Villagers frontman Conor O'Brien talks {Awayland}

The man behind Villagers discusses new album

Villagers frontman Conor O Brien talks Slaughterhouse Five synths and Awayland
Villagers' second album is a beguiling mix of folktronica and lyrical flights of the imagination
(Image: © Rich Gilligan)

Most years, you have to wait a while before hearing something that really turns your head. In 2013, it's only taken a fortnight for an album of the year contender to turn up.

{Awayland} is the second album from Villagers, and marks a move into electronic-infused folk that expands on the literate and deeply compelling songwriting that characterised the band's 2010 debut Becoming A Jackal. MusicRadar caught up with Conor O'Brien, who has guided Villagers from its birth as a one-man project through to its current incarnation, to chart the development of the stunning {Awayland} and discuss guitars, gear and the effect Kurt Vonnegut can have on songwriting…

{Awayland} has been a long time coming – when did you start writing the album? Has it been quite a long process?

Some of the songs are old. One of them is about ten years old, and it has changed quite a lot over the past ten years [laughs]. Some of them were written on tour during the Jackal touring, but I think the majority of them were written in the period of the last year and a half or so, as soon as I came off touring.

Do you find it easy to write on the road, or is it easier to be at home?

Yeah, I mean it's easier when you're at home, because you know you've got time and stuff, but, I think, there are certain things about touring that can be quite inspiring as a writer. Just those feeling of, you know, being in new places and what that does to your cerebral cortex [laughs]. And the way that it changes the way you see things. The more you travel, the more you see home in a different light, and all that's quite inspiring and informed the album to a certain degree. But a lot of it was from memory, and you know memory is a funny thing, because every time you have a memory you're kind of inventing it again, it's not really what happened or whatever. I think it's a kind of a fantasy really, the whole thing.

Has your writing process changed much? You've been touring with the band, so was that on your mind when you were writing this album?

I think it was, definitely, the band thing. While we were touring, we sort of discussed recording it all together because we were starting to feel like a proper band. Some of the Jackal songs were getting a little bit more animated and exciting, and most of the time we were wishing that we had waited a bit longer to record Jackal as a full band kind of thing, 'cos of the way they were sounding. We had that idea in our heads, and then even when I was writing the songs and arranging them, I was doing it for the stage rather than for the record. Really I was just doing what I thought would rock the band the most, which was a new thing as well. And then we obviously got together this time round and rehearsed the songs before we'd even touched the recording studio, so the whole thing was a lot more, yeah, group oriented really. Except a lot of the demos were pretty much done to a pretty high degree, so I still put the work in on my own at the beginning. But they had that added bonus of other people's subtleties and ideas. Even the grooves were better because they can play them better than I can. It was good.

Conor O'Brien, 2013 (Credit: Rich Giligan)

Was that always the intention when you started Villagers, to expand it into a band and establish a steady line up, or was that kind of a surprise?

There were no intentions really at all, it was very much day by day. It just started out with me knowing I wanted to write stuff on my own, because I'd never really had the chance to do that, except when I was very young. And I'd just ended a band that was more collaborative and we wrote together, and that was great, I was really proud of that band, but I just wanted to do something very different. It started off with just demos, and once the demos made it clear that they'd need more than two people to play them, you know, I kind of realised I needed at least a five piece bands. That's when I asked some of my friends if they'd do it, and they said yes, and that was it really.

What were you listening to when you were writing this record?

Music wise I think I was listening to more electronic music than I was when I was making the first album. I was listening to old techno music, like early kind of minimal stuff, and more kind of modern, what do they call it, intelligent dance music, IDM, it's a horrible term [laughs]. But that, and funky stuff like Allen Toussaint and Curtis Mayfield. Films, like soundtracky stuff, and Harry Nilsson, like still singer songwriters as well, but I was a bit more interested in textural music this time round.

Was that a conscious intention to push your musical boundaries?

