Oliver Osborne has established himself as a producer of note. Now based in Toronto, Oliver cut his teeth in London, where he played at notable clubs such as Fabric, Corsica Studios and 93feet East. Prior to this, a nearly 10-year period in South East Asia saw him establish a robust gig schedule around the region alongside a string of releases on labels like Cacao Records, his own Eyes To The Front and Souta Musik.
We sit down with him to chat about the release and more…
Hi Oliver, thanks for sitting down with us at Music Is 4 Lovers! Where do you find yourself right now and what have you been up to lately?
I am in my studio in Toronto right now. I just finished a contract leading the programming for a boutique hotel group.
I am taking the next few months to work on some creative projects, do some travelling, and ensure that I start the summer with a strong release pipeline.
Can you please tell us something about your new single ‘Propaganda’?
I got such a great response about my track Soldiers of the Dawn that I wanted to go back to that sound and approach it from a slightly different angle.
Whereas Soldiers of the Dawn had a full vocal that really sat at the core of the track, Propaganda is almost entirely Instrumental with just just a touch of vocal. So that’s the kind of music production side.
Conceptually, I’ve just been thinking a lot about the era we’re in and the fact that propaganda is at its most potent in the internet age. We see this having real-world effects, namely Donald Trump getting elected to President, Brexit and many, many more instances.
The reason propaganda is so potent via the Internet is that different conflicting lies can be told about the same people or organisations at the same time.
For example in the US in the lead up to the 2016 election, black voters were dissuaded from voting for Hillary Clinton because there were a lot of propaganda accounts (often Russian bots) saying that Hillary Clinton was a racist. At the same time, people with white nationalist leanings were fed content that Hilary Clinton was sympathetic to black communities and causes.
Because this was happening on screens, these two groups of people had no idea that there were different messages going out elsewhere, and this inevitably tipped the balance in the favor of Donald Trump.
Without going too far down a geopolitical wormhole, I just am very aware at the moment that we are in a unique phase in history, and that everyone owes it to themselves to be extra vigilant about where they get their information, and how they interpret it.
You previously released tracks on Souta Musik back in 2021; what’s your relationship like with the label?
Good, and ongoing, one would hope!
This is actually a relationship that has been in existence for many years, from before Souta was launched from when they were still based in Hong Kong.
Carsten was playing at Volar in Hong Kong and after his set we met through IXA (Matt Rudge) and I passed him a thumb drive with a bunch of original productions on it.
At the time I was back and forth between Hong Kong and Singapore on a very regular basis so we kept the conversation going, I visited the studio in Hong Kong, and over a course of months, Carsten and Ana talked me through the whole plan for Aya and Souta and how this was all going to roll out.
The pandemic and the relocation to Bali put the brakes on the release schedule a little, but with over forty releases in the pipeline for 2023 I think we’re in good shape.
Fundamentally I just think it’s very important in what is (certainly compared to Europe), a fledgling scene that there are people like the Souta team taking things seriously and really running a label right.
How does your creative process work, particularly for this track?
Honestly, I take a variety of approaches depending on where the inspiration comes from, or what I’m trying to achieve.
For tracks like these where I’ve very deliberately chosen to use a non-standard drum pattern, I typically start with a low pitched hi-hat or similar and essentially sketch out what the rhythmic shape of the track is going to be. Where the kind of emphasis is going to lie and from there it was a question of kind of layering up different drum parts (and ultimately the bass) that hung off that initial rhythm.
Obviously, you don’t want every part to be exactly the same. So there’s kind of a high percentage of overlap between the different drum parts and then some embellishments and variations (often melodic) to fill up some of the spaces in the sound.
From so many years of playing and listening to jungle I find myself having to be very deliberate about keeping enough simplicity and focus on the percussion parts. I really love those broken rhythms and I have a tendency to put too much in play and kind of overcomplicate things.
Often the latter stage of my process is pulling stuff back and taking hits out and taking parts out so that there is a real discernible, primary groove to the track and, not just percussion going off left right and center.
So in this instance, I was coming into the track very much wanting to have that tightness and, not simplicity necessarily, but that direction to the groove of the track. Everything including the baseline just hang around that rhythm.
The sample is from a much longer acapella, and while the temptation was there to lean in and use a little more of it. I kind of liked the hypnotic pulse of “propaganda” just dropping in every whatever it is, 32 bars, because in a way this is rather like the way that we are constantly bombarded with sensation and stories through the 24 hour news machines.
It’s a kind of suppressive measure, the news cycles are constantly hitting us with a new story and without ever really satisfactorily wrapping up the last one and so we’re constantly distracted by breaking news. There’s a great quote in this book ‘On Tyranny’ by Timothy Snyder, where he says that these stories keep crashing down “so we are hit by wave upon wave but never see the ocean”.
And so with that kind of idea in mind I kept it pretty stripped back and just kept that repetition of propaganda because I mean, that’s what propaganda machines do, just keep that foot hard pressed on the gas, irrespective of how implausible the message might be.
