Conor O'Brien on new Villagers album Fever Dreams and his evolution as a songwriter

David Roy quizzes Villagers leader Conor O'Brien about new album Fever Dreams, how working on the record was a welcome distraction during the pandemic last year and its place in his ongoing evolution as a songwriter...

Villagers man Conor O'Brien. Picture by Rich Gilligan
Villagers man Conor O'Brien. Picture by Rich Gilligan

RELEASED today, much of the appropriately titled Fever Dreams from Dublin's Villagers has a woozy, wide-eyed and defiantly optimistic feel that makes it an ideal soundtrack for fans now emerging from lockdown into yet another 'new normal'.

As signposted by dynamic and symphonic lead single The First Day, the soulful, sensitive and joyously psychedelic new album is laced with brass and string instrumentation. It follows the lead of 2018's acclaimed The Art of Pretending To Swim and 2019 standalone single Summer's Song by moving yet further away from Villagers' angsty indie-folk roots in favour of a more instantly welcoming, hazily atmospheric and production-steered sound that's closer to hip-hop in spirit than trad guitar fare.

Produced by bandleader/chief songwriter Conor O'Brien and mixed by David Wrench (Frank Ocean, The xx, FKA Twigs), Fever Dreams was actually written and recorded prior to the onset of the pandemic last year: in fact, the band's last day in the studio actually coincided with the onset of Ireland's first national lockdown, as O'Brien explains.

"We were literally covering our mouths with our hands by the end," the Dubliner recalls of the fraught final full band sessions in February last year, which rounded off a writing and recording process which began in summer 2019.

"It feels like it's been a long time coming for me because it was quite an intense workload over the past two-and-a-half years," he says of the new album's gestation, Villagers' fifth.

However, in a way, Fever Dreams was also perfectly timed. With live music shut down and the record already 'in the can', being able to tinker with the new songs while stuck at home in his Dublin flat/studio provided the Villagers leader with a welcome distraction from the growing anxiety over Covid-19 throughout 2020.

"Obviously, it kept me company during these weird times that we're finding ourselves in – and I think parts of those weird times kind of seeped into it," says O'Brien, who formed Villagers back in 2008 and first came to wider attention with Mercury and Choice Music Prize-nominated debut album Becoming a Jackal two years later.

"Hopefully, parts of it will now seep back into the weird times."

He adds: "I guess the 'deliriousness' of some of it was kind of there before [the pandemic], in a weird way. I was starting to write a little bit about information overload and also trying to process what was happening on a geopolitical level and figure out what the hell my little songs were going to do with that – or in what way art should approach those kind of things.

"I think that's the way my own psychology was going. But I think that the album kind of shows that in the end I kind of retreated to just trying to make something maybe more sensory and soulful and trying to be a bit less cerebral – and sometimes failing as well, which was OK too."

Indeed, the impressive centrepiece of Fever Dreams is a mesmerising, shape-shifting, six-minute-plus psychedelic jazz-folk pop epic called Circles In The Firing Line. It ebbs, flows and swells playfully, with O'Brien singing that "a united state of demagogic logic awaits" and how he has a "date with doom" before eventually resolving with some sweet soft rock guitar soloing that's suddenly mugged by a burst of climactic punk rock riffage.

"Looking back now I don't think I was thinking clearly, but I was almost not going to have that song on the record," reveals O'Brien.

"It felt like too much of a 'joke' in my head. For a long period of time, the only direction I had [for this record] was to 'make something uplifting and positive that's like a warm hug' – and that song didn't really fit that mould.

"But my manager convinced me to put it on the record and, as soon as I started playing with the tracklisting, I realised that it was so much stronger with it. Not only was this track representing what I've been thinking about a lot in the last couple of years, it's also kind of the other side of the coin for a lot of those [other] songs.

"It's looking at the way perhaps our minds are being slightly moulded by algorithms and trying to be vigilant against that in this early internet age, using art and music as a way of pushing the nuanced and grey area complexities of all of us.

"That kind of stuff is definitely being lost in the tribalism of this new kind of 'screen psychology' were dealing with."

He adds: "It's also a really fun song because although those are very serious themes, the song kind of takes the p*** out of itself as well in a weird way, and I kind wanted to maintain a sense of humour.

"We played it at the Latitude Festival and we extended the ending quite a lot – it was definitely the 'rock-out' that the album version kind of suggests just as it's fading out."

 Conor O'Brien. Picture by Rich Gilligan
 Conor O'Brien. Picture by Rich Gilligan

Going right back to the start of the album process in 2019, O'Brien explains how playing with a new brass-enhanced live band set-up through that summer influenced how he wanted Fever Dreams to sound, as well as pulling him towards a more collaborative approach to shaping the new songs themselves.

"The initial thrust of the album in terms of what direction it was going in was that I just wanted to make music that would rock the band in a room," he says.

"I was booking recording sessions much earlier in the process with this album, so I was bringing them very half-finished songs and I was changing the lyrics and the structures as we were returning to the next session and sort of being influenced by what felt good as a group of musicians in a room as allowing that to influence the music thematically as well.

"So the core of what you're hearing on the album is the sound of musicians pretty much playing live together in a room and reacting to each other. The lockdown section of the process was just adding to all this and working remotely with string players and brass players.

"I had a sort of a new thing where I really badly wanted the music to work on a superficial level – like where, even if you didn't want to do a deep dive, it would still grab you. But then, if you also want to put headphones on, you'll discover much more going on underneath as well."

Now five albums into a musical career spanning over a decade, the Villagers man is all too aware of his ongoing evolution as a songwriter.

"I see music more as a place for warmth and connection now and not so much for trying to show the world my pain or whatever," O'Brien tells me of his musical 'journey' with Villagers.

"I've learned a lot about writing music which comes from a more viscerally indignant place. I think that's gone from me now. It definitely has its power, but I remember writing [emotive Becoming A Jackal track] Pieces way back when and, after about a year of having to do the howling at the end, I wanted to kill myself.

"You have to keep finding new ways to be inspired, otherwise you'll burn out."

:: Fever Dreams is released today. See wearevillagers.com for latest tour date info.