Progress has been made but much like the issue of race, the unseen fight for equality continues. Conor O’Brien, also known as Villagers, the name of his successful Irish folk band, admits that he often faced homophobia while growing up in Dublin. You would think such a liberal city would be relatively free of bigotry, but Catholicism still strikes fear deep into the heart of the country.
In his fourth studio album, fittingly titled, Where Have You been All My life, Villagers pours out a collection of tunes from his past three successful records. A coming out of sorts, this is Villagers at his finest: innocent, almost doe-eyed, highly articulate and possessing an endearing awkwardness. One of his biggest hits to date is a tune called Courage off his third LP Darling Arithmetic and we commend him for just that.
So I was actually just scrolling through your twitter feed and I saw this Noam Chomsky interview you tweeted with the words “17 minutes of happy viewing.”
Yeah maybe the wrong adjective was used in that particular case. He’s a good guy for clarity, Chomsky, he always pins things down and says them as they are. I like when things are questioned all the time and I think the things that he questions and criticises are things that usually aren’t questioned or criticised enough. So I think he’s doing a service to humanity.
I do find him a bit miserable. Do you notice he’s never had a nice thing to say about anything in 30 years of watching him. Anyway, so are you a man who is kept up at night by the issues of the world?
Well not since I gave myself a rule of turning off my phone at night. But when I’m writing it’s my way of learning. I’ll tend to write a song and then realise that it’s attaching itself to something that I read yesterday, or saw on the news, and then I’ll Google that and learn more about it. So it’s a way of continuing studying really. I use music and so of course the result is something more emotional than academic.
Your debut Becoming A Jackal came out in 2010. You’ve been at this for over half a decade now. How would you attempt to sum up the last several years of growing up as a person and a songwriter?
I’m proud of everything I’ve put out. I’m so close to it that it’s hard to step outside and judge it. It’s like when I read a critics’ appraisal of the work, it doesn’t mean that much to me because I’m close to the song and they are not. I usually agree with everything that has been written about my music, good and bad. The only reviews I don’t like are the ones that are badly written or lazy, but if people have actually put time into it and listened to it then I usually agree because I’ve had all of the same thoughts a million times while I was creating it. If I’m asked now to look back at it myself and look at it from the outside. . . I just can’t, it’s just this giant web of emotions I guess. It’s like a piece of my soul.
"I usually agree with everything that has been written about my music, good and bad. "
Villagers on his critics
Is there one song that you’re most proud of?
It changes all the time really. I just finished writing one that I’m really proud of, and when we play live some songs really stand out. There’s a song I wrote called Nothing Arrived and we have this really groovy version of it that we’ve been playing for the last year. Every time we do it I get a real kick out of it.
The first time I ever heard your music was in a bar in Berlin. It was To Be Counted Among Men and it’s still my favourite song of yours.
Wow, what bar was that? That’s a pretty miserable bar.
It’s an intriguing and bizarre song, but it was refreshing to hear a real narrative and references to ancient religious iconography, stuff that you don’t hear much. You’ve talked about being agnostic and not being that interested in religion, but you have this mystical energy to your music.
Well I was taken to church every Sunday when I was growing up and I was always weirdly obsessed with the iconography, the visuals of Jesus on the crucifix and how insanely violent that is. As a child you sit there wondering why this hangs on the wall and why this guy in the robe is talking. I always found it fascinating. My childhood to a certain extent was steeped in religion, but my parents were actually pretty relaxed about it.
I wasn’t damaged by it or anything, but it stayed with me in the same way that movies that I watched as a kid stayed with me. Jim Henson movies, really well-crafted fantasy movies. All these things got mixed up for me, the religious world and the fantasy world. I didn’t really see the difference between any of it, until I got to my teenage years and realised that the people who made that crucifix were the same people who were calling me the devil because of my sexuality. I guess that’s when I started writing.
