O Emperor return to Quarter Block Party on the Friday night, headlining the festival they helped place on the map with its first headline show in 2015. Mike McGrath-Bryan chats with guitarist/vocalist Phil Christie.
It’s been a while for formerly-Cork-based psych-rockers O Emperor: two years, to be precise, since their last set of live excursions, and three years since their last record. Having bubbled away under the surface for the last while, the lads confirmed their return late last year with confirmation that they were to headline Quarter Block Party festival. The existence of new material was confirmed a few weeks back, with the band confirming a drift further from old-time songcraft to further improv/feckery than previous excursions. Guitarist/vocalist Phil Christie digs into their method this time around. “The new recordings came out of completely free interactions/jams that we collected and edited over the last couple of years. It was a really fun process. In the past, although arrangements would be collaborative and shaped by jamming, the integral idea for a song would usually be sketched out by one person. This time around, we found ourselves just starting to play with no predetermined directions, and see where we ended up. In fact, many of the tracks that are taking shape now, started off as musical jokes, and most still have yet to shake off their joke titles, which are heavily coded in nonsense Waterford vernacular. It became interesting to see how being completely ‘unserious’ proved helpful in staking out new ground.”
Last we heard of the band was the ‘Lizard’ E.P., released in 2015 with physical editions being headed up by Dublin label/stall Trout Records. With a few years to live with the record and it settled neatly into a growing back catalogue, now’s the perfect time to look back at its creation and how their process differs this time around. “Personally, I like the record, still. It was written and recorded very quickly and felt ‘ignorant’ in a satisfying way. We had a tendency to pore over productions/arrangements for too long on previous excursions, and on ‘Lizard’ we gave ourselves a break from that. I think we were getting a kick out of the idea of short, weird pop songs. The new record follows on somewhat from that approach, in that there are still some songs in there, but they are approached in a more oblique and meandering way.” What form might that new body of work be taking, or is there a decision still pending in that regard? “An album-like lifeform should appear soon. There is a big backlog from the sessions that we’ve done though, so this will hopefully just be the first batch with more to follow.”
The band has always been fairly eclectic in nature, but has been growing progressively varied in terms of musical reference points over the past number of years. It’s tempting to ask Christie what the lads have been vibing on as listeners, and how much of what gets listened to bleeds over into jamming and getting music finished. “We’ve all been getting into different things over the last couple of years, I guess – we haven’t had a lot of time in the van together, which would have been where we would have had some intense periods of cross-pollination of ideas. From what I can remember of recent geeky chats with the lads Serge Gainsbourg, Galt McDermott, Thelonious Monk have all been getting airtime.”
Christie’s own body of work as frontman of semi-improvisational psych-poppers The Bonk has kept him more than busy in the past while, also, making the most of the downtime that life can sometimes place on a band. What’s the difference between the creative headspaces needed for both projects? “I think the main thing about the O Emperor project is that it’s based around what happens when the five of us get together to play. Having played with each other for so long, we’ve kind of developed a way of negotiating ideas, and each other, that is particular to us. The latest record felt good to make, because our initial investigations of ideas were captured without any filter. The Bonk is a lot different in that regard, as it usually begins with a specific arrangement/idea coming from me and then the band will improvise around these structures.”
The band are playing the Friday of Quarter Block Party, upstairs in AMP on Hanover Street. As mentioned, it’s the band’s first gig in about two years, and conversation turns to how they’re feeling heading into it as both musicians and gig-goers in their own right. “Ah yeah, we’re dying to get out playing again, and it’s nice to have some new stuff to explore while we’re at it. The lineup for the weekend is great though – personally hoping to get to see Tandem Felix, Davey Kehoe and Anna Clock if possible.” It’s far from the band’s first rodeo with QBP, though: O Emperor headlined the inaugural event, with a gig at the Triskel so packed and so in demand heading into it, that even a festival wristband mightn’t have guaranteed a reveller entry. Christie’s recollection of the evening is short but sweet. “Richie managing to get a swim in between soundcheck and the gig. And solid music craic in fairness!” So how’s the rest of 2018 lookin’ for the boys beyond Quarter Block Party? Is an excursion around the country for festival season looking likely? “We’re slowly getting used to writing emails again so we’ll be trying to get out and play as much as we can – we’re also continuing to record new material and get ready for further releases.”