INTERVIEW: Diamond Rings (2013)

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Canadian musician John O’Regan, aka Diamond Rings, recently released the wonderfully electronic and eclectic Free Dimensional.  Working with producer Damian Taylor, the songs range from synth pop to rock with a shine that both mirrors his imaging and elevates them as a bit more realized than his previous work.  I spoke to Diamond Rings when he was in Nashville touring with his fellow Canadians, Stars.

DJ Ron Slomowicz: I read that the name Diamond Rings was inspired by your fight with Crohn’s disease.
Diamond Rings: I think that when I got sick I was really forced to disconnect from the world in a lot of ways and I really reconnected with myself as a person. With an illness that affects your insides, I think that there is a certain quality about it that forces some sort of enhanced period of self-reflection. I had been performing and playing music in punk bands for a number of years when I was in art school, and as fun as it was, I felt that there was something within me that I wanted to express artistically that I didn’t have a platform for. Diamond Rings was a way to create that platform for myself. The name reflects a duality about the project, on one hand with the diamond you have something that is bright, glamorous, and shiny- which obviously references the stage show, videos, and the way that I dress. On the other hand, a diamond is an incredibly resilient hard rock which takes a long time to form underground. I think my process as an artist mirrors the formation of the diamond itself. I think that a lot of artists probably could empathize and agree with that sentiment.

RS: Speaking about being an artist, you self-produced most of your early stuff and you worked with the producer Damian Taylor, was that a challenge for you?
Diamond Rings: It would have been much more of a challenge for me if I hadn’t have made the last album in the way that I did and had that kind of control over my work. Damian is an incredibly talented person who is incredibly sweet and I love everything about him. He was really what I needed to express a lot of the feelings that I did on the album. He was really encouraging and positive and I think that the record has a real positive sentiment about it that I owe partly to him for sure. It wasn’t really that nerve-racking, he has a really specialized and incredible skill set and, if anything, through this process I started to respect and value my own skills more as a writer, a vocalist, and as a generator of ideas and concepts. As far as picking someone to fully realize those concepts, I couldn’t have asked for anyone better.

RS: On the writing tip, do you normally start with the track and write to it, or start with the lyrics?
Diamond Rings: I always start with the tracks; I don’t think that I have started a song with lyrics since grade eleven, and no one is ever hearing those songs. For me as a writer, I find that it is important for the instrumentals to convey a feeling, and it is often that feeling that dictates what the song then becomes about or what kind of topic that I want to address. I suppose I could do it the other way around, but I think that is just too intimidating. There is something nice about having a grid to lock to, and also the elements of a pop song that regulates your focus in a way that is comforting. Maybe the free verse album is ten years down the line, that would be really cool and I wouldn’t put it past me.

RS: Just a side note, are you going to be offended if I refer to your music as synth-pop?
Diamond Rings: No, that’s cool.

RS: Punk rock was all about the do it yourself, anti-establishment.  With the easy access to modern production, what do you think about calling synth-pop the modern queer punk rock?
Diamond Rings: I think for sure there is something punk about what I do, and that is cool that you recognize it. I think that punk today, for so many people, exists less as a concept and more as a very rigidly-defined, sonic and aesthetic style. There are a few things I think that everyone nicked from punk, whether it is queer or not. As far as being a medium that enables expression that is quick, easy, fun, and danceable, I think that it makes sense that a lot of queer artists make electronic music. I see it as a cutting-edge art form that hasn’t been fully explored, and I guess that is what I attempt to do when I write and try to bring something new to the table.

RS: There is also a real ’80s synth pop vibe to the album, was that your focus or one of your inspirations?
Diamond Rings: I am inspired by the ’80s, ’90s, and the 2000s as much as anyone, not as much by the ’70s, just certain artists, but that is as far back as I go inspirationally. I think a lot of that is owed to the drum sounds on the record, which were nicked mostly from classic Linn kits, Roland 808s or 909s… Classic house, hip-hop, pop, and drum sounds. We were listening to a lot of Prince, Kate Bush, early Madonna, and Peter Gabriel when we were thinking drums, and of those really simple but effective building blocks that drum sounds are.

RS: With a track like “Runaway Love,” that has a somewhat rocking kind of feel, is that about a specific person?
Diamond Rings: Everything that I write about is in some way inspired by an experience that I, or a friend or family member has had. I think that a lot of all of my experiences filter in to all of my work, especially one that as archetypal as “Runaway Love.” In a lot of cases, sometimes a song or an idea starts as a seed that is a planted experience, but if the song really cuts to the bone, I think that it almost has to transcend that kind of specificity and become something more infinitely relatable. When I write, lyrically sometimes I think of some of the really great Bruce Springsteen songs, he just lays it all out there in a way that has this grandeur, but a humble grandeur that I think is really cool.

RS: Have you heard The Gossip’s “Move in the Right Direction?”
Diamond Rings: Yeah it’s great.

RS: For me, when I heard that song it didn’t feel like a Gossip song, it’s just so poppy and upbeat, and when I heard “Hand Over My Heart” I thought to myself that it didn’t sound like a Diamond Rings record or what I would expect one to sound like. Was that in your head when you were doing it?
Diamond Rings: When I was writing the whole record, I was trying every step of the way, as much as I could, to break or shatter the mold or conventions that I had established for myself. Obviously, there are ones like “Runaway Love” that touch on the sound that people are more familiar with, and the reason for that is less to try to please anyone but more because I still really like rock music. I thought there was hardly going to be any guitar on the record, and then we ended up doing these entire guitar solos, even rapping, and a song by The-Dream that we lifted a whole drum pattern from. We kind of became musical omnivores during the whole process, and I learned and decided early on that the idea that it was going to be a cohesive, sonic statement was just not happening. Rather than trying to fight that impulse and shoehorn everything into one style, we just tried to really explode our ideas of what was possible and more easily categorized. It was really cool that my label was totally behind it, and I got to make my own record. All of those songs started in my bedroom, and I am really happy about that. It is really nice to hear that it doesn’t all sound like me, that’s cool.

