My first exposure to Toronto based artist Diamond Rings was on a cold, rainy afternoon in mid-October in Reykjavik, Iceland. I was rubbing my mittened hands together to stay warm, and standing in the outdoor patio area of a Reykjavik bar, absent-mindedly watching one of the bands from the "Canadian Blast" showcase at Reykjavik's 2010 Iceland Airwaves festival. My Canadian friend and I were exchanging plans for navigating that day's festival lineup, and he tells me that he would be sticking around the same venue to check out Diamond Rings , who would be playing later that afternoon and of whom many good things had been said recently "on the blogs." I had been away from the States for months, and had inexcusably remained not caught up on what's "up and coming" for months before that, so I had no idea who this "Diamond Rings" was, or whether they'd be any good. But after all, I didn't really feel like wandering around in the cold in search of something else, and was planning on staying at Hresso anyway to see Canadian singer-songwriter Basia Bulat, so I decided to stay around for Diamond Rings as well. A good decision it turned out to be. Diamond Rings' show ended up being one of my favorite performances of the festival. Sometimes one is well advised to pay attention to the internet buzz.
The "band" Diamond Rings is but only John O'Regan, the man also heading Toronto indie rock group The D'Urbevilles (apparently beloved by the local Toronto scene, and based on my sampling of their music, deservedly so). After a lengthy illness in 2008, Mr. O'Regan started working on Diamond Rings as a solo project, writing songs even more personal, and much much electro than those undertaken by the band. Eventually he built for himself a brand new image -- one which prominently features makeup, lipstick, leather jackets and lots of purple accessories. But contrary to my assumption when I first saw him ascend the stage in Reykjavik in this outrageous getup (my eyes most audibly rolled), the act is not all gimmick: it took little time to realize that Diamond Rings was putting out some of the best electro-based rock I'd heard in a long time (my eyes very quickly unrolled halfway through the first song). And both the playing and the singing are actually really good.
Diamond Rings' tour passed through LA last week in support of the album Special Affections (released October 25, 2010 -- incredibly catchy and, dare I admit, the lyrics are touching). Fresh from driving 18 hours straight through from the previous show in Vancouver, Diamond Rings played an acoustic set at Origami Vinyl at 4:00 p.m. and then an electro set in full costume at the Echoplex in support of the Midnight Juggernauts (reviewed here). Both were excellent: the Origami show seemed to be attended mostly by already devoted fans, but at the Echoplex show I could see new fans being made. My favorite anecdote illustrating Diamond Rings' rapid rise to fame and acclaim was from immediately following the Origami show: an enthusiastic fan rushed up to John to show him photographs of himself dressed up as Diamond Rings for Halloween. Pretty impressive to have such devoted fans just days after release of the band's first full length album).
I had the opportunity to speak to Mr. O'Regan the day after the shows, at Chango Coffee in Echo Park. Over a couple of Americano coffees, he shared with me the benefits of going solo, why he is not afraid of playing to large audiences, and why Neneh Cherry is better than Salt-N-Pepa. One might assume a degree of opaqueness from an artist with such a carefully crafted stage image. In the case of Diamond Rings, this was anything but the case. O'Regan's demeanor is warm, honest and forthcoming. As far as I can tell, the glam image serves to enhance the performance -- it is not a mask.
Thanks a lot for taking the time to meet with me, and do this interview for Radio Free Silver Lake. I really love the new album. For how long have you been working on it?
The album goes back to about a year ago. When I think of writing the songs themselves, they are essentially folk songs. I like to kind of say that they are folks songs dressed up for a night on the town [laughs], at least in their recorded form. The songs themselves sort of came into being a bit sooner than the actual recorded songs. So as far as the production -- the drum sounds and everything else -- it started out just as acoustic music.
And what inspired you to make that change [from acoustic to electronic music]?
