Album Reviews Q&A: Villagers, Foals
The second entry in our Album Reviews Q&A series focuses on two acts whose albums of May this year received fantastic reviews across the board: Irish indie-folk outfit Villagers and Oxford alt-rock quintet Foals.
Villagers' debut album has seen its creative lynchpin, frontman Conor O'Brien, earn fantastic comparisons to the likes of Elliott Smith and Roddy Frame. Formed following the dissolution of O'Brien's previous band, The Immediate, Villagers began their ascent with a number of festival performances in 2009. Their debut single, On a Sunlit Stage, was released in October and they've since toured in support of Tindersticks and appeared on Later... with Jools Holland. O'Brien answers our questions.
Becoming a Jackal has certainly received its share of plaudits - what sort of expectations did you, as the album's creator, actually have for it? As a debut was it difficult to let go of, to assess from an objective perspective once others began to criticise it?
I never had any expectations for it, in terms of critical appraisal or other people's reactions. I did have hopes for the songs as I was writing them, but this was mostly along the lines of, "I hope my friend David likes this one; maybe I'll play it for him when I see him next", or: "There's no food in the house. I hope I get this one finished before I get too hungry. I should go to the shops. Maybe I'll record a quick demo of it and listen to it on the way to the shops. I need to go to the toilet." It is difficult for me to let go of the album, but I'm okay with that. I don't think that there is such a thing as an "objective perspective" when it comes to art. I know what it means to me, and I'm content with that.
Something frequently mentioned in coverage is how accomplished these songs are for an artist of a young age. Presumably this isn't patronising to you? As you've been in a band before, were these songs some years in the making before being collected here?
No, that isn't patronising. All of the songs on the album were written in the period following the break-up of my previous band. I would sit down with an acoustic guitar and make random noises with my mouth until they started assembling themselves into some sort of pattern or form. Sometimes this initial process would be very fast, but would be followed by months and months of changes in arrangement ideas, which may, in turn, suggest changes in lyrical ideas. So the song would keep folding in on itself. The song Pieces for instance: this was written in 15 minutes, but I was still recording new demos of it a year later. The last few songs I wrote for the album, such as I Saw the Dead and Set the Tigers Free, were completed in a much quicker fashion. I think I was gaining some sort of momentum.
Many debuts are simply collections of disparate songs strung together because the artist has enough material to fill a CD, but Becoming a Jackal has a consistency and coherence to it that suggests it's designed with this sequencing in mind. Is that the case?
I constantly had a sequencing idea for the album, but it kept changing as more songs were appearing. I think perhaps that the consistency of the album comes from the fact that the songs were all written in the same period of time, with the same general preoccupations in terms of lyrical theme. I was obsessed with death, basically.
How do you feel about some of the comparisons you have received, to artists such as Conor Oberst and the late Elliott Smith? Is this something you're able to hear yourself, or does modesty prevent you from even considering such things?
I feel fine about it. They've both written some very good songs so it's a nice thing for someone to say. I think perhaps that my songs are slightly more traditional than theirs, in terms of song structure and melody. This is neither a good nor a bad thing, just different. Modesty would never prevent me from comparing them with other people's work. I've always had a lot of faith in my songs.
Overall, the mood of Becoming a Jackal is fairly sombre. Can we expect to see a shinier, happier Conor in the future? After all, all art is a product of circumstance, so presumably your head wasn't always in the sunniest place when writing this record?
I have absolutely no idea what future Villagers albums will sound like. If I had to release one tomorrow, it would be very quiet and very intimate. But this could change. I'm approaching all of this with my eyes closed. Art is a product of circumstance, but circumstance is a multi-faceted creature, as are you.
Lastly, do you have any favourite albums of 2010 (so far)?
I like The Wonder Show of the World by Bonnie 'Prince' Billy and the Cairo Gang, in particular the song The Sounds are Always Begging. It is very beautiful.
Overcoming the supposed difficult second album syndrome, Oxford five-piece Foals have returned triumphantly with a record that improves upon their 2008 debut, Antidotes, in a style that few could have predicted. A far more organic-feeling, freer-flowing affair, Total Life Forever makes finds the band furthering their sound, previously boxed into the math-rock pigeonhole. Bigger, bolder, more mature and yet still resonating with the hunger of young artists who won't be restricted by industry-imposed boundaries, it's a splendid achievement. Frontman and guitarist Yannis Philippakis answers our questions.
