Diamond Rings gets ambitious

John O’Regan is not ashamed to admit that he wants it all: mass appeal, artistic freedom, and hot uniforms
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When theStraight calls Diamond Rings on the road in Santa Cruz, California, the talk quite naturally turns to major-league sports-team uniforms. No, really—the topic seems to awaken the Toronto musician’s inner Chatty Cathy, and once he gets rolling, your humble correspondent isn’t about to stop him.

In + out

John O’Regan sounds off on the things enquiring minds want to know.

On his all-time favourite team uniforms: “Toronto Blue Jays uniforms from the early ’90s were great. I guess the Oakland Raiders; their stuff now is pretty true to how it’s always been. I think they have a really great look. That stuff is cool, but things now are just way over-complicated. Too much going on. Too many gross colours, not enough right angles. Not enough simplicity.”

On what touring with Robyn in 2011 taught him: “She’s not out partying every night or anything like that. The show’s very much something that her and her band and her whole team really focus on and strive to do as well as possible every single night. And that’s what you have to do, especially now, to be a musician.”

On finding creative balance: “When I’m composing, when I’m writing, when I’m performing, I’m always trying to put myself into that sort of liminal zone between comfort and discomfort, between quiet and loud, between safety and…whatever the opposite of safety is.”

It turns out that sporting attire has been of interest to Diamond Rings (known to his friends as John O’Regan) since he was a kid. That goes a long way toward explaining why, on recent appearances on the Late Show With David Letterman and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, the members of his backing band wore identical outfits. The ensemble included a black cap and a matching baseball jacket, with the result splitting the difference between Janet Jackson’s backup dancers circa “Rhythm Nation” and those thugs in N.W.A.

“Even from a really young age, I’d always be drawing or doodling or planning some sort of fantastic thing,” O’Regan says. “So I spent a lot of time just making up imaginary team uniforms and drawing running shoes and stupid stuff like that. There’s something really great about the aesthetic—it’s bold, it’s direct, and I think, in a way, unifying. You know, that’s what a uniform does, and I think that they get a bit of a bad rap. Uniforms can be just as empowering as they can disempowering. I’ve worked shitty jobs that require you to wear a uniform, and that sucks, but I think when it’s coming more from a team sort of perspective, it can be really liberating and bond people together in a neat way. All my favourite groups have uniforms, whether that’s N.W.A. or Kraftwerk. I think a unified aesthetic really goes a long way in establishing an identity.”

You wouldn’t think that would be much of a problem for Diamond Rings. With his signature blond quiff and a propensity for cosmetics that rivals glam-era David Bowie, O’Regan is hard to miss. The music on his sophomore album, Free Dimensional, is equally singular, with the singer’s effortlessly tuneful baritone the focal point of a batch of hook-heavy electro pop. Not that it all sounds the same, mind you. Far from it: “Everything Speaks” will hit Depeche Mode fans squarely in their darkwave-loving hearts, but “Runaway Love” is a guitar-charged rocker and “Day & Night” is an R&B jam set to a Hot 97–approved snap beat.

“I trust and believe that a lot of music fans are open to a lot of different sounds now,” O’Regan says of his eclectic catalogue. “It’s not just about, ‘Oh, I’m only into punk,’ or ‘I’m only into rock,’ or ‘I’m only into rap.’ No one says that anymore. At least, not many people—especially me. This is just about me trying, as a music fan myself first and foremost, to lay all my cards out on the table, and try a bit of everything I’m into as a fan. And hopefully that comes across.”

It does, and what else comes across is that Free Dimensional was designed to appeal to the masses—not through pandering to lowest-common-denominator tastes, but through the universal allure of quality pop songwriting. And it didn’t hurt having producer Damian Taylor (Björk, Austra, Robyn) onboard to give the whole affair a high-gloss sheen that marks the new LP as a major step up from the bedroom synth pop of Diamond Rings’ 2010 debut, Special Affections.

O’Regan’s unabashed ambition puts him in the ideological company of Twin Shadow’s George Lewis Jr., who released a similarly polished record, Confess, earlier this year. Lewis, who teamed up with Diamond Rings for a tour last fall, boldly told the Straight in August that he wanted to create something that “communicates with tons and tons of people across many different cultures, that spans time and spans distance”.

“I think we both share that goal,” O’Regan affirms, “and I think that maybe the reason a lot of people don’t own up to that is because it’s kind of a risky thing to say. You run the risk of people thinking that you’re arrogant or conceited or delusional, or any of those things. It’s really easy to talk about your music in a way that’s nonchalant, or dismissive I guess, or to say, ‘I don’t really want you to like it,’ or ‘You don’t get it,’ or ‘You’re not supposed to get it,’ or any of that kind of crap. I feel like I’ve done all that too.

“The hardest, most challenging thing for me in making this new record was to just really try as hard as possible to make something that people were going to enjoy, and that I was going to enjoy, and that was going to fulfill me creatively while also still hopefully bringing other people in,” O’Regan continues. “I think that’s what music’s supposed to do. It’s supposed to connect with people in a meaningful way.”

Just because he’s aiming at a wider audience, however, don’t think that O’Regan has any fear of treading into dicey artistic areas. Rapping, for example. He’s busted out rhymes before, both as Diamond Rings and with his band Matters, but never to such an extent; three songs on Free Dimensional feature O’Regan’s raps.

“It’s not exactly really uncharted territory for me,” he says. “I’ve just never put together, I suppose, a string of songs on an album with me talking really quickly and rhyming all the words. But for me, it’s just about always following my heart and letting the song lead me in the direction it wants to go. Maybe that sounds really flaky or new age-y, but honestly when I sit down and write a song, I don’t really have much control over where that song is going to end up. I can come up with a chord progression and a sort of general idea, but at some point you just have to do what feels right.”

To O’Regan’s credit, he’s pretty credible as an MC. He doesn’t even pretend to be hard-core, which is wise, because let’s face it: no one is going to mistake Diamond Rings for a member of N.W.A., no matter how many guys in black ball caps he has standing behind him.

Diamond Rings plays Fortune Sound Club on Saturday (November 17).

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