RS: With the album being very programmed, was it hard to translate that programmed sound to a live sound?
Diamond Rings: It was, but I was really careful and worked with a band that I really trust. We spent a lot of time deciding what we were going to do. I wanted to perform it in a way that honored the album but still gave the impression that we were a band on stage. I learned a lot about that from touring with Robyn, she is in a band and it is wicked. A lot of electronic stuff is either hidden behind a laptop or doesn’t really put as much emphasis on the performance. We decided to go with an electronic kit and based-synth and just try to do it in a cool way, which is hopefully what we are doing.

RS: I was going to ask you what lessons you learned from touring with Robyn.
Diamond Rings: A lot about self-preservation, positive thinking, and professionalism.   She is super fun but to put on a show of that scale and with that kind of energy requires a tremendous amount of focus and dedication. Getting wasted and partying every night was very far from that, which is the kind of environment that I like to foster, and tour to. We have fun, but the show has to come first and at the end of that day the show is why we are all here and why I do what I do. There is nothing worse than feeling a bad show and nothing better than feeling a good show. Partying is partying; it’s always the same and will always be there. Robyn is really great and inspirational.

RS: “I’m Just Me” is the first single and it seems like that was the perfect introductory single to a bigger audience, was that intentional or did it just happen?
Diamond Rings: The lyrics in the song just happened and went in whatever direction, I try as much as I can to let the song steer me wherever it wants to go. The lyrics fit and as we built songs around that, it started to feel like glue holding the rest of it together. It is kind of the center of the record and that’s why it is the 5th song, being at the center makes sense and that was where I wanted people to focus first.

RS: How do you feel about remixes, are you into remixes of your records?
Diamond Rings: Yeah totally, I am into doing my own remixes and other people remixing my stuff. It is interesting to hear how someone else interprets your work as an artist. I am psyched with the ones that we have so far, they are fun.

RS: When you did the “Remix Rainbow” series did the people that you remixed get in touch with you or give you feed back?
Diamond Rings: Those were all friends, which was really cool. They were all people that I have met on tour or that I knew through my own work. Miracle Fortress is the first one that I did in that series, he is my guitar player and in my band, which is a real thrill. I got those from good old-fashioned phone calls or eMails, I had them give me the tracks and let me at it. I had a month and really feel like that experience has inspired a lot of the work on the record. Remixes allow me to try things out that I would be too afraid to do on my own, so I just do them to other people.

RS: If you could remix any artist or song what would it be?
Diamond Rings: Definitely probably something by Kylie, although her productions are so slick that the prospect would be entirely intimidating. Sometimes it’s easier to remix stuff that isn’t so close to what I myself am aspiring to do, you always want to feel like you are making it better, but I would still say Kylie.

RS: If you could have anyone remix one of your records who would you want to remix it?
Diamond Rings: I really like Calvin Harris, Peaches is really cool and inspiring.  Stuart Price did some really slamming work with Madonna, any one of those three would be cool.

RS: In that direction, being Canadian, what’s your take on the US queer scene?
Diamond Rings: Honestly I get a lot of those questions both in Canada and the US, I think there is an imagined type of difference and I think that every scene and city has its own vibe and attitude. I think it has a lot less to do with national borders and more like local regional ones. I think that there are awesome queer scenes everywhere and less like Canada is different from the US, it’s more like Toronto is different from Nashville and certainly different than San Francisco. I think that is one of the cool things about getting to do what I do is that I get to connect with all these different audiences and take parts of what I see happening in other places back with me when I go back home and start writing again. All of that inspires what I do.

RS: Where did the slogan “Stay Fierce” come from?
Diamond Rings: It’s just become sort of a rally and cry attitude that both myself and everyone on the team has come to embody. Originally my creative director Lisa came up with it while we were doing a photo shoot. Often times I will ask the photographer what they want from me because it is a dialogue, and this particular shoot that we were on they said “fierce.” I had it for a bit and then kind of lost it, now it’s more of a saying for me to stay fierce and focused. As a message that is still what it means, it is important to check in with ourselves and friends to make sure we are still out there doing our thing and staying true to who we are.

RS: You mentioned creative director, so you have someone that helps you with your outfits and costumes?
Diamond Rings:  Her name is Lisa Howard, and she has been with me since the very beginning, it has just evolved into a situation that I can bring a team on tour. She was actually the first person that I brought; she was touring with me before the band was. You can see where my priorities lie, not that I don’t care about a band as much as how I look but it’s about recognizing that appearance is important. A band is a lot of work and a lot to manage; I am excited that I have the resources to bring what feels more like a real show. There are no backup singers or trapeze artists yet, so we aren’t quite there.

RS: What would you like to say to all of your fans out there?
Diamond Rings: I would just like to say that I am humbled and honored by your generosity and support, I couldn’t and wouldn’t be doing this without that, thank you. Hopefully I can return that in some way with my music.

RS: Do your followers have a name, like the Tritonals have Tritonians and Gaga has Little Monsters?
Diamond Rings: Nothing yet, to be honest I am a little adverse to the concept, so not yet- or maybe not ever. I want people to come to the show and leave feeling refreshed and energized and free to be who they are, whatever that is. At the end of the day, it really doesn’t have anything to do with me, but more about me hopefully being a catalyst for someone sparking a positive change in their own life.

Interview conducted September 2012.

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