I don't think it was necessarily conscious. I was always going to try and do something different because it's a new album and there's no point in trying to do the same one again. I mean, well, the only point to do the same one again would be money, which obviously works for Mumford & Sons or whoever, but I don't think I could do that. I wouldn't be able to live with myself. I guess I see the process of making an album as a learning thing. If you're not learning new ways of doing things, or new processes or anything, then there's no point really. It's like, the whole point is you're going on this journey and you're bringing something back which you feel is worthy, that you feel people will be able to connect to.

What about your literary inspirations? What have you been reading, which books have been inspiring you of late?

I was reading Carl Sagan, he's an astro-physicist, but only bits. I don't really understand half of it, but it's kind of inspiring, that whole kind of cosmic astro vibe. And also I was reading Kurt Vonnegut for the first time, I'd never read him before. My friend Cormac who plays keys in the band gave me A Man Without A Country, and then I read Slaughterhouse-Five after that. They really inspired me for the album. I think I was starting to write songs that were getting a little bit heavy, and I wanted to use his method of comedy – well, not his method, but I was getting inspired by the way he uses that kind of tragic-comedy thing and lifts things out of their tragic elements and turns them into kind of hilarious moments where you're just laughing your ass off. Even though there's complete heaviness happening in the text, he's kind of almost laughing at it and I love that, and I think he's really good at that. He's got that Billy Pilgrim character in Slaughterhouse-Five who's the complete innocent abroad, and I started almost identifying with that as a character in the album. Then I started getting the idea of writing the album about being from the perspective of the most innocent you could be, which is like a new born child or a baby. How would you approach subjects or themes from this perspective if you haven't been tainted by the wicked world? It's was a good project, really.

This is a big expansive record, quite heavy in places, and there are lots of interesting sounds in there. How was it different to the first album, and how did recording with a full band affect you in the studio?

It took all the weight off my shoulders, 'cos I didn't have to worry about technical, physical things like playing the drums in time or anything. I was really focussed on the actual thematic elements. It also was really nice to have everyone in the studio. We actually had a good time, and it was less lonely. At one stage it was very like a factory, myself and Cormac would be in one room working on the string arrangements, Tommy would be in the other room doing production stuff and Danny and James would be in the next room working on the grooves and making them better. There were lots of different phases, and that was a nice way of kind of splitting up the length of time we were actually in there, which was quite intense – about six weeks or something.

The process of actually making it was very different, because I'd brought a lot of stuff from the demos this time round, and we actually ended up putting those things in. Like literally anything vaguely electronic, a lot of it came from my little demo set up and we just fed it into ProTools when we did the album and changed it a bit afterwards. But we had a lot of pre-recorded things brought to the table this time round, which was new. And we had the synthesiser in the room as well after we had done all the tracking. So we'd be in the middle of mixing a song, and all the recording was done and we'd be in the last week of everything and we'd be like 'oh shit, that needs something much more artificial going on there,' so we'd be able to put a synth line in straight away while we were mixing. Which was nice, it was very back and forth and a kind of obsessive experience.

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Were there a lot of those little surprises when you were recording, or was it all pretty much mapped out before you went in?

No there were a few surprises. Like the demo of The Waves is almost exactly the same, we just made a better version of it. But something like Judgement Call or Passing A Message, they changed drastically because of the bands input. And Rhythm Composer sounded completely different, it used to have samples of African drums on it, it sounded terrible like, it was horrible [laughs]. When we got into the studio the band made it really their own, and is suddenly became something worthy, to even to finish the album off with, which was cool. The one that changed the most was probably Judgement Call. We recorded it last, and we just knew we wanted to record something more colourful than the demo. The demo was good, but it sounded like a grunge-era PJ Harvey out-take or something. It was more like grungey guitars, and we knew that wouldn't fly with us, even though I loved grunge-era PJ Harvey, it wasn't going to work on this album.

It sounds like you've been relishing the collaboration that comes with working with a band.

It was a nice change, yeah. We'd really built up a trust over the last two years through touring, so it was strangely easy. A week before we went in, I totally cancelled. I told everyone I was going to do it all myself, I just freaked out. And then nobody replied to me! I'm so glad I didn't, it's a much better album than it would have been if I'd done it myself.

