AU Presents: Oppenheimer

The Belfast pop duo are coming home to boost. Click Play Video to watch 'Breakfast in NYC'

I heart AUTo date, Oppenheimer have enjoyed a charmed existence. They’ve released an acclaimed debut album, embarked on prestigious tours and had their songs feature on high-profile television shows. The obvious question then is, where next? Second album Take The Whole Midrange And Boost It provides the answer. Oppenheimer have taken it back to where it all began, the two minute pop song.

Their music often points towards the glistening possibilities of pop, but Oppenheimer also respect the conventions of the past. 'The Beatles ‘Love Me Do’, ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ by Elvis, some of the greatest songs in contemporary music and all comfortably under two minutes,' says Shaun Robinson, drummer, lyrical dreamer and celestially voiced half of operation Oppenheimer. Take The Whole Midrange And Boost It weighs in at a fierce and thrifty 30 minutes. What’s more, they manage to go a full 12 rounds in that short space of time. Two- and three-minute sound capsules, existence edited down to its essence and more than ample opportunity for Oppenheimer to enthral us with their electro-pop vision.

'A lot of the bands we listen to and respect are able to do it in that space of time,' says Rocky O’Reilly, studio conjuror, guitarist, Vocoder vocalist and celebrated fan of LA punks, The Bronx. 'Check your Bronx albums, the songs clock in at two or two-and-a-half minutes long. Just straight in and out. That approach suits us. However, there is one song that is disgustingly long at about three and a half minutes. I like to make songs that are about six minutes long and then just to chop it up into smaller portions. At a dozen tracks in 30 minutes, I think our album is perfect.'

We journey further with Oppenheimer in that half hour than many other acts take us in a decades-spanning career. Take The Whole Midrange And Boost It finds the Belfast duo daring to venture beyond the charted territories of their self-titled debut, teleporting them and us to strange new lands.

Oppenheimer part 1: Rocky O'Reilly. Image (c) Gavin Millar Photography www.gavinmillarphotography.comAlong the way, we encounter all manner of exotic creatures. A guitar contortionist by the name of Hornby and a feverishly hollering missionary called Matt Caughthran, to name but two. There are tales of A-list actress impersonators on ‘Cate Blanchett’ and of getting touched up on a crazy night out in New York on ‘Stephen McCauley For President’. There are tuneful twists and turns in abundance. And yet, no matter how deeply they delve into this Amazon of the musical imagination, not once do Oppenheimer go so far that they lose sight of themselves, of what they have always been: a twosome creating pop music that exists at the intersection of the past and the future, between man and machine; poptronica that is programmed with computer precision and yet is eternally accommodating of human feeling.

If any one song encapsulates the adventurous spirit of the record and the band’s ability to combine elements known and elusive, it is ‘Support Our Truths’. The track takes wonderfully echoing ‘Wall of Sound’ percussion as the central support for a gorgeously layered pop skyscraper. It is the sound that Oppenheimer built and it is also the sound of the shiny new Oh Yeah building in Belfast, as O’Reilly explains.

'It was great to have these rooms to work and record in and rooms of such size. Because that’s what Phil Spector had, he had huge chambers, put mics in there and recorded it. You can’t fake that, it’s the sound of air moving in a large room. The sound of different rooms and how it resonates with different drumkits and so on. When the landlord went home we would venture out and see how loud we could turn things up. We recorded in the hallway, the lift and the bathroom. It was an experiment. Apart from being able to condense more ideas into these short songs and put more layers in, it’s the actual sounds we were able to create which I feel is the really exciting thing about this record.'

Despite the untold hours of studio work and preparation, this record also buzzes with the visceral thrill of the duo’s renowned live show.

'We wanted to make it feel like more of a performance,' acknowledges O’Reilly. 'That was something we didn’t do so much on the debut. There’s actually more manipulation on this record, but on top of that we might have put on six tracks of distorted guitar or really loud drums. Those elements give this record an edge. We moved really quickly and made decisions really quickly. That all helped, rather than sitting and worrying about what we were gonna do. It seemed to flow well.'

It is this raw edge that Robinson identifies as the most obvious difference between this record and its predecessor. 'The songs are heavier. They’re faster. There’s only one slightly slow song, ‘Cate Blanchett’,' he says.

Oppenheimer part 2: Shaun RobinsonA Rubik’s Cube of an album, Take The Whole Midrange… dazzles by dint of melodic colour and sonic variety. It is ever-shifting: just when you think you have it figured, it bamboozles you once again. There is pristine pop and fistfuls of rough-hewn punk rock, the ballad-like charm of the aforementioned ‘Cate Blanchett’ set against the knuckleduster carnage of the penultimate ‘The Never Never’. With a guest appearance from The Bronx’s Matt Caughthran, ‘The Never Never’ is Oppenheimer at their most pumped up and raucous. Indeed, Robinson’s honeyed vocal aside, there is little in this bug-eyed, hard-riffing thrill ride that is conventionally recognisable as Oppenheimer. For O’Reilly, proudly sporting a Bronx t-shirt today, Caughthran’s involvement was a particular coup.

