Beat romantic: an interview with Kevin O'Connor
Photo by Jason Quigley
I don’t want to spoil the future, but here it is: Talkdemonic’s Beat Romantic will rank very, very high on my year-end list while most others will overlook it. It won’t be much of a surprise, given that the duo of Kevin O’Connor and Lisa Molinaro isn’t yet receiving the rapturous acclaim they totally deserve. I guess they can be a tough sell in this near-monolithic indie climate: their album has no vocals, serves up an unclassifiable blend of instruments and electronics they’ve dubbed “folktronic hop,” and features some of the most affecting, ungeneric music to come around in years.
This is music that makes me want to write letters home, rediscover friendships I’ve long ago lost, or buy a new canvas and start swiping on paint. It makes me want to fall in love with girls perching on train platforms or stay up all night learning another language. But mostly, it makes me want to write about Talkdemonic until O’Connor and Molinaro get a parade in Portland or until my wrists get warped by Carpal Tunnel. Whichever comes first. In the meantime, I got the chance to interview O'Connor about a few of the things that make him beat:
NL: What's your musical background? What was your musical taste like growing up?
KO: My first instrument was the trumpet in the sixth-grade band, though I gave it up around the eighth grade. I basically picked up an acoustic guitar that had been lying around my house, an item that my dad had inherited from a suicide victim in the group home that he worked in; consequently, it's the guitar I've used on both td albums. A good friend of mine had a drum set at his house, and I used to go over during first period of senior year in high school and beat on his drum set. I didn't get my own set for another couple years. My musical taste growing up was similar to everyone else's until high school. Around then, I started getting into all the big Seattle bands and the bands within our tiny scene in the Tri-Cities, Eastern Washington. I went to local shows religiously and bought CDs blindly based on reviews I read in magazines. In college at WSU in Pullman, WA, I got seriously involved with our college radio station, KZUU, and spent years as a music director. I'm basically a record collector musician.
NL: What is your typical songwriting process? How long does it take you to put together one of your songs?
KO: The songwriting process usually starts with a guitar loop or a synth loop and builds from there. With the exception of a couple songs on the first album, all instruments are played and not sampled. Whether it's a rhodes, warm synth, or a thumping drum set. After the foundation is laid, the drums and viola come last in the studio, finishing the songs. The patchwork process of using selected ideas and scrapping others can be a two-week process or it can happen during a couple of months.
NL: How do the titles fit in? Do you start with a title and write something inspired by it? Do you name a song after it’s finished, based on what it reminds you of?
KO: The titles of the songs aren't as significant as one would think. They're usually clever lines stolen from favorite novels and poems, phrases that are catchy and somehow descriptive of the sound of the song. The nature of instrumental music being that each individual applies their own meaning to the song, whether it's images or in association with events in their lives. An instrumental piece can easily become a soundtrack for a person. Whether it's the walk to work or coping with highs and lows of living.
NL: For example, is there a story behind “Manhattan '81” (my favorite track) specifically? It sounds so hopeful and joyous that it makes me think it’s someone's place and year of birth or maybe a record of where and when someone fell in love.
KO: That's exactly what i had hoped it would have conjured--for you. For me, the song always made me think of the gritty NYC of the '80s, one of desperation and beauty packed into one. That's the nature of instrumental music, it means something different for everyone. A personalized soundtrack where vocals aren't pushing one schema.
NL: Do you prefer performing your music live or working on it in a studio setting?
KO: You can't beat the pleasure of performing music in front of a good audience. Playing a good show is about as good as anything in life. But at the same time, so is creating a new song. When you make something in the studio that you really like, it creates a high unlike performing live, one of a magical nature. When you get on a creative roll, it's hard to beat that feeling. I think all artists feel the same way, manic in nature, extremely happy during a time of mass creation and severely low during a dry spell.
NL: Tell me about one of the best or most memorable experiences you've had on stage.
KO: We've had quite a few of these during the past year. We've been blessed to tour with some great bands who are also great people. This includes The National, our all-time #1 tourmates, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Quasi, The Walkmen, Menomena, Scout Niblett, who's a real sweetheart.
As far as memorable moments that come to mind, I'd have to cite playing in Houston this past June at Walter's on Washington on my birthday. The day prior had seen flood rains in Houston and there was this huge puddle in front of the club, more like a lake, or as we dubbed it Lake Talkd. The club was like a rough-edged roadhouse à la Patrick Swayze zone, and it was dirty as fuck inside. As we did our soundcheck, the Walkmen had to rig new legs on both of their pianos cause they were getting super beat up from the tour. We played in the sweatiest, raddest all-ages frenzy of a show we've ever seen. The club was packed to the lake, and sweat was everywhere. The crowd was really into us, and it was my birthday. Another great experience was closing the PDX POP 2005 festival with our friend Danny Seim from Menomena on drums with us. We were very honored to end such a magical festival.
NL: From Beat Romantic's cover art to many nature-based song titles, do you think living in the Pacific Northwest impacts your music or could it have been created anywhere?
