Neil O’Connor, the man behind Somadrone, talks to Siobhán Kane about his music, his education & his move to San Francisco
Neil O’Connor has been making music in various guises for over fifteen years, but there is a sense that his purest vision is distilled in Somadrone; from his collection Fuzzing Away to a Whisper (2005), to 2007’s Of Pattern and Purpose, and more recently, last year’s Depth of Field, O’Connor manages to create work of great beauty, and though often complex arrangements frame his work, O’Connor’s records radiate a warmth that is all too often lost in electronic music.
His work weaves its way lightly amidst artists such as Roger Doyle to David Sylvain; Broadcast to Steve Reich, sharing much in common with his contemporary Ben Frost, but then expanding further into more art-pop territory. Perhaps the title of his most recent record is the clearest description of his work, but it is not only his depth of field that is interesting, but breadth. This might partly be credited to the rigours of the academic life he has been so used to (he holds a Doctorate in Composition), and partly through his diverse musical collaborations (Redneck Manifesto, David Kitt, Bang on a Can Ensemble) and also because he is as fascinated with the process as he is with the result. Depth of Field is beautifully thought out and wrought out – his layering of sound on ‘Desiring Machines’, for example, with its insistent beat and haunting vocal is in one sense quite dense, but also so inviting to the listener. He mixes a reverence for modern classical composition with a pop sensibility, and it comes together so well on this record, lending itself to at times, a very dreamy sound. Sometimes that dream is of minimalism, as in the piano-led ‘Conversations’ and sometimes it morphs into a heavier dream, like the last song ‘Deadlines’ with its heavy, heaving basslines.
O’Connor’s work is always awash with ideas that leap out and linger, and Depth of Field is another brilliant piece of work, and one that will continue to reveal itself over the coming years, Siobhán Kane talks to Somadrone about his musical process.
Your new record is very beautiful, and a lovely surprise was the featuring of your vocals, which seemed to be central in a way to the record – did that happen organically? Thanks, its funny how it worked out. I was tired of people not really listening to my work, as electronica is often regarded as ‘background music’. I want to bring my music to the front, so singing helped that immensely. So to be honest, it’s far from organic, it’s premeditated.
You started incorporating vocals in 2007 with Of Pattern and Purpose, how has your relationship with your vocal evolved over the last few years? Cautious at first, welcoming in time. The tonality of the song sets up a certain mood, or situation. I simply use lyrics then to try and reinforce that mood, sometimes abstract, sometimes personal. I know it’s probably a cliché to say the voice is simply another instrument, but it truly is. It’s a tonality that hard to achieve with any other instrument. It’s controllable in every conceivable dimension of sound.
There is such a warmth to this record, did your musical process change much for this one? It did indeed. It’s a combination of two things really. Firstly, there is the instrumental process; acoustic instruments mixed with analogue synths and analogue tape delays. This sets up an automatic timbre. Secondly, Depth of Field was written while I was composing for my PhD in Composition. This involved writing for up to 20 musicians and electronics. It was like writing for a ‘giant’ Somadrone! So my control and understanding of dynamics and orchestration was of major affect in this album. Brian Eno also taught me so much about what music could offer to the listener.
This album seems to hold a love of pop music tightly in its hand, though it is hugely expansive, you seem to have a deeply held love of pop music, what would be some of the most special pop music to you? I do. Well, first and foremost, The Beach Boys are of major influence on me. People harp on about Pet Sounds, but Surfs Up is where it’s at. My mind was literally blown out when I first heard that record. David Bowie – Low-Heroes-Lodger- era also had such a major effect on me. It combines pop music with such amazing and strange instrumentation. Scott Walker and Serge Gainsbourg in terms of vocal presentation, Van Dyke Parks too. I got to see him play in San Francisco this year. It was amazing.
You have always admired Roger Doyle, his work seems to inspire and move you, what is it about the content of his work you so respond to? That he still has so much energy for music, in his late sixties. He is a pioneer in Irish electronic music, the country’s first. He brought a computer into the National Concert Hall during the 1970’s for a show. He was one of my lecturers during my Masters, and got into a lot of very weird music thanks to him. I tend to not listen to a lot of noise of atonal music, but like all music, its an education to study it and understand its techniques.