There’s a quite classical, almost a medieval feel to your music. Do you know what I mean?
Yeah I think you might be talking about the way the chords are structured and the tone of the performance. I don’t really know where that comes from because I wasn’t classically trained. I always pick things up by ear because I can’t read music.
You’ve mentioned in other interviews that there were a lot of issues burning inside you while you were creating the last record, and one of them was your sexuality. That’s a very hard topic to approach for any artist. Do you think that spending a long time not talking about it has allowed you to create better music, almost being repressed? Did it force you to put those feelings of confusion and anger into the music?
Yeah it did. For me it’s always been very natural for me not to tell people I’m gay the first time I meet them because I grew up with a general low level hum of bigotry surrounding everything. I’ve experienced homophobia quite a lot so I basically just learned to keep that all in until I really got to know somebody. So every time I did an interview with new strangers and there were microphones and cameras in my face, it wasn’t natural for me to mention that I’m gay.
"I was always weirdly obsessed with the visuals of Jesus on the crucifix [...] and Jim Henson movies, really well-crafted fantasy movies. All these things got mixed up for me, the religious world and the fantasy world. I didn’t really see the difference between any of it."
You said something recently which I found really interesting about having to read the room every time you walk into a room full of strangers as an LGBT person.
Yeah well that’s what growing up gay is. The world is changing in a lot of ways, but my teenage-hood was basically spent retreating socially from things but observing them from afar and also learning how to digest them through music and art. That’s what I did. I spent a lot of my teenage years writing and making art instead of going out and partying.
Were you depressed when you were a teenager?
Looking back I think I was. I spent quite a few years barely speaking to anybody. I just felt really frustrated. It was a frustration of feeling that I didn’t have an outlet. I was bursting with creative ideas and I hated the idea of being trapped in this school environment.
Had you come out as gay at that time?
Not in school. I came out gradually during my late teenage years and by the time I was 20 everyone I knew, knew.
The weird thing was that I wasn’t actually uncomfortable with who I was. I was almost forging a whole other world inside of me, in which I felt very strong and loved very much. It’s a funny thing and I’ve sort of continued that into my adulthood to a certain degree. Whenever I’m in the middle of creating something, I’m living in it. I’m literally living inside it and until I finish and put it out in the world I can’t escape from it. It’s the first thing I think about in the morning and the last thing I think about at night.
The recent Orlando shootings at the LGBT club shocked the world. Did this tragedy, and the fact that LGBT people were targeted, have a particularly big impact on you?
Yeah, I mean I think I cried for about two hours looking at the footage. It affected me a lot. It’s a tough one because there’s so much going on around the world, so why should one mass killing affect you more than another? But sometimes it just does because you’re a human being and you can empathise certain other human beings a bit more. That’s just something that’s true. It really hit me. I don’t really know what else to say about it.
I first saw it as the kind of mass murder that might happen in Palestine or Syria, but slowly as more and more details emerged and I watched news reports, the connections to my world and LGBT people all started seeping in. I realised that as much as the world is changing, there’s so much more work to do.
You seem to be very affected by the world around you. You also strike me as someone who is just completely fascinated by music. It seems to be the thing that has a hold on you more than anything else.
Yeah, definitely. It’s my obsession. It’s something that goes very deep. I’m reading a book at the moment by Oliver Sacks – Musicophilia. He’s someone who studies the neurological aspect of music. There’s so much going on in your brain with music. It’s a deeply inherent thing. Everything that I’m reading in that book is completely hitting home with me. There are so many things going on, your brain is affected by rhythm and tone.
You’ve talked in the past about the fact that you were quite well-off when you were growing up and that you had no problems getting guitars and equipment. But you said the place you’re from is a spiritually bereft place. Were you trying to emerge from somewhere that didn’t really fit who you were?