Basically I’ve been playing some of them around, doing some little house shows and really intimate things for friends, which I still enjoy doing, although it is harder and harder to find the time for that now. But essentially I got an offer to play a show in Toronto (where I’m from) with a really good friend of mine who plays kind of like synthy dance music and took it as a challenge – I had two weeks to turn a bit of the stuff into something that was going hold up in a bar that had PA and a sound system. I just didn’t have any interest in being “that guy” who is up there strumming an acoustic guitar while everyone else is getting drunk and talking over the entire set, you know? Finding a way to really make it exciting and dynamic. That was the challenge.
I’ve definitely never seen anybody talking over your set! I’ve seen you play three times and everybody seems to be listening pretty carefully!
[laughs] That’s wicked!
As I mentioned before, I saw you first play at the Iceland Airwaves Festival. What was your impression of the festival?
I had a great time. I don’t want to say that I heard sooo much about it. I’ve played a lot of festivals and it was always the one that was a little more mysterious and unknown and probably because it takes place on an island in the middle of the Arctic Ocean practically! But it was great, it was so much fun. It was really well curated, it was a fantastic place to hang out, just being in that environment and knowing the music that has come out of that country, I feel like I have such a more thorough understanding of
where that comes from.
I noticed you at the Robyn show at the festival. What’s your impression of her?
It’s wicked. I had never seen her live before. I was a fan of the videos and the songs. For anyone who really strives to make exciting, engaging, popular music, there’s a real risk in deciding that you want to try to do something that a lot of people are going to enjoy, but to still do it with integrity and honesty. I think that’s really difficult and I feel that that’s what she does, and that it’s really inspiring to see someone doing that on a bigger scale than I am. She’s obviously been at it a little longer, and it’s not a race or anything, but to see someone already working where I want to be in a few years is obviously inspiring.
Yeah, I would love to. That’s what it’s about. Trying to reach as many people as you can, and doing that in a way that isn’t alienating and gross and disgusting. I never want to shove something down people’s throats, but if you can pack a room and have thousands of people singing along, I think that’s a great feeling. It’s a great thing to see. And there’s just so much more that a big stage can offer too. Even the show last night, having big sound, having the subs totally pumping, hearing your own music really loud, has gotta be one of the best feelings that there can be. [laughs]
Would you consider adding a band to Diamond Rings?
Yeah, I get asked that a lot, and at the moment I’m really excited about seeing how far I can take things as a one man act. Not only is it really fun and exciting for me to perform that way, but it also gives people something different from what they are used to seeing. There are tons of bands out there, you know? But it is not necessarily a hard and fast rule that it is going to be done this way forever and that is the only way that Diamond Rings is going to exist. I think it is just a matter of moving in a way that is not necessarily slow, but that is considered and deliberate. I’m not rushing into anything before I’m ready. It’s a really personal album and I wrote it on my own, I recorded it mostly on my own, and it just makes sense for me at this point to perform the record in the way that it was created, which was as a solo artist. Does that make sense?
Absolutely. Before you started Diamond Rings you were, or are, in a band called the D’Urbevilles, in Toronto. How would you characterize the main differences between what you are doing now, and what you were doing with them?
It’s almost like, I don’t want to say it is the opposite, but…Diamond Rings is electronic, it’s really synthetic, it’s really poppy, it’s really personal lyrically as well, whereas the band is a more collaborative effort between 4 musicians. Sure, I still sing and write the lyrics, but Diamond Rings was the first time that I really sort of made a clear and concise effort to present a really personal spin on what I was singing about. The band has always tended to be more about collective issues, and obsessions rather than things that were deeply affecting just me and no one else. So that was a challenge in doing Diamond Rings. Can I do that without it coming off as being either sappy, or saccharine, or trite, or obvious? It’s really hard! But, you know, I like challenge, so that’s why I started doing it.
Are there any future plans for the D’Urbevilles?
