Meet Opiuo: the man behind New Zealand’s most exciting bass music project
At first glance, Oscar Davey-Wraight is just another friendly young Kiwi. As the brains behind innovative international bass act Opiuo, however, Oscar belies this modest, conversational demeanor. While he remains humble, Davey-Wraight is a true innovator, and he can’t help but give off a strong aura of pride and excitement for the project he’s created.
From the very beginning, Oscar’s zany musical style has never followed any kind of formula. Subsequently, his sound is ever-changing, ranging everywhere from classic glitch hop to future funk and various sub-genres that elude easy categorization.
His latest full-length studio album, Omniversal, his third to date, was released in June of this year, and continues the subtle, studied evolution his music has been undertaking since his first EP, Physical Symptoms, released almost exactly seven years prior. His most varied album yet, Omniversal explores new areas and concepts inside his funky futuristic glitch hop world.
Opiuo is the epitome of a modern day musician: he’s been able to have a successful career by work exceptionally hard and through sheer persistence. Anyone who has experienced one of his shows can attest to the dedication he has in creating the absolute best sound possible, regardless of venue or crowd.
We had the opportunity to sit down with Oscar before he and The Opiuo Band played at the Roxy Theatre in Los Angeles, California, and learn a little something about the man behind the bass.
Growing up, Oscar never really thought of music as a career, and only felt into the world after he’d already started a career in design. After a year of his job, which he says was not a terrible experience by any means, he decided to go with his gut when it started giving him the signal to try out the whole music thing. In recent years, his instinct has proved its worth, as he has been living the dream held by just about every musician.
Opiuo’s success did not happen by accident. He is an incredibly intelligent individual that cares deeply about his work and his music career. His relentless effort and dedication is apparent in the rich, chest-rumbling bass and crisp, balanced high-end that fills any venue he plays, big or small; club or festival.
When he started thinking about giving his musical career a go, he borrowed enough money from his parents to live for a year without working a day job, during which he simply made as much music as possible. He decided to go for it 110% because if he failed, he could just go back to university or get another job. No harm done.
“I think when I payed my parents back from the money I’d made from shows, that was the turning point of like, I can do this.”
Part of his success can be attributed to his surprisingly steady balance between professionalism and youthful enthusiasm. Much of what he creates is purely by sound. There is no formula; no checklists or sets of instructions that he goes through to develop his songs. In this sense, it’s almost as if everything he does is based off of educated experimentation.
His thirst for adventure and appreciation of the great things in life is simply contagious — a characteristic that is also seen in those that he surrounds himself with. For his last two studio albums, Oscar jammed and wrote music with some of his best friends. He then brought them along for his first world tour, calling themselves ‘The Opiuo Band.’ With this new show, Oscar brought his innovation in live-electronic sound to a whole new level.
His goal with the live show was, and continues to be, to combine the best aspects of live and prerecorded music. There is a certain raw, unadulterated energy of a live band that is not quite possible through playing exclusively prerecorded music. On the other hand, prerecorded music allows for much more flexibility inside of a set and much greater detail and depth in the design, calculation, and calibration of each sound before it is heard by the audience.
Prior to the first world tour with the Band, following the release of the Meraki LP, he spent 6 months with his touring sound technician just to figure out how to make the live show sound the way he envisioned. Anyone that has been to one of their shows will be able to hear the effort that went into making it sound perfect.
Like a true innovator, he is always trying to find new ways to improve his show, rather than sticking to the same formula that brought about his initial success. Although his original signature sound can still be heard in his new music, he is always pushing his sound to match his own evolving tastes as well as those of his listeners.
In order to stay relevant and have a long-healthy career in the music industry, the artist has to evolve while still appreciating that fans have certain expectations and may say they want more of the “classic” sound. He says that his most recent release, the Omniversal LP, was written mostly for himself, simply because it felt the best for him in the studio. However, he always keeps his fans in the back of his mind, and they have a large influence on his music. As is the case with the majority of artists that have become successful through the Internet, the understanding that listeners drive his success creates a deep connection between himself and them.
The Opiuo Band is the result of the simultaneous, intertwined evolution of his and his fans’ tastes, which can be said to be a microcosm of the electronic dance music industry in general. The number of electronic acts that have been integrating aspects of a live show has grown exponentially in the last few years, following the dual progression of artists and listeners.
Showing, once again, his astute awareness of the current state of the industry, Oscar firmly believes that live electronic shows will never completely take the place of DJ sets.
