Diamonds Are Forever: An interview with Diamond Rings

Canada’s John O’Regan dropped on the music scene in late 2009 as Diamond Rings and has since become a symbol of glam iconography with his androgynous looks and increasingly confident stage presence. On his first record “Special Affections” (2010), O’Regan dabbled in the bravado of sparkly synth pop, but spent a lot of the album behind a guitar, yearning for a better life and bemoaning the heartache of past loves. Two years later he’s still got his guitar but he’s found what he considers to be the true vision of Diamond Rings, which is a pulsating reincarnation of early ‘90s club-pop.

On “Free Dimensional,” the only thing more self-assured than the dancing keyboards and the bump-and-clap beats are O’Regan’s lyrics and the manner in which they’re delivered. No less than three times do we hear O’Regan spitting out fast rhymes like a rave-rap MC without the slightest modicum of irony. O’Regan is beyond being concerned with you loving him; he’s more interested in loving you.

The title of “Free Dimensional”’s first single “I’m Just Me” was printed across free buttons handed out at Diamond Rings’ recent showcase at Manhattan’s Le Baron, his first New York show with a band and one that featured no songs from “Special Affections.” When I overheard O’Regan speaking with a fan after his opening spot for Stars at Webster Hall a few weeks later, he passively brushed off his older work when talking to a fan, saying that he was “kind of over it.” That dismissal is more of less what he unveiled to me when we caught up at the EMI offices in Midtown Manhattan among many other things.

When off-stage, O’Regan spares the articulate make-up job in place of a baseball cap, a T-shirt and blue jeans (one can imagine that Robert Smith didn’t rise every morning and smear powder and lipstick on his face either). He gives off the impression that he’s been answering a lot of the same questions a lot that morning at first but as he and I ease into the interview, we uncover some unique elements that make him more excited to talk, like the forgotten beauty of rave-rap, the influence of YouTube-skimming and his Toronto pride.

This is your first record that you’ve made while being signed to Astralwerks. Does it make you nervous delivering a record that may need to live up to record company expectations?

A little bit but its stuff like that that I try to not spend too much time thinking about. Same thing as when I’m playing a really big show. You can’t really think about the reality of what you’re doing.

Is it easier playing with a band?

Yes in a lot of ways. I did a lot of work conceptualizing and figuring out how I wanted the band to look, to sound, what kind of instruments they were going to play and how we were going to re-represent the album in a live setting.

At the show I saw you at Le Baron, you guys didn’t play anything from your first record.

I am more interested at this moment in time in focusing on what’s new. Not only because I’m most excited about it, but what’s new has been written and imagined for a band. Those earlier songs have a special place with me and my fans and we’ve picked up on a few of them but some of those don’t really work to the extent that the others do.

There’s a definite difference in sound between “Special Affections” and “Free Dimensional.” Do you feel that this record is closer to what you want from this project?

I think that’s a pretty accurate assessment. The first album was very much an attempt at playing at the idea of being a pop artist with limited means. I think there’s something beautiful in striving for something and not quite hitting the nail on the head.

At a certain level, music becomes really scientific and I was not a math kid. [laughs] “I’m gonna be an artist I’m never gonna have to do math!” Actually no you have to pay your taxes and if you want to make electronic music you have to know about frequency and hertz and all that stuff so that’s where my eyes glaze over so [producer Damian Taylor] was great at being able to focus and spend the time on understanding what I wanted.

He has some really young kids so he’d bring his daughter in and she’s a big Britney fan so we spent a lot of time just A-B-ing Rihanna with Britney.

Who do you prefer?

Oh man. It depends on the track honestly. With artists like that that aren’t really songwriters it’s sort of like, “who’s your producer; who are you working with?” There are some Rihanna songs that are great and there’s others that I don’t care for but they’re both cool. I think [“Free Dimensional”] was more or less born out of my fascination with that world…sort of hyper-distilled pop.

Where do the songs start?

There’s only a couple of songs that started acoustically…Originally the idea was I wanted no guitar on the record. I was like “screw that!” and then I started realizing…because there is a lot of talk now, as there always is, like “Guitars suck! Guitars are dead! Guitars are over!” and then it’s like “Guitars are back!”

