Francis Jones met up with one of NI's most innovative new bands
Oppenheimer are on a mission to redefine pop music.
Comprising of former Torgas Valley Reds’ drummer Shaun Robinson (vocals, drums, keys, guitar) and ubiquitous Belfast soundman Rocky O’Reilly (guitar, keys, percussion, mac, vocal) Oppenheimer are fashioning a truly beguiling brand of music.
Intelligent, witty and incontrovertibly pop, Oppenheimer are the Eurythmics it’s ok to like. The crystalline surface shimmer of their music belies an inherent sense of soul, here, we noted, was a band of true worth. American label Bar/None Records, home to the likes of Evan Dando and the Spinto Band, were of a similar opinion, acting quickly to secure the services of these home-grown, synth-rock auteurs. They have enjoyed a number of high-profile gigs this year including support to label mates Architecture in Helsinki and a slot at the Vital ’05 Incoming Stage.
You have both been involved in the local music scene for quite a while, when did you decide to collaborate and create Oppenhemier?
Rocky: Shaun wanted someone to be in a Kraftwerk style electronica project, and we’d worked together before (Torgas Valleys Reds) so…
And the name, surely a cute reference to J.Robert Oppenheimer the man synonymous with the atomic bomb?
Shaun: We had a shortlist of about 4 names and settled on Oppenheimer. It’s one of those surname names, you know like The Smiths, The Corrs, The Carpenters and ah, The Wedding Present. And there is Robert Oppenheimer of course.
Regarding the Oppenheimer sound, you stated that the original intention was to produce something akin to Kraftwerk, but your music is so much more accessible, it has that pop immediacy.
Rocky: Yeah, we didn’t intend for it to be a verse – chorus thing, but as we went along that’s the way it developed.
Shaun: We wanted to make electronic music and it became pop.
You’ve talked previously about your love for those classic electronica and synth bands, but film also seems to be a source of inspiration.
Shaun: Films yeah, David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick and of course Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers. The soundtrack stuff as well especially Michael Nyman and Philip Glass.
Rocky: I hate movies.
And how, and to what degree, do those influences inform the thematic and lyrical concerns of your music?
Shaun: We’d both start it out and then Rocky would say, 'right get those lyrics written.' Then I’m asking myself what’s it gonna be about. And I dunno, I don’t want to sound like a beat poet, but it’s an unconscious kind of thing. You know I would take the song away, and how I personally write lyrics is that I would put the song on repeat play for about four days and listen to it over and over again. You ask what am I thinking about and I don’t know. Things just happen.
The songs do seem to allow for differing interpretations.
Shaun: People read different things into it. I mean Breakfast in NYC is about a strange bet that me and my girlfriend had about buying a plane ticket to go to New York for one day because we were flush. Whereas friends of mine thought it was about doing ecstasy.
Would you say that being from Northern Ireland has coloured your music in any particular way?
Rocky: The people we know, the music we listen to and the bands we go and see certainly.
Shaun: But, we’re not a political band if you know what I mean.
And what do you think of the current local scene, are there any of your contemporaries you particularly admire?
Rocky: We Are Knives are my new favourite band. I like Fighting With Wire, think they’ve got great songs. I haven’t seen Delaware, but I have worked with them and really like their music.
Shaun: Tom McShane, Fighting With Wire, Tracer AMC.
Rocky: Duke Special as well. I mean there are so many local bands just getting on with it, there’s a lot of really good stuff. If you look at a band like Olympic Lifts, a band who’ve been plugging away for years, but they’re great.
2005 has been a pretty momentous year for Oppenheimer, what have been the highlights for you?
Shaun: Playing with The Chalets at the Empire was brilliant. Playing with Architecture. Being on holiday in Tokyo when the record company first approached us by email. There was 2 weeks, when it seemed like there were 20 emails a day and I was constantly ringing Rocky. But, really just making music.
Rocky: Recording the album. Bar/None getting in touch, a company who’ve released albums by some of my favourite bands. The fact that they were even talking to us.
And when can we expect to see the album?
Rocky: It’s out in June, so there’s a bit of a wait. But, there will be a single at Easter time.
You have established a very healthy fanbase amongst the local contingent, how do you plan to expand on that?
Rocky: We’ve just come back from England, we did shows in Brighton and then two in London, Sheffield. We will be going back over in April time. Trying to get over as much as we can given our commitments. And Dublin too, we haven’t been down there yet. But, come March we’ll be doing 5 or 6 gigs around Northern Ireland in places we haven’t been to yet.
Your music seems to have real crossover appeal. It has got the instantaneous impact of great pop music and an intelligence that lends it credibility and caters to the savvy indie kids. Is there such a thing as a typical Oppenheimer fan?
Rocky: After the Architecture in Helsinki show, there was a small group of 17-year-old girls who listen to chart music and go to Shine and they told us they loved it. But, I suppose the average Oppenheimer fan is like us indie-rockers / indie-poppers.
Shaun: This is the strangest thing. It seems to be the person you least expect coming up to you. At one of our earliest shows, the Crescent (Arts Centre) we had older people coming up to us. One time it was a bunch of hairdressers and they were like 'I’m into techno, but that was brilliant.' There was a bunch of metallers at the Lisburn show, 'I never listen to music like that, but you guys…'
Oppenheimer deliver rare, rebellious pop music that is heart-rending and life affirming in equal measure. Metallers, hairdressers, whoever, this is music deserving of the widest possible audience.