|ROCKWiRED iNTERViEWS JOHN O'MARA
THiS AiN'T NO FiNAL FRONTiERThat good old-fashioned electronic New Wave sensibility returned to pop culture consciousness at the start of the aughties and provided a kind of plastic, ironic soundtrack to a decade mired by recession and a couple of wars. Being a child of the eighties, the music of bands such as THE KILLERS and THE YEAH YEAH YEAHS make all of the sense in the world to me with their eyeliner, echo-y riffs and mannequin-like stances. While these bands may tip their hats (or whatever they tip these days) to the New Wave architects of thirty years ago, there is nothing to suggest that these bands are on some kind of transparent, nostalgic I LOVE THE 80ís trip. The same must be said for the Portland Ė based singer/songwriter JOHN OíMARA and his latest album FIVE YEAR MISSION. Sure the man may wear a BRIAN ENO inspired influence on his short sleeved shirt but FIVE YEAR MISSIONís appeal goes far beyond mere sound texture. It is OíMARAís sophisticated and detached sense of pop songcraft that wins the day for anyone longing for that moment in time when BOWIE got together with ENO in Berlin and made some noise. Beautiful noise.
JOHN O'MARA TALKS TO ROCKWiRED
ABOUT HiS LATEST CD FiVE YEAR MiSSiON
WORKiNG WiTH SEAN FLORA
AND PUTTiNG BiTS AND PiECES TOGETHER
iNTERViEWED BY BRiAN LUSH
ROCKWIRED spoke with JOHN OíMARA over the phone. Here is how it went.
Portland is famous for its indie-roots rock sound. How easy or difficult is it to get an audience in that kind of environment?
Itís kind of tough. It seems like everyone in Portland is in a band so it tends to be a scene made up of bands watching other bands play. There are some really wonderful clubs in Portland to play such as the DOUG FIR LOUNGE. I think itís one of the best clubs on the West Coast. It was voted by PLAYBOY MAGAZINE as one of the best clubs on the West Coast as well. The scene in this town is kind of rootsy and I think that is starting to change a little. EXPLODE INTO COLORS was a band that was voted as the Best New Band and they are kind of experimental and psychedelic. As far as anything pop or electronic sounding, there is only a small little niche here.
So how has your music been received despite the milieu?
My music has been better received out of town as opposed to Portland. Portland is a tough nut to crack.
Now that FIVE YEAR MISSION is out there for everyone to hear, how do you feel about the finished product?
Iím very proud of it. It is certainly the best thing that I have ever done. The production is amazing thanks to SEAN FLORA who has got a great list of credits to his name. His expertise really added a lot to the finished product. I think it sounds really polished. I tried to find the best people to work with in terms of production. I couldnít be happier with it.
What drew you to music in the beginning?
It began for me as a teenager doing musical theater. My father was definitely very musical and it all kind of grew from there. I was something of a drama geek. I studied Theater in college and then rock n roll kind of caught my attention. At that point I just started writing songs and I caught the bug there. Ever since, it has been something that I feel like I have to do.
What artists spoke to you in the beginning?
I think everything that happened during the punk movement of í77 had really inspired and influenced me. When I say punk, I mean things like THE RAMONES, ELVIS COSTELLO and the stuff that DAVID BOWIE and BRIAN ENO were doing. Iím talking about SCARY MONSTERS and the HEROES era. There was also stuff like THE TALKING HEADS and THE B-52ís. Even the FLYING LIZARDS Ė I think they only had one record but it was still phenomenal. All of this music happened at a time where it was like anything goes. The boundaries of popular music were really being pushed.
I absolutely agree with you. Especially with that whole CBGBís era Ė TALKING HEADS specifically. When I first heard your CD, it was DAVID BYRNE that had come to mind.
I think that is a huge compliment but I think that DAVID BYRNE tends to lean more towards World Music.
Now absolutely! And in some of the later TALKING HEADS stuff.
But the album of theirs that stands out for me the most is FEAR OF MUSIC. I was heavily influenced by that record. It sort of gives you that minor-key-recovering-from-an-acid-trip kind of feel.
I love that album! I love the song HEAVEN!