Yeah, for sure. Obviously right now most of my time is taken up with Diamond Rings, but we are always working on writing and recording new stuff. I think more than ever now, the band is more certain of its own identity now that I have this outlet for a certain side of myself. I’m really excited to be able to eventually offer people a counterpoint to what they have come to expect from Diamond Rings. I think it’s really going to throw everything into a sharper context, basically.
What would you say are the best and worst things about going solo?
Best for sure is having the ability to make all my own decisions, and every step of the way, every choice, every thing I try to do all eventually hinges on me. In a way, it’s also kind of the worst thing: at the end of the day, as much as I have a great team, and a support network around me, at the end of the day, at the end of the show, at the end of the night, if I don’t perform, then it’s kind of on my shoulders to carry it every night. It’s one of those things where the best is also the worst. [laughs] In that sense, I don’t know if it cancels out! It’s just fun. There’s always going to be some sort of drawback to what I do, to what anybody does, to any job, there’s good and bad things, and it’s just about recognizing that and making sure that the good ones outweigh the others…
Have you been able to quit your day job yet?
[laughs] Yeah…well, “been able to quit”…It was less glamorous than that! I got fired from my last job for asking for time off to shoot a video. It was actually a really good thing for me. I had gone through school, through art school, through all these last few years of my life, kind of always working for two months and keeping it a secret that I even did music. I was always the one that got to do the dumping, but getting dumped yourself, that’s more of a bummer. I really didn’t like how that felt! It kind of made the decision for me, so I was like, “I’m just going to go for it, and throw everything I can into this and see what happens.” So far it’s working out well, so I feel really fortunate that that’s the case. It’s a responsibility, I guess, knowing what it is like being on the other side of that and have to show up to do something that maybe you’re not fully excited about doing. So I want to make sure that I’m doing a good job.
What was your last job?
I was a cook at a breakfast place near my house, which is wicked. Hanging out, listening to my own music, making eggs benedict, and chill out. But ultimately any artist, any musician wants to be working on honing their craft, not flipping eggs for hungover hipsters. So, I’m glad to be on my own.
What’s been the most difficult gig of this tour, and why?
Hmm…most difficult. That’s a good question. I was just over in the UK and some of those for sure…The album had just come out back home, and I was playing totally packed shows in Toronto and playing for my friends and doing all this great stuff and then hopping across the pond and being thrown into an environment where not as many people you, I’m not as well known there obviously, and kind of in a way setting me back a bit almost. Like, having to really prove myself every night, night in, night out. That’s tough to do. But ultimately, I think that having those experiences, that’s necessary. It keeps me focused, it keeps me on my game. People always talk about playing a big show, like last night even for example, like “Oh my god, you are just up there with all those people, aren’t you nervous?” and to me it’s way harder to play in front of thirty people than it is like 300. You have just that room of people who are maybe otherwise indifferent, it’s a really big challenge. So, you know, I don’t want to say that was the worst – any time I can be up playing a show is great -- but it’s definitely having to work for it, it’s tough, but that’s what you’ve got to do.
What’s been the highlight of the tour?
For sure, probably going to Iceland. That was amazing [Apparently, the feeling is mutual. The Reykjavik Grapevine's Morgan Levy named Diamond Rings' performance at the Airwaves Festival as the Best Show [he] Witnessed -ed.]. Just getting to release an album that I made and written and put together on my own in my hometown in front of my family, in front of my friends back in Toronto, on the release date. That was really special too. It was a really great feeling. My family is really great, and my support network at home is really strong, so getting to give people a great show is kind of my way almost of thanking them for supporting me and believing in me. That was a really great feeling. So probably I’d say that.
Do you get to see a lot of shows in the Toronto area?
Not as many as I would like. I’m out so much when I’m on tour that usually all I want to do when I go home is work on music in my room [laughs], shut the door, and go to bed early. But for sure, I’ll go out, and I have a lot of friends back home and I’ll go to see their bands and occasionally I’ll go and something new and exciting and big from out of town, try to keep in touch with what’s going on. It’s a great city. It’s a big metropolitan place and there’s lots happening, lots of excitement and I’m just happy to be a part of it.
