Today’s Feature, May 17-18, 2007: Oppneheimer

January 18, 2008 at 6:22 pm (Today's Feature)

I came across the Northern Ireland duo-Oppenheimer after a friend emailed me one of their songs with the subject line, “Ireland rules!” I wasn’t quite sure what I would get when I opened that email (the sender of said email is a unique character himself). It was a clip of Oppenheimer’s hit “Breakfast in NYC”, used by Nike for an ad campaign. I immediately felt an urge to grab my shoes and go for a run (damn marketing campaigns DO work!). However, it is that energy that makes Oppenheimer’s electronica-pop music so addicting. They came onto the US music scene as Oppenheimer in 2006, at the popular South By Southwest Festival in Austin, grabbing everyone’s attention. In the more electronic fanatic European world, Oppenheimer are known as the guys to watch. They use everything form guitars to computers to create a sound all their own…and it’s working out quite well for them. Besides grabbing the attention of the largest shoe company in the world, Oppenheimer’s hit “This Is Not A Test” was recently used for the Emmy award winning comedy “Ugly Betty”. Going from being an underground sensation to having their music used on mainstream media outlets, can be a rather difficult for Oppenheimer fans to handle. The guys themselves are bashful when it comes to talking about their “commercial” success. However to be successful and long lasting in the music business, especially in the rare electronica-pop world, is a task upon itself. The attention is just an added bonus. Oppenheimer was sought out, they didn’t ask. They are just two friends from Northern Ireland who happen to make amazing and unique music together…oh, and travel the world playing sold out shows. From the alternative clubs to television, Oppenheimer’s story and passion is hardly underground. Read their XXQs to find out more…

XXQ: S: OppenheimerR= RockyS=Shaun

PensEyeView.com (PEV): How and when did you first get involved in music?

R: I starting recording and mixing live sound when I was 15, when I left school I started touring with bands and working in clubs. I got to see a lot of amazing American indie and European electronica acts, I’ve always been recording my own music as a few years went by I started to record more and start playing it to people.

S: I started playing music quite young. My parents have a 1960’s Yamaha organ at home and I started taking lessons when I was about 8. Being able to read music is something that has come in really useful when learning a new instrument. I started playing drums when I was 15 and then eventually picked up a guitar when I was 17. I was 16 when I started to play in bands.

PEV: How different has your career as a duo been since you left the group atmosphere?

R: Oppenheimer is the first ‘proper’ band I’ve been in. A couple of months after we started Oppenheimer I was asked to playkeyboards in another band Shaun drummed for, that was my first experience of playing in a four piece rock band since leaving school,it was a lot of fun playing rock shows, and they were one of my favorite bands before I even knew any of the guys, so it was a great experience.

S: This is the first band in which I’ve really been involved in the song writing process. Before Oppenheimer I suppose I wrote the drum parts to quite a few songs but never the lyrics or melody. Being a duo does not really feel any different than being in a three or four piece to me. Just less people to disagree with. Ha!

PEV: You two are from Belfast, Northern Ireland. What is your opinion on the music scene in Ireland?

R: It’s healthy, growing, diverse with a fairly cynical edge. Acts like Duke Special, The Chalets, Fight Like Apes, In Case Of Fire and Mojo Fury are some of my favorite bands. There is so much amazing music being made in Ireland right now. There is a good government based backing for growth and support, something that seems lacking in the States. There’s also music press and radio shows trying hard to promote local music to the masses.

S: All of the above, with an added measure of bands/ artists like We Are Knives, Tom McShane, The Delawares, Tracer AMC…

PEV: What was it like the first time you played music to an American crowd?

R: It was the most nervous I’ve ever been! It was at South By Southwest Festival (SXSW) 2006, we were meeting Bar/None for the first time, as well as all the other bands on the label who were playing that night, it was out first time dealing with American electricity/ technical incompatibilities etc…But it all went fairly well, the crowds were really friendly, I think American crowds generally are more enthusiastic and friendly than UK crowds. Our first real show in the states was at Southstreet Seaport in NYC, supporting Hot Chip that was one of the most surreal experiences of my life. Sunshine, thousands of people, skyscrapers…. unbelievable.

S: I got to play at CBGB’s in 1997 with an old band. The experience was great! I can’t believe it has shut.

