VIllagers

Conor O’Brien has been making music under the Villagers moniker since 2008, after the breakup of the Dublin-based rock band The Immediate. His first album, Becoming A Jackal was received in 2010 to acclaim from Vanity Fair, New York Times and other publications. While his first album drew comparisons with folk-ish bands like Bright Eyes, the latest material boasts a more collaborative approach with the band and has moved in a more experimental and eclectic direction. The band has been on tour promoting the follow-up {Awayland}, which has received positive reviews for its verbose, dramatically discursive lyrical approach from NPR, The Guardian and The Independent, and spawned three successful singles, “The Waves,” “Nothing Arrived,” and the almost Bond theme-tinged track “The Bell.

I caught up with Conor at a label-sponsored event at The End in Greenpoint a couple of days before an upcoming gig at The Bowery. He played a solo rendition of “Earthly Pleasure” on the roof as music industry employees looked on and took footage for a web series. Before he played, we sat down and chatted about his experiences and literary influences.

How do you like playing New York?

The first shows I played here were solo shows. Then we played Mercury Lounge as a band, and that was a great show. I remember enjoying that a lot. There were a lot of Irish people there, ‘cuz I remember asking “Hands up, who’s Irish?” and about fifty percent of the crowd put their hands up. So we’ll always have an audience in New York, even when we’re shit, when we’re fifty. We’ll still have Irish people coming to our shows! And our next show’s in the Bowery, which is a step up. I’ve never been there, but I’ve heard a lot about it, so I’m looking forward to it.

So was the style of writing you do in Villagers a huge departure from your previous band?

Yeah it was a departure, in that it was the first time I’d written on my own. I’d always written songs with my best friend Dave. He lives in Berlin now, and whenever I’m there we play together. But yeah, it was the first time I’d bought an acoustic guitar and just said, “Okay, I’m going to sit down on my own and write some songs.”

And are there any particular folk genres or conventions you’re drawing upon?

I find when people say folk music they only ever mean American folk music.

Rather than trad (traditional Irish) music . . .

Yeah, well I’m only getting into trad music now, and only exclusively listening to Planxty at the moment. I definitely didn’t grow up with trad music though. I grew up watching too much television and listening to a lot of American and English indie bands.

So how do you see yourself within the wider musical landscape on those islands?

I don’t think about it. Definitely not when I’m writing because that would be the worst thing ever. I’ve never felt part of any scene ever in my life and that’s only gotten more true since my music has gotten slightly better known. And I still don’t feel part of any scene at all. And I think when you have an acoustic guitar everybody says “Mumford and Sons . . .”

Oh please God, no.

(Laughs)

What are you reading right now?

I just finished a digital graphic novel called Operation Ajax. It’s about the history of Iran, and how Truman and the Allies basically destroyed Iran by their search for oil. It’s one of the most amazing things I’ve ever experienced. I’m obsessed with comics and stuff.

I also finished a book called Black Cat Bone. It’s a book of poetry by John Burnside. He’s a Scottish poet. I didn’t like it that much. It was a birthday present. There was one poem in particular that was very beautiful, which was about obsession and uh, death (Laughs).

Dublin’s always been a literary city. Are there any homegrown writers that you’re reading?

I’m reading Patrick Kavanagh right now.

I was forced to read those in high school in Ireland.

He’s good. He’s miserable! I sing “Raglan Road” now; I learned it a couple of weeks ago, so I’m singing that. I’ve always liked Luke Kelly, his is the definitive version. Patrick Kavanagh literally gave him the lyrics in a pub, and he put it to the tune of an old song called “The Dawning of the Day”.

What do you think of that Kevin Shields quote that if you want to make music you have to get out of Dublin?

I don’t really know. I never got out of Dublin. I just got interest from a London-based thing; maybe that’s the same idea. It depends what you want to do. I know a lot of people who want to do music but keep their jobs, and that’s success for them, and that’s cool. I had no options because I’d never picked up any other skills, so I was like “I’ve got to make this work.” So I guess I subconsciously attracted the attention of labels and things.

But it seems like there actually is a lot going on in Dublin these days – that’s what I was trying to get at.

Now there’s a ridiculous, amazing amount of music, not just in Dublin. In Ireland there’s a lot of very varied, different types of music everywhere. There’s a band from Limerick called Bleeding Heart Pigeons. Literally one of them’s still doing his [high school] Leaving Certificate. And they’ve just signed some crazy deals, which I hope work out for them because they’re a completely bizarre, completely experimental, weird band.

I was a fan of The Redneck Manifesto when I was in high school.

Yeah, Richie is a good friend of mine. He’s Jape now. That’s Jape.

I don’t know, it’s been years since I listened to them.

He became Jape. They still play as Redneck Manifesto. He lives in Sweden now, so they only play when they can get back together. But his other group is more of an electronic kind of pop group, and it’s really good as well. Actually Jack White and Brendan Benson did a cover of one of his songs.


Can you tell me a little bit about “The Bell”, and what it’s about?

“The Bell” is the oldest song that I wrote, and I used to play it in The Immediate, before we split up. When I re-arranged it for Villagers I made it into something a bit more melodramatic, which isn’t necessarily a negative thing. I quite like melodrama sometimes. And it excites me. It’s kind of about how words are just a halfway point between what you’re trying to say and what you actually mean. And it’s kind of about language being a compromise. And it’s about those moments when you feel something which is completely inexpressible. Very simple song, really.

Is there a line in it that elucidates the theme?

Well the chorus is “Off goes the bell/ringing through my head/signifies that all’s been said” and then “There’s a passenger in every useless word/Can never be twisted or sold/Senator of my skin/A body of discipline/It must be a million years old.”

How do you feel about how people promote music nowadays and how the Internet has changed the music biz?

It keeps changing. It’s so fast. I mean, when I started this group, it was MySpace. That was 2008. Then Facebook became where it’s at, and then the label took over the Facebook because it became this important money-making radio-playing thing. So I just send them my messages and they just put them up whenever they like. I’m kind of glad of that because I don’t want to have to spend my time thinking about when we’re doing Facebook posts and all that shit. So I think that’s becoming the world of the labels and businesspeople.

I mean, I tweet. They made me start a Twitter, and then I became obsessed with it. (Laughs) Which is not great. In one way it’s good that you can just get your shit out there. But in another way, just because everybody’s got a voice doesn’t mean everybody has something to say.

The new album by Villagers, “{Awayland}” is available now in North America through Domino Records. Find out more here.

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