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Conor O'Brien by Andrew Whitton

CONOR O’BRIEN GREETS ME in bright sunlight, slightly hunched in his chair and haloed by the Dublin sun.

“It is a strangely warm Irish springtime day,” the frontman/main man of Villagers breezily says, before adding knowingly. “April showers from here on.”

Congratulations on making the best classic period Pink Floyd song since 1973 in That Golden Time, I tell him. He laughs heartily and it seems not without some pride, namechecking the Floyd’s pre-mega fame gem of pastoral psychedelia, 1971’s Meddle as the reference point I had in mind. And he’d be right.

So much so that the freshly released Villagers album on which his song appears should probably come with a flashback warning for people who don’t even touch the stuff anymore but will revel in this dreamscape.

“I am glad to hear it sparked your psychosis,” O’Brien smirks.

That Golden Time, the title track of Villagers’ just released sixth album of thick-edged folk and hints of jazz in the guise of delightfully attractive pop songs, is both dreamlike and carrying an element of disturbed sleep – and no, that’s not just my flashbacks – in its evocation of the record’s main themes: the collision of reality and romanticism as our minds are being rewired by technology.

“It was a poem for quite a while; it didn’t really have a musical home for a long time – it’s only 16 lines. So it was written a couple of years before it found that Floydian soundscape,” O’Brien says. “The whole record, including this song, I’ve discovered through the writing of the songs my subconscious was kind of obsessed with what our brains were doing in this new Internet age, and how it was reshaping our abilities to concentrate. Even our abilities to dream.

“I think it’s such a profound change in the last 15 years or so, that I just couldn’t stop thinking about it, reading about it, writing about it. And that song is I suppose the zenith of that. I like it because it’s quite concise and does what it says on the tin, very quickly.”

While there is some research already claiming to show our neural pathways may be being rewritten, it is an interesting choice to address this issue in a song so redolent of another period when people were certain that our brains were being changed – by psychedelic drugs, or television, or indulged youth running wild or, goodness, the pill.

We (mostly) survived that and I wonder whether the people in 1971 were more radically different from, say, those living in 1943 than 1971 humans are from those of us in 2024.

“I would posit that they are, or that they are now changing more rapidly,” O’Brien says. “I think if you have three year olds with a screen in front of them in a restaurant, not learning how to interact in any way that’s going to change things pretty quickly. I think television was a shared thing, for all of its evils. I do think there has been quite an extreme shift in the past decade, and it’s kind of playing out in this way that people who had previously been a more thoughtful are starting to become very tribalistic and extremist in their thinking. And I think we are at the very beginnings of this.

“I think it’s like any civilisation. It’s like a pre-civilised society, almost Darwinian situation, going on on our screens.”

When we last spoke, three years ago on the release of Fever Dreams he had already written an album considering withdrawing from the impact of social and broader media. Now he has returned to the theme. Is this obsession or can he see a way to navigate this now that wasn’t so obvious three years ago?

“Maybe in three or four albums,” he chuckles. “I can’t get away from it really because it’s one of the major themes of our time. It crosses so many boundaries: it crosses spiritual boundaries, intellectual boundaries – so many things going on that are related to the way we are moving information around now and the way we are all actively complicit in the marketplace by the very fact that we own these little Black Mirrors that we go into every moment.

“I just think it’s such a huge theme and I can’t really stop thinking about it and writing about it. And especially this record had moved on to the idea of disorientation, the moth to the flame allegory that I had going on. The moth is moving towards the coin on the album cover, which is not just currency and money but the currency of accepted ideas which are culturally determined. Ones that are masquerading as universal truths.”

In truth, O’Brien could return to this theme for the next three or four or five albums and still find new ways to look at the very core of contemporary – and future – society. But for now there is a question that isn’t entirely answered, the quandary possibly captured in a line found elsewhere on the album, “Such a simple life you’re dreaming of/No drama/Only love”.

Is that romantic thinking or wishful thinking? Or is that really the same thing? And if they are, how do you separate romantic/wishful thinking from realistic?

“I started writing that song because I kept seeing on dating apps people saying ‘no drama please’, and I thought it was such a funny request. It’s kinda like, what do you want?”

Maybe they’re saying they want someone who isn’t fixated on how technology is destroying our minds and undermining society, just a laugh and a good snog.

O’Brien laughs. “Do you want an obsessive artist who can’t leave the apartment for months on end?”

Yeah, that’s a killer line for any prospective daters out there looking for advice from Conor O’Brien.

“I also liked the idea of writing the most melodramatic song and calling it No Drama and using that line ‘all quiet on set’ [to open the song], because I was rereading Shakespeare’s As You Like It and he has that line about all the world’s a stage and I had that idea that the record would be all on stage to some degree, with lots of different actors, and behind that curtain is another world.

“And sometimes behind that curtain, when the song moves into that kinda jazz coda at the end, I wanted to feel like as an audience member you’ve jumped on the stage opened the curtain to see all of the workings of the play and all of the workings of the theatre.

“That’s the eureka moment when you are realising what it’s all made of and all the power relationships and all the strange hidden cogs moving the whole time.”

Trippy much? Not sure anyone would recommend it as topic for a first date, but Pink Floyd would have been impressed.


NEXT WEEK: in part two of this interview, Conor O’Brien talks about solo vs band, the conflicting desires to strip back and expand the sound of these new songs, and why “I was trying to be someone, anyone but me”.

That Golden Time is out now.




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