Any local acts from that scene that you’d recommend?
Yeah, for sure! I just put out a 7”. I have my own label called Hype Lighter. We released the first Diamond Rings song, “All Yr Songs” back a summer ago. Our latest release is a band called Tasseomancy. They are two twin sisters who were actually in one of my music videos. They play sort of arch-gothic cheerleaders in this video where I’m playing basketball…all in black with these pom poms made out of garbage bags. But they have their own group and it’s really, really atmospheric, sinister sounding folk music, really haunting, kind of witchy stuff. We just put out a new single of theirs and it’s really great. It’s really different from the kind of music I’m making, but it’s fantastic and I’m into what they are doing. I also have a friend called Katie Stelmanis who has a band that goes by the name of Austra – it’s her middle name – and they just put out a 12” dance single. My cousin, my make up artist, was helping out with the video, I think last week they shot a video for it. She’s great, she sings on my record on the song “Give it Up”. She’s a fantastic vocalist. Tasseomancy and Austra are two wicked bands, up and coming bands that people might not know about. Everybody knows that first wave of Toronto, like Broken Social Scene and what not, but it’s an exciting time, where it really feel like room has opened up for something new.
I was actually going to ask about who the back up singing was on that song.
Oh, no way! That’s her. She’s wicked! She’s one of the inspirations behind doing what I do. When I was talking about the friend that invited me to play that show, that was her. Electronic music is exciting, it’s what I’m into, it’s what I’m into doing.
Who is your favorite electronic artist now?
Like currently? I don’t even know what constitutes like fully, fully, electronic or not, but this summer I was really into the newest Kylie Minogue record, which was pretty electronic. and pretty great. She’s not exactly new though.
Do you like her old stuff or her new stuff better?
Yeah well honestly, I’m not even that familiar with the old albums, say other than the hits, but the new record, I kind of just stumbled upon it randomly, through a friend, and became my de facto workout, jogging album, you know? Super inspiring pop hits. I love stuff like that.
There’s a great Fischerspooner remix of “Come Into My World”.
Oh cool, I’ll check it out.
If you’re into Kylie Minogue and if you are into electronic music, it’s a nice combination of the two.
Okay, wicked! Okay, awesome. Noted.
You said last night that you haven’t been to LA since you were 7 years old. Since you’ve been back, have you had the chance to see any of the sights, do anything touristy?
I went to the In-N-Out Burger. I think I said that that last night too! No, honestly, just driving around being here has been so far outside of my realm, you know…palm trees and…hills and…warm. Everything is new, everything is exciting! We’re going to leave a bit early tonight and the plan is to do Highway 1 up to San Francisco for my show, which I’m really pumped about. Just doing it slow. So maybe that’s kind of my tourist activity. I find when I go to the big cities I usually kind of avoid whatever it is that the tourists do. I more or less want to find a fun coffee shop or a bookstore and hang out there and just meet real people. So far so good in that regard – here we are! [laughs]
Have you had the chance to go to the basketball courts in Venice to see where White Men Can’t Jump was filmed? I heard you talking about that movie in another interview.
No! Oh my god! There were so many things I wanted to do. I wanted to go roller blading. I wanted to do Venice Beach, for sure. To be honest, that’s one of the exciting parts about touring. You’re in and out, you can’t do it all at once, but it’s about going somewhere and just being kind of thrown into a new situation and getting a little taste of what it is like to be there as a local. Next time I come back, I’m going to do something new. So eventually, if not this time, we’ll make it out for sure.
Any idea when you’ll be playing in LA again?
Definitely in 2011, if not the winter then the early spring, for sure. I want to be back as soon as I can because it’s been really fun.
How about another release?
