Much like Glasser's 2010 debut Ring (how's that for eerie symmetry?), Special Affections is an exciting introduction to a gifted singer and a resourceful laptop composer. His deep voice recalls Ian Curtis and Morrissey, though in person he dashes aside their gloom in favor of a bright and bold wardrobe and rainbow makeup. His songs chant down the struggle of coaxing out an identity in a frantic world, while his beats suggest dancefloor gyrations in a hail of disco-ball dazzle. It sings compassion to the heart but commands the body to dance.
Diamond Rings will be coming to Brooklyn this weekend as part of the Northside Festival. He is playing this Sunday night at Europa along with Porcelain Raft.
I sat down with John O to talk about Diamond Rings' maiden voyage, his journey thus far, and how a high school jock decided to ditch the basketball for a discoball.
Your progression from rocking with the D'Urbervilles to dancing up Diamond Rings seems like a disparate transition. How did the transformation occur?
I was kind of late with getting into music. It wasn’t until I went to art school when I was in my late teens or early twenties. Around that time post-punk was really having a revival. That was where I started, my jump-off point. I didn’t listen to anything that existed pre-Sex Pistols. I had my Smiths records, Joy Division, I listened to Gang of Four. So I naturally just started making music that fit in with that.
I was also not really too tech savvy either. Programs like Garageband and some of the things I started using when I got into Diamond Rings didn’t really exist yet. Producing electronic music seemed like the providence of some sort of studio wizard, that you had to have all these skills and put in all this work and time to hone this craft. It just seemed so out of reach for me. I don’t know if technology got to the point where it became more accessible or I just started gravitating towards pop music in general. It just seemed like the logical thing to do sonically. I had these songs and I wanted to present them in a way that was really fun and represented the sort of music that I wanted to hear.
What was the writing process like with Special Affections?
Generally, I still try to start with an acoustic instrument, whether it’s guitar or piano, just to make sure I have some semblance of a song in the classic sense. I’m really inspired by Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot, first generation Canadian folk singers who tell stories and whose music can hold up as stripped down and bare bones as possible. I think there’s something really great and enduring about those songs, but at the same time I don’t want to just be making folk music. I want to take the spirit of that style and infuse it with something more modern and more current and more exciting.
I think dance music is great because people can connect to it in a really physical way. That’s important, but also if it’s still infused with a lyrical sensibility or something beyond 4 on the floor beat, then people can engage with it at a more meaningful level too. It’s more than just a flavor of the month kind of thing.
Was it a struggle to take strip your songs of their acoustic origins and revamp them in an electronic vein?
Compared to a lot of dance pop produced now, the production on Special Affections sounds refreshingly minimalist. It's part of why it stands out so much to my ears. Was that a stylistic choice on your part or a function of your experience with the programs you were using?
I’ve always been really into stripped down stuff. From being really into Gang of Four and then realizing “Oh, wait. People are doing this but with drum machines and electronics instead of with a drummer and bass player." Kraftwerk has also been a big inspiration for me, a lot of their early music where the songs are so bare. I like to be able to pick out every single thing that’s happening, like “here’s the drum track, here’s the snares, here’s the keyboard, here’s the bassline.” The sound of the first album is on one hand me just liking that style, but on the other not really having any idea how to do anything else, anything that wasn’t simple. It was a product of both my own limitations as an artist and also what I’m drawn to: something simple and still good. I think that’s a lot more powerful than having all the bells and whistles on some track but still not having any substance.
So as you continue to be more comfortable with the technology, how do you think you will look back on this album?
I really like the idea that I can be an artist with a discernible progression that people can follow. When I think of a lot of great artists that I look to inspiration, whether it’s Talking Heads or Madonna, their early music is really raw, kind of up front and in your face and stripped down. I like that there is a visible arc. I don’t think it makes the songs any worse. It just shows where I was at at the time and in that sense it’s really honest and real.
Was there any contemporary artist you looked to as inspiration as you were making this album?
When I was writing this album, I was really inspired by how pared down Kanye West’s 808 & Heartbreak was, with all the auto-tune and 808 sounds. That was a big inspiration to me, just how simple the beats but how they were still good because there’s still someone putting themselves out there emotionally and risking being vulnerable in front of an audience. That’s what I strive to do, in my own way.
What does the album mean to you lyrically?
A lot of the album alludes to that creative struggle, the uncertainty that comes from living in a new city, not really knowing your place, trying to find a group of friends, trying to find a romantic partner, and not really knowing yourself. I think a lot of people can really relate to that in some way. I’d just finished school and I knew I wanted to pursue music and art, but a lot of times there’s no real clear path within the lifestyle that I wanted.
What role did visual aesthetics play in the inception of Diamond Rings?
My time spent growing up and playing sports, I think that’s partly why I’m so drawn to color, just remembering being little and collecting hockey cards. I spent days designing uniforms for fictitious sports teams and picking out color schematics, that whole idea of this unified, bold look that you get with sports and superheroes. When I saw a band like Kraftwerk or Devo for the first time, that was what turned a light on in my head, that they look like a team. It looks consistent.
How does your music translate to a live setting?
I just want to entertain people. When I think of the artists that inspire me, they’re not necessarily the ones who have classical piano training or have been locked in their room learning heavy metal riffs since the age of twelve. It’s the people who can connect and perform and entertain that keep me engaged, someone like Grace Jones or David Bowie who incorporates costume and theatricality. Going to see a show like that is like going to see theater as much as it is a performance. I think it’s about conveying an emotion and really drawing people in and having them believe in what I’m doing and connecting that way. The fact that I’m onstage by myself really forces people to pay attention and see that I’m really going for it. Initially, if people are seeing me for the first time, the tendency is to sort of question whether or not what I’m doing is serious.
Was music an influential force on you as a kid?
My dad had a pretty decent sized record collection. Probably one of the first musical memories I have is listening to Born to Run when I was six or seven. I used to draw all the time when I was young. I think that was the first way I ever expressed myself was through illustration and using color, always having markers and pencils and doodling. I can remember listening to that album and copying out the lyrics and illustrating images that I thought went along with the music. Being six I really had no clue. A lot of the themes on that record are not really written for kids. But I remember not understanding what it was about, but having this feeling that whatever it was it was really serious and emotionally resonant. That’s all I ever really want to do with music songwriting, is to convey a real strong emotion, whatever that emotion is.
I remember going on a trip with my parents to California for the first time and we had the Fine Young Cannibals record with “She Drives Me Crazy” on it. We listened to that over and over and over again and again. I was way too young to get it, but so much of that trip is tied in my mind to one song. I think that’s a really unique thing that music does. You can listen to it while doing something, whether it’s working out at the gym or making dinner or even putting something on to fall asleep to. You can’t look at a painting at an art gallery in any other way. You can’t look at a Picasso on the elliptical trainer, but you could use music to pump you up or calm you down.