You’re a well-travelled artist, having lived in Asia, Europe and now Canada, can you tell us something about the different scenes across the world?
In order for this not to turn into a dissertation, I will pick out three of my favourite scenes.
To talk about one close to what is now home, I really enjoy Montreal, which is in the French-speaking part of Canada.
Montreal is a beautiful city and it is, at least visually, an interesting hybrid of North American cars, brands and fashion, and then French architecture and language. A lot of kind of Hoffman style architecture there so it feels, for anyone who’s been to Paris, very familiar.
Now, Montreal is somewhere that gets very, very cold in winter, and essentially you have just three months of proper, usable, non-rainy, warm enough weather each year and as such the people of Montreal really fucking party during that time. There is a palpable “seize the moment” mentality at that time of year.
There is a three to five-thousand-person festival (Piknik Electronique) every weekend in one of the parks which costs about $13, with some really big acts playing every weekend through the summer.
They have a club called Stereo which is just superb. Maison Daomé run some good parties. There’s a guy called Forrest out there who runs a lot of great parties (as well as being a solid DJ, producer, and vocalist) at some cool upscale venues and it’s just a very, very vibrant place.
Another scene I love and value is from my former home of Southeast Asia. I really feel Kuala Lumpur has been and continues to be a kind of unsung hero in the Asian music scene.
We’ve got people like JonnyVicious out there doing some really cool parties. And not just for the benefit of the house and techno heads, but also the LGBTQ+ scene, which is a ballsy move considering the prevailing attitudes in the government (and to some extent Malaysian society at large) around that community.
Given the conservative nature of the government, and the ease with which the police can shut down parties and venues, everything feels slightly sneaky, like you’re operating in a kind of glamorous, hedonistic underworld.
And finally, I would have to call out my formative stomping ground, London, England.
While it has been quite some time since I lived there, I have no reason to believe that London is any less colourful and vibrant than when I left it.
For someone who has been passionate about music for as long as I’ve had object permanence, being somewhere where on any given weekend there might be a couple of dozen great international acts playing was a dream come true.
Also, you can go out on a Friday evening and don’t have to stop dancing until Monday afternoon, if you tie together the right clubs and after-parties.
And even if you’re not a maniac, there is the beautiful ability to just dip into a full-blown party at any stage of the weekend.
I would often not go out on Friday and Saturday nights, or at least not until very late. So I’d often be heading to fabric at four in the morning.
A lot of the time what I would do is get up have a solid breakfast on Sunday, after having a relatively early night, and then go and hit up the date parties at Public Life and what was happening Vibe Bar, 93 Ft. East, and that whole Brick Lane, Shoreditch day party vibe.
I couldn’t really talk about different scenes around the world without bringing that into the mix.
What are some of your favourite places in the world?
Wow. Favourite places in the world. Very tough.
Honestly, I’ve rather fallen in love with what is affectionately known as ‘cottage country’ in Canada.
It is a big part of the culture during the summertime to go up and spend some time at a house in the middle of nowhere, ideally on a lake.
We’re talking gorgeous spectacular pine forests and lakes, and Canada is such an enormous country, you really can be miles from anywhere, which is pretty delightful.
You know, at the same time I’m definitely a city kid and so Montreal in the summer is a huge amount of fun.
I returned to my ancestral home in the South of France last year, somewhere that pre-pandemic I was there pretty much every summer since I was born.
Stellar bottles of vino for two euros, incredible food, and the scenery out there is just spectacular.
And finally, I get the sense that it’s perhaps changed a little bit in recent years, but I really have always had a lot of love for Bali.
The way I see it, there are two sliders you want to set for a vacation destination: Price point (high to low), and level of intensity (bacchanalian to ultra serene).
In Bali, wherever you set the sliders, you can have a great time.
Do you want to party hard on a budget? Go for it.
Forget trying to do that in Ibiza or St. Tropez.
Also, the food is first-rate.
How did you develop your musical skills, and what challenges have you faced along the way?
Having musical skills is something I was to some degree born into.
One of my earliest memories of my father is of him and his friends crowded around the baby grand piano we had in our living room playing each other the latest blues lick that they love.
Beyond this, the piano was just one of several instruments in the house.
But the story here is really about what took it from me being casually interested in playing music to being fully committed/compelled., I picked up the guitar a couple of times as a kid and tried to learn, but I didn’t really have any burning motivation.
To really learn how to play and make music there’s a lot of being really shit that needs to happen before you get anywhere, and unless you are sufficiently motivated, it is unlikely that you are going to pass those cognitive development milestones.
So you can trace my musicality back through the big albums that I discovered and fell in love with.
The one that compelled me to play the guitar was Nirvana, ‘Nevermind’, albeit about two weeks before Kurt Cobain killed himself. Which was kind of a strange moment to fall in love with a piece of music. To kind of feel something from music that I hadn’t felt before and then realize that it was over in a way, and I think that like anything a person is passionate about, you want to get as close to it as you can. So playing it seemed like the logical step, to somehow get inside the music.
