Tag Archive: Conor O’Brien


James Byrne

“The first album was bought by 100,000 people, if the same people buy the second it will be a success. If half of them buy it, it will still be a success. ”

I speak with Villagers drummer James Byrne about their new album, running a record label during a recession and how he realised music was the career for him.

He began early.

“I had one dream when I was in school; to be goalkeeper for Manchester United. I realised at 12/13 years old that I wasn’t growing quickly enough and decided to be a musician instead.”

At 15, James received his first drum kit from his parents and set up a band a matter of months later. Before long he was going to punk gigs in the Dublin area absorbing all he could about the industry.

“Seeing those bands performing and putting out their own music, realizing that you could set up your own label and find bands yourself. DIY labels like Rough Trade/ Dischord showed that it wasn’t about selling a million records. ”

“I began following record labels rather than bands.”

James resisted the idea of going to college, intent on touring with his band Life After Modelling but reluctantly enrolled in Music Industry Studies in Ballyfermot.

This turned out to be ideal.

“I met new, like-minded people and we (Life After Modelling) were rehearsing 3-4 times a week and playing loads of gigs – determined to be a success.”

In the meantime, a college project captured his imagination. The class were tasked with putting out a compilation. Soon, James had taken over the project. He contacted 16 bands he loved, sweet-talked them into letting him use their songs, organised the artwork and successfully released it.

“I realised I can actually do this, it’s not that hard if you are prepared to put the work in.”

The next year he opted not to do the third year degree and toured with the band for the next 2 years.

“At the time we were waiting on a big record deal when really we should have done it ourselves. Before long the band began disintegrating and we didn’t have that impetus to make that next step.”

When the band split, James took it badly and almost gave up.

“I got really ill after we stopped being busy and I thought, “This is killing me”. I thought, ‘Fuck, I’ve spent all this time doing this, look at all the stuff I’ve missed out on.’ I never got to travel, it’s cost me three relationships…I’ve totally fallen out of love with music…”

Suddenly, in his mid-twenties, James is cast adrift, working part-time in an off-licence and unsure where to turn. I ask him what brought him out of this slump? He tells me he kept playing, and gradually realised that you need to be in music for the process, not the result.

“It needs to be worth it every day, that needs to be enough. Writing, rehearsing and touring…you have to enjoy every minute of it.”

In 2008, he came across a band who sparked something in him, New Amusement. He met with them and proposed they collaborate.

“I thought they were brilliant and I had a little bit of money from an SSIA I had so I convinced them that we could do something together.”

This became the first release on his label Any Other City Records.

James begins investing himself in this new enterprise, focusing on finding talent and nurturing it.

Out of the blue, Conor O’Brien calls to tell him that his own band, The Immediates, has just broken up. He tells James he still wants to play music and asks if he’s like to be involved.

The invitation is accepted without a moment’s hesitation. Conor invites three others to join and Villagers begin to rehearse and play gigs as quickly as possible.

“Conor just knew who would work. When we started I knew Tommy a bit and Conor quite well, but I didn’t know the other two [Cormac and Danny] at all, we knew the bands we’d all been in, and I didn’t really like some of their bands and I don’t think they liked ours either so we had to earn each other’s respect.”

Soon, Villagers are performing regular gigs and getting noticed. James signs them to Any Other CityVillagers grow in popularity more quickly than any other group he’s been involved with.

In 2009, Domino Records come in and sign them up.

I ask how he felt about handing the reins over to a larger label.

“I was relieved. Although, Villagers didn’t take much work – they always took care of themselves in terms of growth and gigs – this meant I could get back to actually enjoying being a member of a band again. Focusing on being the best drummer I could be. Villagers felt like a second chance.”

In 2010, the group’s debut album Becoming a Jackal was nominated for the Mercury Prize.

I noted that Conor had performed solo at the event itself despite generally playing gigs with the full band. I wondered who’s decision that had been and whether there were any tense moments ahead of the biggest night of their career up to that point.

He hesitates: “The BBC producer for that night made that decision, he’d seen us perform as a group before but maybe hadn’t felt it that much. Conor was as unhappy as any of us and of course we wanted to be out there as we felt we’d earned it, but we  in the end it wasn’t worth burning bridges over.”

