Tommy McLaughlin (left) takes a nap on the mixing board, while Conor O’Brien hangs out in the foreground.
Sometimes sparse and quiet, sometimes dramatic, Villagers’ debut album, Becoming a Jackal [Domino] is fragile and sweet, as if it’s on the verge of breaking. It’s the kind of emotion evocative of UK bands such as The Beautiful South and Belle & Sebastian. And it’s emotion borne from solitude.
After the breakup of his former band, Dublin, Ireland’s Conor J. O’Brien shied away from collaboration. While O’Brien does play with a live band, he wrote and recorded the majority of the instruments on Becoming a Jackal [Domino] himself (aside from strings and French horn arranged by pianist Cormac Curran).
He recorded the album with engineer/co-producer (and Villagers live guitarist) Tommy McLaughlin, whose parents’ attic also serves as his home studio. The recording process was simple and stripped back. “We were always careful to not overdo the instrumentation because it can take away from the directness of the songs,” McLaughlin says. “Everything is there for a reason, and sometimes less is definitely more.”
Admittedly, McLaughlin says he can’t afford much of the gear he loves, but he captures many of the album’s organic sounds with his Universal Audio 610 preamp. And for O’Brien, it’s all about his Akai DPS16 16-track recorder, which he used to demo the album’s tracks.
O’Brien wrote “The Pact (I’ll Be Your Fever)” on acoustic guitar in his bedroom using his strict “no television ever” rule to staying creative. “I wanted the words to sound like they were almost spoken over the top of an upbeat snappy rhythm section,” O’Brien says. “To attain this, I used hotrods on the hi-hat and a towel on the snare. I also gave myself a rule: no crash or ride cymbals.”
Mixing was key to ensure that the song didn’t end up sounding slick. “Ben Hillier, who mixed the album, and I made the drums mono and panned them to the left, approximately 10 o’clock,” O’Brien says. “We mixed the acoustic guitar very high in the mix as I had planned; I played it quietly and without a plectrum, so that the semi-random dynamic peaks could be heard. I wanted the guitar to be slightly uneven and delicate, in contrast with the straightness of the hi-hats. The same idea was applied to the vocals. I sang them quietly so that we could put them high in the mix and emphasize those nice little idiosyncrasies of the voice, which can so often be lost in an upbeat number.”