I guess. That’s a good narrative to spin I guess. That particular time in Ireland was very strange because there was this sudden economic boom. This was the Celtic Tiger years, so late 90s and early 2000s. Suddenly businesses were wanting to come to Ireland and there was money for the first time in a long time. I grew up with this as the norm. I was living in this middle class area and it was this strange situation where you’d see the adults around you living these lavish lifestyles that weren’t really based on anything. It made me want to search for something a bit deeper, and I tended to run away from the social groups at the time, the rugby players.
"I grew up with a general low level hum of bigotry surrounding everything."
Villagers on his youth
Would you agree that you’re quite a sensitive person?
Yeah I guess so.
Judging from the interviews that you’ve done and the discussions you’ve had, you seem closed off or careful of what you say.
I don’t know. That’s probably for somebody else to judge. I have my moments. I’m quite a moody person so I tend to kind of change the way that I react to things. At the moment I’m getting a bit edgy because I’ve just done four interviews before this one and right before that my computer crashed and I lost loads of work. So I can get riled up about music related stuff but with everything else I think I’m quite easy going.
So in terms of music, what are you loving and being inspired by at the moment?
I’m listening to this Fela Kuti album called Opposite People which is blowing my mind. Tony Allen’s drumming and the repetition of the phrases are just incredible. I’m basically using it as a blue print from which to base my tones and stuff, because I’m getting really into production and engineering. I’m making loops and at the moment I’m creating a remix of a friend’s tune. I’m trying to use elements of a Nigerian rhythmic drumming kind of thing, without it being that horrible, cultural appropriator, musical magpie guy.
Are you turning into Ginger Baker (drummer for Fela Kuti)?
[laughing] I actually met him once.
It was Ginger Baker, myself and Sinead O’Connor in a room. It was very interesting and pretty intense. Ginger Baker was talking a lot about his experiences in Africa and how racist South Africa was. But it was cool, it was a nice vibe.
What do you make of Sinead O’Conner’s very sad downfall?
I just hope she’s ok. I’ve met her a few times because we sang together with John Grant and she was really sweet and thoughtful. I don’t know her that well, so I just really hope she gets better.
You’ve said that you’re making some weird dark techno? I love this prospect.
Actually I kind of stopped that. It’s something that I very much love. I really love some Plastikman records. Early Richie Hawtin, very minimal. But it’s something that I feel like he has done really well, so nobody needs this folk dude doing it badly for about two years until he gets vaguely good at it. I’ve been listening to a lot of Caribou. I guess the electronic stuff that I’ve been making is trying to merge acoustic instruments with electronic instruments. It’s a dangerous thing because it can easily be done badly and sound contrived, but I’m trying anyway. The broader your pallet the more mistakes you can make. You really have to build a particular flavour, a particular approach to noise generation, so I’ve just started to get my own sound in that regard. I think that will be a part of the next Villagers record.
Would you say that your career has been healthy and successful so far?
I’m always learning you know. That’s all I’m doing. And I’m a total space cadet as well, I don’t really. . .
Not sure that answers the question.
If I was to describe what I was doing in my life at the moment in terms of my career I wouldn’t necessarily describe it as healthy or successful because I don’t think it’s helpful to feel successful when you’re trying to create things all the time. I always feel like I’m trying to get better and I never really think of myself as being successful at it. Maybe it’s a cultural, or an Irish thing, I don’t know.
The catholic guilt?
[laughing] Maybe that’s it yeah. You’re shit, you’re a sinner. No, I don’t know. Right now I’m completely embroiled in making something new so that’s the only place my head is at. I’m not able to think about where I’ve been or where I will be. It’s all about the present, and that’s what keeps me sane.
What do you find the hardest part of what you do? Is there any part of the process of writing, recording, performing that you don’t enjoy?
