COVER STORY

Hav­ing dig­i­tally detoxed and built his own at­tic stu­dio, Vil­lager-in-chief Conor J. O’Brien has pro­duced what might very well be his mas­ter­piece. Tech­nol­ogy, faith, friend­ship, fan­dom, Don­ald J. (he isn't a fan) and try­ing not to up­set the neigh­bours are

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Hav­ing dig­i­tally detoxed and built his own at­tic stu­dio, Vil­lagerin-chief Conor J. O’Brien has pro­duced what might very well be his mas­ter­piece. Tech­nol­ogy, faith, friend­ship, fan­dom, Trump and try­ing not to up­set the neigh­bours are all dis­cussed as he meets Stu­art Clark.

If you’re liv­ing in cen­tral Dublin and have been plagued by a noisy neigh­bour play­ing Vil­lagers songs morn­ing, noon and night, it could be that the mis­cre­ant is Conor J. O’Brien him­self. “Yeah, I apol­o­gise to every­one I’ve wo­ken up or stopped sleep­ing,” he says solemnly. “I moved into the city cen­tre, built my­self a stu­dio in my apart­ment’s tiny lit­tle at­tic – it’s an ab­so­lute mess of equip­ment and wires – and tested the neigh­bours’ pa­tience! One of the tracks, ‘Hold Me Down’, has what re­view­ers will prob­a­bly call an ‘un­der­stated vo­cal’. It was three or four in the morn­ing when I got this idea for it and, not know­ing how good the sound­proof­ing was, I sang it as qui­etly as I could with­out ac­tu­ally whis­per­ing. It does give it this re­ally in­ti­mate feel, so it worked out well. As for the neigh­bours, I haven’t re­ceived a let­ter of com­plaint from the res­i­dents’ as­so­ci­a­tion yet!”

Hav­ing scored a trio of Irish num­ber ones with Be­com­ing A Jackal, (Away­land) and Dar­ling Arith­metic, I thought he’d have bought him­self a sea-fac­ing pile next to Bono’s in Dalkey.

“I wish,” he rues. “I’m with David Kitt on this: Dublin has be­come one of the most in­sanely ex­pen­sive cities to live in. I can just about af­ford to pay the rent on a modest apart­ment, but so many friends of mine have been forced to go and live in Ber­lin where rents are half or even a third as much. There’s been a lot of so­cial pro­gres­sion in Ire­land, but very lit­tle eco­nomic pro­gres­sion. The same mis­takes are be­ing made over and over again with hous­ing. It feels like some­thing’s go­ing to burst.”

It might very well have done last month when Gar­daí pro­vided pro­tec­tion for the gang of bal­a­clava-wear­ing heav­ies who forcibly ejected home­less­ness pro­test­ers from North Fred­er­ick Street.

“Re­peal was great, but there are still a lot of things that ur­gently need tack­ling like home­less­ness, the drug prob­lem here and the State’s re­la­tion­ship with the Church,” he ob­serves.

A few days af­ter we speak, Conor per­formed at the #Stand4Truth march in re­sponse to the Pope’s visit, mes­sag­ing af­ter­wards: “The en­ergy was over­whelm­ing. Ire­land is for­ever changed – and there’s more to come yet.”

Let’s hope so. An­other of new al­bum The Art Of

“IT’S UNI­VER­SALLY AC­CEPTED AMONGST ANY­ONE WHO HAS ANY SORT OF SAN­ITY AND DE­CENCY THAT TRUMP IS AN AB­SO­LUTE PIECE OF SHIT.”

Pre­tend­ing To Swim’s stand­outs is ‘Fool’, a song that starts out all pas­toral and sparse, and then de­cides to throw in ev­ery­thing in­clud­ing the kitchen sink. It’s all rather, well, un-Vil­lagers-y.

“Yeah, that came from pages and pages of notes about tech­nol­ogy and faith or what­ever you want to call it: mix­ing these ideas to­gether and com­ing up with a sprawl­ing, ten-minute folk song or some­thing equally un­playable on the ra­dio,” Conor re­flects. “My feel­ing at the be­gin­ning was that maybe it was go­ing to be a non-Vil­lagers record. I said to my man­ager, ‘I think I need to do some­thing that isn’t word-based and is just tex­tures and elec­tron­ics.’ He was like,

‘Well, you should prob­a­bly change your name and do it as a side-project then.’ And that’s how it was, re­ally, un­til af­ter a lot of ex­per­i­men­ta­tion I wrote ‘Trick Of The Light’. The groove of that and the sense of free­dom it gave me when I sang, it was the be­gin­ning of the rest of the songs.”

Not con­tent with tear­ing up the charts in his own right - if it hadn't been for that pesky Eminem sur­prise re­leas­ing Kamikaze, The Art Of Pre­tend­ing To Swim would have been his fourth Irish No.

1 – Conor has a co-writ­ing credit on True Mean­ings, the new al­bum from Paul Weller who’s rarely called on oth­ers for in­spi­ra­tion in the past.

“He’s a to­tal leg­end,” the Mod­fa­ther’s co-con­spir­a­tor en­thuses. “There are so many ge­nius songs of his – ‘Eton Ri­fles’, ‘Down In The Tube Sta­tion At Mid­night’, ‘Go­ing Un­der­ground’ – but my favourite is a Jam B-side, ‘No One In The World’. He was only 21 I think when he wrote it. I loved it when The Jam rocked out, but he also had this re­ally del­i­cate and sen­si­tive song­writ­ing side, and that’s a per­fect ex­am­ple of it. He was very sur­prised when I said to him, ‘I could play it for you now.’ He thought it was one that ev­ery­body had for­got­ten.”

