Dating back to his humble Ngatimoti, New Zealand beginnings, the producer/multi-instrumentalist OPIUO has consistently and assertively defied convention for a decade, doing so with a joyous disposition and an energetic smile that is as downright infectious as his grooves. A beaming positive personality emanates through his trademark funky electro-glitch, yet the artist born Oscar Davey-Wright is much more than just your friendly neighborhood Kiwi.
OPIUO continues thriving while existing outside the North American EDM and European electronic music establishment. A beloved performer on the US Bass scene from coast to coast, OPIUO has steadily married funk, glitch, electro-psychedelia and modernized, melodic musicality into a signature sound and stuck with it. In doing so, he’s cultivating a global massive with a meteoric rise that serves to empower both the art and the artist.
Never one to rest on his accomplishments, OPIUO continues his career evolution as a solo artist with the same bold ambition and surgical precision that has defined his art thus far. After spending a few years creating and performing with The OPIUO Live Band, releasing the critically-acclaimed SYZYGY 01, and cultivating the astonishing SYZYGY Orchestra endeavor at Red Rocks in April 2018, Oscar put an exclamation mark at the end of that sentence. With the forthcoming release of SYZYGY 02, the erstwhile sound-scientist assures that he’s turned the proverbial page, and firmly stepped into the now frontier.
In spite of hailing from half-a-world away, OPIUO has found himself immersed in a firestorm of Stateside creativity, stepping out of traditional EDM comfort zones to collaborate with the likes of Russ Liquid (producer/multi-instrumentalist), Eric Benny Bloom (trumpeter, Lettuce), and Andrew Block (guitarist) in New Orleans, or dig deep into the archives for a lovely contribution from West Coast underground champ Lafa Taylor. After SYZYGY 01 saw the producer manning the boards entirely by himself with nary a feature, SYZYGY 02 drops on Friday, November 8th, and OPIUO is brimming with a confident glow as he hints at some choice collabs.
Ever the modern mystic, OPIUO mines inspiration from many spaces and places—the metropolitan environs of Melbourne, AUS that helped define his sound, or the sleepy countryside of Byron Bay that he currently calls home; from graphic design and digital art to the wonders of nature, hearing impairment and, most recently, fatherhood. OPIUO remains popular across a plethora of genres and festival communities around the world, all the while propelling his art towards the avant-garde. His music retains an innate accessibility and permeates an undeniable positive energy.
B. Getz of L4LM was lucky to catch up with the brilliant beatsmith backstage at the Fox Theater in Oakland as OPIUO set off on a North American tour with Gramatik and Balkan Bump, a massive sold-out headlining performance at the new Mission Ballroom in Denver on the horizon. Over heaping bowls of ramen and a sip of Glenlivet, Oscar sat down to chop it up on all things OPIUO. We wanted to find out more about the man behind the myth, the sorcerer of these soundscapes, and an ever-fantastic voyage that reveals his own special brand of syzygy.
B. Getz: Thank you for making a few minutes for L4LM, OPIUO! Balkan Bump is about to set things off, and then you perform before Gramatik, at the legendary Fox Theater here in Oakland. I know it’s only just begun. What’s this tour looking like for you, thus far?
OPIUO: It’s awesome! This is day three for me, and we go all the way around the top of the country, and back down to New York. It’s four weeks long. It’s taking me to many of my favorite places, which is cool. Two really cool nights so far.
BG: We’re happy to have you back in Oakland. The Bay Area has a storied history in the annals of Bass music, and I know you’ve been coming to the States for 10 years now. What, if anything, is different when you play a gig now in 2019, then when a fresh-faced OPIUO got to the Bay in 2010?
OPIUO: I don’t think anything necessarily has changed. I think that maybe more people have heard the music. But what I loved about coming over here back then was that it felt like there was this really special thing going on with Bass music, especially on the West Coast. It was a really inspiring, awesome time to be here.
One of the main things I notice in this world of music, it’s almost like it’s become smaller for me; in the sense that when I first came over here, it was just such a big new world to me, and I didn’t really know where it all started and ended. I was really focused on the West Coast. It was my main reality when I traveled here. I’d stay here, I’d play most of my shows here. Very occasionally I’d go to Chicago or somewhere, and maybe make it to the East Coast. Maybe… but not every time out.
Now, touring is really spread over the entire country, you know? There’s a really large, awesome, amazing following in Colorado particularly, but I play shows all over the country now.
BG: I know that the Bay Area embraced you really early in your career. When you reflect on those early days when you were just coming over here and plugging into the culture, are there any events or parties that come back to mind?
