Mark O’Brien’s musical change of direction in recent years has been an abrupt one. Once part of the popular instrumental rock band Enemies, a hit on the Irish music scene that went as far as making waves in Japan, he turned in a totally different direction when his old project wound down.
Back under the name ‘Royal Yellow‘, he’s mixing together complex, multi-faceted beat tracks which have drawn love from the lofty heights of BBC Radio One. His most recent, May The First, is hung cleverly on a vocal from Lisa Hannigan’s Pistachio.
Below, Mark talks me through the change in direction, and how he landed himself playing with Lisa’s sound…
Congrats on the new single. This is quite a change of pace from Enemies. Was that a very conscious thing when the band ended?
Not at all. Enemies was a huge part of my life and creativity for almost a decade, so once it ended I hadn’t a clue of what kind of music I wanted to make next. I had to just stop thinking about the creation of music and go back to simply soaking up and appreciating music for a while.
I spent a few months travelling across Asia with my girlfriend and she put me on to Solange’s ‘A Seat At The Table’, which pretty much changed my life then and there. It floored me, and opened up the door to whole new realms of music that are miles apart from what Enemies were doing.
What gave you the idea to play around with Lisa Hannigan’s vocal – does it have a particular appeal to you?
That song was sketched out over two years ago, so it’s difficult to remember exactly what was in my mind at the time. But I do remember that I had hit a complete wall with my own vocals. Nothing I sang was really adding to the atmosphere of the track, so I went in search of something I could just drop in to inspire something new in my own approach.
I think I had recently seen a video of Lisa performing Massive Attack’s ‘Teardrop’ at Vicar Street, so maybe subconsciously I knew that her voice was perfect for a trip-hop tune. Either way, as soon as it was in there I knew that it couldn’t be anything else. I was smitten.
How difficult is the process of getting permission to do something like that?
I was really nervous to approach Lisa about it. I became so attached to the sample and how it was enriching the song, but knew that she would be totally entitled to just say “thanks, but no thanks”. Fortunately Lisa turned out to be just the nicest person, and was very much into the track. I think it helps that we’re both part of a community of musicians here in Dublin. Maybe there’s a kinship there, even if you’ve never met in person.
Where do you start with a track like this – is there a lot of electronic playing around before it starts to click into place?
Always. It’s an “open up the box of lego and see what happens” approach. You just put something down and follow the thread and don’t question it until that initial burst of creativity is out of your system.
I try to keep it as fluid and non-precious as possible, which is something that’s taken me a long time to get the hang of. When I was younger I was often too focused on the result rather than the process, but it tripped me up and made me anxious and uncertain time and time again.
With sampling and electronics it’s so much easier to not be critical. You didn’t make these sounds, but you can reinterpret and bend and warp and chop and reverse and reimagine them. You can appreciate and explore them in a world apart from your own ego and insecurities.
You got premiered on Radio 1, which is a great sign. Do you pay much attention to that kind of thing?
I think I pay an adequate amount of attention to it without allowing the scales to shift too far in that direction.
My number one priority needs to be making music that I believe in and disregarding the idea of whether or not it could be popular, because once you start second-guessing yourself you take all of the joy out of it. I’m convinced that you can always hear that doubt in the music too.
At the same time, it would be dumb of me to say that a play on Radio 1 doesn’t matter, or that I don’t care about it. It’s the biggest station in the UK. It’s enormous. And when things like that happen, it’s a source of encouragement; fuel in the tank to keep going. It’s a significant pat on the shoulder that says “you’re good at this, stick with it”.
You seem to be a big fan of the old/ new dynamic. Where do you go for your older samples and styles, typically?
I’d love to say I go digging in dusty basements of record stores, but the truthful answer is less romantic: Spotify and YouTube.
It’s insane how much access we have to music from every genre and every corner of the world nowadays. When I’m in writing mode I’m just trying to listen to music that’s relatively foreign to me. On ‘Hazeldene’ it was a country track that got things started — and I never listen to country. I feel like you need to start in relatively unknown waters to make something that excites you. Which is why I rarely sample anything I’m too familiar with.
How are you spending the lockdown?
I’ve been really busy. I teach third level graphic design, so there’s been a ton of remote teaching, which has been great for keeping me from spending too much time in my own head.
I also decided to mix that last single ‘May the First’, which is ordinarily something I wouldn’t do, but lockdown forced my hand. I’m glad I did it now. Aside from that, I’ve had some design and video editing gigs coming in which I can do from home. I anticipated having a lot more time to write tunes and am genuinely starving for a summer of it now.
You tweeted about the Bandcamp sale – was that particularly helpful for you?
That was so lovely. I made more that day than I would in several months on Spotify. Bandcamp also gives you the email addresses of anyone who buys your tracks, and I spotted someone that I really look up to in the list of buyers. I won’t embarrass them by naming them, but that was a very cool feeling.
What’s next for Royal Yellow?
Keep writing songs, keep collaborating with good people and figure out a disgustingly good live show for the inevitable giant session that’s coming post-lockdown.