John O'Regan knows his shit. To be fair, the man who writes and performs as Diamond Rings has a master grasp of style. If you saw him as I did last september, towering blondly in athletic stage gear over a horde of young, flamboyant fans outsider the 930 Club while Stars' Torquin Campbell paced V Street, unnoticed, singing scales to himself in a rumpled wool suit, you'd be forgiven for thinking he was all gravy and no poutine.
But a Diamond Rings stage show, bolstered by futuristic stage wear and a well-travelled backing band that includes Miracle Fortress' Graham Van Pelt, displays a more-than-solid synth/rock hybrid sound and an extremely compelling (think male Robyn) frontman in O'Regan. This is made especially clear during a green-room interview, when he proves to be the most fun kind of subject, a music dork, not getting rankled at questions about Depeche Mode and David Bowie, showing off the uniquely Canadian superpower of keeping all Dan Koeckner's projects, from Wolf Parade to Divine Fits, straight and sounding off on the relative merits of each one.
O'Regan is bringing Diamond Rings back around the county for a spring/summer tour with like-minded legends OMD, and I highly suggest checking it out, if for nothing else than to experience the future's version of yesterday's hottest sounds.
Zach Rosen: You say right in the first track on Free Dimensional, "I was taught to know the difference in boy and girl names." How do you feel about labels? Do you consider yourself part of the queer community?
John O'Regan: The reason I prefer not to label myself has more to do with what other people bring to a word like "queer." There is still a lot of prejudice, intolerance and closed-mindedness in the world and the music community. As an artist who just wants to be open to experieincing the world, to be free and make statements that can touch everyone, it feels right to me just to be who I am, to not define myself as one thing or the other thing or some compromise between two poles.
Rosen: Have you started to see your fan base get annoyed about that yet?
O'Regan: A little bit. I guess maybe it's understandable, but, again, I don't think that I or any other artist has a responsibility to fit into someones else's box. For a lot of my life, I've really wished that I could conform to hetero- or homonormative, but it's not who I am.
Rosen: Have you always had this great personal style? Were you this funky when you were 10 or 12?
O'Regan: I lost it a bit in my teens. I grew up in an industrial town and played sports: hockey, field lacrosse, basketball... I did everything. I think that's part of where the styling of the current stage show comes from, why it's so athletic. I love all that stuff, but there's not a lot of room for self-expression in the world of sports. That's why I turned to music and to art. There is more room to experiment with style, to be the kind of person you want to be, to discover the kind of person you want to be.
Rosen: Who helped you out with that, musically?
O'Regan: A bunch of bands from Toronto from when I moved to the city and was starting out: Hidden Cameras, Kids on TV, really aggressively, in-your-face queer groups that were really performative. What struck me most about them was probably just how they created their own world and their own space in the world. That's what great artists do.
The world is often a hostile place. Music and art, for me, is a way to build my own world within that. I don't pretend to have all the answers or the ability to change anything, but at the very least I can create something that feels right for me. I can hold it up to the world as a model of being yourself, but for me it's not about wanting other people to be like me.
That's something that hurts me about a lot of mainstream music: It's cool to be weird, all of a sudden. As much as that's great, I think it's important not to lose sight of the fact that not everyone has to be weird if they don't want to be.
Rosen: Right. What happens if you're just actually a weirdo?
O'Regan: Exactly! I'm certainly not the weirdest one out there, but it shouldn't have to be this competition. If people get anything from my performance, my record, my songs, I think I want to just let people know it's OK to be themselves, whatever that is.
Rosen: Vince Clark, Robert Smith and David Bowie: Fuck, marry or kill?
O'Regan: Bowie is the biggest influence for me of those three. In a more overarching sense, though, I get compared to him a lot, which I suppose is understandable. I never really felt that I wanted to be David Bowie, but when something is new, fans or journalists or whoever have to find ways to categorize your music, an artist like myself who is trying to make music that is very hard to explain. I wanted the album to explode people's conception of drama and style.
Rosen: Something I think you do well is actually being a synth-rock band, not synth-pop or some kind of impression of '80s music. Free Dimensional was dark and loud and was mixed with so many great glam influences. What is your relationship to Depeche Mode?
O'Regan: I didnt really start listening to them until the record was already done. My co-producer Damian Taylor is from the UK. He's played in Björk's band, played with the Prodigy, done a lot of really cool shit. As we were recording, we started listening to Violator. I've gone back and heard other albums. There's a similarity, for sure, but less of an intentional one than you'd think.
Rosen: The two rising trends right now seem to be synths and dubstep, and I feel like they're in opposition to each other. I can listen to your album a few times and feel something different, but I can't imagine listening to Skrillex when I'm home gardening with my dog.
O'Regan: I don't personally listen to dubstep. I do in the sense that it's a major cultural phenomenon; it's impacted a lot of people in a serious way. I get upset when artists make light of things they don't like and don't make an effort to understand them, but I'm about songs; I'm about lyrics, bridges and choruses. If you look at the only genre where people still buy records, they buy country albums by the fucking wheelbarrow-full. I'm not big on country music either. At the end of the day, I have to put something forth to the world that feels real and honest to me.
Rosen: You write great love songs. Are you in love with someone?
O'Regan: My songs are certainly about people and experiences that I've had.
Rosen: There's not one person behind all of them?
O'Regan: No. Even if there were, I'm the kind of artist and music fan, first and foremost, that lives to bring my own interpretation to a body of work that somebody else wrote. I don't want to know what it's about. If it's true and real and good enough, you can get all you need without the Us Weekly backstory, like finding out that Jagged Little Pill is about Dave Coulier. That really affects the way I listen to that record!
There's an innate human desire that has always been prevalent, even more so now: the desire to know everything in the entire world, whatever you can. It's great to indulge in our human curiosities, but when it comes to art and poetry, some element of mystery is important and really powerful. The song is about people, but that should be evident. It's about what I'm saying, not who I'm saying it to.