I recently sat down with Canadian rocker John O., an
interesting guy who only came out two years ago at the embarkment of a new
persona. You might know him as Diamond Rings, an androgynous character who wears rainbow themed make-up
all-the-while making some of the coolest Depeche
Mode quality alt-rock on the scene right now. And with a baritone voice as deep
as The National’s Matt Berninger.
In his latest video for
Not My Party” John is seen walking down the street in a dress singing in
one of the deepest voices that would put your granddad to shame. I’m digging
his whole package and I loved talking with him.
Going into my meeting with John, I found out he’s quite
tall, towering over me at 6’4. He’s incredibly intelligent and has these
striking blue eyes that I would have never noticed if we had not made our way
out of our dark little nook in his hotel lobby bar and into the light of the
hallway as our meeting ended. As we discussed the exciting announcement that
his debut album Special Affections is
being re-released in the U.S. because it’s just that good, John came across
humble, appreciative and very level-headed – a normal kid with an incredible gift for making original, quirky, slightly dark, pop songs.
AE: So you’re re-releasing your album Special Affections with Astralwerks, and I’ve looked at the roster
of artists you’re now teamed up with (Kylie Minogue, David Guetta, The B-52s),
it’s a pretty impressive list. I know that one of your heroes is Brian Eno, and
now you’re on the same label as him, were you excited?
DR: Yeah that definitely played a part in me being interested in working
with them for sure. The history of the artists that have been on the label.
Yeah it’s awesome, it gives me something to work towards for sure. What I think
I like most is that they’re all career artists and musicians who have been
doing it a long time and have worked really hard to get where they’re at. It’s
inspiring more than anything.
AE: So what’s
different now that Astralwerks has come into your life?
DR: It’s certainly motivated me more, not that I wasn’t motivated before.
Having a bigger team behind me supporting what I do is inspiring. It sort of
validates the efforts that I’ve made so far. And they’re all professional and
everyone really wants to do the best they can, sometimes that makes things more
complicated, but ultimately I think it’s for the best.
AE: So are there
going to be any new songs on the new release?
DR: We generally kept most of it the same. We’ve talked about revamping the
artwork but ultimately I really wanted the album to be able to stand on it’s
own for what it was. It’s very much a collaborative effort between me and some of
my friends on the packaging, like the cover photo, we made a lot of it in Garage Band. It’s very raw and if anything, I want to be able to inspire other
people who are just getting into making music – to just show them that you don’t
necessarily need a Kylie Minogue budget right away to get people to be excited
about what you’re doing as an artist. I thought that to change a lot would kind
of diminish actually what was already there as a record. I’m trying to keep it
very much so in it’s original context
AE: And they’re okay
DR: Yeah which is awesome too. That’s not to say that I’m “lo-fi or die” or
that that’s the sound that I always want to be known for, but for this
particular album to have it carry through from bedroom to a major label would
be kind of special.
AE: Special Affections was made in your
DR: Yeah totally, it’s possible right now with electronic music, it’s
really liberating that you don’t need a lot of space to record or rehearse or
do anything really. I live downtown and space is at a premium. It’s also nice
to get your ideas out and record them right away.
AE: I read where the
Gorillaz just released their new album made entirely on their iPad.
DR: Yeah, it’s crazy, I think it’s cool, too, why not if the technology is
there? Because that’s the way a lot of people are listening to music these days
– digitally. There is a sense of wanting to reflect the way the music is
changing and the way that we’re making it.
AE: Are you now
working towards a future project?
DR: Yeah I’m always working on new stuff. I’ve been doing remixes for the
past month, I’ve been doing a new one every week for other bands which has been
really exciting. It allows me to stay busy and keep working without necessarily
having to go so far into my own psyche and thoughts. To write an album
lyrically can be really taxing and not always the quickest process. It’s fun
during those times when I’m not feeling incredibly inspired to keep showing up
and doing something.
AE: Yeah and you’re
continuing to put your sound out into the world, artists like Calvin Harris and
Passion Pit have done the same. So what is your creative process?
