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from the archives. written by Brady Smith.

I sat down with Villagers frontman Conor O’Brien in the upstairs portion of a deserted Bowery Ballroom during sound checks, after an amazing acoustic session with graffiti walls splashed behind him (see the end of this Q+A). It’s a weird to see a music venue empty. There was nothing to replace the teams of tipsy music-goers and spilt over-priced beer. But what was exciting was the opportunity to meet and chat with a musician who was so passionate about his craft and, as you can see in the video, incredibly talented. Talented enough to draw an audience in a deserted alleyway. We chatted about their new album, {Awayland,} touring with Tracey Chapman, and what we can expect next from Villagers. I mean, he even recited a poem. What a swell guy. 

Did you have any initial ideas to what sound you were trying to create when you began production on {Awayland?}

I think my only initial idea was that I wanted to use synthesizers and beats because we’ve done sort of a stripped-sounding folky album and I thought why don’t we just go into the complete opposite direction. We had to learn to program things so I just spent a few months just making sound collages and stuff. But in terms of how that was going to fit in with the songwriting, I really had no idea. We have a lot of early sound dems that I stumbled upon last week, that are so bizarre that are just full of noise.

Did you sort of just edit it down as time went along?

Yeah, it was a really steep learning curve and there was a lot of bad stuff we had to get out of the way.

Villagers seemed like it was created on the rebound of The Immediate as a quick-fix. What do you think makes it work and why do you think you’ve gone so far with this group?

We’ve just taken every step of the way and it’s worked out. It wasn’t like when we were in The Immediate. We weren’t in our early 20s anymore and we had more ambition and experience. I really reflected and asked myself, “What do you want to do? What do you want to do for audiences?” and that was my only focus. And we’re all good friends. I thought the band was going to be interchangeable based on schedules and other commitments, but they’ve all stayed since the very first show. We’ve really become a group.

What would you say is the main difference between this album and your first album in 2010?

There is a lot different. My approach to words. There is a bit more roleplay in the new album. Trying to have different characters that are portrayed in each song. I think in this one it was exaggerated.

So it was not so much personal as it was creating these characters?

When I write I don’t even know what I’m doing. I sort of just let go and let things happen so it’s hard for me to differentiate what is personal and what isn’t towards the end of a song. It’s just a jumble of words and emotions that was birthed out writing and editing over and over again until it works. I don’t necessarily believe in honesty in art. I think it’s overrated. You can be honestly dishonest in music. It’s all about if it creates an emotional reaction and it doesn’t hurt anybody.

What’s the story behind the name of this album?

The story is that I had no idea what to call it and then finished everything and came up with the name after all of the songs were written. I wanted it to be a made up word. Something that sounded childish. I think this album has a feeling of a sense of wonder that we had as children. It’s about holding on to that to a certain extent. And it also deals with opening your mind up to beyond certain boundaries that have been pre-constructed for you by society. I’m getting really pretentious here. I wanted the opposite of what was homeland, so I said, hey awayland? It worked. I liked the way it was written on the page.

Do the brackets have any meaning?

Well, I just liked the way it look, but it was sort of tying into the journey. It’s sort of inside your head. The brackets are incapsulating and represent that. Like your own inner world.

How would you categorize your sound? I love how fragmented music genres are nowadays. Are you folk?

Hey, totally. I’d say we are new folk post core. (laughs) I think folk music is such a wide ranging term. When people think folk I think they usually just think Bob Dylan they don’t think like African folk music or all the sub-genres. I didn’t grow up listening to folk music. I’ve only recently started to listen to Irish folk music. It’s the first time I’ve ever done that. I didn’t grow up in a household that listened to folk music, which tends to usually be a tenant of folk-singers. I learned from indie bands and rock music.

What’s your favorite song from this album?

The one I enjoy the most to play is probably “Passing a Message” because… I’m sure there’s a reason. I don’t know. It’s got a good groove to it and the words are really intriguing to me.

What was it like to be able to play amongst Neil Young or Tracey Chapman?

Neil Young was just one show in Dublin, we were asked by a promoter there to open for him. It was three days before the show and we only played a few concerts and then got to play in front of 10,000 in our hometown. It was amazing just to see him play for three hours and just rock. It was really inspiring. Tracey Chapman was… interesting. I was asked to play that solo and I’ve never done anything without a band until her European tour. My first show solo was in from of 6,000 people which was insane.

Was it just acoustic?

Yeah, it was just me acoustic. It was insane. We actually sold a lot of records. I’m not sure if our band would have translated as well and I was selling these CDs from our band, not just me acoustically so I’m sure there were a lot of disappointed Tracey Chapman fans when I they got home. It’s much heavier and they probably weren’t expecting it after watching a sweet little Irish boy sing on his guitar.

What are you listening to lately?

Uh, John Hopkins. He’s actually on the same label as us. He’s an electronic producer and music maker and one of the best albums I’ve heard in a long time. Just the textures from the beginning to end just moves me. His album is called Immunity. And I’m listening to old Irish bands like the Dubliners, I’m sort of delving into my history. Talking heads, good running music.

What is the Dublin or Irish music scene like? Is there anyone that we should be listening to?

Lots. There’s, oh God, this is pressure. I don’t want to leave anyone out. There’s this guy called Mmoths who does this amazing electronic ambient stuff. My friend called Rhob Cunningham who is amazing and he just finished recording his album in Iceland. I can’t wait for him to release it.

What’s next for Villagers?

We’re doing this tiny east coast tour and then festivals. We’re doing a lot of festivals. In Europe and the UK. Then we’re going to Australia for a festival and then touring Australia, which we’ve never done before.


On the plane coming over here, I watched The Godfather for the first time. And I’ve heard that the second one is even better. Or anything with Al Pacino in the 70s.


Elvis Costello, “My Name is True”


A poem by WB Yeates called “The Witch” and it goes like this:

Toil and grow rich

What is that but to lie with the foul witch

And after, drained dry

To be brought to the chamber where lies one sword with despair.