“I feel like everything’s going to constantly move and change, and I feel like today compared to just a few years ago, people really know–they’ve been getting more educated on someone who is a really good DJ, because a really good DJ is fucking hard to beat. You know, they play the songs in perfect order and placement, and the vibe is–they just get it.”
One very important distinction of playing with a live band is that it is much more difficult to have flexible sets. Normally, live bands, including The Opiuo Band, will have a set structure of what songs they will play. Unlike a DJ set, which can — and arguably, should — be different every time, a live show will be the same throughout an entire tour. For the band, playing the songs in the same exact order and having the same exact transitions can get boring. In this case, there has to be other elements that the band can change in order to keep each show fresh, both for the band and for the audience.
“…we all have to come together on that moment for it to work, and if we don’t, you can tell. That’s something where when it happens, and it works, it’s a special feeling and moment for yourself onstage. So when you tour a lot, you need more of that, because you don’t want to play the same set every night; you don’t want to get the same feeling every single night.”
Oscar does not give any indication that he is even close to burning out and while listening to him talk about music. In fact, it is glaringly obvious that the reality for him is quite the contrary. Although he can’t say too much about what the future holds, it’s apparent that he sees The Opiuo Band as the continuation of his music career.
The full transcription of our interview with Opiuo can be found below.
DA: I wanted to start out a little on the historical side. What was your biggest influence growing up; what kind of music did you listen to when you were little?
O: The records I remember a lot were — like very early days — the B52’s. Their songs kind of going on in my head from my parents or whatever. But then more like the early Beastie Boys, and stuff like that was what I was listening to. Just tunes that were always around until my early high school years. I didn’t think music is what I was going to do, it was just always something I liked.
DA: When did you start actually making it, rather than just listening to it?
O: I started making it when I was, probably, 16 or so.
DA: On the computer?
O: Yeah. So I got given a program from a friend of my parents. He was a recording engineer–and actually I had a recording studio built at my parents’ house before I was even old enough to know what it was. They had taken all the gear out, but the space was still there, so we used to have band practice and parties when we were little kids and whatnot. It was sick.
But yeah, I guess I got into that program. It was kind of like an early sound recorder. I can’t even remember exactly what program it was, but I was using it to just record little sounds then click play on them at different times to record them onto a tape. And then that same person gave me Reason a while later. Then I started going around that, making some dub, and some tunes–only a few tunes a year sort of thing. I kept doing it for years until about 2007, I finished my first track where I was like, ah I could play this. You know, I could be DJ this out.
DA: And after that, did you play some of your first sets, or send the track out to labels to try to get signed?
O: No I didn’t really have that mentality. I wasn’t trying to get out there, get signed, get out there and make it at that point. I was more just really enjoying making the music. When I would get a chance to go DJ or play somewhere, I’d open with some of my own songs–purely out of the fact that I wanted to enjoy that feeling. I mean, in my head I probably was thinking it would be cool to do music for a living. But it wasn’t something I wanted to taint by failing or not getting there, so I just did it for the fun of it.
It’s kind of carried through till now where it’s–obviously now it’s my livelihood and I employ people to do various things for me and we have this whole reality–but it’s really about the enjoyment of it for me.
DA: Yeah well you’d hope so, right?
O: Yeah, well it’s funny because when you do it for a while; when you do it for a living. It gets to be a bit of a blurry line between working and something that you’ve always enjoyed. Sometimes that’s a tough thing to face.
DA: Was there a certain turning point when you realized that you could do it for a living?
I guess–well there was a moment where I borrowed some money off my parents, took a whole year off. Like quit everything, jobs, all of it.
DA: Was this after university?
O: Yeah I was in university for a year doing design, and got a really good job within that world. I did that and learned a lot more than I thought I was going to. I really enjoyed that whole thing–of being in the real world really young, and I think that’s a valid kind of journey. If you do get the opportunity to do something like that, then you should go for it and come back to university if you want to.
Yeah I took that year off, borrowed some money from my parents. I just made music every week, Monday to Friday. Then I’d go party on the weekend. I just made as much music as I could. I released a little bit really early on–that free EP that I put out, in 2008, I think. The one with “Monkey Crunk”–the Physical Symptoms EP. I did that and Dean from Addictech Records heard that and he was like straight away, “You’ve got something, send me some more music.”
