‘The bus was late, and forced us all to congregate…’ Villagers kick off a set at King’s Cross’ Scala with a solo version of acoustic fable ‘Twenty Seven Strangers’, and I am reminded of London transport despair earlier in the day where the lack of Number 17 almost cost me an interview slot with the band’s creator and frontman, Conor O’Brian. Luckily, the accommodating Irishman didn’t seem to mind too much, and I grabbed a flustered few minutes of backstage time to ask some niggling questions about his recent success.
Nestled on a sofa surrounded by a rider’s worth of carrot sticks and lemonade, Conor is reserved but friendly, describing his summer: ‘It’s been good, we’ve got to travel round Europe, visiting all these crazy, amazing festivals. Haldern, in Germany, was a favourite. It’s very small, like 5000 people, but it’s so special and has a lake you can swim in.’ I probe the Europhile and discover that he can speak French and counts Berlin as the place he’s most enjoyed on tour. But what about London? ‘I really enjoy it here and I’ve been many times. I like the way of being able to get places fast.’ Ahem… Anything else? ‘I like the general diversity. If you come from Dublin it’s not quite as obvious and it’s quite exciting for a young, small Irish boy coming over to the big, bad city.’
The ‘young, small Irish boy’ has seen an industry glowing with warm reception this year. A revered Later…With Jools Holland performance followed a hugely successful iTunes single of the week, and the release of album Becoming A Jackal heralded the ultimate musical pat on the back a Mercury Prize nomination. ‘The awards show itself was fun. I had a good, bizarre, strange night. I didn’t really feel like it was my world, it felt like I was gatecrashing someone’s crazy party. I mean Paul Weller came up to me, and said something along the lines of “good on you, kiddo,” with a pat on the back.’
The nomination has plunged Villagers into a whirlwind of international acclaim and will see them playing live until April next year, with Conor insisting that intense business (‘I’ve never sort of had a chance to stop and think about the future ‘cos I’ve been so busy writing and touring’) is the key to keeping your feet on the ground: ‘But I enjoy it, playing live. I was a bit more shy at the start, and with The Immediate, it was a different thing. I had a really good time with them. The Immediate was O’Brian’s first band, an ‘avant-garde rock quartet’ who split up in May 2007 citing ‘existential differences’. The morning after the split, O’Brian woke with a huge hangover and wrote his first song as Villagers (‘There was a time when I was gonna call the band Friends and Lovers,’ he cringes, ‘But it intruded on all the songs. Villagers is simple.’) He is now the only Irish act to be signed with Domino, and I wonder how things are progressing with the well established label: ‘Great. They’ve been nothing but supportive. They didn’t try and change the way the songs worked. Ultimately with Domino, the artist has the final say on everything. And I’m the artist!’
I ask about any new music he’s spotted: ‘Errr new stuff… I only listen to old music, I’m terrible. Kate Le Bon’s quite good?’ – his current support on tour – ‘I think we’re more new actually, I don’t know if she wants to be called new! What am I listening to? No, I’m listening to Elvis Costello at the moment, he’s not new. I’m sure there’s a band but I can’t think of it…’ Certainly not the haul of ones-to-watch provided by your average indie star!
Conor exudes contentment – why wouldn’t he – and I can sense an eagerness to enjoy the moment. Blank-faced and rather unambitious when I ask what he would be doing if things hadn’t worked out, he explained, ‘I’ve wanted to do this since I was like 12. I worked as a waiter, and in a bank. I couldn’t be an accountant – not very good at maths. I’d probably be doing odd jobs, like cleaning people’s toilets. Yep I’d probably be a toilet cleaner… At McDonald’s.’
Such conversational stutters are erased completely later in the evening as Villagers performs to a sell-out Scala crowd. His vocals are strong and confident throughout, and sometimes even better than the record when backed with a full live band on standout songs like ‘Home’ and ‘Pieces’. In fact, the whole gig smacks of accomplishment and should be repeated if not bettered when he visits the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in April next year. For now, it’s safe to say Villagers can count on rapidly growing support and impressive album sales to keep them out of the toilet cleaning industry. Buy a ticket or an album today to support this worthy cause.
Single ‘That Day’ is out now