O EMPEROR are on the crest of a wave. In less than two years they have become one of the highest profile alternative acts in the county, and one of the most acclaimed.
The Waterford quintet have won a strong fanbase due to their regular gigs around Ireland; their debut album Hither Thither was released late last year to enthusiastic reviews, reaching number six on the Irish charts and receiving a Choice Music Award nomination along the way.
Up next for the band The Irish Times has called “Ireland’s answer to Grizzly Bear” is a March/April Irish tour, taking in Galway; the single release of ‘Sedalia’; and ta slot at the prestigious SXSW festival in Austin/Texas later in the year.
“The name is established now,” vocalist/guitarist Paul Savage tells me as I sit with the band for a Thursday afternoon interview. “We want to keep on gigging and getting people to the shows and keep writing for the next album. We’re excited to start writing new songs as we have been living with these ones for a long time now.”
Although O Emperor’s rise seems sudden the reality is quite different. The members - Paul Savage, Philip Christie (vocals/keyboards ), Alan Comerford (lead guitar ), Richie Walsh (bass ), and Brendan Fennessy (drums ) - have all known each other and been playing music together in various guises for the past decade.
They went under a few different guises before eventually coalescing in 2006/07 as O Emperor, when, in Paul’s words they “became a little more coherent”.
Keith Richards dreamed of the opening riff to what would become ‘(I Can’t Get No ) Satisfaction’ before he first played it on guitar. John Lennon always maintained the name The Beatles came to him in a dream.
The influence of dreams on rock music is a long one and O Emperor joined that club from the moment they chose their regal moniker.
“It came from a bit of a mad dream that I had,” says Paul. “The dream was of a black and white movie and the name of the film I was watching was O Emperor. That’s all I remember of it, but the name stuck.”
With a name and a focus on what they wanted to do with their music, the five friends, who hail from the Dunmore East/Waterford city region, ensconced themselves in a house in Kinsale where they “made a studio from scratch” and recorded an album’s worth of songs.
“That was a couple of years ago,” says Richie. “We did that for six months and had it ready to go.”
However the band thought better of releasing the album and decided to take the time to develop some of those songs further, re-record them in a more professional studio environment, and write new material.
That said, Richie points out that four songs from that unreleased album were re-worked for Hither Thither, while the atmospheric ‘Heisenberg’ was retained from the original recording.
“It’s got its own charm,” he says and the band admit that they might look at revisiting a couple of tracks with a view to re-recording them for their next full length release. In the meantime O Emperor collectors and die-hards note that some 1,000 copies of the unreleased album are in existence.
O Emperor’s rustic sound, keen sense of melody, and lush harmonies have led some to dub them country-rock or roots rock, even though they are no such thing. “People mistake our use of vocal harmonies and acoustic guitar for that,” says Paul.
“It’s surprising what people will brand you with,” laughs Alan. “We have been dubbed ‘Hawaiian rock’ just because we use a slide guitar! Is there such a thing as ‘Hawaiian rock’?”
“I can’t think of ourselves as folky or roots,” says Philip, “but people can think you are if you’re a band that concentrate on the songwriting side of things. It’s nicer to take in what you can from the whole spectrum rather than just one genre.”
The band themselves cite Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Bread, Fleetwood Mac, The Band, and Led Zeppelin as influences.
“Gilbert O’Sullivan has also been an inspiration, being from Waterford as well,” says Philip, “but you don’t go shouting about your love for Gilbert O’Sullivan...”
O Emperor are sophisticated songwriters of great potential. Hither Thither is full of intelligent, beguiling, melodies; impeccable vocal harmonies; and skilled musicianship. A perfect example of this is the utterly sublime ‘Sedalia’.
Indeed a new version of ‘Sedalia’, recorded with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra is due for release on the day of the Galway gig on March 25. It is also to be accompanied with a black and white video featuring O Emperor poerforming with the orchestra.
“It’s a song about two gangsters on the run,” explains Philip. “ I was watching Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and that’s where the idea came from. The title was inspired by a programme I was watching on Sedalia, which is a town in the States where Scott Joplin spent a lot of time. Also I had this piece written that was a bit like Neil Young and the middle section came later. I just put the three pieces together and they worked.”
Songwriting for O Emperor is very much a collaborative process, hence Richie’s description of the band as a “songwriting co-operative”.
“Someone might come in with a couple of chords or a lyric and put it out there for the band,” says Paul, “then everyone puts in their own ideas.”
“Everybody puts their own stamp on the song,” says Alan, “and that will bring a different style and evolve in an interesting way each time and make it something to explore, otherwise it would become a niche sound and boring.”
O Emperor play the Róisín Dubh on Friday March 25 at 9pm. Tickets are available from the Róisín Dubh and www.roisindubh.net