I didn’t really think too much of it. I hadn’t heard anyone else doing that same sort of heavy hip-hop; I hadn’t heard Bassnectar; I hadn’t been exposed to that kind of world. I think that moment when he sort of stepped up and I was starting to get a couple of festivals or a couple of shows a month. I couldn’t really live off it quite fully, but I was still at that point where I wasn’t working, so I was like, fuck it I’m going to write as much music as I can–try to make a whole entire set of my own stuff. I felt like at that point that was something that would stand out, and it did: it worked, and people were really down to come see me play. I think when I payed my parents back from the money I’d made from shows, that was the turning point of like, I can do this.
DA: Back then were you doing anything live, or mainly DJ sets?
O: It was mainly DJ sets, though it was all my own music.
DA: When did you start putting the live aspect into it?
O: Well I grew up playing drums, and I learned piano when I was really young. Though I don’t really know–I go pretty much just by sound.
DA: Not so much theory and all that?
O: Not so much because I feel like any style of theory for the creation part, when you’re trying to do something kind of different, is somewhat restricting. Not in the way of like knowing–I think knowing theory is amazing–I guess theory’s not really what I meant. We should just be kids and be like, can we put that on top of that? Of course we can! It might break the thing, but we can try, you know? Just see what happens.
DA: #hat do you think about the whole concept of “know the rules so you can bend them in the right way” kind of thing?
O: I think it goes just as well not knowing there are rules so you never know that you’re going to get in trouble or anything like that. I think both work, because knowing the rules is really cool, you can see where things come from. But often I’ve just done things coz I had an idea. Sometimes I thought I shouldn’t do that, but I’d do it anyways, and sometimes I don’t.
DA: When did the whole concept of the live band come into play?
O: It was something I’d wanted to do for a long time. I started playing live–like adding in the drum machine and adding in a little keyboard and picking out points of songs that I could play live–but still being able to DJ in the sense that I can change the song at any point. I could go wherever I wanted in the set.
DA: It is kind of different.
O: Exactly. The band thing was something where I wanted it to be like, we all have to come together on that moment for it to work, and if we don’t, you can tell. That’s something where when it happens, and it works, it’s a special feeling and moment for yourself onstage. So when you tour a lot, you need more of that, because you don’t want to play the same set every night; you don’t want to get the same feeling every single night.
I’ve evolved now, my solo show into having two drum machines, two computers, a couple of synths, and a bunch of other things, because of the live band show needing just more and more things to do, but also that satisfaction–when you play a lot of shows, you don’t want to be burnt out.
DA: How elastic is the live show? How much room do each of you have to move around musically?
O: Well we have a very structured song setup–I mean we can change where we play some songs at different points in the set and when we stop, or go, ah should we go here now? Ok sweet. But there are sections where everyone has their moment, you know, to do whatever they need to do. Or they know what needs to be done. Normally every night someone will take it in their own way. It’s cool, you know, it adds fun.
DA: Like a solo or something like that?
O: Oh yeah, definitely solos.
DA: For the most part, though, kind of like stopping and ending points with some freedom in the middle?
O: It has to be structured in that way right now. I mean we’re playing nearly everything, but there’s a couple of things on a backing track that–it might be some crazy electronic percussion thing that we just have–but that keeps us all kind of there. So instead of playing to a click track, the drummer’s going, we have that going on, and it’s much more fun.
One big thing for me is to maintain the punch and the full power of electronic production with something live and that’s something we’ve worked on with our sound guy a lot–I mean we spent a good six months trying to figure out how to do it.
DA: Do you produce with the live band aspect in mind, and is that different from how you used to produce?
O: Yeah, I started out just doing electronic and I’d kind of think about instruments, but I’d normally make a synth sound that would become, like where the horn might go. Then as I evolved I started sampling a lot more, because I didn’t have the players around me to be able to record them. But now I’m in a position where I’ve got these amazing musicians who are like, the people I want to work with. And I can be like, yo I got this thing, you want to come around and work on it? They come around and we jam it out and we figure it out. That is extremely powerful, and it gives them a lot more input into what we end up playing because they’ve actually been there when we were recording it.
DA: So, the band that you tour with, they also contribute to the production?
O: Yeah. It’s cool because when you produce, and have a project, it’s–you need that control because it is your thing and your baby. But it’s really cool to have these moments to be able to let somebody else in the creative phase and the musician phase. It’s special.
DA: What’s your opinion on live electronic music in general, do you see that being the future?