PEV: Describe the feeling of hearing people sing the words to your songs while you’re on stage.

R: It doesn’t happen too often, but it’s one of the nicest things when it does. Even this week, just having someone come and tell you that they bought the album and have been looking forward to seeing us live, and that they weren’t disappointed when they did is the greatest thing. People are connecting with what we’re doing, we are very lucky people.

S: It is the best drug you can ever take.

PEV: Tell us about your work with Nike? How did that come about?

R: I think that Bar/None just got a call asking if we were all interested, and of course we said yes. They used the Skibunny club remix. Skibunny is an incredible and fast becoming legendary club in Belfast, they started in the late nineties, putting on bands and dj’ing, then came remixing, now they’ve started a band. So the chance for us and them to get worldwide exposure was a lucky thing, we’re very grateful for the opportunity, and all the new people who have clicked on our music from Sweden to Brazil, has been another lucky thing to come our way.

PEV: What is the best part about performing live?

R: Instant reactions from people, it’s always nice when people really get it. And sometimes nice when I see people who aren’t sure if they like it or hate it, watching them swing from one decision to the other as the set goes on is amusing. Getting the chance to tour and see places we’d otherwise probably never be is a good part of it, but for me the best bit is always that 40 minutes we play everyday, getting the chance to play synths and guitars everyday makes me feel like I am fooling the world.

S: Getting the music out there, I suppose. Meeting new people and getting to see and play in places I never dreamed I would.

PEV: What do your family and friends think about all your success?

R: My mother always worries that I am not eating or able to pay my rent; I don’t think that will ever change. My parents aren’t too aware of the type of music we’re playing or the world we’re in, but they think it’s incredible people would want us to travel to play, or that radio or TV would use our music, they’ve always been supportive. My girlfriend pretty much pushed me into playing my music to other people about 5 years ago, so for her to see where it’s gone, I guess she feels proud. I’m certainly really happy she did that, I guess the only down side is that we’re apart a lot more.

S: My parents have always been very supportive of any band I’ve been in. They’ve helped out so many times over the years. I think my decision to quit my full-time job came as a bit of a shock to them. They have an Oppenheimer scrap book of clippings from newspapers and magazines. My friends are very supportive too. We’ve been on the road for one and a half months at the moment and I miss them.

PEV: What was it like the first time you stepped into a recording studio?

R: I’ve actually been working in a recording studio for a good few years, but my feeling never changes – it’s always a sense of wonder.The first time I got to see studios like Cello or Cherokee in Los Angeles was unforgettable. I get a real kick out of studio gear and microphones and of course synthesizers. If I could only ever live in one room for the rest of my life, it would be a studio control room. It’s really important for Oppenheimer too, as we write all our songs as we record them, so they’re all born in a studio of some sort.

S: I was in a punk-pop band called Confusion in 1991 and it was this band that I had my first recording studio experience. It was with a guy called Ray Valentine, who incidentally recorded the first three Ash demos in his tiny recording studio, out the back of his house in a small town called Strangford. We were the first act that was not country and western to record in his studio. It took a little while for him to get his head around lots of feedback and heavily distorted guitars. 8 track mixing desk and the master put down on a metal C90 tape. Those were the days.

PEV: You have traveled everywhere. What has been your favorite city to perform in?

R: Outside of the venue, New York is hard to beat for a good time, it’s starting to feel like a second home, indeed Shaun thinks he’s a local at this stage. The responses in Texas have been memorable, especially in Austin. We’ve had good shows all over, Wilmington, DE seemed unlikely, but was brilliant. Derry in Northern Ireland has been very good to us. The best radio show in the world, Electric Mainline is broadcast on BBC from there. We recently played their first ever live concert and that was a very special night, at times it felt like the video for Smells Like Teen Spirit, with more vocoders.

S: New York.

PEV: Is there a certain environment you prefer to be in when you sit down to write music?

R: Yes and no, when we’re recording and looping and mixing, we need pro tools a good set of speakers and a chair. We’ve been enjoying trying out different rooms and situations to make things slightly different. When I’m coming up with initial ideas it’s usually with my home computer, in my kitchen with keyboards everywhere, although some songs have been started in sound check, some in the back of the tour van, it’s nearly different every time.

S: For me, music usually starts on a guitar in my house. Lyrics were usually written when I was driving back and forth to work. I miss that time to listen songs over and over again to get a melody that I’m happy with.