I’m writing and recording, as we speak, all the time. We’ll see when the stars align to actually put something on the shelves. I’ve got to get a good cover art concept. Before anything usually, I tend to work in verse. I have an idea for a video or an album cover and then the songs will come together somehow.
Are you a big Thomas Hardy fan?
[laughs] Less so than probably the name of our band would have anyone to believe! It was a high school thing having to read that book…a little long and a little verbose for my taste. I honestly don’t do as much reading anymore as I probably should. I watch a lot of youtube. I read a lot of magazines. Lately, just reading about bands, reading about albums, reading about producers and about people who I like, and just wanting to know how they work, what their methods are, trying to become a better artist myself. We’ll see if when I get home in December if I have some time to curl up with a good book. That would be nice.
I heard you mention in another interview that you like Leonard Cohen. What’s your favorite song?
I think Hallelujah is an obvious jam. It’s maybe a little played to death. In term of my attraction to those kinds of artists, you know – your Gordon Lightfoots, your Leonard Cohens – I think it is more about tapping into this distinctively Canadian singer/songwriter/poet tradition that I’m interested in. I like reading their lyrics more than I like listening to the songs. I’m more of a fan of the idea of Leonard Cohen rather than Leonard Cohen in the actual execution. Or at least, it just doesn’t speak to me as much sonically.
And that’s what Diamond Rings is kind of about. It’s about pairing those kind of electronic tendencies I have – I’m a big fan of dance music and pop music in general – but often find lyrically that it leaves a lot to be desired. And vice versa when it comes to more lyrical singer/songwriter kind of stuff. It’s just kind of my attempt to really blend those two things, to make the kind of music I want to hear other people making. Make it for myself. And I hope that if it is true and honest to what I am, then I’m going to be making it for everyone, you know what I mean?
Neneh Cherry or Salt N Pepa?
Oh….Whoa….probably Neneh Cherry. A little more under the radar. And the “Buffalo Stance” video is like, oh man, it’s gold. It’s wicked.
How do you feel about being named to Pitchfork’s Top 40 Artists Twitters?
[laughs] That was so funny, reading about that! Especially because I was one behind 50 Cent, whose autobiography I had just finished reading, and which I thought was hilarious. And had left prominently displayed on my shelf before leaving for tour and then I saw the list. And it was me and Owen…Owen Pallett, who is also from Toronto, and we’re friends, and I’m a fan of his stuff, and we were kind of making a 50 Cent sandwich on the twitter list. That what I was most excited about. But really, I mean, more or less twitter is a way for me to avoid calling my parents long distance and let them know that I haven’t died on tour, and that I’m safe, okay. It’s great, actually. They can just log on and be like “okay, here he is. He’s doing this!” As long as I get my one update a day, it saves me a phone call and a 20 minute conversation. Not that I don’t like talking to my mom. If she hears this: “Mom if you’re listening, I love you. Sometimes I’m just very busy”.
What are you listening to right now in the car?
Well we have satellite radio in the rental. And ironically enough we have been listening to a lot of CBC Radio 3, which is Canada’s version of NPR or BBC or whatever, and Radio 3 is kind of their “indie” station. So it’s been kind of a cool way to…they play my friends all the time, so you get a little homesick or whatever and you thrown that on the radio and it’s like “oh, wicked, they’re playing so-and-so’s song!” But yeah, on my iPod there’s Kylie, been really into this Brian Eno and John Cale record that they did collaboratively in the 90s called “Wrong Way Up”. And Dominique Young Unique, who is rapper from Tampa that I saw at Iceland Airwaves. Met her producers recently…they live in London and we were kind of collaborating on some stuff when I was there last. So It’s been kind of all over the place, as it needs to be on tour. When you are driving for 18 hours, you have got to keep it interesting, change it up a little.
And you just drove down from Vancouver, right?
Well, those were all my questions. I really appreciate you taking the time.
I’m really looking forward to the next record and the next time you are in town.