Conor’s performance is a hit on the night and the album is a success. Villagers go on to tour with Elbow amongst others in the UK and Europe.

James is quick to add that Conor is the exceptional member of the band. This brings him to talking about their new album Awayland and the creative process.

“Creatively, it comes from Conor.  When’s he’s writing a song, he’ll go off by himself to Malahide for some peace to work at it and because he can play all the instruments, he’ll think of the whole song and come back with a fully-formed demo.  And he can do that. He’ll have already figured out what the best drums to suit this bass line are and it’s brilliant!”

“The others then learn the song and fiddle with it, he’s a genius and will know if something works or not pretty much instantly. We don’t play rigidly and the other members will have their own style to bring to it. Say, I might play drums more robustly or the other members might have an earthier style – the  songs will change as we practice more – but 95% of that will still be that original recording.”

“The first album was bought by 100,000 people, if the same people buy the second it will be a success. If half of them buy it, it will still be a success. If the reaction is good, we’ll then start touring with the album.”

The band spent three weeks in the USA last year and I ask about touring with his band mates.

“We’re not kids, I’m 30, Conor’s 28, the others are 31-32 so we’re not kids on the road in America going crazy, getting sick and messing up gigs. We’re adults with rent issues at home and missing our girlfriends. The most important thing is the gig, everything else is secondary.”

James has been with Wendy, his girlfriend, for 5 years now.

“Wendy has never been around musicians before, so it’s all a bit new for her. We can be gone for months at a time and it is hard, it’s hard for everyone. There are guys on the tour leaving behind wives and kids. But we’ve got to help each other out and be understanding. We’re lucky our partners aren’t like ‘this is ridiculous, you’re not a kid anymore, get a real job!’ ”

I ask James what he does when nothing is happening. What does he do when the tour is over and the band is between albums?

“Well, I walk the dog a lot! Do the washing up. Nothing glamorous really. I try to see every member of my family at least once a week, that’s become really important to me recently. And of course I’m always thinking about the label. That’s always in the back of my head.”

Would he say the label is a success?

“Sure, I have boxes of unsold albums at home for a band on hiatus, but no one died or got sick.It’s a labour of love, not a sensible business. I’ve made twelve releases, most labels fold after one. To me that is a success.”

Villagers’ continuing popularity means that James can afford to pursue that dream.

“Every hour of every sweaty practice when I was 19-20 when all my friends were on J1’s – songs I don’t even remember now – it all led to where I am now.”

Villagers’ second album Awayland is due for release on the 14th of January 2013 with Domino Records.
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Profile: James Byrne – Villagers

“Luck is being prepared at the right time.”

Villagers drummer James Byrne speaks about their success, running a record label during a recession and how he realised music was the career for him.

He began early.

“I had one dream when I was in school; to be goalkeeper for Manchester United. I realised at 12/13 years old that I wasn’t growing quickly enough and decided to be a musician instead.”

At 15, James received his first drum kit from his parents and set up a band a matter of months later. Before long he was going to punk gigs in the Dublin area absorbing all he could about the industry.

“Seeing those bands performing and putting out their own music, realizing that you could set up your own label and find bands yourself. DIY labels like Rough Trade/ Dischord showed that it wasn’t about selling a million records. ”

“I began following record labels rather than bands.”

James resisted the idea of going to college, intent on touring with his band Life After Modelling but reluctantly enrolled in Music Industry Studies in Ballyfermot.

This turned out to be ideal.

“I met new, like-minded people and we (Life After Modelling) were rehearsing 3-4 times a week and playing loads of gigs – determined to be a success.”

In the meantime, a college project captured his imagination. The class were tasked with putting out a compilation. Soon, James had taken over the project. He contacted 16 bands he loved, sweet-talked them into letting him use their songs, organised the artwork and successfully released it.

“I realised I can actually do this, it’s not that hard if you are prepared to put the work in.”

The next year he opted not to do the third year degree and toured with the band for the next 2 years.

“At the time we were waiting on a big record deal when really we should have done it ourselves. Before long the band began disintegrating and we didn’t have that impetus to make that next step.”

When the band split, James took it badly and almost gave up.

