His previous band, The Immediate imploded just as they were about to ignite, but Conor O’Brien is back with a new project which already has State feeling very giddy indeed.
Sitting in a bar on South William Street on a crisp and dark Monday evening, Conor J. O’ Brien is attempting to chart his experiences of the last 19 months. Though he has a new project called Villagers about to launch in February, it is almost impossible to talk about his musical notions without mentioning his former band The Immediate, which he does fleetingly and frequently throughout our interview. It was only May 2007 when the band Conor played a vital part in announced they were to split due to ‘existential differences’, an explanation which bewildered at the time, so the wound, if there is one, is still relatively fresh.
Let us recap. The Immediate (made up of Conor, David Hedderman, Peter Toomey and Barra Heavey) were Ireland’s first independent band for a long time who seemed to hold so much promise and who seemed to be on the cusp of greater things. Released in August 2006, the band’s debut, In Towers And Clouds captivated the hearts of many, earned them a Choice Music Prize nomination and a performance on the live stage at the Meteor Awards. Jim Carroll of The Irish Times called the album ‘one of the best Irish debut albums of the last 20 years’. Live, the band were even more incendiary. State can recall a 2006 performance at Hard Working Class Heroes in Meeting House Square in Dublin’s Temple Bar where the band displayed an abundance of vitality, infectiousness and accomplished musicianship in their set. Nothing lasts forever, though, and in the case of The Immediate, the band had simply run its course. ‘The reason we split was so we could split, y’know?’ says Conor, slightly flustered. ‘I don’t really know what happened. It had to just… end. I’d been writing songs with Dave since I was 12 or 13 maybe. Then we finished school and started college. The band were playing gigs, then people started to listen to us. We kept it up. We were like -This is really good. This is working. We’re playing shows. People are coming to the shows’. Then naturally, people [in the band] realised: -Oh, more stuff is happening in my life. When I actually sit and think about it, I don’t know if I want to do this anymore’. It was literally that natural. I had no idea how to describe it. People were like -What happened?’ and I just said -I don’t know. Things end’. ‘ These unclear sentiments justify the tongue in cheek explanation of ‘existential differences’. Put simply, two members of the band just didn’t want to play in The Immediate anymore.
Thankfully, the main reason Conor is talking about the past is because of his oh so bright future under the moniker of Villagers. A four track EP entitled Hollow Kind, written and performed solely by Conor, is released in February and judging by the reaction to the handful of live gigs towards the end of 2008, people are already getting excited at the prospect. State witnessed the band’s support slot with Halves in Whelan’s in November and the bubbling excitement is easily understood. It was a captivating performance from a band making their first tentative steps. It’s a testament to Conor and his band that at that point, they had only had two proper rehearsals. ‘They are such good players, they pick up on it straight away,’ Conor enthuses. ‘I gave them all the seven songs we’ve so far rehearsed and they learned them. We had a rehearsal, we played a gig. Each gig acted as a rehearsal for the next one, rather than having to meet up and rehearse properly. To me, all the gigs felt like a different band. It’s interesting. I’ve never felt such a change from one gig to the next. Just in terms of the energy levels of the songs. I felt like I was going to be naked on a stage but I got into the songs as much as I wanted to right from the off, which is really, really surprising for me.’
These high calibre players include Tommy McLaughlin (formerly of Berkeley, who recorded the Hollow Kind EP), James Byrne (who is releasing it on his label Any Other City) and the bass and keyboard section of One Day International, Danny Snow and Cormac Curran respectively. The support slots were the first public fruits of Conor’s labour over the last 19 months and have made him suffi ciently excited about the future. ‘I came off giddy every gig. I hadn’t been that excited for a while. It was a good feeling,’ he says, beaming. Currently, the rest of the band can’t commit to every gig as they are involved in other projects but Conor relishes the prospect of a loose collective of musicians working with him. ‘The songs are constructed in such a way that they are very open to interpretation on the night,’ he explains. ‘I kinda wanted it that way. Each of these songs went through about seven or eight arranged versions in demo form. So it was a long process but it means that when I perform them in the future, maybe I’ll do a different arrangement. I don’t want to get stuck in any way.’
