Phil Christie of O Emperor chats to Emer Sugrue about recording studios, string quartets and growing up bored in Waterford
The last year has seen a wealth of new Irish acts coming to the surface. Is it a side effect of the recession, where the lack of career options has lead to a focus on music? Or perhaps as we queue for the dole, we simply have more time to listen to it, but either way there seems to be a musical golden age emerging. The Waterford-based O Emperor first rose to prominence last year touring with Mumford and Sons and the band are set to continue their upward trajectory.
O Emperor’s debut album, Hither Thither, was released to highly positive reviews last October and has earned them a nomination for the coveted Choice Music Award. Phil Christie, pianist and vocalist for the band, is surprisingly relaxed about its success: “Personally I was just delighted to get it out after such a long time. It went through a few different incarnations and recordings.
“Some of the recordings had been hanging around a couple of years and between getting management, and then a label involved, it ended up dragging on a bit. But that’s just the way these things go I suppose. We were happy with what we put out in the end so I think that’s the main thing.”
There’s no sign of relaxation in the band’s upcoming schedule however. Following their performance at the Choice Awards on Thursday alongside Villagers and O-two columnists Fight Like Apes, O Emperor are jetting off to Texas to play in the SXSW festival before resuming their Irish tour. “We’ve got a lot of new songs that we’re demoing and recording at the moment, but it’s still in the early stages… the second record is well on its way anyway.
“We’re releasing ‘Sedalia’, a song off the album. We’ve done a new arrangement with the National Concert Orchestra so we were thinking of releasing it after the record. We were kind of toying with the idea of different arrangements and it kind of grew legs and we ended up just recording it live on RTÉ with the orchestra.”
Mixing rock music with classical seems to be a growing trend, while possibly somewhat influenced by former tour partner’s Mumford and Sons fondness for mandolins: The Divine Comedy also recently toured with a 30-piece orchestra. The mix of genres makes fantastic listening but I’d hate to be the roadie on that gig. “Yeah, it’s quite the ordeal actually, we’re in the throws of it right now. But it’s not too bad.
“We’re just trying to have a different approach and kind of be able to tinker with different arrangements and just take a different slant on it…for ourselves and for people who may have seen some of the shows before. It’s just kind of a different angle, just to keep it interesting really.
“Everybody wants to keep themselves on their toes to some degree. It’s nice to have a new project and go at it from a different angle and plus – it’s just kind of cool. The string sound is a really nice one to be able to incorporate and then we can write new parts and kind of have fun with it.”
The band’s success with innovation and experimentation may come from the closeness of the members. “Three of us were in primary school together,” laughs Christie. “There wasn’t much to do in Waterford really apart from play soccer or play music.”
They continued playing in various cover bands throughout school and into college, where they started writing and performing original music: “The four other lads, they did a course in Cork – sound engineering and music technology. I’ve definitely learned a lot from them as well on that score.
“We did a lot of detail that goes into the actual sounds and drum sounds and the recording process. We love doing that. We originally recorded the whole album ourselves as well. I think it definitely had an impact.”
While the strict deadline of the studio certainly got results with the slick release of Hither Thither, Christie explains the relative advantages of being under pressure time-wise: “You can kind of just go away and have a cup of tea and come back and have an idea… I think that’s something where if we have time and the luxury the next time, we’d definitely be interested in going down that route. If you can get the gear together then you’re sorted, but you always need some sort of outside head to have some sort of perspective on things.”
Whether professionally recorded or homemade, guitars or orchestras, there is no doubt that O Emperor’s unique sound is set to stay.
O Emperor will be playing The Academy on April 15th. The Choice Music Prize takes place on March 3rd in Vicar Street.