Three years have passed since I last interviewed Conor O’Brien. Apart from the fact that we both still probably get IDed in off-licenses, an awful lot has changed. In a different Wexford Street establishment, we talked then about stepping out from the shadow of a band that nobody but the die-hards still listen to (The Immediate), and fulfilling what seemed like an overwhelming amount of local hype from his first EP, concerns that appear minuscule in the light of Mercury nominations and Ivor Novello prizes, sold-out shows and Grizzly Bear tour supports.
Grizzly Bear are, in fact, a fitting frame of reference for Villagers, whose second album, Awayland, adopts the same richly embellished, studied songwriting the New York four-piece have trademarked. There’s a key difference though; O’Brien’s project’s calling card is those shiver-inducing moments of fully-exposed emotion, where all instrumental complexity and beauty pales before the shock of the direct connection O’Brien has an uncanny ability to strike up with his audience.
As in the fourth-wall demolition job, Becoming A Jackal (“So before you take this song as truth/You should wonder what I’m taking from you”), Awayland is conscious of the audience, never quite comfortable with the pure expressiveness of a diary. On The Bell we are warned “there is a sleeping dog beneath this dialogue” and “there is a passenger within every useless word”, markers of the continued fascination with language as a topic as well as a tool.
Awayland is expansive, flits between melodrama and quiet introspection, seriousness and playfulness. It appears the product of extreme moods and capriciousness; in person, however, its creator O’Brien is as sanguine a man as you’re ever likely to meet. Briquettes burn in a fireplace, we talk.
Awayland; a coinage. Where does that come from?
The title is the last thing that came this time, the opposite of last time. On the first album I had the artwork before I’d even written all the songs, I built the songs around a theme. It was more academic. This time around, I wanted a title that expressed the feelings that I felt while I wrote the songs, and those feelings were ones of naivety, and a childish sense of wonder, a fresh curiosity about the world. So I settled on a made-up word, and I like it as an opposite of ‘homeland’.
Because you hate the TV show?
I’ve never seen that TV show!
“The most familiar room”?
Exactly, there was a sense of the claustrophobia that comes bundled with ‘home’, so my first thought with Awayland, was that it’s about escape, or transience?
Maybe, there’s a lot of places mentioned on the album, it’s the first time in my life I’ve physically travelled, like, everywhere, so that perhaps informed the lyrics and title. But I want to make sure that I brought it somewhere, otherwise you’d just be saying “yeah! I fucking toured, look at my album about that!”.
The last time we talked you were in the throes of painstakingly whiteboarding the video for Meaning of the Ritual. The video for The Waves was outsourced, and is a lot grander, and the trailer video for the album plays around with a glitch aesthetic.
I was part of making the trailer, but I wasn’t really part of the video. This time around, I spent way more time on the actual production of the music, I wouldn’t have time at all to even consider spending a month and a half on making a video myself. The guy, Alden Valney, who made The Waves video has this proper aesthetic idea that really fit with the artwork that I’d made for the album. I still do all the artwork, those are photographs that I’d manipulated. The handdrawn aesthetic fit the first album, we wanted it to sound more raw. Strangely enough, we weren’t going for that this time around, but I think we’ve ended up with something way, way more raw. We just didn’t quite know how to do it then. We learned from the mistakes of last time.
I find that usually when somebody comes from a purely acoustic background and dabbles with electronics that it winds up sounding tacked on, but The Waves perfectly integrated the two. Did you consider doing the whole album with synths?
Most of the demoes sounded more like The Waves, it was only when we got to the mastering stage that we got rid of a lot of that stuff. The Bell has some electronics, and Grateful Song has some bubbling stuff. A song like Passing A Message was nine minutes long and have really electronic rhythms and beats, it was an ambient soundscape, so I based the song on what that soundscape did. Slowly the words came out based out on what the guitar was doing based on what the ambience was doing and the beats, and by the end I got rid of the ambience, rid of the beats. The Waves is really emotional to me, the most unemotional sound on that song is really emotional to me. Because the lyrics are so melodramatic, I wanted to have this inhuman spine.
There’s a motorik feeling to it, that one short synth pattern pulls you through the journey of the song. Where did the influence for using electronic music come from?
When I was young I was really into trip-hop stuff, Massive Attack, Tricky… Asian Dub Foundation was one of my favourite bands. When I was 17 I went to see them on my own in the Ambassador, because I couldn’t find anyone to go with. I was on an Asian Dub Foundation messageboard. I still meet people when we play in Holland who I met through that messageboard. I used to talk about music and politics and Noam Chomsky and all this, and I used to make drum ‘n’ bass, got into a really heavy jungle vibe. My sister’s friend gave me a set of decks, but the speed thing was fucked on it, so I never knew how to mix. I had friends who were into techno, so I started DJing techno at parties when I was 18/19, but I never got heavily into it.
By the time it came to recording the Jackal album I was listening to nearly purely acoustic music, that was what was exciting me. Since then, I kind of got bored of that too, though. I went on holidays to Berlin and went out with Dave [Hedderman, former Immediate member], and got really heavily into techno for a couple of months, and into… IDM, without wanting to use that word, and Nosaj Thing, Caribou, stuff like that. I started listening to Drexciya and Cybotron more, and started making techno myself. Really, really bad techno.
Will that ever see the light of day?
Never. But some of the sounds made their way onto the album.
It’s interesting you mentioned Dan Snaith – with Caribou it seems like he’s really in love with the textures of different strains of electronic music, but brings a more organic, live element to it.
Yeah, and it’s really difficult to do that practically, within a live show, and not have something go horribly wrong.
For me, the other standout element of the album are the strings. There’s a whack of David Axelrod or Scott Walker off them, did you arrange them yourself?
No, no, Cormac [Curran] did. We worked together and talked about it a lot, we talked about David Axelrod, and Jean-Claude Vannier and all those awesome cinematic composers, and Debussy and obvious people, this beautiful, maybe over-sentimental arrangement style. Drippy, Spielbergy strings I love. Cormac put so much work into this album. There was very much a group effort on this album.
Does winning stuff like a Ivor Novello award, or getting a Mercury Prize nomination, give you a sense of personal vindication, or is it more of a superficial thing?
No, it’s cool, I’m happy with it. The Ivor Novello’s in my parents house, they’re happy. I don’t like the whole situation of award ceremonies, the awkwardness of making speeches, especially if it’s in front of… fucking Jimmy Page or whoever. Also, I look really young, and really small, I can see people going “awww”. Part of me wants to say really important things just to show them [gruffly] “I’m a man now!”, but most of the time it’s me just saying [whispers] “OK, thanks, I’m sorry, eh, bye” and walking off. We had to get a train straight to Colchester to play a gig after that, it’s kind of strange sitting on a train with an Ivor Novello award in your backpack. You’re straight back down to earth.
I’m worried a little bit about winning it for a first album, especially because I think this album is a lot better, and I’m wondering if once they do it, they won’t want to do it again.
Do you have a first Christmas memory?
I remember being bought a giant robot, it was probably tiny, but I thought it was huge. I was so excited. Then we put the batteries in, and it just didn’t work. So I had to play with a still robot.
That’s OK, though, you get to use your imagination.
Awayland is released on the through Domino Records on the 11th January. Villagers play the Olympia Theatre on the 21st and 22nd of March.