For Villagers' second album, Awayland, Conor O'Brien says that he was more "open-minded," delving into electronic ambience, fresh instrumentation and a robust collaboration with his bandmates. The result, much to O'Brien's satisfaction, is a more confident album than 2010's Mercury Prize-nominated Becoming a Jackal.
Villagers play New York's Bowery Ballroom tomorrow, June 11, and a handful of North American dates before heading back to Europe at the end of the month for Glastonbury and an array of other UK and European festivals.
Irish singer-songwriter O'Brien recently brought the acoustic — read that as solo — version of Viilagers to FUV and The Alternate Side to play songs from Awayland. Watch videos, below, of O'Brien's performance, read highlights of his conversation with Alisa Ali and listen to the entire session on FUV Live tonight, June 10, at 9 p.m. ET, on TAS on 91.5 WNYE this Friday, June 14, at 11 a.m. ET, also streaming online and in the FUV archives now.
Alisa Ali: The title of your new album, Awayland, has fancy little brackets around it. Any reason?
Conor O’Brien: Yes, there is a reason. I thought it looked kind of cool. Also, the title’s meant to represent the kind of inner world that we can all live in. Even though the album uses a lot of place names, traveling and stuff, it’s actually all going on inside the head of the protagonist. I wanted to represent that visually.
Alisa: Are you the protagonist?
Conor: Aspects of me maybe come out. But I think a lot of time I’m playing roles in the music. I think that’s more creative and fun and you discover things about yourself while you’re writing.
Alisa: While you were writing this, did you discover anything new about yourself?
Conor: I was a miserable, miserable twit. No, what did I discover? I dunno. Maybe a bit of a sense of humor. I felt like I was a little more morbid with the first album and I think in this one, there’s some humor in there. There’s more colors and textures and things. It’s more of an open-minded sounding record. I suppose I discovered that I was an open-minded kind of guy.
Alisa: I understand that after your first full-length album you did a whole lot of touring for that; you spend two years on the road?
Conor: Probably more. We were playing before we got a deal or anything so we were touring Ireland for about a year. Then we got a record deal and toured for another year and half. A lot of touring with one album.
Alisa: You played with Neil Young too, right?
Conor: He was amazing. It was very inspiring to watch. We did some touring with Fleet Foxes which was amazing. Brilliant to be able to watch them every night, doing their thing. And I played with Cass McCombs who is a labelmate of mine.
Alisa: Did you pick up any tricks of the trade from these other musicians?
Conor: What struck me was that everyone has their own way of dealing with audiences. Like Robin [Pecknold] of Fleet Foxes is very quiet, he doesn’t really need to talk because the music does the talking. We toured with Grizzly Bear as well and Ed likes to chat with the crowd. Everybody’s got their own thing, so long as it’s representative of your actual personality, then it works.
Alisa: So how do you deal with in between songs?
Conor: It depends. I’m very moody so certain nights I don’t speak at all and other nights I just talk crap. The band just looks at me, “what are you saying?”
Alisa: You were in The Immediate and then after that band broke up, the next day, you began writing songs for Villagers.
Conor: Yeah, pretty much. I remember waking up and writing the first song. I didn’t have the name Villagers, but I was writing more introspective, acoustic-based stuff. Straight off, I called our drummer, the Villagers drummer, and I freaked out. It was like a rebound. “Oh my god, I need a band! I need a band! Join me!” So James was there from the start and we were just jamming together. I picked up the electric after a while and we started playing more late ‘70s, punky or post-punk, Elvis Costello, Stiff Records kind [of music]. So a lot of the songs began like that and then I stripped them away, got an acoustic guitar for the first time and realized that let the words … it set them free. That’s when I realized we were onto something.
Our first show was just the two of us and the second show was a full five-piece band. I thought there would be members coming in and out and people leaving, but I’ve stuck with the same band since the beginning and we recorded the most recent album together as a group. We’ve slowly become a more solid group, really, which is exciting. You can bounce ideas off of each other and you lose a bit of your ego, which is really good.
Alisa: Did you have a huge ego before the second album?
Alisa: You must have had a slightly inflated ego after Becoming A Jackel because that album did quite well. Were you surprised?
Conor: Yeah, it’s not the most obvious album to make its way into the mainstream. It quielty crept in there and I had a crazy couple of years touring it. Learned a lot and used all of those things that I learned for this album. I think we wanted to move a bit more this time and not be quite as look-at-me-and-my-emotions kinds of thing. Actually, I’m about to sing a song which is totally look-at-me-and-my-emotions.
Alisa: On this album, you’ve become a little more interested in electronic elements. I understand you had a little bit of writer’s block, you went out and bought a synthesizer, drum machine and sampler and spent some time trying to figure out how to use those things?
Conor: It’s the first time I could afford those things! New toys. I wasn’t into the idea of sitting down and doing the same process again as the first album. I wanted to come at it from a different perspective and therefore, when I sat down with the acoustic guitar, I was totally blocked. I couldn’t really bring myself to even start the whole process. I wanted to experiment and find out new ways of making sounds. That happened for a few months and I sort of thought that the album was going to become like a Krautrock album or something. Completely instrumental and techno influenced. Crazy. The demo for that song I just played was drum ‘n’ bass which was interesting. I’m kind of glad I stripped that one down a little bit because you couldn’t really hear the words over the apocalyptic explosions and stuff. But some of the electronics made their way into the album eventually. So there are subtle elements in there.
Alisa: There are some lush and grand arrangments on this album, but I always feel like your voice is at the forefront. You don’t seem to be singing very loudly at all. Is that something that you pay particular attention to while mixing?
Conor: Yeah, a lot of the songs on the second half of the record are sung in a very low register. I can’t pinpoint why I wanted that, but I wanted a feeling of all this madness happening in the music and right in the middle of it is someone whispering to you in your ear, even though there’s the crazyness of the epic sounds swirling around your head. Mixing it was the most important part of the process. It was really creative. Myself and Tommy, who is in my band, mixed it together. We were getting a little pressure to give it to someone else to mix, but we stood our ground and did it. That’s probably the most creative part of record-making, is mixing. Especially the way we made this album, which was very slow and laborious.
I think when we were recording we really didn’t want to think about the album. We just wanted to make sure we felt good playing the songs. We were totally aware of what it feels like to play songs for two years on the road. So we were like, “Do we feel good playing these in the room?” And that really influenced a lot of the arrangements. I think that’s why they sound more rhythmic and beat-driven, because it means we can sweat it out every night, which is good.