And so for guitar it was ‘Nevermind’ for the bass guitar it was ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magic, and then I picked up DJ Shadows debut album Entroducing a couple of days after it came out which made me pick up the drums, as well as getting me into the vast world of sampling.
I just happened to walk into a record store as ‘Mutual Slump’ was playing and it just knocked me sideways. Before I know it I have barged to the front of a long line and demanded to buy what was playing.
This lead to me learning how to play the drums, and, perhaps more importantly, realising that music can be energetic and emotionally charged without needing lyrics, and at the same time, the potential of sampling as a tool.
At around the same time I made friends with someone who had, for the time and for our ages, a pretty respectable home studio. So I started dabbling in production.
Another big album was Timeless by Goldie, which, along with sneaking into a Squarepusher gig when I was 16, solidified my love of breakbeats and the Amen Break.
After years of playing in bands I eventually got my own (very modest) setup at home in my early 20s and very much enjoyed not having to negotiate with other band members for what the sound should be. I also realised that the possibilities are endless in the studio vs. the rehearsal room. You can really make whatever your imagination allows you to make.
That was kind of the early stages of doing huge amounts of it. I produced a lot of shit tracks in my twenties. Just like I said about learning the guitar, there’s a lot of being shit that needs to happen in order to ever be good.
So I was kind of lucky in a way that making music is something of a compulsion. I resist the idea that it’s something I’ve chosen. Because it’s just something I have to do and something I will continue to do even if I technically roll out of the industry.
As for challenges, we are for sure our own worst enemies.
We create our own roadblocks, which is unfortunate, but for a lot of people, and I’ve been guilty of this myself, we go into making a track with such a specific idea of what we want the track to end up like that we don’t allow for other ideas to come in.
The project will stall because my mind is going somewhere else, but I’m not letting it, and so there’s no forward momentum for the initial idea.
Another creative bear trap we put in front of ourselves is starting every session with the idea that you are going to create a fully formed track.
When I speak to people who are novices they usually, and understandably, want to create a whole track, they want to create that banger. However, taking three synthesizers and trying to create something like those little percussion-free vignettes that are often scattered through cardboards of Canada albums can really help people unlock their creativity, and at the same time hone their understanding of the tools in a low-pressure context.
I use the three-part track approach any time I stall creatively.
I think starting there is very productive. Getting something with some movement that’s listable and that tells a bit of a story without getting into the murky depths of trying to negotiate bandwidth between a baseline and a kick drum.
One of the challenges that I am increasingly facing is just arguably not being as good an instrumentalist as I would like.
Playing a whole bunch of instruments is very handy from a composition standpoint, but it can be, given that I never really fully mastered any one of them, also a hindrance.
It can be very frustrating spending 5 hours recording guitar to end up with 15 seconds of usable audio.
I also used to tie myself up in knots trying to avoid using the same ideas more than once.
Then I realised that for the tracks that haven’t been released, why the fuck not? If you’re going to lift ideas from anyone, yourself is a good place to start.
Back in my early twenties in Nice (France) I wrote a trip-hop track, with no plan to release or even play it out. Fifteen years later the lead line popped back into my head while I was working on a remix for W.NN.E (Garden Groove) and Nandi which ended up being the lead line for that track.
So this goes back to the idea of creating for greetings sake: Without letting yourself have these little experiments that don’t have any kind of commercial value or don’t really have any goal at all, you reduce the amount of owned source material you have at your disposal for future work.
What motivates you to keep learning and pursuing your music career?
I don’t really have a choice. I can’t not make music.
My wife has learned at this stage that if I’m staring off into the middle distance, not saying anything, I’m often working on something musical in my head (and not pissed off). Either my work or chewing over something I’ve heard recently.
I’m not sure whether this is particularly common, but I can quite comfortably hold several elements in my head and kind of play around with them before I actually jump into the studio and put stuff together.
I’m also fascinated by sonic environments, whether in movies, video games, or real life.
There is one ski lift at one of the slopes I go snowboarding that has the wildest aural fingerprint. The music blasting from the chalet is reflecting off the undulating hills and trees, creating a 3D delay and reverb that evolves as the lift goes up the hill. Even when the music is shit, the experience is magical. Something I will be attempting to emulate in the coming weeks.
Making music a goal in and of itself.
What’s next in store for you? Anything you’d like to share with us?
As I said, I’m working on working on some new material. I arguably have enough of a war chest that it could realistically be released as an album, so there are some conversations with labels to be had to gauge interest.
I have a show coming up in Cape Town with Garden Groove, celebrating its fifth anniversary. I’ve had a couple of releases out with them and done several remixes, and Ash (W.NN.E) who runs it decided he wants to throw a big party. So we’re playing at The Commons on the 25th of Feb.
I’m in New York for Fashion Week. Then back to the UK in March or April.
I have a good amount of bandwidth at the moment, so I’m always on the hunt for good remix projects. *wink*
Oliver Osborne ‘Propaganda’ is out now on Souta Musik