DR: On the last album I wrote a lot of the songs on acoustic guitar and
piano. It wasn’t until after I had probably a good chunk of the album written
that I wanted it to sound differently and be electronic sounding, more popular,
and more fun to do it that way. Most of the music that I listen to has a beat.
It’s ultimately really nice that a tune can stand up as a great song. It’s
really easy the way technology is progressing to throw a lot of cool sound
effects and production techniques at something that isn’t necessarily the best
song to kind of trick people into thinking that it is. That’s not what I want
to do. It’s more important to me to write the words and make the chord
progressions and find something that really sounds nice and then worry about
dressing it up. So that’s kind of how I work.
AE: How would you
describe your fanbase?
DR: It’s really diverse. Short of bugging your own friends to come out and see
you, after that it’s out of my hands by and large who comes to my show. I can
only make the music I want to make, and present the image that I feel
represents me and hope that the right people get it. Not that there’s wrong
people. People who come to my shows are all over the place. Kids in high
school, 20 something downtown folks like me, people my parents’ age, which is
really cool. It’s all over the place. I‘m trying to reach as many people as I
can. I want to try and make the music and put on the kind of show that allows
anyone to feel like they can come and express themselves and be themselves and
be safe and have fun. I would be really worried if I had a demographic niche
and everyone were the same that comes to my show.
AE: So you just came
off a tour with Robyn, and she has an enormous amount of gay fans. Every time
I’ve been to a Robyn concert it’s like going to a gay bar. What is it like for
you to now have an entire audience of gay people introduced to your music?
DR: It’s great. A lot of the artists that I’ve grown up admiring and being
inspired by I think appeal to queer fanbases whether it’s Grace Jones, Pet Shop Boys, Kylie Minogue or Robyn.
AE: Do you have a
favorite Robyn song?
DR: “Hang With Me”
AE: Do you have a
favorite song of your own?
DR: I think the very first song I wrote as Diamond Rings -“All Yr Songs.”
It’s a little ditty and not really the direction I’m heading with my music
right now, it’s a little cute, but that was really what got the ball rolling
for me. To me it’s the beginning of this whole now way of conceiving myself and
my role as an artist.
AE: Tell me about
this persona you’ve created as Diamond Rings
DR: I think this is something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time – ever since
I was in art school learning about music. I grew up in the suburbs and I don’t
have brothers or sisters so I didn’t have anyone bringing home cool cassette
tapes or records or going to shows so I really had to figure out everything on
my own. In my late teens I started buying records by The
Smiths and The Human League
and kind of getting into synthy bands that presented a kind of androgynous, dangerous image. I wanted to see myself as an artist that was part of that
tradition but I wanted to do that in a way that was unique to me. I didn’t
really want to copy anything outright. It took a while to figure out what that
was going to look like, finding a way to do it that would feel right. I found
that when I started doing the shows, putting on makeup, being on stage, that it
was really exciting, and I wanted to do it all the time. Not all the time, all
the time, it’s a lot of work.
AE: Yeah right now
you’re not in make up.
DR: Yeah totally. I’ve done interviews before with people at 9 in the
morning and they said ‘oh I thought you’d have make-up on’ and I’m like ‘do you
know what time it is? What the hell? This shit takes time.’
AE: Well so you’ve
listed a lot of your influences. What are you currently listening to though?
DR: I just got the new Cut Copy
Album. I like Robyn. The newest Kylie Minogue album is really bad-ass.
There’s this electronic rock duo from Montreal called Handsome Furs that have a new album out that’s really wicked. My
friend Katie is in a band called Austra
and she sings back up on “Give It Up” on my record. My musical taste is pretty
all over the place. I like Salt
n Pepa and Public Enemy.
AE: Yeah I noticed
that you rapped on your song “Show Me Your Stuff,” will you be doing more of
that in future works?
DR: I want to, whenever I perform live and I rap people go crazy. I definitely
think it would be fun to have more of that on the next album, not in the sense
that I’m a full on rapper, because I can’t do that. It’s a fun way to write but
it’s really hard and because there’s so many words there’s a bit less pressure to