Where did you record the album?

In Donegal, in Tommy's studio. Tommy's our guitar player. We did the first album in his studio, but back then his studio was in his parent's attic. This time round he has a proper studio, so we did it there, which was cool. It was nice and sunny as well, Donegal's quite a beautiful place in the sun so it was kind of inspiring.

Was it important to keep that sense of continuity, recording with Tommy on both albums?

Well, yeah. He had literally just finished the studio, he'd spent his whole time off touring getting it ready, so it would have been kind of awkward not to go there! Myself and Tommy have got a very strong working relationship. If we were to do it with a stranger, where you're paying by the hour, it would have been a much less free experience. We're mates, so it kind of helps, and at the same time we're both workaholics when it comes to it, and we were both willing to do 15 hour days and kind of thrived off that.

Did you mix it yourselves as well?

Yeah, we took a couple of days after we finished and then started mixing. For me mixing is one of the most creative parts of making an album. You can do so much to the sounds, even just in terms of levels of compression or reverb, or lack of compression, which is a lovely thing to be able to do. A lot of people over-compress things, and I think we maintained a rawness that works alongside the electronics. That could have been disastrous, so I think it was important that we mixed it.

What were you playing on this album? Just guitar, or other bits and bobs?

I did all the beats, the electronic stuff, and the synth-y stuff. And then I did the acoustics and some percussion, some shakers and tambourines. All the keys were Cormac and all the drums were James.

What's your synth set up?

It's a Roland Juno 60, and I had it hooked up to a Roland sampler. I got it because I watched an interview with Four Tet where he said he made one of his albums almost entirely on this sampler. I didn't know what to get, so I got that one.

What about your parlour size acoustic guitar? Are you still playing that?

I've two of the same make, it's a Yairi, it's a Japanese guitar, handmade apparently. It's lovely. I've only just recently started to discover it's not really standing the test of time, you have to get it fixed up quite a lot, every six months or something. I love it anyway, it's really nice.

Where did you come across it, and why do you prefer that size of guitar?

It's just because of my body size! I look literally 12 when I have a real sized acoustic guitar on, and I didn't think that'd be good for the stage. And I'd always seen Dylan with parlour guitars, I thought they looked really cool. I saw one in a music shop in Dublin before Villagers started and I fell in love with it. I played it so much, and I asked them if I could have it on a discount or something and they said no. So I went away and went back every week and played it, and then a friend of mine knew the guy who ran the shop and went in with me and got me a discount, so I finally got it.

Are you a big guitar collector?

I've got a Gretsch, a 1963 anniversary model which I love very much. It's not like the super, super version, I think it's the cheaper version but it still sounds really beautiful. I used it on the first album, it's got that nice old-school twang. I've got a Telecaster from my previous band which is lovely, I'm kind of in to guitars.

When did you start playing?

In started when I was 12, my brother gave me his guitar to start with, taught me three chords and I literally started writing and recording that week. I used a tape recorder with another tape recorder, used pots and pans for the drums, so I did multi-track recording! I've always been obsessed with it, and did it all the way throughout school instead of… socialising.

So you were always a songwriter?

I was always obsessed with music, always. I remember being four and being bought to the cinema for the first time and singing the songs from the film.

Did you do the artwork for this album?

Yeah, I did this album as well, but this one's not really hand drawings, I got photographs and put them into a computer and made them all psychedelic. I thought it would suit it, 'cos the music as well has more synthetic aspects to it so I kind of wanted to art work to reflect that to a certain degree.

How have your fans been reacting to the new material so far?

When we first put out the waves there was a really negative reaction to it on Youtube. It's the most electronic track on the album, so a lot of people who are fans of the band were like 'what the fuck are you doing,' so I was bit like, OK, this could be interesting. But I was ready, it's nice to cause a reaction I suppose.

{Awayland} is out 14 January on Domino. For more information, visit, or find the band on Facebook and Twitter.