O EMPEROR: FIRST WE TAKE IRELAND

I’VE SPENT the past day listening to O Emperor‘s debut album, and I’m getting quite excited about what the Waterford band have the potential to achieve with it.

Hither Thither’ (beautiful cover art, by the way) is released on October 1st and sees the folk-rock quintet come good on all the ‘could-be-contenders’ blog posts, articles and industry mumble that they’ve generated since releasing their debut single ‘Po’ in July 2009. There’s one song in particular, ‘Heisenberg’, that’s just hauntingly beautiful. The production is crystalline when needed, cloaked in a foggy, timeless haze when not. The musicianship, the songwriting, the arrangements, the harmonies: they all fit together as snugly and cosily as a mug of cocoa and a hot water bottle on one of those rain-spattering-the-windows nights that are fast closing in on us.

Come to think of it, it was around this time last year, on a suitably nippy autumnal night, that I first stumbled upon the band at the Hard Working Class Heroes festival. Their harmonies and quiet on-stage confidence impressed me straight away, and it also impressed Universal Ireland, who offered them a licensing deal after seeing them that same weekend.

Anyway, here’s my interview with Paul and Phil from the band, published in The Ticket earlier this year.

Originally published in The Irish Times, April 30th 2010

THEY MET AS members of their school choir, and one of them still has a day job as a pianist in a restaurant, cranking out Billy Joel hits for diners. As rock’n’roll credentials go, it’s safe to say that O Emperor aren’t up there with The Sex Pistols or GG Allin. But that’s no bad thing. The Cork-based band (all Waterford natives) aren’t the types for embarrassing clichés or tales of excess – just top-quality songs imbued with warm harmonies and a steady, mesmerising pace.

It’s taken several years for the quintet to get to this point. Although they achieved a certain degree of success in their former guise as Saviours of Space (even winning the National Student Music Awards competition), the “dark days”, as keyboardist and co-vocalist Phil Christie puts it, drew to an end when the band morphed into the entity known as O Emperor about three years ago.

“The NSMAs were almost the start of everything,” explains his bearded bandmate Paul Savage, who shares vocal duties as well as playing guitar. “With the first band, we had a lot of poppy, Strokesy kind of songs. We had various different strange songs, actually – reggae and gypsy-jazz, at one stage. Then I suppose we kind of started to hone in on a particular style, and we decided that it’d be best to change the name completely and go out with a fresh set of songs, because they were radically different.”

How does a Cork band find themselves touted as the Irish Grizzly Bear, then?

“There’s a lot of dark and light in our sound, I think – from the darker, British indie to the poppier, warmer stuff,” says Savage. “A lot of the new American bands coming out now are really taking over from the English acts – Beach House, Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear: There’s something really refreshing about what they’re all doing. We’re kind of at the stage, though, where we’re thinking, ‘Do I mention Fleet Foxes or Grizzly Bear?’, because everyone’s always like ‘Aha, I knew it!’. Once there’s a few harmonies in there, people are quick to lump you in. We all like those bands, but once we put the stuff out there, I think people will see the difference.”

Their new EP, Reverie , certainly bodes well for the release of debut album, Hither Thither , in September. It follows on from debut single Po, which was released last July to interested murmurings. Universal Ireland were so impressed that they recently offered the band a licensing deal and the chance to re-record the album, which they’ve just finished polishing in Dublin’s Factory studio complex.

“We were doing an acoustic set after our main gig at last year’s Hard Working Class Heroes festival, and the head of Universal Ireland happened to be there at the time,” explains Savage. “We caught his ear, and he checked us out afterwards and really liked it. We went through various showcases for different labels after that, but Universal were the ones that we liked the most in the end.”

Bagging a deal with a major label is a coup in anyone’s book these days, but the lack of international success of Irish bands in a similar position is something O Emperor are keenly aware of. They point to Villagers as an example of a band who have already pushed open the doors they’re eager to stick a foot in.

“We want to try to get out of Ireland straight away, go to England and go to Europe,” nods Savage. “I think there’s only a certain amount of time that a band can survive in Ireland before everyone starts getting fed up. It’s better to see if you can still do it while you’re the underdog, and there’s no expectations on you.”

Make no mistake, the ambition to conquer is undeniably fierce in the O Emperor camp. So what are the best- and worst-case scenarios for 12 months’ time? Five years’ time?

“Worst case would be if everyone hated our stuff and thought we were incredibly annoying. Or being back in the piano bar – never having left,” laughs Christie.

“Best case would be, I suppose, if we all had sports cars and models for wives,” deadpans Savage, raising an eyebrow. That sounds like an MGMT lyric, I tell him. “Yeah,” he says with a grin. “They have the right idea.”

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