In a hazy, twilit sonic world, R‘n’B and hip-hop are being reconfigured as cutting-edge experimental electronic music by San Francisco's oOoOO
If you're new to the music of oOoOO, the first question you probably want answered is 'How do I pronounce that?' In previous interviews, oOoOO has asserted that the name was intended to be unpronounceable, a text-only handle – but since his tracks started to appear on the ultra-hip Tri-Angle label in 2010, the general consensus has been to pronounce it 'Oh'.
He's still not keen on people knowing his real name. Asked if his increasing fame among fans of dark electronic music and ethereal R‘n’B has caused him to feel more pressure to reveal details about his identity and personality, he replies: “Yeah I do. And it's a shame because I realise that playing that game gets me more attention and therefore more opportunities. So I go along with that to a certain extent even though it bores me. oOoOO was never meant to be 'aka Chris Dexter'. I never labeled myself a producer. I never even took on the moniker oOoOO as a personal identity. In my mind, it was supposed to be an anonymous project, comprised of who knows how many people. People writing about music created this image of me as 'oOoOO, aka Chris Dexter, a producer from San Francisco.' I never even gave my name to anyone in the press. Somehow someone figured out my name and started using it. I think its tragically dull to introduce someone's music this way. Why not just hand me a personalised business card to give out to people instead?”
His first release for Tri-Angle was a self-titled EP, which contained what were to become his signature tracks – Burnout Eyess, Hearts and Mumbai. The production and aesthetic of these tracks, combining slow, heavy hip-hop beats with fragile, treated vocals and delicate synth patterns, would be much imitated in the emerging 'witch house' scene – a movement from which oOoOO was keen to distance himself from the outset (as, indeed, were many producers associated with the genre). “I've never been into genres – in music or otherwise,” he says. “It's always been hard for me to identify genre conventions. I never see them unless they're pointed out. I don't get why a DJ would play only techno or microhouse or 90s or whatever. It makes as much sense to me as only working with music in the key of B. Why impose a set of arbitrary limits? Everyday life is constricting and limiting enough.”
For oOoOO, it is “ironic” that he became associated with witch house. “Music and art should be an escape from that kind of mundane thinking,” he believes. It should be about “pushing limits, not setting them.” He sees it as sad when labels, DJs or journalists indulge in that kind of reductive thinking, becoming “focused on taking this thing that should be about blowing up boundaries, and using it to build walls.”
Nonetheless, he “never really complained” about the associations others made out of his music, which he describes as “cross-generic”. A split with another act tagged as witch house, White Ring, followed on the label Emotion, followed by another EP for Tri-Angle, 2012's Our Loving Is Hurting Us. Each successive release saw oOoOO's sound refined, taking cues from darkwave, synth-pop, and myriad musical genres. “I prefer to experience music from the least confined space as possible,” he says. “To let its emotions run raw and surprise me.”
“When you choose to dedicate your life to something as precarious as music, there's no middle of the road, half-assed option. You have to be amazing or you're fucked” – Chris Dexter
For the release of his debut album, Without Your Love, oOoOO has founded a new label, Nihjgt Feelings. Thus far, his record is the only one announced, but the label's name gives all the clues needed to his artistic ambitions for the new imprint: he wants to release twilit, emotional, dark-edged artists. “Emotion is the thing in music that excites me most,” he confirms. “It amazes me how small a role it plays in so much music. Production values, genre, song writing….all of that is secondary to emotion for me. Like I said, the label is about emotion more than anything else.” Tri-Angle's stable of artists includes crepuscular avant garde composer The Haxan Cloak, ethereal R‘n’B maestro Holy Other, and forward-thinking producers such as Evian Christ and Vessel, but oOoOO is the first among them to set up his own imprint. “I'd wanted to start a label even before I was doing oOoOO,” he reveals. “The opportunity came along and I took it. For now, oOoOO will come first, but I'll start releasing other artists soon. Hopefully at the end of the year I can start working on getting other people out on the label.”
In a previous interview, oOoOO has stated that “America is brutal and creates a lot of anger and sadness for intelligent people, especially if they’re poor.” How does a view like this affect the music he creates? “Choosing to dedicate your life to 'art' in America is to choose insecurity, unless you were born into some money,” he answers. “It's not so brutal in Europe.” He points to systems such as state health care, arts grants, and a belief that art “contributes to a higher quality of life,” that it “isn't necessarily a financially returnable investment, but [is] worth putting money into for its own sake.”
He also believes the European music scene is better organised, along more egalitarian principles: “Almost everyone I know who's toured Europe will tell you they prefer playing shows there. Promoters have more support to give artists, for things like hotels, or taking them out for a nice dinner before the shows. Venues can install better sound systems. Shows pay better. Shit like that. Money is spread out across society there. Touring in America you feel like a hustler at the bottom end of society. In Europe, you're being treated like a human being with valuable talents. In Europe, it's not particularly brave to be an artist like it is here. The one good thing I will say about the brutality of America is this: when you choose to dedicate your life to something as precarious as music, there's no middle of the road, half-assed option. You have to be amazing or you're fucked... You get a lot of innovation and beauty forced out of that brutality.” He draws an analogy with the creation of Venice: it is “a beautiful city, but it was necessary to brutalise a people for it to be created,” he says. “It could never have happened if the people building it were being treated well. I'm not endorsing that. It's horrible. But at least something beautiful comes out of it.”
