“You feel good that it’s your own thing. You just have less to lose, basically because you’re pleased with it.”
Paul Savage is describing how the world is O Emperor’s oyster. Having left their label Universal, where they had a deal for Ireland but little else, the Waterford via Cork band have a newfound positivity. “I think that because we’ve done it on our own we’re still underdogs so we’ve nothing to lose. We’re excited about that, that we can just go and push it. We can go to the UK and Europe if we want and we have options to do that. No one is telling us otherwise or advising us. Fuck it, go there and try it. You’re selling your wares yourself. Even if you’re dealing with smaller numbers it feels better because you’re doing it yourself.”
Savage is describing this upbeat, rejuvenated scenario that the band are facing into from the confines of the back of the LV on an impossibly hot evening in Cork City. It’s a few hours after the British and Irish Lions’ second test against Australia, where they suffered a narrow defeat, and we’ve been accosted by an ould fella who reenacts one particular part of the game about six times. He then tells us how the other barflies think he’s a psycho – “sure my dog wouldn’t hurt a soul,” he offers by way of a weak argument. It would be enough for anybody to question their circumstances: why am I here? What am I doing?
Savage and O Emperor know exactly what they’re doing. They’ve just put out their second album Vitreous on their own label, Big Skin – derived from a nickname their choir teacher at secondary school handed out; ” I still don’t understand why we used to refer to us as [Big Skinny].” It’s also the name of their own studio, a short walk from the LV. Things may not be perfect but they’re happy to be forging their own path. Savage doesn’t seem bitter about their experience with Universal. “We saw it as a way of getting into a bigger studio,” Savage claims. “I guess we always wanted to try to be an independent unit.”
O Emperor, a five piece completed by Alan Comerford, Phil Christie, Brendan Fennessy and Richie Walsh, hadn’t released anything when they were snapped up by Universal, who put out the much loved Hither Thither in 2010. Why does Savage think Universal went with them? “To be honest, I don’t really know,” he says initially, before qualifying that Mumford & Sons were beginning their ascent around that time. “That scene was happening around 2009, 2010. Every couple of years there’s some band that comes around that captures the imagination of the press and everyone gets on top of them. And then as a result bands get scooped up because they think they’re a similar thing that they can push to the same people.” He says this with hindsight, and that they were indeed chuffed to be signed at the time, only later figuring out what the label expected of them. “They signed us hoping we’d have a single as strong as Mumford & Sons had or… a single that’s as played to death as Mumford & Sons’.”
“It’s just that we couldn’t give that. I don’t think many bands could give that. It’s a rare thing that even Mumford & Sons can actually get in on that niche. Irish radio is so closed off and we were only dealing in that kind of pool that there was no release valve to say, ‘OK if it’s not working in Ireland we can go to England or we can go to somewhere else’. It was just contained to that and that was the biggest problem: they were just focused on trying to get Today FM or 2FM playlists. That’s what they do and that’s what they have to do.”
What are his thoughts on the latest label darlings Kodaline and the Strypes? “I think fair play to them. What they’re doing seems to be what they want to do. They’re obviously getting success and I think that’s because they’re focusing heavily on the UK. As a result Ireland is following suit. It’s not the other way around which I think is the problem that a lot of bands fall into, that they plough away in Ireland, which is exactly what we’re doing at the moment,” he says with a laugh, as if he’s just realised where O Emperor have been going wrong.
The thing is, they’re not wrong at all. Vitreous is an album without fluff, one that clocks in at 29 minutes, wins you over, and stays with you longer than some of Hither Thither. Savage says O Emperor have figured out their live set and are winning rave reviews, which is something they’re used to at this stage. And the fact they’re doing it by themselves is something Savage says is worth it. “We’re very happy where we are now, with having made the record ourselves and even the slight romanticism of having it yourself and selling it to people, just having your own little industry or business. You take pride in your product.”
But it was a long road to get to the nine songs that make up Vitreous. Early last year, they had a “mixed bag of everything” but didn’t know what it was. That led to the Big Skin studio. “We thought we’d come out with something better (by building a studio).” They wanted something Dave Fridmann-esque. Savage isn’t bothered when I cite Tame Impala as a touchpoint for the album. But the likes of ‘Holy Fool’ and ‘Contact’ do that stoner rock style so well. He says that it’s set them on a more distinctive path, where people definitely won’t confuse them with Mumford & Sons. ” I do think we wanted something that was a little bit snappier and had a bit more punch to it. We were more confident in our recording and our playing that we didn’t have to put on three or four overdubs of a guitar park; we could just put on one and put on a solo or whatever, or if a part actually needed to go on. With Hither Thither, when we put down a rhythm track we felt we had to double it up put on a treble track, just to try and make it seem bigger. I think we were overcompensating for the fact we didn’t have very good gear. There were a lot of layers, and some tracks were like a hundred tracks big, massive amounts of overdub. So this one was way more snappy. Even when writing the songs, we were thinking (in the back of our minds maybe) we need to get to the point quicker in a song. Less faff, keep it very tight and snappy.”
Initially they shared the studio with the Great Balloon Race, and now Altered Hours have settled in to practise there. All of the members of O Emperor were born and raised in Waterford but went through college in Cork, and have been here for eight years. What does he think of the bands coming through here over the past few years? “I do think there is a good scene happening there. ‘Scene’ always seems kind of contrived, but I don’t think there was as much going on when we came here, about eight years ago. I think there was less, but now there seems to be a good couple of bands that have come along, and coming along at the same time.” He adds: “Bands from Cork or Waterford, I think they always work hard. There’s less pressure on them, they can develop and do what they like doing.”
O Emperor don’t have any weight on their shoulders currently. They’re happy being in one-sided conversations with drunken barflies. Savage and the band know that when they’re ready, the rest of the world can be theirs.
Vitreous is out now on Big Skin records. You can buy the album here. O Emperor play the Half Moon in Cork on Friday, July 12. Tickets cost €14 and are available from Cork Opera House box office or at the door on the night. Doors are at 8pm and support comes from the brilliant Grave Lanterns who’ll be onstage at 8.30pm sharp.