O: I feel like everything’s going to constantly move and change, and I feel like today compared to just a few years ago, people really know–they’ve been getting more educated on someone who is a really good DJ, because a really good DJ is fucking hard to beat. You know, they play the songs in perfect order and placement, and the vibe is–they just get it. When you see a good DJ, it is nearly as powerful as seeing a live show, you know?
So there’s a part where I don’t think it will ever take over, or anything like that. But people are wising up to the options of doing cool things and the power of live music. For us, for me especially, there’s moments onstage where you’re just like, this is it, this is why I would want to go out and see something–when it’s that moment when there are five or six people out onstage together and doing this thing. And that can’t be beat when it’s just one person onstage playing pre-recorded songs, whether they’ve mixed it amazingly or not, is that moment when there are five humans that have to be in time. It’s a bit more powerful than a lot of it I think. I think there are a lot more people that are doing live electronic music much better than it has been done because there’s more of it going on. They see other people doing things and they’re not just playing overtop of what pre-exists, they actually pulling things out and really getting into it.
DA: Do you see this evolution on the side of the audience as well?
O: Yeah of course. That’s what creates–I mean someone can come out with this beautiful amazing thing and no one is ready for it so it doesn’t get traction. And your audience is the most important thing to be able to have a career in this. You know, maybe you’ve got a billion dollars behind you, you can go and throw a free show, and people will come and do it. But if you really need people to come support you to be able to do what you need to do, then your audience is going to be an integral part of helping you do what you do. Because you see what makes them go off, you see why they’re there. You see a kind of cross section of the people that are showing up to your shows, and that really influences you.
I mean this last album, the majority of it, was purely for myself, because there’s that moment when you’re in the studio and you just want to write what makes you feel good or does the thing. But in the back of my mind, there are these people I meet, day in, day out throughout the world, that influence the shit out of me. And so, a lot of people are showing up and loving the live music, and these things, they help for all of us. I think audiences have changed over the years, and that changes what musicians do.
DA: Yeah, I can imagine it is powerful when fans come up to you saying you changed their life.
O: It’s quite surreal when people genuinely come up to me with tears in their eyes, or a letter they’ve written at home because they can’t actually say it to me–they’ll take the letter and read it to me right there. It’s like a real true story of an actual–it gives me shivers just thinking about it–life-changing experience that I was involved it. It doesn’t boost my ego, it doesn’t do any of that. It’s just like, holy shit, there’s this whole other part of this thing where you have no idea what it’s going to do. You know you don’t know where this stuff is going to go, you don’t know who’s in the audience. We’ve played shows where, you know, we’re about to go on, and we’re like, OK I hope this show’s going to rock and someone will just be like, look, you just don’t know who’s going to be out there. This could be the biggest moment of their life, and that’s just something you got to remember.
DA: On the flip-side of that, has there ever been a time when the live band has been cumbersome–like maybe you book a venue that doesn’t have all the tech or space you need?
O: We’re pretty careful that we don’t get ourselves in situations like that. We’ve been in places where it’s been difficult. But, there’s the element of, I guess, what it does bring to the table outweighs all those little things. You know, it’s a lot more work; it’s a lot more time. It costs a lot more money–we don’t really make any money on the actual touring that we do. Because we don’t–it’s an effort thing. But I really don’t want to get to the end of my life thinking I kind of just winged it and didn’t really put a lot of effort into something, and this is the thing I’m putting my effort into right now.
You know, sometimes we’re driving home at midnight, got to get up at eight in the morning to program more stuff and going to have another rehearsal the next night. I feel fucking exhausted but fucking awesome. There’s a part of me that just feels like, I’m living, you know? I’m doing this, and it’s a challenge.
DA: You’re living the dream. It’s not like you get up in the morning and say, “aw I got to go to work now.”
O: Not at all. It’s like this thing you can get your teeth into. When I first started doing it, I had no idea if it was going to work–like I really didn’t. And I’d seen people doing it, but I really didn’t want to do it the same way everyone else was doing it at the time. I wanted to pull it apart in my own way and figure it out. So me and the guitarist, Tony spent like three months just going through the songs figuring out ways we could do it live. It was cool because he’d be sitting there and I’d be like, alright switch, try this, and I’d load this synth patches and do all these things, and he’d sit there with me and try to play them to see if we could actually get our heads around it. And just even that was an awesome challenge. When we played our first show, we’re like, holy shit, it’s actually going to work. We suddenly had this belief that, it can be, you know?
That was the big step between going from a solo thing, or having a musician or two playing with me to being to the point where we pulled the music apart to where if we don’t play together when we’re on stage, it’s going to sound like shit. That’s the cool challenge, because you’re not just playing along with something.