That was the album that led me down that path to learning more about DAVID BOWIE because BRIAN ENO produced that record. He also worked with ROBERT FRIPP and from that I discovered KING CRIMSON and their albums DISCIPLINE and THREE OF A PERFECT PAIR.
The thing that Iíve noticed about the era that you are drawn to is that if you absolutely everything about either TALKING HEADS or BLONDIE or ENO, you learn so much about everybody else.
Yes. Everything seems so interconnected.
Talk about your first attempts at songwriting. What sort of brought it about?
I think it all came from having a need to create. In college I studied Theater and I felt that part of my duty was to memorize lines but instead I ended up being drawn to playing the guitar and the piano and putting together these little riffs and bits of poetry and thoughts. I was going down this path that I thought spoke more directly to my soul and had all the reason in the world to believe that I would be better at doing this than anything else. The craft of songwriting has been a tremendous learning process for me in terms of how to write a good pop song. There was this conversation that I remember having with SEAN FLORA about how time travels differently for a listener as opposed to the participant in the song. As you are playing music, itís very easy to play that same song over and over again for ten of fifteen minutes and it will seem as if only a few moments have gone by. As a listener, Iím impressed in hearing how a good songwriter will take you in the space of two minutes. The craft of that is just amazing to me.
Describe working with SEAN FLORA?
SEAN is a great musician and heís got a tremendous musicality. Heís got a great list of credits behind him. He worked on the last SHINS record as well as THE DECEMBERISTS, FRANZ FERDINAND and THE YEAH, YEAH, YEAHís. He has a great ear and he and I found as we were working together that we have similar influences. As a producer, I think that he made different choices than I wouldíve made which is good. The first record I did was self-produced and I wouldnít recommend that to anyone. Itís best to get outside of that fishbowl and work with someone that might make different choices. I learned a lot musically from working on this album with SEAN.
You and SEAN did a large bulk of the instrumentation on this album. Earlier, you had stated that you wanted to find the best people to work with on this album. Who were some of these people?
MORGAN GRACE is one. I think she is one of the best songwriters in Portland and I was really tickled and flattered that she agreed to do the song I SAW YOU with me. That session in particular was really great. JOHN is a drummer that played on a couple of the cuts. He was actually my best friend from high school. Speaking of CBGBís he was on the East Coast for many years in the early eighties and had played CBGBís and all of those places. To have him on board for this album was really a lot of fun.
After hearing your music, I think that a lot of it really lends itself well to some sort of visual representation. Any plans for a video or do you have one and I just donít know about it?
Iíve been thinking about that and I would love to do a video. There is some talk of that but there is nothing concrete at this time. Iíve definitely got some ideas and I know some people in the film industry here in Portland. The ideas are there but I donít have anything storyboarded.
Describe - if you can describe it - the songwriting process. How does that work for you?
Fundamentally, songwriting is just something that I do. I simply hang out, play music and write riffs. I tend to record everything and from there, I collect little bits and pieces. Another thing that I do is carry a notebook with me wherever I go although Iím not all that organized so I tend to carry around stray bits of paper and receipts and napkins with scribbling on them but lately Iíve started sending myself text messages and collect the bits and pieces later and then use the music part of it to turn these bits and pieces into a song. For the most part, that is how a song comes out but there are times when a song seems to materialize completely. The song BROKEN PART was one of those songs. It sort of came to me in one sitting. I remember hearing PAUL MCCARTNEY talk about that. He said that there are times when he simply channeled the music. So that is how the process works for me.
How easy or difficult is it to get the electronic sound of this album onto the stage in front of a live audience?
Right now itís just a drummer and myself. I have also incorporated a keyboard player at times but I also use ABLETON LIVE on a laptop and I have an RC-20 so obviously, I sequence things a lot. He benefits of doing that is that we end up being much more flexible and cost effective as a band. I really love incorporating both acoustic and electric drums but the downfall to all o this is that you donít quite have the energy of a live band. Iíd love to have an entire band but with the way that the music industry is going Ė especially in nightclubs Ė itís getting to be hard to pay good musicians.
What would you like a person to come away with after theyíve heard this CD?
It would give me a lot of joy if there was one person out there who enjoyed listening to it as much as I enjoyed making it. If a CD like FIVE YEAR MISSION could be a revelation to just one person, then that would be huge for me.