There aren't too many pop stars that love Black Flag as much as Culture Club, but most pop stars aren't Diamond Rings, the nom de plume of John O'Regan. The 27-year-old Canadian has just released his sophomore album, Free Dimensional, a mix of new wave and synth-pop sounds that manages to sound both current and retro simultaneously. For the latest edition of Tell Me About That Album, we chatted with O'Regan about the record, Nirvana's aggressive guitar tones and the dark side of his hard drive that no one's heard yet. Diamond Rings plays the Crocodile on November 15th.
Is it more difficult to make a name for yourself as a pop act as opposed to say a punk or indie band, which has a more defined path? I think it's hard for any musician to find a path because I think the big secret to the whole thing is that there isn't one, whether you're Black Flag or the Black Keys or any other band that has black in the title. Part of the process that I really love about music and art is that there really aren't any rules.
But there might be a road map. But taking the major highways is usually pretty boring. It's about finding my own path as an artist and staying true to that. Part of the imperative with pop music, and what may be a little intimidating about it, is that pop means popular. That's not what indie means.
Free Dimensional has nods to Nenah Cherry, Roxy Music and Culture Club. As someone who was born in 1985, how did you discover the sounds of new wave? I started buying records when I was 18 or 19. I'm a bit OCD and I made the decision that I wanted to buy music on vinyl exclusively. It's a different story now, but when I began to get into collecting music seriously, you couldn't really get anything from the '90s on vinyl, unless it was a Nirvana record or something. So I basically started with punk - and I developed a natural affinity for some of those sounds and styles.
Was there something about those sounds that spoke to you more than Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd or the classic rock that so many teenagers get attached to? There's a certain cheekiness or lack of pretention to [new wave] that I find is just exhausting when you're listening to prog rock or classic rock. That stuff is just incredibly self-indulgent and macho. Short of maybe tripping out to Dark Side of the Moon in high school, like everyone's supposed to do, none of that ever really turned my crank, not that I haven't tried or was forced to try.
Right, it's sort of hard to avoid if your major outlet for music is the radio. I think that's part of it. Growing up playing sports, playing hockey, being in that hyper-masculine environment, those were the kind of bands people were into and to me there's a lot of baggage attached to that.
Can you talk about where the album's title came from? It came from a quote from the painter Paul Klee concerning cubist artwork of the early 20th century, basically that movement was derived or designed as a way of breaking down the way we see the world objectively and showing the world from all angles at once. If anything, that's what I really attempted to do with this album, showcase my own musical library, my own journey as an artist, all at the same time. I'm never really going to be able to show every side of who I am as an artist, but that's no excuse not to try. I don't think necessarily that I've succeeded in really doing that, but I think art is often about succeeding as much as having the courage to fail in as glorious a way as humanly possible. Through celebrating those failures you end up with something new and original.
I get the sense that you'd like to challenge your audience more than you're able to at the moment because you're still building an audience. Is that accurate? For sure. I guess you could call it the dark side of my hard drive that no one's heard yet. It's got drones galore that I'd love to share with the world but I think artistically there's something to be said for proving one's self as a songwriter. David Bowie's Low is a great body of work but he had to make Young Americans first. Same with Brian Eno. Those are the kind of career artists I really look up to. I think you've really got to earn that kind of respect from your audience to indulge yourself like that. At this point in the game it's about trying to indulge myself as inclusively as possible.
Do you mind that part, the calculated planning of a career or is that at odds with what you're doing? I'm not only OK with that, I think that's part of the fun. Part of creating a commercial product of any kind, whether it's designing a waste bin or a chair or creating a film or an album. Any of those things have to confront the inevitable reality that there is a business imperative at play. It's just a matter of insuring that those imperatives don't compromise the quality of the work or drive the direction of the work. That's what bands like Devo had a really great understanding of. They had stupid catalogs and all this dumb merch that people could buy but they made it their own and they made it different and in doing so were able to critique that very machine in which they were inherently complicit. That's what all my favorite capital "A" artists have done too. That's what the world of fine art has been about probably since the '60s when artists began de-materialization. Now a work of art can be nothing more than a signed contract between the artist and the buyer. And music in a lot of ways has been really slow to catch up to that.
Have you played in Seattle much? One of my first ever shows there I snuck in on a Greyhound bus and played on a bunch of rented gear at the Crocodile opening for Perfume Genius. That was a memorable time. Most recently we did a small VIP show at the Barbosa, which was really fun, kind of road-testing some new stuff. I think Seattle's great. I think there's a crazy insane amount of history that you can just feel in the city. It's done a tremendous amount to shape the world we live in as musicians. Most of the guitar sounds on my record were patches modeled after Nirvana tones because in my estimations, the sounds they crafted with Butch Vig on Nevermind are unparalleled. To me, that's the pinnacle of what anybody's ever been able to do with a guitar. It makes a really aggressive, direct statement. Some of those guitar sounds sound like an animal in a cage. If you listen to that album you know it's a pop album in disguise.
Well I can't wait to hear what Butch Vig does with your next record. Yeah, we'll see, we'll see!