Does he have any regrets about pursuing a career as an artist? “It's frightening to give up the conformity that allows a minimum of security in America,” he admits. “But at the same time the freedom and self-esteem that gives is huge. I don't answer to anyone. No one tells me what the fuck time to be anywhere. No one is looking over my shoulder threatening to take away my job (and by extension healthcare and safety net) if my smile isn't satisfying enough or if I'm not putting in my 600 hours a week or whatever inhuman work schedule Americans are expected to be OK with or starve. And I feel really far out there. Off the social grid. It's a paradox though, because the 'music industry' is just as cut-throat and disgusting as the society it comes out of. I try to be as uninvolved with that scene as possible.”
He is ambivalent about his home, the city of San Francisco. “I hated it forever, but now that I travel so much it doesn't bother me like it used to,” he says. “When I'm there, I never leave home anyway, other than to go out and eat or see friends… go to the movies. I don't go to shows really. I pretty much tune the city completely out at this point. If it has any effect on my music now, it's kind of just as a catalyst that pushes me towards introversion.” He describes the music scene there as “abysmal, backward-looking, and uninspired. A bunch of people making music that sounds no different from the music their parents generation was making... It's a dull, overpriced town. It's deeply ironic that it has a reputation as a 'hipster' city. There's nothing hip about it. I was just in Richmond, Virginia yesterday and found it infinitely hipper.”
On Without Your Love, his sonic palette is a shade darker than the exquisitely melancholy, occasionally menacing territory of his early EPs. This darkness comes less from personal experiences or hangups, and more from the way he has always visualised music: “When I listen to classical music or most types of music that don't have much percussion, I see a black background in my mind,” he says, “and this collection of songs has a lot of black background. Emptiness is as much a part of the music as the sounds and rhythms that are actually there. Even the cover art is nearly black. The whole package is very understated and has a sort of deadpan delivery. If it's dark, it's dark in the sense of being empty.”
A sense of space and fading light pervades his tracks, from the static-layered, encroaching darkness of the album's opener, through to the broken waltz timing of its closing track. There is a pervasive loneliness in the album's sparse beats and stretches of almost-silence. It is “always threatening to illuminate, but never happening,” he says mysteriously. He feels that the album is a progression from the EPs: “I mastered a language, and now I'm finally getting to write the poetry.”
The songwriting on Without Your Love is undeniably strong. He describes previous work with singer Laura Clock (aka Butterclock) as “true collaborations”. Singer ML adds her voice to his own on some of the tracks, but working with her was “more like having a studio musician come in and play a pre-assigned part,” he explains. “I write the lyrics and melodies and direct the delivery.” More collaborations with Clock are planned for the future.
In terms of the hip-hop roots of his sound, he describes this leaning as “not really a conscious thing.” He grew up in New York, so in some way, that hip-hop drum pattern is part of his DNA. On tracks like Mouchette, he has branched out into muted, pulsing dub techno. He still prefers studio work to performance: “I like the isolation,” he says. “Being alone in the studio with my palette of sounds.”
Nonetheless, he has begun to enjoy live performance more and more. Asked about a previously stated ambition to combine pop sounds with underground approaches to music, he says: “I just want to think less and less about music and what it means, and feel it more and more. It's important to me to reflect on those feelings after creating the music. I like to try and understand, by going back to finished pieces, what they're about for me. But I've given up having any kind of agenda for making music, other than just expressing emotion as close to how it feels first-hand as possible.” Most importantly, he is keen not to set any limits for himself, not to be constrained by notions of identity, or arbitrary classifications.
Leaving the music aside for a minute, he speaks of his love of art-house cinema: “There's this great Turkish film from last year called Once Upon A Time In Anatolia. The wind is whipping through every scene. And under the wind, barking dogs in the distance. Something that sounds like pots and pans tied to a fence bumping about. This is there behind all the dialogue, giving it a weight and intensity it would otherwise lack,” he says.
“I try to make music like that more and more. Like the sounds in a film that animate the emotional qualities of the action in a way that works on the unconscious.” It's an excellent description of Without Your Love – an emotionally rich narrative driven by strange sounds, obscure feelings, and a creeping, sometimes oppressive sense of space and distance. When the vocal hooks come in, lifting the listener into a subdued euphoria, everything coalesces; patterns emerging from the void. It's an intense listen, charged with conflicting, intense emotions and a cold, cool darkness. If you've never experienced Nihjgt Feelings before, you'll know them intimately by the time the needle lifts.