'It’s incredible. For me the track with Matt is the best thing on the whole record. The guy from The Bronx singing on one of our records, it’s just amazing,' he says.

Of course, Caughthran is not the first high-profile name to endorse the Oppenheimer cause. David Holmes loaned the band equipment to help make their debut album, a record which also featured a guest vocal from Ash mainman Tim Wheeler. However, as Robinson reveals, not everyone has been ready to rally to the cause.

'Three years ago, we had grand ideas of getting certain musicians involved. We suggested Lauryn from the Fugees and Nina from The Cardigans, in fact O’Reilly got in contact with The Cardigans’ management only to receive a resounding ‘no’. This time around, we were just listening to The Bronx in the car and Rocky was like, ‘Let’s get this guy on our album’. What I like about Matt being on the record is how unlikely it all is.'

The art of collaboration has helped produce some of the record’s most wonderful moments. O’Reilly, who spends any available time producing other bands, is especially aware of the value of inviting other musicians to bring something to the Oppenheimer party.

'We wanted to have people coming in and out of the studio at times. There’s brass and piano and strings, guest vocalists and guest guitarists, apparent bass guitar for 20 seconds. People who we respect being involved, that’s really cool. It is great throwing your ideas at someone and seeing what they come back with. It was good doing it this time, interesting and rewarding.'

No matter who else they may work with, the most rewarding thing for the duo is the friendship and working relationship they share together. O’Reilly admits that, of late, he’s been trying to work out just what it is that makes Oppenheimer tick. He’s come to a conclusion.

'Take The Whole Midrange and Boost It' by Oppenheimer'What seems to work is that from the moment one of us brings an idea to the other, they can just take it. It’s where that idea goes and the manner in which we progress those ideas. I work with a lot of artists and with us it’s just effortless, there’s no friction when recording. Making those songs, that is what’s important about Oppenheimer. Everything else, I don’t give a fuck for. It is just a representation of that moment, be it touring, making t-shirts, and all the promotional stuff. It’s all just a means of making those songs exist.'

O’Reilly is also honest enough to admit that there are other factors which have allowed Oppenheimer to exist, not least the financial fillip of having their songs picked up by high-gloss American programmes like Ugly Betty and Gossip Girl.

'In terms of exposure and the money they bring we’ve been very lucky to get these things,' he reasons. 'In fact, without them, we’d not have been able to make the album. I don’t give a fuck what people think. They might not talk about it too much, but it is those kinds of deals that help keep indie music going. The whole idea of automatically turning your back on major corporations is ridiculous, because without Fox or CBS or the BBC, all of your favourite bands wouldn’t be able to traipse around the world playing shows and losing money. That’s what we want to do, to take the live show we’ve been working on to as many places as possible and to write another album and make music every day.'

It says a lot about the parlous state of the record industry that even a band as respected as Oppenheimer have been concerned as to whether the opportunity to write albums and continue making music would be afforded them, as Robinson elaborates.

'Generally I’ve never been a worrier, but we’ve heard some tales from bands. I won’t mention their names, but there has been so much negativity regarding the industry relayed to us recently. I’ve been in bands since I was 16 and I always want to play music but there are times when it can be tough and really worrying. It is a fact that nobody buys records. That is the sermon that has been constantly preached at us for the last five months. Unless you are a huge band with really good PR and marketing behind you and get a few lucky breaks then you’re not going to sell many records. Being in an indie band, well, it’s not negligible, but it’s not going to be massive.'

'Oppenheimer' by OppenheimerFor O’Reilly, for whom “I don’t give a fuck” is quickly becoming a catchphrase, defiance is the order of the day.

'For a while, the ambition to try and be bigger was becoming the driving force behind Oppenheimer. We thought, ‘Well, we’ve done all this amazing stuff, we’ve got to tour, we’ve got a new management company, new booking agents, let’s do this. Let’s take it to the next level’. Then I realised I don’t give a fuck about that. It’s simply about me and him, playing loads of synthesizers, making loops, making music. If we still get to do that every day for the next 10 years then that will be amazing. If we release albums on really cool indie labels, get to do soundtracks or make music that no-one gets to hear then the most important thing is that we’re still making music. It felt like things got slightly diluted for a while and we stopped thinking about what Oppenheimer really meant. Then we realised what we’re all about, two minute pop songs.'

Pop music, the cultural phenomenon of our time. In its short lifespan, pop has already spawned a brood of sound that it would take millennia to listen to. At times, we might even suspect that all has been heard and created already, that pop has burnt itself to a cinder. It is at those moments that we need bands like Oppenheimer, musicians who can repopulate the barren wastelands and build the sonic cityscapes of the future.

As conversation comes to a close, we return, finally, to that new-minted classic, ‘Support Our Truths’. What, I ask, are Oppenheimer’s truths? There’s a pause, a collective scratching of heads, before Robinson ventures an answer.

'I think Kiss said it best, “Rock ‘n’ roll all night and party every day.” Nobody is ever gonna beat that. God bless Kiss.' 

Francis Jones

This feature originally appeared in AU Magazine #47. The latest issue of AU magazine is available online and in all good newsagents now.