PEV: Describe your creative process. Do you write the lines first or is it a chord? Do you jot things down throughout the day?

R: It’s kind of what I said before, it happens in different ways, but usually starts Shaun having a riff and chords which we build on, or I’llhave layers looped up and we’ll build from there until we have a song.

S: Music first, lyrics second. If I think of what might be a good lyric I’ll note it down then see if it fits into anything we’re working on. Sometimes lyrics come really easily but at the moment I’m going through a bit of a dry patch. Rocky is going to start hitting me soon…..

PEV: If you could have your pick of any artist, living or passed, to work with, who would it be? Why?

R: It’s tough to choose just one, I’d probably say Cornelius. He’s been a big influence, mixing computer recording with gorgeous pop music with a handful of insanity too.

S: It’s easy to choose just one. Brian Eno. He is a genius. I’d love it ifhe produced a couple of tracks for us.

PEV: What is your opinion with offering music online?

R: I think it’s going to be an important part of the next however many years for music. It’s a means to get almost any music at anytime, to instantly find your new favorite band. I hope as time goes by that downloads become CD quality or above. I don’t think it will ever replace buying an album in shop for me, but maybe it will, maybe it will…

S: I’m not very internet savvy so I don’t really have any thoughts on this subject. What about the great artwork that a lot of people are missing out on? Gate-fold albums will never be beaten.

PEV: What is in your CD player or on your iPod right now?

R: My iPod actually just stopped working yesterday! On my iTunes right now is Fight Like Apes, a brand new band from Dublin I’ve been listening to every day for the past month, keyboards, bass and drums with fiery female vocals. I’ve been listening to Headlights a lot too.

S: Angelo Badalamenti – Soundtrack to ‘The Straight Story’.

PEV: When you are not writing or performing, what can we find you doing?

R: I record other bands that I like, if I’m not doing that I’m probably watching or listening to a band, or looking for keyboards. Music takes up most of my day.

S: Drinking a good Manhattan and reading. I’m currently reading ‘Great Apes’ by Will Self. It’s a strange tale. I’ve also got to get my hands on a lot more Haruki Murakami.

PEV: What’s one thing people would be surprised to hear about Oppenheimer?

R: Collectively our favorite track of the 2000’s is History’s Stranglers by the Bronx? We don’t actually like the Postal Service all that much?

S: My fantastically useless skills are a) I can whistle REALLY LOUD. b) I can spin a pen around my thumb. c) I know one playing card trick. d) I can name all the state capitals of the USA.

PEV: How has life on the road been?

R: It’s been fantastic. We’ve got to see towns and cities all over, meet so many people who have become friends, got to watch and play with so many of my favorite bands. We’ve also been looked after by so many people who put us up for the night, gave us free food or drinks, who watched our shows, bought our album, played pool with us. I always think we’re so lucky that we get to live every day just to play for less than an hour a night. Sometimes it’s a struggle trying to keep it all running financially, especially when one tour runs into another, but no one has it easy, and getting the chance to play music everyday more than makes up for a little stress here and there.

S: Brilliant yet tiring. The last four-week tour of the states involved myself and our soundman, Gerry, doing all the driving. It was great fun but it wrecked me from time to time. We’ve (thankfully) had no real bonkers moments…yet…well there was the time when Gerry had live ammo in an Uzi sub machine gun two feet away from us…

PEV: What do you say to all anyone who is trying to make it in the music business today?

R: Be sure of what you want from it. Make sure you are working with people you can look in the eye and trust and that everyone working with you wants the same things you do. I hate when people turn it into a means of making money. I think you should be making money so you can make/release/promote music, not make/release/promote music so you can make money.

S: Don’t give up too easily. Always order poached eggs whilst on the road.

PEV: So, what is next for Oppenheimer?

R: We’re in the middle of a tour right now, which we’ll be completely finished in mid May, after a gig in Estonia, which we’re really looking forward to. We’re going to spend the rest of the summer playing a few festivals and completing our ‘difficult’ second album, which we’re excited about. We’ve been trying new things and hopefully it won’t be terrible, then it’s back out for more touring, hopefully more shows in more places with more of our favorite bands. To find out more on Oppenheimer, check out: OppenheimerMusic.co.uk and at: myspace.com/oppenheimer

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