You are based in San Francisco now, do you think that the move has been immensely good for you creatively? Yes, well, I was lucky enough to get an Arts Visa, it’s actually called an O-1 Visa – Alien of Extraordinary Ability. No Joke! I am going get a tattoo. I had a Pulitzer prize winner of music write a letter of recommendation for me, and that pretty much sealed the deal. I had planned on moving to New York as I have spent a lot of time there, but I had no real west coast experience, so I decided to go for it. I was in Ireland, unemployed with a PhD – not a very nice feeling, so it was a perfect time to leave. I used to lecture at Trinity and the Art College in Dun Laoghaire, but lost all my hours due to cut backs. I work now at the Art Institute of California in San Francisco, where I lecture in Acoustics and Music Theory. It’s great as I have free time to keep writing.
You have performed live since living there, how did those shows go, and how have you been finding performing your new work in the live context? I have done some shows in LA, a lot in San Francisco and Santa Cruz. Its fine, I have been really busy with finishing up my PhD. I really enjoy playing over there. Not only am I playing new material, but I am also playing to an entirely new audience.
Would you approach the music you composed for your doctorate, and your solo work as Somadrone in very different ways? I finished up last October. I was studying at the Music Department in Trinity with the Irish Composer Donnacha Dennehey. It was a very long and hard five years, but so rewarding. My focus was on something called Graphic Notation. It involves inventing your own musical notation, so that’s essentially what I did. I also wrote five pieces of music that span around two hours. The final two pieces for Large Ensemble – 17 musicians and electronics, were both around 20 minutes each, so there were some final days here in San Francisco that I literally nearly went mad with score corrections. I learned so much about orchestration, balance and dynamics. I really think you can hear this in Depth of Field, an album that started and was completed with the handing in of my PhD. It’s nice to have free time back, as for a long time, it was a foreign concept to me. I am a ‘Doctor of Music’ now, strange concept really.
You started out in 1995 with your solo work on 4 track recorders, do you still do a lot of work that way? Yes, I still work with 4 tracks, I also use an 8-track ¼” reel to reel machine.
What have been some of the most useful tools for you as a composer in terms of software in the past fifteen years? I use Cubase, MAX/MSP, but mostly what I record is live instrumentation.
A film that comes to mind in the context of your work is Totally Wired, the documentary about Andreas Schneider and his shop, where he helps to build the kind of musical machinery that will fit with a musicians personality, needs and ideas – do you have a special kind of relationship with any of your instruments? A Theremin I built from a kit. I gave it some modifications, so it has a personal connection. It fluctuates widely too, works sometimes, sometimes not. Just like me.
You have collaborated on so many interesting projects over the years, what are you looking for in the spirit of collaboration, and what have been some of your favorite collaborative projects? I hope to do some more cover versions, I just did my first one ever [Planxty’s ‘Time Will Cure’] a few months ago. I know that’s not a direct collaborative situation, but you are reinterpreting someone else’s material. In 2005, a friend, Gavin O Brien made a 3′ CDR release of a score we did for Chris Markers epic 1965 movie ‘La Jetee’. It was a 20 minute long piece of music. I hope to do more film work soon.
From your first EP to your last record do you think that there is a certain criteria that you always adhere to? Not sure, I never really plan it. It’s random, by chance.
The artwork for your records has always been very evocative, especially this one, do you often have an image that you somehow want to convey? M&E are simply on the same page. Matt, who is in the Redneck Manifesto with me, is musically minded, so we are aesthetically close. I usually have an initial idea, and album name. I simply let them run wild, no restrictions or direct orders.
Can you explain a little about the artwork and videos accompanying this new record? On the cover you seem like an aviator-adventurer, seeing something in the distance, perhaps it is potential, something that must be reached. That’s a nice analogy that I did not see! Depth of field is the amount of distance between the nearest and farthest objects that appear in acceptably sharp focus in a photograph. A preferred selection depth of field in a focused subject in an image can be quite subjective. It’s about perspective – looking at things in different ways – be it people, images, ideas, and feelings.
What other projects have you got coming up over the next while? I hope that the new one will not take as long, I am going to try and pull off an album per year, now that I have left the world of academia behind me. I have also been recording here in San Francisco with a ¼ inch tape machine, so I am getting even more warmth, and sleeping and relaxing mostly. After two albums, one EP, one 12″ single, and a PhD, I need to wind down.