Al­though the cause of much teenage Clarkian dis­tress at the time, one of rock ’n’ roll’s most mag­nif­i­cent acts was Weller knock­ing The Jam on the head at the height of their pow­ers, never to re­form de­spite re­ported £40 mil­lion-plus of­fers for just one tour.

“And then ter­ri­fy­ing fans of The Jam by com­ing back with The Style Coun­cil who were al­most this

camp, fey kind of thing in their cy­cling shorts,” Conor laughs. “I guess the first time Weller saw me was in 2010 when we ap­peared on the same Later… With Jools Hol­land. We toured the West Coast of Amer­ica with him af­ter do­ing the East Coast with John Grant, and he kept in touch via email or phone. He’d send me demos of him play­ing chords – you’d get just a bit of melody or a riff – and him mum­bling non-words. These snip­pets then went back and forth be­tween me and him and his pro­ducer be­fore a proper song started to emerge.”

Did Conor get per­for­mance anx­i­ety mail­ing his ideas back to one of the mas­ter song­writ­ers of the past 40 or 50 years?

“Not re­ally be­cause he’d been so friendly and open to chat­ting about mu­sic on tour. I fig­ured, ‘Weller’s not go­ing to ask me to work with him out of po­lite­ness.’ He ob­vi­ously thinks I can bring some­thing to the party. Hav­ing learned so many Jam songs grow­ing up, I feel like I’ve joined the lin­eage of his writ­ing a lit­tle bit.

“An­other thing I love about Weller is that he’s still such a fan. When I met him back­stage af­ter his re­cent Olympia show, I brought one of my best bud­dies, Pete, who used to be in The Im­me­di­ate with me. He’d found a 7” by this late ’60s psy­che­delic group in a char­ity group, which he gave to Weller know­ing that he’s a fan, and it was like watch­ing a kid on Christ­mas morn­ing. ‘Wow, I haven’t got this one!’ He al­most ex­ploded with ex­cite­ment!”

While I was in­ter­view­ing

Noel Gal­lagher one day, there was a ping on his phone, which turned out to be Weller go­ing, “Tell that bas­tard mate of yours, Bono, I don’t ap­pre­ci­ate him bung­ing his al­bum onto my iTunes.” He was hold­ing Noel per­son­ally re­spon­si­ble for U2’s lat­est ‘get­ting our mu­sic to the masses’ mar­ket­ing scheme.

“Yeah, that sounds like Weller,” Conor laughs. “He’s just turned 60 and is still pas­sion­ate about ev­ery­thing, which is some­thing to re­ally as­pire to.”

Paul Weller isn’t Conor’s only su­per­star fan, with El­ton John rav­ing about The Art Of Pre­tend­ing To Swim on his Ap­ple Ra­dio show.

“Yeah, I heard about him lik­ing it, which is lovely, through the Twit­ter­sphere. He’s an­other guy who’s been around for­ever and is still a mas­sive mu­sic fan.”

There’s no need for Cra­dle Of Filth to start look­ing to their lau­rels yet, but it was a rock­ier, ballsier Conor J. O’Brien who took the All To­gether Now main stage by storm in Au­gust.

“With Dar­ling Arith­metic my agents were like, ‘Okay, there’s this nice lit­tle folk fes­ti­val…’ whereas this al­bum’s a bit more in your face. All To­gether Now was amaz­ing, and we did a re­ally good one, Haldern Pop, in Ger­many. I’d had food poi­son­ing – it’d been com­ing out both ends for three days – and I thought I was go­ing to faint dur­ing the first few songs: I could barely hold my gui­tar. But then the adren­a­line kicked in and we ab­so­lutely nailed it. I was so elated that I threw the David O’Do­herty hat I had on into the crowd. The gigs where you feel a bit crap be­fore of­ten turn out to be the best ones be­cause you’re so de­ter­mined not to fuck up.”

While cer­tain other artists de­serve an Olympic gold medal for their fig­ure skat­ing around the is­sue, Conor spoke for 99.99% of Hot Press read­ers – if we dis­cover who the .01% are we’ll send them horse’s heads in the post – by re­cently mes­sag­ing “Trump is such a piece of shit!”

“Drunk tweet­ing is such a piece of shit as well,” he notes be­fore adding, “but I don’t think it was ex­actly a crazy thing to say. It’s uni­ver­sally ac­cepted amongst any­one who has any sort of san­ity and de­cency that Trump is an ab­so­lute piece of shit.”

So no im­me­di­ate plans to move to Amer­ica?

“I don’t think it’d be for me even if Trump wasn’t in power there,” he ven­tures. “I wouldn’t rule out mov­ing to Europe for a bit. I was in Madrid for the first time re­cently do­ing press stuff, and was imag­in­ing liv­ing there for a month or two next year. It’s a re­ally cool city.”

“THAT CAME FROM PAGES AND PAGES OF NOTES ABOUT TECH­NOL­OGY AND FAITH.”

Strum­ming at­trac­tion: Vil­lagers at All To­gether Now

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