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
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