IT’S another glorious, sunny day in Cork, and Paul Savage, from O Emperor, arrives for our chat. I ask him what drink he wants. A nice, cool pint of cider, or that staple of hard-drinking musos, Jack Daniels and Coke? Savage orders a cup of tea, hardly a beverage befitting the rock ’n’ roll template, but representative of the unassuming Savage and O Emperor.
O Emperor are barely out of their mid-20s, but the Waterford five-piece are veterans of the Irish music scene and way beyond the neophyte posturing of the ‘next big thing’. Their accomplished debut album, Hither Thither, showcased their talent for perfectly crafted harmonies, reminiscent of bands such as the Beach Boys and Crosby, Stills and Nash. They are over the hump of the oft-cursed second album, with the recently released Vitreous receiving rave reviews. It’s an assured collection of songs, encompassing a dizzying array of styles, from classic, psychedelic and prog-rock to folk. It is a credit to the musical talents of O Emperor that they take these styles and produce their own sublime sound. One blogger astutely summed it up as “less Mumford and Sons and more Grizzly Bear or Beach House, but with more balls than either”.
Savage, guitarist and vocalist with O Emperor, is in ‘recovery mode’ following the band’s triumphant gig at Cork’s Half-Moon Theatre, which probably explains the cup of tea: “It was a particularly sweaty gig. It was like doing bikram yoga. But it was a great show, we were very pleased with it.”
Savage says the band are delighted with the rapturous response to Vitreous. Were they worried about how it would match up to the acclaimed Hither Thither?
“I don’t think we were conscious of it. We had a humble perspective of what the first one did. We were delighted with getting a certain fan base, but we were realistic that it was still contained to Ireland and, to a degree, Germany, where we toured. I don’t think there was any pressure, really, it was just up to ourselves, to make an album we were happy with.”
O Emperor had parted company with their record label, Universal, so Vitreous was recorded at the band’s own studio, in Cork. “We built a studio and just went into it, focusing on trying to make a good record. I don’t think there was much pressure. We knew there was something there that we could drag out over time.”
Given they had complete control over Vitreous, it must have been tempting to indulge musical flights of fancy, but the album clocks in at a tidy 29 minutes. Why so short?
“It wasn’t the plan,” says Savage. “Originally, we planned some kind of ridiculous, prog rock-type double CD, but, over time, we went through a lot of different songs, different ideas and, eventually, we had these nine songs, which we saw very much as a start, middle and end. It’s nice to have something that’s very much contained, kind of cutting off the fat a bit. The more freedom we had, the more we were in control. If we had been told to keep it to a certain number of short songs, we probably would have gone off and made 12-minute jams. I guess it’s reverse psychology.”
O Emperor have been playing together for a decade, since they were at school in De La Salle college, in Waterford. This longevity is reflected in the coherence and professionalism of their music, and also the operation of the band.
“There’s an inner structure — certain people will take production roles, others work on harmonies, some more on the management side — that comes from having a good friendship and working relationship at the same time. We still play together in cover bands, and that kind of thing. It’s good when you’re doing everything together, from lugging gear, up to talking to the record labels.”
Of course, for any successful band in the past, jobs such as lugging gear would have been done by roadies. However, now, bands like O Emperor must be all-rounders, as they struggle to turn their large fanbase and adoring reviews into earning a living.
“It’s very hard to go completely professional,” says Savage, who is completing a course on web design. “It can go from being a hobby to being a successful hobby, but there’s a huge leap in going from that to full-time professional. Even 10 years ago, it would have been much easier.
“Fees were bigger, you could rely on album sales and royalties to support three or four people in a band.
“We have jobs and some of us are going to college. That’s reality, there’s no shame in it, you have to pay the bills. It’s enjoyable, then, because you appreciate it more when you are playing and you get to do what you really like.”
In the decade or so since they began playing together, Savage and his bandmates have witnessed how the internet and the digital revolution have transformed the music industry. For him, it’s a double-edged sword.
“It’s so hard for bands nowadays to get a consistent following. People will listen to, maybe, one or two songs on an album, but the more it’s available for someone to listen to for free, they’ll just flick to someone else. As a band, we’ve made this record and are happy that people want to listen to it.
“But how do you transform that into some kind of sustainable thing? We’ve done well at live shows. When people are actually there, they will buy something. That’s how you can generate revenue.
“There’s no way The Beatles or Pink Floyd could have made albums like Sergeant Pepper or Dark Side of the Moon in this day and age, because they wouldn’t have been given the money or the support. Now, there’s so many good bands and so much good music, but there’s so much to get through. There are gems that go unnoticed.”
O Emperor have embraced the challenge of getting noticed, using Savage’s studies and interest in art to good effect on their website. He also did the artwork for Vitreous.
“A website is now a selling point for a band. It doesn’t have to be a stuffy marketing exercise. We did the artwork and videos ourselves, because we don’t have the money to pay for someone else to do it. But it was also borne out of being interested in working with a new medium, and having fun with that and just tying it into the music.”
Social media is another promotional tool that bands cannot afford to ignore, as Savage knows.
“You have to be really out there the whole time. We still enjoy it and it’s nice to interact on Twitter and Facebook. You get direct feedback and its encouraging.”
Next on the band’s agenda is a gig at the Spraoi festival, in their home city of Waterford.
“It’s always a really big gig for us, something special. It was one of our first ever shows; we’ve been playing there for nearly ten years.
“It’s one of my favourite weekends, just in terms of the festival alone. There’s always great acts going on and there’s a wonderful spirit to it.”
After their homecoming gig, the band is looking forward to playing some European dates.
“Germany, and places like that, are easier to tour. They like Irish bands. The UK is a little bit like the US, it’s more of a hard slog, no one really cares who you are. In Europe, no one will know you, but they’ll still be curious. If they like you, they’ll get behind you straight away. We’re really looking forward to it. We just love playing.”
Whether you’re sipping tea or swigging Jack Daniel’s, it’s the music that matters.
- O Emperor play the Maxol Plaza Music Stage at Spraoi, Waterford, on Saturday, Aug 3 at 9.30pm.