KO: The Pacific Northwest weather and overall way of life definitely seeps into the music. Living in Portland between October and May lends well to making music. IT RAINS CONSTANTLY!!! So I just hole up in my studio and make music. Beat Romantic is a very organic record all around. The sound, the instrumentation and so on. So it made sense to use a poplar tree farm for the artwork. Using a natural setting that had been unnaturally created. A strong simile for the nature of Talkdemonic music.
NL: Talkdemonic's sound still seems pretty singular and inimitable. How did you end up coming up with it? Did you consider doing other projects or genres instead?
KO: Talkdemonic is an honest reflection of my own life experiences set to music, as well as Lisa's on Beat Romantic. I never set out for a particular sound, just let whatever's inside come out naturally through sound. I have been particular in the choosing of instrumentation though. Continuing to collect an assortment of pure keyboards and pianos so that the ingredients are strong. I think the music is also a summation of a record collector's musical obsessions. In that all the music you like over time tends to come out a bit in your own. I strictly adhered to ignoring music while creating Beat Romantic, trying to stay influence-free. As far as working on other projects, maybe someday. But for now. I want to stay acutely focused on Talkdemonic and use all my best ideas for such. I occasionally play drums on other friends' records though.
NL: How do you think your sound has evolved from Mutiny Sunshine to Beat Romantic?
KO: Mutiny was a bit more beat-based, sparse, and brooding overall. Beat Romantic is a more optimistic record, with a lot more viola and three songs written by Lisa, whereas Mutiny was primarily a solo effort. I think our sound has matured a bit with Beat Romantic. I like to think of the records as a double album released two years apart. But nobody likes double albums; only a few have been that good. And no, I'm not referencing Use Your Illusion I and II!
NL: What has it been like integrating Lisa into the process? How has it changed the end result?
KO: I've always enjoyed making music with Lisa. She's known as the two-take wonder and is a complete virtuoso in the studio. She comes up with great ideas and gets them down quickly. Usually Lisa enters the fold toward the end of the process, when the song is close to being finished. She will come in and complete the song with her viola parts, which are all written by her. For Beat Romantic, as I mentioned, three of the songs were originally conceived by her. So that was fun to add instrumentation to her ideas as well.
NL: Have you ever considered adding vocals to a song? Hypothetically, if you were going to, whose vocals would you want to use?
KO: We have vocals on a new song for the third record!!! Oh my God, no way! Vocals on talkd!!?? Don't worry, they're only humming parts, no actual words. We're a word-free band. People talk too much. We Talkverylittle. Really though, I love vocals. Maybe someday, you never know. But for now, they will be sparse for talkd 3. If I had to pick a vocalist for the new record, it would be Justin Ringle from Horse Feathers.
NL: Who are you listening to right now and who are some of your all-time favorite musicians?
KO: I have been completely obsessed with The Zombies' Odyssey and Oracle from 1967. It's maybe one of the best sonically recorded albums of all time, and is mind blowing musically as well. The Shins owe them some money. The panning on it is insane. I actually went and saw them play at Berbati's in September and they only played four songs from the album. But those were awesome, especially coming from sixty-five-year-olds. I've also really been into Love's Forever Changes. I can't get over the guitar parts and the dead-sounding left-speaker-only drums. Basically, '60s panning rules. They did stereo right. I've also been marveling over The Kinks' Village Green... Sufjan Stevens' Seven Swans was a tour favorite, and even a little of Fleetwood Mac's Tusk. I've also been listening to one of the best sample albums of all time, or what I call Musical Jeopardy for all who listen to it. Name that sample: Girl Talk - Night Ripper. Talk about an album to get sued over. Watch out! I also went through a severe T. Rex obsession, Electric Warrior till I die. But some of my favorite bands of all time include Unwound, Duster, and the Beach Boys.
NL: What are among your favorite albums of the year?
KO: I've been listening to Menomena's new one, Friend and Foe, which doesn't come out till January so that doesn't count. It's an amazing album though; I'm excited for them. Some of my favorite records of the year: Horse Feathers - Words Are Dead, Ghostface Killah - Fishscale (the Wu-Tang track on that album is ridiculous), The Walkmen - A Hundred Miles Off, Gnarls Barkley - St. Elsewhere. Hmmmm, I'm forgetting some, I'm sure.
NL: What's up next? Do you think your next album will follow a similar direction? When can we hope to hear it?
KO: I'm working on the new album currently. It's starting to take shape, following a grittier path than the last. For the first time, I'm recording all the drums in my studio Talknumeric, which I haven't really done before. Some of the songs are starting from the drums up, which usually come last. I'm also soaking it all up with my favorite season, fall. I think the new album will be more drum-centric, with rhythm being a driving force, and will also feature a wider palette of drum sounds. We'll be touring again in January, out for a West Coast jaunt. Lisa is currently on tour with the Decemberists. I'm hoping to have the new album out by this summer depending on when it's finished, or possibly in the fall of 2007. The working title is "a hundred faces in the neon forest."
* MP3: "Mountaintops In Caves" - Talkdemonic from Beat Romantic [Buy it]
* MP3: "Mutiny Sunshine" - Talkdemonic from Mutiny Sunshine [Buy it]
* Band Website: Talkdemonic
Tags: Talkdemonic, Kevin O'Connor, Lisa Molinaro, MP3, Beat Romantic, Mutiny Sunshine, interview