Righto, the difficult second album, then: a myth that hasn't manifested itself on Total Life Forever by the sound of things. Was it a pleasant experience, making this album?
Writing this record was free-flowing, without a lot of conflict - we had a long time to put everything together, and we'd been assembling little loops and fragments of songs for some time. A lot of time was spent sewing these elements together, but it was done in a very relaxed environment. When we went to Sweden, to actually record the album, it was definitely different, but it's what we needed at the time. We were getting to the point where we could have just carried on working.
Were you experiencing any cabin fever before flying to Sweden? As you were living together in the same house in Oxford during the gestation of this album...
A little cabin fever, yes. And also by going to Sweden we gave ourselves a point at which this all had to be finished. Otherwise it could have become quite formless. Half the battle is trying not to overwork things. Without this structure we'd have probably kept working on the record, which would almost certainly have made it worse.
With the release date approaching, was the band worried at all about how Total Life Forever was going to be received? It's quite clearly different to the debut, which Spanish Sahara made apparent.
We were a little apprehensive - not so much when the album was about to come out, but definitely when the video to Spanish Sahara was put out. I was anticipating some interesting reactions, as it's the most different thing that we'd done compared to our previous work. But the response was good. It's not really our job to accord with what people are expecting, though, and I think if we did have that in our minds when writing it would be very destructive. Whatever we produce it'll still sound like us - it's the same people working together, in the same ways. There's something distinctive, but we do have to do what we feel, and while it seems that albums are often assessed in a kind of conflict with previous releases, to us this is a body of work that shouldn't be seen as a signpost to the future. We'll never find one sound that we want to remain on.
Was Total Life Forever started from a clean-slate position, with no thoughts of Antidotes?
Well, Antidotes was a reference point of sorts - we realised what we'd achieved there, and knew we didn't want to do the same thing exactly. We just want to keep covering different ground. I'm not sure to what extent we've managed that, as you hear bands claim that their new album is a total progression but in fact it's just a replica of what's come before. But I do think we've got some momentum, and we've shown some courage to move on from a template that suited us for the first album.
I like how Spanish Sahara is a song of many parts, blended to comprise a coherent whole. It's a sort of microcosm of the album as a whole.
I agree. Regarding the order of what gets released as singles from this album, I'm not massively interested. But I do like to see reactions. We get input on what comes out, but it really doesn't interest me that much.
Unlike the debut, this album was - I would assume - conceived as a whole? Antidotes featured tracks that'd been kicking about for some time, whereas Total Life Forever's content is - again I'm assuming - all taken from the same period of writing?
Absolutely. It's a document of the environment it was written in, and the year off we had from touring. None of this stuff is especially conscious - we finished touring, sorted the basement out and just started writing. One thing, one goal, was to make something that sounded pretty, and more lush than what we'd done previously. And I think we achieved that. Most of the sound of the album was in place before we went to Sweden, as we'd become attached to equipment we'd picked up. There were some obvious restrictions - we couldn't play as loudly in the house as we could live. So I think that's made for it being more delicate. Then Luke [Smith, producer] was quite rigorous, and focused it all. He had a very definite plan about how to make the record, and it was a great experience to work to the structure he brought. With Antidotes it was just, like, getting stoned... but this was the opposite. It's wild freedom, and a careless attitude to making records - in a good way, an explorative way. Even though it might not sound it, there's a precision to how things were recorded here, and most things were recorded in real time. All the guitar sounds, we weren't relying on post-production. Luke talks about intent a lot - but on a simple level it's about concentration, and putting your whole body into what's being recorded. There was a lot said about mind space.
Any thoughts of the Mercury? To these ears Total Life Forever must be in the running this year.
It's definitely something that'd be nice. But I try not to think about things like that. However, we're very content with this record, and it'd be lovely to be nominated for the Mercury.
Okay, finally: what are your favourite albums of 2010, so far?
I'm just looking through my most recently added... I like the new EP by Kurt Vile. I like the Pantha Du Prince album, and Sisterworld by Liars. Oh, and I really like the Janelle Monáe record, too.