I think there’s a cool character within the guitar. Someone strumming a guitar is really cool. But it has less of a place as a primary instrument in music. I think there’s a lot that’s been said through the guitar and I’m not sure how much left there is to say but I think as a complementary voice, it is sort of unparalleled. So it’s kind of back in the family but by and large it was more of an album written digitally.

Lyrically this is a more positive record than “Special Affections.”

Yeah that’s fair. The first one, I don’t think of it as being the opposite of that but it was less confident and more uncertain. This one feels like a fuller step. Every song I wanted to be more confident. Lyrically and sonically everything has an energy and confidence that was lacking.

I feel the confidence factor is obvious considering you rap on three tracks on this album.

[Laughs] I listen to hip-hop but to be honest contemporary hip-hop I feel sounds really, not just metaphorically but literally, half-baked. It doesn’t really turn my crank. A lot of [the rapping on the album] comes from my obsession with hip-house and rap-house and techno. Like stuff spanning from the ‘80s to early ‘90s which I think is some of the best music. There are some tracks where you got the babe and she’s just belting it out and three quarters of the way through the rap dude comes in…

I mean the first thing I thought of when I heard a lot of these songs was Real McCoy.

Yeah! Exactly that kind of stuff which I think sadly got totally buried by grunge. It unfairly got dismissed as being fluffy or “European” you know? I think some of that stuff is really aggressive, like if you listen to something like “The Power” by Snap! Those songs are massive.

I feel in a lot of ways the record is a pastiche of my favorite sounds. Most the snares are from the LinnDrum which is like Prince, Peter Gabriel, all that stuff. The raps come from Eurodance and the guitars come from, you know, grunge. I sort of have this personal greatest hits list of these sounds I like. I think it’s really easy to get caught up in making these rules for oneself that kind of don’t make sense, like “Oh, I only record on 4-track.” But why do you do that? It’s like for the first time ever you can do whatever you want.

What do you find yourself listening to when you’re making a record?

My first two weeks in the studio were like a YouTube party. We were all over the place with everything from Kylie Minogue to The-Dream to Kraftwerk to Nirvana to Run-DMC to looking up weird Chicago house groups. But in a way that’s different, like “How do we make that snare drum sound”?

Oh, so it was like an educational YouTube skim?

Yeah, for both of us. And sort of getting into each other’s minds and each other’s history. Like [Damian]’s got a few years on me and he’s worked with some really cool artists. He’s been the musical director for Björk on tour and he’s produced The Prodigy. So we’d be watching old techno clips on YouTube and he could be writing emails to dudes in the band being like “You guys know what sample that is in this track?” and you get an email back from the singer of The Prodigy being like “Yeah yeah it’s this.” So that was really cool to be able to access someone’s personal rolodex…not even just the people they’ve worked with, but also someone’s musical history.

Any favorite records from last year? Any favorite records from this year?

Yeah, shit…Azari and III who are really great house group from Toronto.

Oh yeah they are great. I’ve never heard their name said out loud before.

[Laughs] Yeah, “three!” It’s “third.” That record is great. The singles are bangers and it’s got some really great dark instrumental moments. Some of the new Drake tracks are great. A lot of the stuff that’s coming out right now that I’m really excited about is coming from Toronto and I think what’s really cool is that Canada is having this moment where we’re not trying to ape or emulate what’s going on in America. It’s more like “this is what we’re gonna do.” So when I hear stuff that comes from Toronto that doesn’t sound like from the U.K. or somewhere else, that really excites me.

It’s cool that people are sort of getting it now that Canada has a great music scene. I remember in the late ‘90s there was a great Canadian band that had a minor hit here called Bran Van 3000.

Yeah, “Drinking in L.A.”! My guitar player on tour, he’s still 26. We’ve been to L.A. with him twice by now so that’s been his theme song. But yeah they’re from Montreal. There’s moments where a group or an artist kind of peaks through, but it does feel like for whatever it’s worth…that it’s great that some of these artists [from Canada] are just out there making music.

“Free Dimensional” will be out on Astralwerks on October 22. Check out the video for “I’m Just Me” below.