I’m not an extrovert. I have to force myself to do things all the time when it comes to getting out there. So I don’t have a completely comfortable relationship with the idea of being a front man of a band. It’s never sat fully at ease with me, and sometimes I wish I was just the guitar player or the drummer. Drums are my favourite instrument. I started with drums and I actually do most of the drums on the albums. But I also write these songs that fit with my voice so it makes sense for me to sing them. Then I have these incredible experiences, especially with the last album, where it feels like you’re completely connecting with this whole audience and everyone is there with you. That surprised me because I’d never really built myself up for that sort of experience. I’m not your usual front man. So it’s always a real surprise; a slap in the face, in a good way.
"It was Ginger Baker, myself and Sinead O’Connor in a room. It was very interesting and pretty intense."
Villagers on a strange encounter
I’m sure you connect very deeply with your fans. You’ve talked about how they’ll cry at your merch desk and write you letters and stuff. Are you comfortable with all of that?
I think I am now. In the last year I’ve made myself go out to the merch desk. After the shows I just want to meet everybody now, which is a very strange thing. I never wanted to before but now it feels very real. I think if someone admires something that you’ve made. . . it’s all in how you present yourself to that person. If someone talks to me for 20 seconds and they’ll realise that I’m not particularly ostentatious or bizarre or amazing in any way. I’m a pretty normal dude. I used to be worried about not living up to the music but I don’t worry anymore. I think the music speaks for itself. It’s something that stands on its own two feet and I’m just a conduit for it.
I heard that your former band mate Dave Hedderman now lives in Berlin and does life drawing classes?
Yeah I was at one of the classes a few weeks ago.
Were you posing nude?
No, I nearly did though. The model didn’t turn up, and they nearly persuaded me to do it but another friend stepped up to the plate.
Has David made peace with the success you’ve built in your solo career?
Oh yeah, we’re best buddies. We’re like soul mates. We’re incredibly happy for anything nice that happens in each other’s lives. We still collaborate even if we’re not doing it physically. There’s a weird bond between us. Every time I’m in Berlin or he comes back to Ireland we meet up and realise we’ve been working on the same kinds of things, whether it’s painting with him, or music with me. They’re always connected in some way. I think that comes from trying to write songs together from the age of 12 or 13. His everyday life is painting and drawing so that’s kind of his thing now, but he’s written some beautiful songs. He’s mastered the craft of emotional simplicity, which is something I’m always striving for.
Are there any songs that you wish you’d written or that you love so much that you’re just in awe of how someone could even write it?
Yeah loads! I don’t even know how to start. I’ve been listening to that Nina Simone album, Silk & Soul recently and there’s a song she wrote herself called Consummation. That’s really beautiful. I think it captures something really fundamental and human. Then on the new Radiohead album, True Love Waits, that song blows my mind. It’s amazing. We’re actually going to see them in New York soon, so I can’t wait for that.
To end on a totally random note, I’ve been doing some research and apparently Santiago in Chile is one of your top 5 biggest fan communities. I thought that was really bizarre and interesting, and I’m wondering why that might be? In fact four of the top five groups that listen to you most are Spanish speaking.
Okay, that blows my mind. We just came back from doing a show near Barcelona. We did a festival there two weeks ago. We haven’t really played Spain or any other Spanish speaking countries until this year, and when we got there we just assumed we’d be playing to a few hundred people. We were literally one of the first bands on at about 8.30 when they opened the gates, and by two songs in there were 3 or 4 thousand people, all singing the words! It blew my mind.
We thought we might make a few more fans but there was a mass of people literally singing every word of Courage back to me. So we’re going to try and get over there more often now because it feels like something has happened. I don’t know what. Who would have thought they’d like these depressing, pasty-white Irish boys?
Where Have You Been All My Life is out now through Domino Records
If there are any synthesiser freaks out there I would recommend this. It’s fucking beautiful. It’s basically just a noise generator but for me that kind of stuff is like porn.
I’m reading it at the moment. It’s basically a comedy book from the perspective of the extra-terrestrials who have populated our planet. It’s a joke but it has a point to make about the human race. There are loads of interesting points and it’s very funny.