Interview: Villagers

Interview with Villagers



Villagers front man Conor O’Brien talks critical acclaim and touring with Grizzly Bear, and explains how the unlikely combo of Detroit techno and ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ helped shape latest album {Awayland}.

Questions and answers

Hi Conor, congratulations on the new album. You’ve been getting some amazing reviews: is that a relief?

Erm, yeah, I suppose! (Laughs) I mean, it’s nice when people say nice things about the album but I try not to take it too seriously because you’ll inevitably read a bad [review] at some stage and then you’ll agree with that one more than the good one. So it’s a double-edged sword for me.

I have a bit of a problem with the way the critical thing works: the process of people telling “the great unwashed” what albums are worthy of their ears and being at the mercy of one person’s opinion, and how that can dictate whether people are interested in hearing your music. I kind of wish there was another way but I think that way is coming, perhaps with the power of the internet.

You’ve not fallen foul of them yet: your debut album was massively acclaimed too! Did you feel any pressure to match the success of Becoming A Jackal with {Awayland}?

A little bit at the beginning, but I think I was more pressurised by the fact I had become quite cynical about touring and everything, because we toured for way too long. I mean, before we got a record deal we had already toured Ireland for a year with the same songs. By the end of it all we were in self-destruct mode, basically, and so to sit back down to write a whole new bunch of songs – and to repeat the whole process again – wasn’t really at the forefront of my mind.

So I needed to change the way I wrote and that would hopefully change the way we’d perform in the future. I mean, I’m still very proud of that first album but at that stage I wasn’t really into writing a whole new bunch of confessional, acoustic, stripped songs. I wanted to make crazy, colourful sounds and just have fun with experimentation.

How did the creative process differ this time round?

With the first album I had a backlog of scribblings in my notebook, lyrics, themes, artwork, and this time I had been too busy to get all that amassed. So it was less academic: I wasn’t working to a theme and I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was kind of lost, so I just started experimenting.

For months and months, all I could do was make instrumental music. It was all a process of learning to do stuff I’d never done before, like making synthesisers work with drum machines. So it was a surprise to me when all of that eventually became songs again. And I actually ended up stripping back a lot of the electronics and the final result is something which isn’t actually that far away stylistically from the first album, surprisingly. (Laughs)

Was it a more collaborative process than on Becoming A Jackal?

Yeah. I still worked the songs up to a pretty high level for the demos but, before we went into the studio, I got the guys together and we rehearsed – and kind of kicked the sh*t out of the songs a little bit – to make them sound more ready for the stage. That was the only thing we were thinking: “Will we be able to live with these songs in a year and a half or two years time, and still get excited by them?” I think the experience of touring really fed into them in terms of their arrangements and the writing.

Do you still see Villagers as a solo project?

No, they’re part of it. They’ve been part of it from the start and I think it’s probably moved into band territory now. But it’s not a band in the sense that we don’t get together and write songs together; I still do all that. Though this time it was more collaborative in terms of how we fleshed the songs out. If you come to a Villagers show nowadays, it’s very much five musicians on a stage. I just happen to be the one who sings the words.

Were there any musical reference points for {Awayland}?

In terms of influences, yeah, lots. I went through a really big phase where I was obsessed with listening to music all the time. When I was doing all the electronic stuff, I was listening to a lot of Detroit techno, like Plastikman and Drexciya, and also all these glitch-y ambient things like Monolake and Oval. And then also the music that influenced that, like Krautrock and early German electronic music by Kraftwerk, Can and Faust. All of this vaguely-electronic, groove-orientated stuff.

But then on the other hand, I was also listening to Cole Porter and Harry Nilsson. (Laughs) Classic song writing like George Harrison. It was all over the place really, and I think the music reflects that to a certain degree. I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to write an album that doesn’t feel slightly schizophrenic...

It seems incredible that such an eloquent lyricist should be making mostly instrumental music. What made you add lyrics in the end?

My manager was like, “Ok, get back in and write some songs.” (Laughs) No, I don’t know. I can’t really pinpoint a specific moment where I decided to add lyrics. I think just the stuff I was reading, and the lectures I was watching on YouTube, and the things I was feeling, eventually all bubbled up and I had to write words.

Another big part of this album was that I started learning how to finger-pick, as well as learning how to make beats, so when I picked up the guitar again I had a new way of playing it and that made me excited about the acoustic again. And I think that’s when the words started coming out.

Looking back, can you see any themes that unite the tracks on the album?

Yeah, definitely. I think it’s about that sense of curiosity and wonder about the world that children have: that aspect of seeing everything with complete clarity. I was trying to write from a completely untainted perspective, as if I had never experienced anything in my life, ever.

And I was reading ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ by Kurt Vonnegut, so I had an idea of writing an album from the perspective of the protagonist Billy Pilgrim. He’s this complete innocent abroad who goes through a lot of crazy stuff – like the bombing of Dresden and being taken as a prisoner of war – but through it all he remains this completely clueless, naïve individual. The take on things of somebody who’s not infected or poisoned by the bitterness of their life is quite interesting, I think.

Do you have a favourite track on the album?

It changes when we play shows, but I like the instrumental title track, because I don’t have to listen to my voice. And I was quite proud of ‘Passing A Message’ when I finished it because it’s kind of succinct and it goes on quite a journey in the lyrics.

It talks about this character working in a nightclub and not having a particularly happy existence and not really liking her surroundings, and the way of escape for her is remembering her childhood. And the alignment of the natural world with the human world is in there as well, because she remembers carving her name out of a giant sycamore tree, that’s like the largest tree in the world. And now she’s working in the largest building in the world, in Dubai. (Laughs) It’s a bit of a trip, but for me it’s like an internal journey.

That pretty much sums up the whole album: it travels a lot but it all very much takes place inside the mind. It’s more of an internal landscape rather than an external one, and I use the metaphor of travel as a metaphorical device.

How’s the new material been going down at shows so far?

Our first taste of touring this time was with Grizzly Bear and that was amazing. We just got to play these songs for the first time properly in front of a really nice audience. A crowd of Grizzly Bear fans is a pretty good audience to play a song to, really. So to actually get out and play to our own audiences is going to be doubly exciting, I think. Plus I’m in the place where I don’t really feel at home unless I’m travelling.

Are you planning to play any festivals this summer?

Yeah, I think so. I think we’re going to play all of them. (Laughs) Is Glastonbury on this year? Well I hope we’re playing that one because we’ve only done it once. It was cool but it was an early morning Sunday slot, and we were doing a full-on energy show and everybody was wasted. (Laughs) They were just lying on the grass, completely out of it. So it would be nice to get a later slot at some stage.

So, in your career you’ve already won an Ivor Novello, and been nominated for the Mercury and Choice Music Prizes. What is left for you to achieve?

Well, I suppose I’d better win the Mercury Prize and the Choice Prize. (Laughs) No, I don’t know. I just want to get better as a writer and further my ability to write music I suppose, and If you want to improve your writing it’s better to have your own internal devices instead of gauging your success, y’know? Beyond that, it’s nice to keep all that other stuff as a surprise, as something that’s external to your own internal journey. (Laughs) And so we return to the internal journey...

Finally, what’s been the highlight so far?

God... Maybe finally getting to release this album? Because it was looking iffy for a while back there. It was going all over the place, and I didn’t know whether it was ever going to become something palatable. But it did. So I think the perseverance that we had, and then finally getting the music out there, was a big achievement.