CONOR J O’BRIEN first came to national attention with The Immediate. The avant-garde quartet became the toast of the Irish music scene with their debut album In Towers and Clouds in 2006 which was nominated for the Choice Music Prize.
Yet by the middle of the following year The Immediate had disbanded. Conor’s true calling was still some way off. He did not really have time to dwell on the split as soon after he was on the road with Cathy Davey as part of her live band.
“It was just like going from one band to another,” Conor tells me. “It was an amazing experience and more than I ever could have asked for. Cathy’s great because she’s just got this way of looking at things musically that makes you re-think the way you look at music.
“When we were recording her albums Tales of Silversleeve and The Nameless I got to play lots of lovely guitar and drum parts and she sort of let me in on the whole process. Whenever we had any free time I’d try to write as much as I could of my own stuff. I demoed some of the material I’d been working on at a friend’s home studio in Donegal and that’s when Villagers came about.”
Villagers performed their first live show in Whelan’s, Dublin, in late 2008. The band comprises O’Brien, Tommy McLaughlin, James Byrne, Tommy Snow, and Cormac Curran and they released their debut EP Hollow Kind in February 2009.
“Our drummer James runs a small record label and we released an EP and a single on that,” Conor says. “We sold them at gigs and online and through the now defunct Road Records. I remember after our first proper headliner in Dublin’s Crawdaddy there was a queue the whole way around the venue to buy the EP. That sort of made me think ‘Well maybe we can keep doing this’. It gave me the confidence to go on and record more songs and to put the material out there.”
The band was invited to support Neil Young, Tracy Chapman, and Tindersticks and did a nationwide tour with Bell X1.
“It was through working with Cathy Davey and touring with Paul Noonan that we got offered the Bell X1 support,” O’Brien states. “That directly led to us getting signed because it was at one of those shows that the guy from Domino Records saw us. Our publicist Dan had been talking to the label boss and he mentioned us.”
Conor fulfilled a lifelong ambition in April when he appeared on BBC 2’s Later…with Jools Holland. For many years O’Brien had taped each and every show and shown it to friends.
“It was pretty magic to be on a show that you idolised from about the age of 14/15,” he says “Though there was a lot of waiting around on the show and a lot of it was quite boring. The live part was very exciting and it very much worked to my advantage.
“I didn’t really get to meet Jools until we were all getting our photo taken together. I said ‘Hello’ and we had a few moments of small talk. It’s his producers that choose who goes on the show and he brings it all together.”
The following month Villagers debut album Becoming A Jackal was released in Ireland and Britain. In July it was nominated for the Mercury Prize and Villagers performed at the ceremony alongside Paul Weller, Mumford & Son, Biffy Clyro, and The xx.
“The event itself was cool and it was a real honour to be nominated,” Conor admits .“We did a UK tour pretty soon afterwards and most of the shows were either sold out or nearly sold out. It definitely got more people listening to the band and did a lot of the groundwork for gigging.”
Following their successful British jaunt Villagers embarked on a US tour, taking in California, Arizona, Texas, Tennessee, Philadelphia, and New York. Conor commented that he was living out his “Kerouac fantasies” during the tour.
“We drove about 4,000 miles in a couple of weeks,” he says “We went from the east coast to the west coast and everywhere in between. It’s such a huge place and is so diverse that every time you go through a different state it’s like being in another country. It kind of messes with your perceptions of space and time.”
After being ‘on the road’ in America, Conor returned for a short tour of Europe but will return to the States in the New Year.
“It still feels like we’re working from the bottom up,” he states. “Though on the last tour there were a lot of full rooms and we got a lot more press and TV. It all about the work really and you have to keep going back again and again for it to pay off.”
Even though Villagers have been constantly on tour since before the summer, thoughts of home are never far away. They have not escaped the negative press attention that Ireland has garnered recently.
“I was in Berlin about five days ago doing a radio interview and the guy was saying ‘We’re hearing a lot about Ireland and that it’s completely f***ed’!’ and I was like ‘Umm, thanks for bringing it up’. Then he wanted me to sing these ridiculous lyrics about Ireland that he’d written himself. Suddenly I realised how much of an international news story Ireland’s problems have become. It’s just really strange and worrying.”
It’s been an incredibly busy 2010 for Villagers and as such they have not had a chance to take it all in just yet.
“I’ve been travelling so much that I don’t really know what taking stock entails,” Conor says. “I guess I’ll find out in January when I’ve disappeared for a while to write some new stuff. Until then though it’s just going to continue to be really hectic.”
Villagers play a ‘Róisín Dubh presents...’ show in The Black Box Theatre on Saturday December 18 at 8pm. Tickets are available from the Róisín Dubh and Zhivago.