The seeds of Villagers were sown the very first day after the band decided to split. ‘I wrote a song the day after. I got really really drunk and then the next morning, I woke up completely dehydrated and wrote a song at seven in the morning. I still haven’t gotten that song right but it’s gonna appear eventually. It’s gone through lots of stages,’ he recounts. Those initial songs were informed by the whole experience of being in The Immediate and Conor decided not to take his solo songs as seriously as before. ‘I’d think about things too much and that makes things sound quite contrived. When the band split, I started writing songs and it took me a long time to be into them. I still hadn’t let go of that way of thinking. I feel like once you get a little bit older, once you get in your mid-20s, it’s not old but it’s different than being 19. It’s a big five years. It makes you realise it’s just another piece of the rest of your life. You shouldn’t take it too seriously. Whatever comes out, comes out. If it comes out, then that’s what you go with, rather than holding shit back because you feel like it mightn’t be right.’
While Conor was getting over The Immediate he joined Cathy Davey’s band as guitarist, a role he is still currently fulfilling. ‘She came to The Immediate’s early shows. She kinda dug us and then I sent her a message on Myspace saying I really liked her demos. She had just put up the demos for what was to become the Silversleeve album. She had -Harmony’ and -Sing For Your Supper’ up. She sent one back going -Do you know any guitar players?’ and I was like -I’m a guitar player’,’ he chuckles. ‘I was recording with her while The Immediate were still going. I was recording the album with her so once it [The Immediate] ended, she asked me to come on tour with her.’
Conor strikes State as a sensitive soul and that decision to join Cathy straight away seems to be a moot point or at least a thing that Conor worried about in terms of perception from the rest of The Immediate. ‘It felt like cheating or something. I would have been pissed if one of the other guys had gone off and done something the week after, so I understand why that would have been…’ he trails off. ‘But she asked, so I did it,’ he says, dancing around an explicit explanation.
His time with Cathy has informed Villagers’ distinct brand of soul-filled folk songs as Conor found his guitar skills tested to the limit. ‘I’ve learned a hell of a lot. I had never played with different musicians ever before. I’d only ever played with the guys, so it was real -deep end’ sort of thing. I remember being really nervous the first time, very nerve-wracking as well. She does a lot of radio sessions and stuff. We do a lot of covers of old songs – old soul songs, jazz standards. Just on a very musical level, I’ve had to learn about a million new chords!’ The songs debuted so far bear the hallmarks of a seasoned guitarist. Though Conor might not admit it, he’s become quite an accomplished arranger too. This is evident on the Hollow Kind EP. -Down, Under The Sea’ is a brooding piano and percussion-filled opening salvo, while the restrained and atmospheric -The Meaning Of The Ritual’ uses organ as the centrepiece for stark ruminations on love. -Pieces’, which can currently be seen in a live video on Youtube from one of those support slots holds the promise of being one of the best tunes of 2009 once the EP is released. ‘There’s still loads of shit we have to iron out, but that’ll come,’ says Conor. ‘The bones of it are enough. There is still a lot more to be written. It’s by no means there yet. I don’t want it to be. I don’t ever want it to be a finished project: it needs to be constantly changing.’
Conor has 14 or 15 songs fully arranged with others ‘floating’. An album will most likely be forthcoming sometime in 2009. Dublin’s Richie Egan, aka Jape, wrote on his blog that he believes Conor is the best songwriter to come from Ireland in a long time. ‘That gentleman embodies everything I hold dear about music,’ he wrote. Conor J. O’ Brien best get used to it. State expects a lot of praise coming his way over the course of 2009.
Villagers’ debut EP, Hollow Kind is launched with a gig in Crawdaddy, Dublin, on February 21.
Photo by Rich Gilligan – See the more of the shoot.