OPIOU: I’ll never forget my first Burning Man. That was something that solidified my whole thing here. And then, coming straight back from the Playa to San Francisco. I think it was like 1015 Folsom, I played an after-party. It was the decompression, like a week later. That’s the first thing that comes to mind.
BG: It’s funny that you bring up the Burn because I first heard of you when a friend came back from Burning Man in 2011, and you’d played a set at Nexus (sound camp), and she was really stoked on you. But you were just starting out back then. A lot of the seeds for what you do here in the States were planted at Burning Man, a lot of the relationships that you have with the community and your peers kind of started there.
OPIUO: Those were amazing parties to play, too. It was crazy wild vibes. And it was a whole new world for me, you know? I had never really seen … just the amount of effort that people were putting into art, and the amount of people that were doing really cool things, really big things, the level of creativity, and the level of expertise. People just creating art, programming whole nights of performances, and not just the music, and not just the sound systems. The art. It was everywhere. It was a whole new world. Burning Man just completely blew my mind.
BG: I want to take it back further, because here in the States, not a lot of people know many details about you coming up. Sure, maybe they can hear your accent from the stage, so they know you’re not from here. But they don’t know anything about coming up in New Zealand as a youngster. What are your earliest memories of dance music culture or raves over there? How were you introduced to that world?
OPIUO: It’s easy to forget that when you’re really involved in something in one part of the world, that everywhere else in the world—right now—something is going on. Growing up, I was around festivals from a super young age, as young as I can remember. The first memories I have of music were being at a festival on my parents’ land. Or when I was in my early teens, I was going to these big raves called “The Gathering”, and they were like … I have friends that I met here back when I first started coming here, but even they would go to New Zealand to this “The Gathering”. It was electronic music, nearly 100% and it was world-renowned. There was a Trance stage, a House stage, a Hardcore stage, a Drum n Bass stage, a chill-out stage, and it was very specific on all the different genres of music.
We were lucky because people were coming from all over the world to be there, to little old New Zealand on top of the hill, maybe 8,000 people or something. To us, it was next-level. And so, I was just really fortunate to be around that at such a young age, being in that small-town world and not having that access. I’m thankful that my parents were just really into music, and knew lots of really cool people, and they wanted to put on parties. Yeah, I was really lucky.
BG: Was there a song, or a party, or even a moment when you knew this was where you wanted to be; that you were a part of this culture? When you wanted to be a DJ or a producer, full-on? When you were like, ‘Holy shit, I need to be doing this all the time?’
OPIUO: I’ll never forget the one moment, back in ’99 or ’00, I was already really into part of that culture, but more like… I was playing in different bands, and I went to the one [The Gathering] in ’99/2000, and I remember standing in the middle of the Trance stage, just standing there, watching it all fully going on around me, the lasers in every direction, the full-on sound, and I just … I was never the same, you know? [Laughs] It was a full sensory thing. The power of this electronic music, that was the first moment I really experienced that.
BG: That has to be incredible, that sort of transcendental moment when time stops, and you’re just awestruck with what you’re living and experiencing. And now here you are, delivering that moment to thousands of people night in, night out.
OPIUO: I do pinch myself, but still, I don’t take any of it for granted, and I really have always tried to keep to that. You can say it, but to really not take things for granted can sometimes be tough. Because you sometimes do treat it like a job, and sometimes it is tough to be out there doing it, day in, day out. It turns into this chore, you know? So, you’ve just gotta pull yourself back and be like, “I don’t have to do this.” Then I realize that I love what I am doing, and it’s exactly what I was experiencing back then—in that moment at the Trance stage.
I always hark back to those dreams I had, dreams where I’d go somewhere to play, and pick up my parents up in a car after flying in from overseas, and they’d come watch the show. Now, I’ve done that a few times at Red Rocks, and at different shows around the world. A good 10, 12 years ago, I wrote a list of dreams I wanted to accomplish, and I did accomplish all of them within a couple years. Then I thought, you know, I hadn’t really written a new list. Those things are really good for you, and they’re huge goals that are just way outside your mind. So I need a new list!
BG: You made an offhand comment about being in bands, and I certainly notice the innate musicality within your particular brand of electronic music. Big melodies, bright synths, funky bass, a lot of elastic dynamics. Plus heaping slabs of FUNK! What is your history with instrumentation—with playing music, playing instruments—and how did you sort of incorporate that into the electronic OPIUO alchemy, if you will?
OPIUO: For me, I’ve always been really heavy on groove, and the first music I was making electronically was sort of deep dub music. New Zealand’s got a huge dub scene, and I guess being an island kind of vibe, there is a little reggae and all that. I grew up around all that music, so that’s what I was making early on, and I was in bands who were playing more punk, rock, ska, and stuff like that. Soon, I kind of moved into drum & bass, and then some breaks-y stuff.
