Returning to the scene after a break of a couple of years, O Emperor leave behind their hang-ups, delving into a free-spirited, avant-garde, industry-ignoring new phase. The Waterford act are back, but not as you know them…
When they burst onto the Irish music scene with major-label debut Hither Thither, O Emperor were a band known for their meticulous attention to detail. They wrote beautiful, haunting indie-pop songs that meandered wonderfully, every note carefully adjusted in agonised-over studio recordings.
That startling attention to detail was a blessing and a curse: at times a constraint on the release of the band’s music, but creating a distinctive and much-loved sound that propelled them to national attention. In hindsight, frontman Paul Savage admits “We needed to let that perfectionism go and accept that at a certain point what we’ve done is actually fine. We used to obsess over things like the exact level of reverb. Looking back, I don’t think other people really notice or care about things like that.”
After a couple of years away, O Emperor returned having done a full 180. New single ‘Make It Rain’ is the first offering from an as yet untitled new album, and the first of a series of pre-album singles set to come out over the course of a year. The band also completed their live return with first show in some time last week at Cork’s Quarter Block Party.
“We did most of the recording two years ago, but we’ve only got to mixing now,” Savage explains. “We’re very bad at taking our time with things. We got a notion to go ahead with it now, though, so we’ve gone ahead. We’ve gone really rough and ready with stuff. It’s actually written live. It’s just live jams. We recorded two to three hours of us jamming and picked out bits we liked, and chopped up and constructed some bits in the edit. Then we added the vocals later, but even the vocals were kind of made up on the spot in some cases.”
“It’s influenced by things like Sun Ra, Can, and krautrock stuff, and really concentrates on atmosphere. It can actually be quite difficult to reproduce live, and it’s really radically different to anything we’ve done before. It’s already evolved quite a lot from the record in rehearsal and in the live show, as it’s very difficult to actually reproduce what you did before. There are clashed notes, odd chords, stuff like that.”
“We’re trying to base the live show in a framework and jam around that,” he continues, “which can be hard to do, especially where you’re nervous. It’s easy to mess up on the spot, but it’s really exciting to do.”
In the early days, O Emperor were signed to Universal, and looked like a serious prospect for the kind of overblown music industry success that the likes of Hozier and Walking On Cars went on to achieve. The difficulty, as Savage recalls it, was that even back then the band weren’t particularly suited to radio play. Even when second album ‘Vitreous’ was the hot favourite for the 2013 Choice Music Prize (Ireland’s national music award, eventually won by Villagers with ‘Awayland’), O Emperor were never quite a household name.
“Being with Universal was a long time ago, and important in the development of the band,” Savage explains. “It was short-lived but it taught us what we needed to know about the music industry and how to exist within it. We weren’t as avant-garde back then, but we were never the type for daytime radio. Daytime radio is very limited, unfortunately, and it doesn’t suit 99% of Irish bands. It would be difficult if you really wanted to pursue things full time, but we’ve never really been at that level.”
These days, it’s more about having fun, though it’s easy to get the sense that the more relaxed approach might bring about the band’s very best days. Savage sees the falseness and tepidness of the music industry for what it is, and prefers the more stress-free approach the band are taking now.
“We’re just enjoying playing, enjoying making music,” he says. “We’ve played in Germany and the UK before, and I hope we’ll be able to do that again, but it’s different doing it for the enjoyment. We found the PR stuff to be a lot of work, and quite stressful, especially when you’re spending money and feeling like you should be getting better results; that it’s not really helping you that much.”
“There’s an obsession with things being new, and you end up doing things like launches for international tours that are fictitious, really, as everything that’s online is available everywhere already, so you’re not really doing anything new. But from a PR point of view you need a ‘new release’.”
“We’re less and less interested in stuff like that, and far more focused on the music this time. If people discover our music in four years time and listen to it then, that’s great. That’s a nice thing.”
O Emperor make their Dublin return in playing the Bello Bar on the 17th of February. Single ‘Make It Rain’ is out now.
This article is part of my weekly music column for the Dublin Gazette, reproduced here with permission. Note: this column is published in the Dublin Gazette several days ahead of on this website. The Gazette is a freesheet paper available across Dublin, published on a Thursday. Pick up copies at these locations.