‘I got really ill after we stopped being busy and I thought, “This is killing me”. I thought, “Fuck, I’ve spent all this time doing this, look at all the stuff I’ve missed out on.” I never got to travel, it’s cost me three relationships…I’ve totally fallen out of love with music…’

Suddenly, in his mid-twenties, James is cast adrift, working part-time in an off-licence and unsure where to turn. I ask him what brought him out of this slump? He tells me he kept playing, and gradually realised that you need to be in music for the process, not the result.

“It needs to be worth it every day, that needs to be enough. Writing, rehearsing and touring…you have to enjoy every minute of it.”

In 2008, he came across a band who sparked something in him, New Amusement. He met with them and proposed they collaborate.

“I thought they were brilliant and I had a little bit of money from an SSIA I had so I convinced them that we could do something together.”

This became the first release on his label Any Other City Records.

James begins investing himself in this new enterprise, focusing on finding talent and nurturing it.

Out of the blue, Conor O’Brien calls to tell him that his own band, The Immediates, has just broken up. He tells James he still wants to play music and asks if he’s like to be involved.

The invitation is accepted without a moment’s hesitation. Conor invites three others to join and Villagers begin to rehearse and play gigs as quickly as possible.

“Conor just knew who would work. When we started I knew Tommy a bit and Conor quite well, but I didn’t know the other two [Cormac and Danny] at all, we knew the bands we’d all been in, and I didn’t really like some of their bands and I don’t think they liked ours either so we had to earn each other’s respect.”

Soon, Villagers are performing regular gigs and getting noticed. James signs them to Any Other City. Villagers grow in popularity more quickly than any other group he’s been involved with.

In 2009, Domino Records come in and sign them up.

I ask how he felt about handing the reins over to a larger label.

“I was relieved. Although, Villagers didn’t take much work – they always took care of themselves in terms of growth and gigs – this meant I could get back to actually enjoying being a member of a band again. Focusing on being the best drummer I could be. Villagers felt like a second chance.”

In 2010, the group’s debut album Becoming a Jackal was nominated for the Mercury Prize.

I noted that Conor had performed solo at the event itself despite generally playing gigs with the full band. I wondered who’s decision that had been and whether there were any tense moments ahead of the biggest night of their career up to that point.

He hesitates: “The BBC producer for that night made that decision, he’d seen us perform as a group before but maybe hadn’t felt it that much. Conor was as unhappy as any of us and of course we wanted to be out there as we felt we’d earned it, but we decided in the end it wasn’t worth burning bridges over.”

Conor’s performance is a hit on the night and the album is a success. Villagers go on to tour with Elbow amongst others in the UK and Europe.

They also spend three weeks in the USA and I ask about touring and being cooped up with is band mates.

“We’re not kids, I’m 30, Conor’s 28, the others are 31-32 so we’re not kids on the road in America going crazy, getting sick and messing up gigs. We’re adults with rent issues at home and missing our girlfriends. The most important thing is the gig, everything else is secondary.”

James has been with Wendy, his girlfriend, for 5 years now.

“Wendy has never been around musicians before, so it’s all a bit new for her. We can be gone for months at a time and it is hard, it’s hard for everyone. There are guys on the tour leaving behind wives and kids. But we’ve got to help each other out and be understanding. We’re lucky our partners aren’t like ‘this is ridiculous, you’re not a kid anymore, get a real job!’ ”

I ask James what he does when nothing is happening. What does he do when the tour is over and the band is between albums?

“Well, I walk the dog a lot! Do the washing up. Nothing glamorous really. I try to see every member of my family at least once a week, that’s become really important to me recently. And of course I’m always thinking about the label. That’s always in the back of my head.”

Would he say the label is a success?

“Sure, I have boxes of unsold albums at home for a band on hiatus, but no one died or got sick.It’s a labour of love, not a sensible business. I’ve made twelve releases, most labels fold after one. To me that is a success.”

Villagers’ continuing popularity means that James can afford to pursue that dream.

“Every hour of every sweaty practice when I was 19-20 when all my friends were on J1’s – songs I don’t even remember now – it all led to where I am now.”

Villagers’ second album is due for release on the 14th of January 2013 with Domino Records.

 

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