And then one day I just decided I’m just going to slow it down and try and make that same thing slower. And I have no real idea where … I knew I was taking Trance elements from all this music that blew me away back in ’99, and all the things I loved about all these other styles of music. But there was always something else, I just wanted to make it mine. It’s weird because when you play something and you have not heard anything like it before, it’s really quite nerve-wracking. You ask yourself, “Are people going to like it?”
With instrumentation, I tried to use what I knew of drums, but also use all the different elements to make the groove, not just drums, but all rhythmic elements. I did learn piano for a little bit, but I didn’t like it. I asked my mom years ago, “Why didn’t you make me continue to learn piano?” And she said, “Well, you didn’t want to do it, so I wasn’t going to make you” [Laughs]
I think for me, I just wanted to make music that I would enjoy experiencing somewhere. And I don’t know music theory super well. I’m half deaf. I don’t have technical ability. I don’t know loads about synths, but I just really enjoy what I’m doing, and when I hear something I like, I put it in there. So, I really think anyone can do it, they just have to find that confidence and develop the skills to pull that out of them, you know?
BG: What is your writing process like? If not on an instrument, per se, how do you make your ideas into reality?
OPIUO: I love very musical realities. Finding whatever it is, and not even knowing if … Half the time I’ll ask a friend who is very talented on an instrument, “Is that right? Is that progression okay?” And they’re like, “Yeah, that sounds great.” I’m like, “What is it?” I’m trying to figure it out for myself, you know? Musicians are saying it’s really musical, and it’s cool to hear because I don’t really know. Just comes out of me.
BG: You have adapted your electronic music into other forms of performance that are not the EDM norm. Not only The OPIUO Live Band, but you did the unthinkable, and basically reverse-engineered a full orchestra playing your original music, at Red Rocks no less! Lots of DJ/producers have an electronic live band, and a select few have even done an orchestra, but I really don’t know that anyone’s ever actually completely broken down the components of electronic music, and then re-created the art onstage in that capacity.
OPIUO: I got offered a Red Rocks date, and my manager Morgan [Young] asks, “What do you want to do this time?” And I said, “An orchestra” [Laughs]. It was something I’ve always wanted to do. I talked about it before then for a while, just to my friends. I’m just like, “Imagine doing an orchestra,” just kind of in passing, that’s how I kind of start ideas. I’m always a little bit overloaded with ideas, and if I don’t try and just tell someone, or talk about it, it doesn’t become reality in my mind.
I spent the first few months just by myself figuring out how I wanted to approach it. Tom Hagerman, a composer and concertmaster, joined me in creating the music for the orchestra. So it just slowly became reality. We just started figuring it out. On the production side, I had to ask myself, “How are we going to balance the sound, to make it so it actually is impactful?” Not just some electronic beats on top of an orchestra. Everybody wanted it to be living inside.
OPIUO X SYZYGY ORCHESTRA – Red Rocks – 4/21/18
[Video: Official Opiuo]
BG: Tom Hagerman was your co-pilot for this mission? What was his role, and did he vibe with your vision?
OPIUO: Tom helped write, arrange, and transcribe, and he understood my vision very well. We were really getting in there and pulling it all apart, and then rebuilding it. Right down to the last week I was still choosing the instruments, and setting the tone of things. We went into every song, and even just small things like a lead that would be happening. I was like, “Okay, I want some violins to be around this.” We’d call it “play the guts.” Or, “I’m going to leave that sound in there, but I’m going to EQ the rest of it out.” The performance was really built around the sonics as much as it was the melodic side of things. Because I really wanted the sound to be full, but I didn’t want any competition between instruments. It really felt like those instruments were actually playing the songs, not just on top of beats.
BG: Did you employ a similar process with The OPIUO Live Band?
OPIUO: When I played with my band, we toured for three years, and it was the same thing. Deconstructed and rebuilt the music. Some of the drums, the electronic-ness of my sound, we just couldn’t get rid of that really pure awesomeness! So, some songs would be EQ’d and compressed completely differently to be able to work with a live drum kit, and the triggers were all different, too.
The Opiuo Band & Haywyre Tour Recap 2017
[Video: Official Opiuo]
BG: Seems like artistic evolution is at the core of everything with you.
OPIUO: I think I need to keep it fresh in that way because I don’t know what’s next. And I really don’t. I never want to rest on anything. I always want to be able to bring it back to just me, because that’s at the purest form of what I do. I go back to the times when I was on the dance floor, and it was just a DJ playing some tunes, and I was lost in the music, and that’s it. I wasn’t watching anything. But then, I also want to build it all the way to a huge show, where you’ve got a visual feast and everything going on all around you, as well. So, I think whatever comes next is probably going to be even more deconstructed, because the band was a leading force to learn how to do that.
