they have set including the Albert Hall of Manchester, “a big deal for me because I love Manchester and we've just had this weird graduation there where we played Gorilla so many times, then we finally did the cathedral last time and now we're finally getting to do the Albert Hall. So it's just taken us 10 years…”Plus they’ll be hitting London’s Roundhouse again (it was incredible last time we played it), shows in Ireland and across the rest of Europe: “So it's just touring. And that's exactly what we want to be doing. That's what we're meant to be doing. So, yeah, can't wait.”

What about his optimism for how our relationship with technology might evolve, considering it’s quite a bleak picture he paints in his music? “I don't know,” he says. “I just think we're at such an early stage with digital technologies. If you look at things from a slightly more widescreen, long-term perspective, we've still got a lot a long way to go to find the positives, and I think we're going to feel the reverberations of that Trump thing for a while, on a cultural level, because I think he was such a monster in the things that he would say and it was such a cynical political landscape. I think that affected everyone on all political sides. It brought the discourse down to such a low level that I feel like we're all sort of having PTSD, right now. And it's kind of affecting our abilities to disagree with each other in a sophisticated way, in a way that isn't just keyboard warriors screaming at each other and all that kind of stuff. I mean, I don't have the answers, I just make the music.”

As to what lies beyond, some seeds are already being sown: “I've weirdly started writing quite dark music again,” he tells me hesitantly. “But I feel like it's just part of the process, I'm just gonna let it all happen and then see where it goes. The way it is right now, it's not really something I feel like presenting or singing for two years in a row in front of people! So I feel like I'm just gathering this strange, weird, slightly gloomy, raw material. And then I'm going to somehow put it through a blender and make it perhaps something that I will embrace a little bit more. I've got lots of little voice memos on my phone. I'm just excited to see where they go really.”

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'Fever Dreams' is out now.

Words: Sarah Bradbury
Photo Credit: Rich Gilligan

Catch Villagers at the following shows:

2 Cork Opera House
3 Kilkenny Set Theatre Sold out
4 Limerick Dolans Warehouse Sold out
5 Galway Black Box Sold out
7 Belfast Empire Music Hall
11 Dublin Vicar Street Sold out
12 Dublin Vicar Street Sold out
13 Dublin Vicar Street

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