DA: How long does it usually take to practice and prep for a tour like this?
O: I mean we’ve been touring for more than a year together now, and when you sort of evolve a set constantly, so every tour is always different–we add things to it and we move things around, and we take things out, and we remove what didn’t work from the last tour. So we probably spent a couple of weeks solid rehearsing before every one, but before then there’s about two months of work getting it together. So everyone has all of the music and will rehearse it themselves, and when we get together we just do two solid weeks. But at the start we were doing two or three months to actually get our heads around it.
DA: What does the future of you guys and the Opiuo band look like–what are you thinking about doing next?
O: I mean I just released my album a week ago.
DA: Which we’re loving by the way. It gets better with each listen.
O: It’s funny you say that, because that was a bit of a thing for me: I wanted to make this music really does grow, you know, it’s not just like, yes, cool, sweet! Then as you listen to it more and more, you get sort of bored of whatever it was that you liked. But I wanted shit that was like, almost a challenge to listen to as well.
I guess I want to challenge. I mean I’ve got such an awesome group of people that come to my shows and support me and listen to my thing. I really believe they’re some of the coolest people in the world, not just because they come to my shows but because I speak with them afterwards and I get along with them amazingly. They’ve got cool stories and are doing cool things themselves. And are really interested in what they’re doing because they’re changing the world in their own way. To have an audience like that, who made me feel like I could do something different–try to show them something different too–and had some sort of just trust and faith that they were going to be right there with me along the way, and they are. It’s pretty fucking cool.
DA: So evolution of the live band, do you have anything in mind yet?
O: Yeah we’ve been planning–I mean I don’t really want to be talking about it to ruin it… We’re going to get bigger and bigger. We’re building a new show–a new whole thing.
I mean there’s a part of me that loves–like I grew up going to bands that had, say, five lights in the whole room and it was just this raw, raw show. There’s still a part of me that that loves that about live music. When you play electronic music, and you’re a solo DJ or live performer or whatever–I mean you don’t always need it, but there’s an element where it’s really cool to have another dimension to your show because you’re often busy or there’s just one of you onstage. Whereas I think if you’ve got five people onstage actually playing the shit, screaming their heart out, you want to see that, and you don’t want to be taken away by this whole crazy show, you want this raw thing–you want to be able to taste the sweat in the front row, you want to be right there. That’s why, playing places like this, there’s a rawness to it that I really enjoy. That will never go away for me–the young kid who wanted to be a punk, you know?
DA: I like that way of thinking about it.
O: So yeah. I mean we’re building a bigger show, and my solo set has a full laser show now. There’s this whole thing where I’m proud of everything I’m doing at the moment, and I’m especially proud that I’m doing it in my own way and at my own pace. I mean I like doing this, I can’t imagine doing anything else.
DA: Anything in the works in terms of licensing, doing soundtracks, that sort of thing?
O: Yeah I’m constantly getting asked about it, and there are discussions going on. But honestly, with how busy I am doing what I’m doing, it’s pretty hard to get that sort of thing in there. I want to keep working on things like that just out of my pure passion for creating environments and moods. That’s something I’ve always wanted to do.
When people always ask me about my future, I honestly just want it to be an awesome adventure. I want to do the things that I really, really want to work on in that moment, and that changes so quickly and so often that I feel like I never put this “five-year plan” and I feel like all it’s going to be is a bit of a let-down if I don’t hit this mark. I just want to live an awesome life and do these amazing things I have the ability to do right now.
You know, I’m so lucky. I wake up in a different city every day and do things that people only ever dream of and I love doing it.
DA: Any parting advice?
O: Just follow your dream to then–it’s all you can do. If you’re ever doubting your moment…if you’re ever doubting that moment–like, fuck I want to do this thing–then you’re only going to, you know, fuck yourself, by not doing it right then and there. When someone’s like, but I’ve got this good job, I say, well if you could do the thing you’ve always wanted to do right now, would you leave your job? They’re like, yeah of course I would. Then I’m like, fucking leave your job and go and do it! You’re never going to have this moment again, you know?
Who was it? Jim Carrey or something said, “You can always fail at what you don’t want to do, so you might as well fail doing what you want to do.” The beautiful thing about this whole thing is that I am just that someone else that was in your position, talking to someone that I was looking up to at some point, or any of those sort of moments–we are just all the same. All it takes is just….follow it. Just do it.