Despite wide acclaim for their new album, O Emperor are calling it a day. The Cork-based quintet tell Ellie O’Byrne the breakup is not just about the tricky finances of running a band.
There’s not enough institutional support. Rents are too high. Punters won’t buy albums. Ireland’s too small a market.
Musicians, like the rest of us, can now self-publish at length on social media. From Fight Like Apes’ heartfelt parting shots on the impossibility of making a living in Irish music to David Kitt’s recent outburst over meeting Dublin rents on a musician’s income, there’s a corresponding tendency to build a broader narrative about the state of the Irish music industry when quality Irish acts hit the rocks.
O Emperor are having none of it.
They’re the Waterford quintet who met in secondary school, although some have been friends since primary. They officially formed following an en masse move to Cork for college, their critically acclaimed 2010 debut album was released through Universal Records, and their follow-up, Vitreous, saw the band build their own studio to record in.
They’ve just announced that their freshly pressed third album will be their last. They’re reticent about the reasons for their split, saying it’s just a case of life getting in the way.
“It’s easy to blame why we’re finishing up on external things,” lead guitarist Alan Comerford says. “But it just feels like the right time to move on.”
Comerford and drummer Brendan Fennessy have met up for a chat about their final album, Jason: the rest of the band can’t make it because Comerford and Fennessy are the only two members who remain living in Cork.
Bassist Richie Walsh moved back to Waterford, vocalist and keyboard player Phil Christie teaches music in Dublin’s BIMM and vocalist and guitarist Paul Savage moved to Bray for a multimedia job. It’s this atomisation that has been largely responsible for the band’s decision to call it a day, Comerford and Fennessy explain: it’s just too difficult to get together these days.
But surely even this speaks to a broader narrative than just a bunch of lads happy to quit while they’re ahead? If we had a music industry where musicians of this calibre didn’t have to maintain a day-job, wouldn’t the challenges be fewer?
Comerford, who has what he describes as a “night-job” playing with other bands and is dad to a four-year-old daughter, says
But Fennessy says the truth is complex, a double-edged sword. “It’s interesting that this narrative is getting attached to bands breaking up,” he says. “Obviously artists are making less money because of what’s happened in the digital world, but it’s also made it possible to make a really good-sounding album on your own laptop and I think that’s often overlooked.”
There are certain aspects to the band’s split that aren’t being discussed: long-time bassist Richie Walsh has been replaced by Paddy Freeman for the band’s final three gigs. “Yeah, he’s just really busy and that’s how things are,” Fennessy says.
A track, Japan, on their new album, seems to chart frustrations with the machinations of the music industry, doling out in lyrics a set of nonsensical instructions to achieve the stereotypical “big in Japan” goal.
“It’s funny that that comes across, because that is actually a song about a fairly specific situation we encountered,” Fennessy admits. “I can’t really go into because we could get in trouble, but in a roundabout way, yes, that’s what the song is about.”
Enough said, then: the truth is complex and that’s all we’re getting.
Another thing that’s complex is Jason, a highly experimental album three years in the making. With the stated intention of paying homage to “early ‘70s African psychedelia,” it’s an album of breathtakingly eclectic scope, where tantalising echoes of everything from the Beta Band to Prince can be heard.
Glued together with distorted, trippy vocal samples, for the most part, it’s too darn clever to be radio-friendly, but it will delight existing O Emperor fans. Singles ‘Effort’, ‘Girl’ and ‘Make It Rain’ are the most accessible offerings amidst an exciting mishmash of largely improvised songs, including several instrumentals.
Why is the album called Jason? Comerford and Fennessy look at each other and laugh. Fennessy: “It was a last-minute attempt to name the album and we just went, ‘well, we need to name the album so let’s just give it a name. Let’s call it… Jason.’ We thought it was really funny.”
“That was what appealed to us, that it’s so ridiculous,” Comerford adds.
It may have taken three years to be mixed, mastered and released, but 80% of Jason was recorded in just three days in a self-constructed studio off York Street, Fennessy, who’s the band’s main recording technician, says. Some additional vocals, with typical O Emperor idiosyncrasy, were recorded in Paul Savage’s toilet.
“It was sort of ridiculous,” Comerford says.
Exploding the usual recording process, where band members would arrive in to record with outlines of songs prepared, Jason was largely improvised.
“There were no preconceived ideas, so things would start out as a joke,” Comerford says. “We’d start off playing something sounding like an eighties computer game theme tune and everyone would be laughing, and then a few minutes later it would be turning into a song.”
“It’s strange to realise that you can work in a different way,” Fennessy cuts in. “A lot of it was not good but then every so often, you’re like, ‘wow, that’s really good.’ It’s very striking, to improvise like that and not really apply so much effort and still get results. Results for no effort, it’s great!”
Finding a fresh way to work at the end of O Emperor’s lifecycle will not have been in vain: having been band-mates and friends since childhood, Comerford and Fennessy say that they can’t conceive of a time when members of O Emperor won’t want to play with each other in different outfits.
Fennessy already plays in Phil Christie’s minimalist brainchild, The Bonk, and Fennessy and Comerford harbour hopes of working on, of all things, a country music project together.
“We’re talking proper country, Buck Owens, Western Swing type stuff,” Comerford says. “In any case, there’ll definitely be continuations. We’re all really looking forward to jamming together, without the pressure.”
Three dates in Dublin, Cork and Waterford in November spell out the last hurrah for O Emperor. Fittingly, their Cork gig is in Dali, the venue formerly known as The Pavilion, where they had their first gig. And then, they’ll wrap up back where it all started in Waterford; their set will include material from Jason, but also earlier songs, their “classic hits,” Comerford says with tongue-in-cheek aplomb.
“It’s going to be really nice to bookend it that way,” Fennessy says. “I’ve thought about how it’s going to feel, but I think it’ll just be really normal, we’ve played together so much.”
O Emperor play in Dali, Cork on Nov 16, and Project in Waterford on Nov 23.
Jason is out now can be ordered on Vinyl via oemperor.bandcamp.com/album/jason