August 27, 2012

John O’Regan is tall: six foot four and lean, with a confidence of stature that aggrandizes him even more. I’m meeting John O, the artist also known as Diamond Rings, at EMI HQ on Fifth Avenue near the Flatiron. His people have scheduled a full press day for him to promote his upcoming album, Free Dimensional, out October 23. We have twenty minutes.

Diamond Rings—that’s John O’Regan plus, this record around, a backup band—performed for a press showcase the night before at Le Baron. His look that night echoed Elvis in Vegas, all white and shine, with the queer touch of a rainbow guitar strap. Today he is in his Chicago Bulls best; a Homer Simpson stickered vintage edition of Existentialism is a Humanism by Sartre is his prop.

I have seen John O’Regan perform as Diamond Rings over a half dozen times, and every show, no matter my company, is followed by the same exchange of nattering praise. John O is a performer who inspires effusiveness because, “he’s just so good.” Not only does he have, “such a fierce aesthetic—he’s like David Bowie and Klaus Nomi and Grace Jones and Annie Lennox and Robyn but still original,” he’s also one of the finest lyricists of our generation: “a brilliant songwriter… a true pop artist.” Did I mentioned he is, “the most incredible performer,” with, “a sexy voice that never falters”? “We love you, John O!”

Behind the photogenic fashioning, the lyrics that makes your heart go wah, and the chills-and-schwing performance, is a lot of thought. Two minutes into my twenty and I’m convinced of his genius. It’s bell hooks and theories of performativity and band references I just nod along to. (Someone give this kid a MacArthur already.) You don’t want to listen to me. It’s just him.

Let’s talk about your vision. You have an intellectual aesthetic that I see promoted through your whole pop package.
Yeah. I think for sure the record—from the album title straight through song by song to the videos to the album cover—follow this fairly distinct aesthetic. I think for me that aesthetic is based on confidence and self-empowerment and willingness to embrace diversity, not only diversity within groups of people, but within the music sonically. I really wanted to try and push myself to try everything out on the record.

I’ve always found it interesting how you seem comfortable with homage and pastiche. I mostly recognize the aesthetic homages. I honestly don’t know that much about music history. But I know fashion and its iconography. I see you taking on all these cues and folding them into your own identity.
Yeah! I think we’re at a really interesting point in time where it’s impossible not to be influenced by what’s come before us. It’s possible now to spend one’s entire life watching, cataloging, and organizing the videos on YouTube. That’s something I grapple with when actually creating new content. Like, “Is there a point to this? [Laughs] Has everything been said already?” For starters, no. Lyrically there’s room for a relevant and modern discourse in any kind of music. In books and magazines, too. We can talk about what is happening, and more of that talk is centered around how we as a generation are navigating that whole sea of information that’s in front of us. For me and my role as an artist, it becomes about making my own sort of catalog or greatest hits.

Can you list them? Your aesthetic references?
For sure Bowie is inescapable. I get that a lot. Like, “Oh this is just like Bowie.” And I’m like, “Well, yeah kind of!” That’s the root of a lot of what I do. It just is. Klaus Nomi for sure. Grace Jones for sure. Those are sort of the big three that I always get. But people forget that I’m also really into Kraftwerk, I’m into Devo. I’m into, yeah, Elvis; as an icon he’s huge. I’m into groups like N.W.A and Public Enemy, rap crews that have a unified aesthetic. Those groups, in turn, were influenced by sports and sports culture. I grew up playing sports and playing on teams so a lot of my aesthetic sensibility is informed by the uniform: by bright, bold colors, and stark obvious patterns. Super graphic logos. Air Force Ones.

I’m only now just starting to get into fashion because when I started I had, like, no money. I was like, “What can I find at the thrift store and put together in a cool way that’s gonna look weird?” [Laughs] I was like stealing my mom’s tights. She used to do aerobics and I’d be going home and taking her tights with me to wear for shows. I couldn’t even go to American Apparel and buy the leggings.

Now I’ve started to realize that there’s like a precedent to all of this in fashion. Whether that’s the Issey Miyake stuff that Grace Jones wore or more contemporary designers that I really like, like Raf Simons or Rad Hourani, people that are taking androgyny a step further.

Let’s talk about your performance of androgyny.
I’m not just interested in, “I’m a guy so I’m going to be a girl and I’m a girl so I’m going to look like this very literal kind of transformation of a guy.” I’m interested in moving that into something that’s a little less defined. I find often times with just flipping things 180 degrees, you end up with the most obvious and recognizable stereotypes of another thing. I know that’s never sat right with me personally. I like the idea of unisex as a term instead of androgyny.

Growing up playing sports and being in a very heteronormative culture—I grew up in the suburbs of Toronto in a factory town playing hockey—wasn’t always really easy for me. I don’t think it was easy for a lot of people. Diamond Rings is a way to circumvent those norms and explore a different side of who I am. I find more and more that that person is kind of in between. But the cool thing is that sometimes that in-between space can be more extreme and unsettling. Exploring that space is what I’m interested in doing, sonically and aesthetically.

Do you read queer theory? Are you [ahem] “versed in that discourse”?
Not as much as I would be if I had taken more gender studies classes when I was in art school. But I started to pick up a lot of that stuff outside of school. Obviously: Judith Butler. Her essay “Love as the Practice of Freedom” was really inspiring for me writing the record. This idea of love as a powerful emotion but also as a political action. I think as an artist and a musician especially, that’s such a common thing that runs through the history of music. Reading that essay was such a big wake-up call. I was like, holy shit, maybe there’s a reason everyone’s singing about this. Maybe this is something I can address in my music in a way that’s still new and relevant, and isn’t trite or doesn’t pander. Because often when things get oversimplified something gets lost. So the challenge for me is about expressing those emotions in a way that’s relatable but that’s also still nuanced.

I feel like when I listen to a lot of pop songs I’m being told how to feel. Told to feel jealous or told to feel righteous about something.
Or told to feel different. And that’s the new thing that really irks me about some of the music that’s out. I think it’s great, but it’s weird when the message you get from a song is, “Be weird, join my fan club. I’m weird, so be like me.” At the end of the day, I want what I do to be empowering. Don’t spend all day learning how to play my songs and uploading a video of you playing a Diamond Rings song on Youtube. Make your own music, come up with your own aesthetic. That’s what I did and I think that’s what anyone can do. So it’s tough, but self-empowerment ultimately comes from within. It’d be great if people look up to me for what I do, but it shouldn’t end there. I’m just doing what I do and spitting it out.

Photography by Norman Wong

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