BG: In light of the fact that you are so serious about sound design, how does being hearing impaired affect your process or experience on stage?
OPIUO: I just try not to think about it too much. I reckon there’s a lot of things we can overthink every day. There are things that are really important to think about, and there are a lot of things that there’s not much you can do about it. This is one of those. I had six months of not really being able to sleep from the ringing in my ears. Years ago, I had cysts removed from behind my eardrums, that’s how it started, and most of my life I’ve had depleted hearing, but nothing full on. Now it’s basically all gone. 12 years ago, I had the first major, major operation that made most of it go.
I do feel like it is a blessing more than anything, because I don’t know if I’d be pushing myself as hard. I might be like, “I’ll release this whenever.” Now, it’s sort of created this energy that is about doing it now, you know?
And it took a long time to get to a place of not being worried about losing the hearing in my other ear. So, it was like, “Shit, do I do shows?” Because I was concerned about the danger of getting more hearing damage from sound. This ear’s hearing loss isn’t from sound. It’s a physical thing, but still, it was on my mind for a long time. Of course, my mortality hit once I had a child. I used to be fine with heading out on tour, but now I often don’t want to leave, I want to stay home with my child, my family.
But then, in the end, it’s like, “What are we here for?” We’re here to live life, and really to do something with that, and we all can. And sometimes I feel like I am really fortunate to have the mind to be motivated and positive about those kinds of things, because I have seen people suffer from hearing loss, and it really killed their career and killed their energy for sound and music.
BG: Let’s switch some gears and talk about your passion for the visualization of your art and for graphic design. When did you start to incorporate that? Does it work hand-in-hand in concert with the music, as one big concept, or are they separate entities that you’re bringing to the stage?
OPIUO: It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I’m a bit of an OCD control freak as well, and I have certain visions, the way I like to see things done. It’s like when you want something done a certain way, and you know how you want to do it, well then you might as well try and do it, you know? So, I’ve learned how to take animations that I’ve had created and turn them into songs, basically, in ways that I’ve always seen in my mind.
Now, we’re a full light show that’s completely programmed, and it’s all triggered off with me and my guy, Matt. We figured out ways that we could play the drum machines, and it would link directly, instantly to a DMX language, and the lights would go, and all the different things would react off exactly what I was doing on stage instead of having someone try to follow it, or instead of having a time code show that was perfect pre-show.
BG: Sometimes imperfect is cooler. Gives it personality and authenticity.
OPIUO: When I was a little bit out of time, you could hear it, but you could also see it, and I like that shit. I like the reality of that. I’ve taken on more control of the other things that are going to be on stage. I like learning how to do things, and then trying them. I like trying them in our own way, too, instead of asking someone, “Hey, can you program a thing for me and I’ll do it.” It’s like, I want to know how it all works, so on the road in the middle of a tour I can just change it, you know? [Laughs]
I come from the old school in a sense, in the way that I like an amazing party with very minimal visual elements. Because sometimes, it’s just about the music. Focus on the music. So sometimes, you want to bring it back to that, but then add things to it that are just really tasty, so they compliment the music—instead of getting totally lost in the show, and wondering “what am I even listening to?”
BG: SYZYGY 02 is about to drop! I looked up the definition to “syzygy”: the alignment of three or more cosmic bodies. What does SYZYGY mean to OPIUO? Is there story behind this series?
OPIUO: Same as my name, it doesn’t really mean anything! I really don’t want to put a lot of pressure on that reality because it doesn’t really matter what I think it is. As soon as you hear it, it’s yours, and you’ve already made the story in your mind. I could write this big long thing about it, and the colors that I explain, you won’t see those colors. You might, you might not. Maybe if I tell you that you’ll see them, then you’ll see them, but if I didn’t tell you, you’ll see something completely different. So, I don’t really want to plant too much of that seed in too many people’s minds.
OPIUO – “Kaleidoscope” [Official Music Video]
[Video: Official Opiuo]
BG: I get that. You create it, put it out, and then the story is in the ears, the mind, and the heart of the beholder. I can respect that.
OPIUO: I get challenged by the pressure I put on myself, to improve. I hope SYZYGY 02 is the best I’ve done so far. It’s music that I’ve made for the dance floor, it’s music that I’ve made just to groove to, and hang out over time. And the SYZYGY series was a way just to be able to be like, “Here’s some, here’s now. Let’s go!” And really it’s about the relationship between me and you, the music, the fans, and the shows. And… that’s it. That’s as far as it goes for me.
OPIUO – SYZYGY 02 – Full Album