Saturday, December 27, 2014

"Musical Schizophrenic"- A conversation with London indie pop artist Oscar

Oscar Scheller's a self-described "musical schizophrenic." If the London native's not recording bright, love-struck indie pop under the mononym Oscar, he's staying up in his flat until 5 in the morning recording "crusty acid house" with his friend Guy as Claude Money or dabbling in shifting garage music. He's a classically trained art school grad who wrote a dissertation on "The Emotional Economy of the Sampled Sound" and enjoys the head knocking NYC-rap of Lord Finesse, the careful R&B structuring of Destiny's Child, Ride's intimate shoegaze and infinitely fun baroque pop courtesy of the Kinks' Village Green Preservation Society. Scheller will go nearly a month without working and then have a deluge where he writes multiple songs in a weekend. 

When's he wrapped on one of those new tracks, he'll play it for his mom Rebecca, who he inherited part of his musical "disorder" from. Rebecca would make mixes of current U.K. pop hits for Oscar when he rode to school as a child, and splice in New Order, Blondie and the Slits, because she was "a bit of a punk." And if that weren't enough, Oscar's father Martin was a "Bohemian with a joint in his mouth," who made some of the earliest acid house as Funtopia for Arista. The deal never quite materialized, but Oscar still has stacks of the records from Martin's broke artist days. Music is permanently hardwired into Oscar's DNA and you can hear it in his baritone voice.

Who's at the top of the list of bands you'd like to see?
Modern bands...I wanna see Slowdive, I know they’re an old band, but I wanna see them. They would be top of my list, 100%. 

So you're a shoegaze guy then, have you seen My Bloody Valentine?
I’ve seen My Bloody Valentine, which was, I thought it was pretty amazing. It was so loud that people were kind of throwing up afterwards. It was intense. After a while all the feedback and frequencies made this incredible singing noise. It was beautiful, but deafening.

When did you start listening to bands like that?
I was quite late with guitar music. When I was a teenager, I was into R&B and hip hop. My sister was into drum & bass and U.K. garage and all that kind of stuff, so I kind of took CDs from her room and was involved with that, but I think when I first started listening to shoegaze I was about 17 or 18.

What about it appealed to you?
I suppose like the delicacy of it and the intimacy as well.

Shoegaze isn't unlike R&B in that way.
Oh God yeah. Some of the best R&B is really minimal.

I can hear shoegaze and hip hop elements in a song like "Be Good" but how does R&B fit in?
With the R&B the influence of that is vocally, there are lots of indie singers that could have these crossover soulful voices because they actually sing it's not yelping into a microphone. Julian Casablancas for instance has a great voice. I guess Morrissey as well has got a good voice.

Morrissey is a comparison that comes up a lot for you in the press, why do you think that is?
I don’t think we sound anything a like. I think the reason that people say that is because I sing with my own accent. And as soon as you’re an English band that doesn’t sing in an American accent, you are someone else.

And they seem to suggest you're also gloomy? I just find it funny because I’m really not a miserable person, I’m really silly.

Where does a mistake like that come from?
I think people can’t really work out what it is. I think because my voice is so low, people assume I’m kind of deadpan. And I try to sing higher, but I write songs for where my voice is.

But the whole sad thing is kind of a character and even when I do try to write happy songs, they do come out a bit bittersweet.

When did you first start writing?
I was 13 or 14 and started writing on the piano and it was straight up pop ballad kinds of things. I was listening to a lot of Alicia Keys. It was cheesy and really teenage. 

And then I picked up the guitar when I was 15. My friend showed me a few chords and my mom showed me a few chords too, she could play Buddy Holly.
I was in lots of bands that weren’t mine where I was asked to be the singer. Like from the age of 15 I was in bands and learning how to do that.

Was there any frustration with playing in a band versus solo because there was more to worry about? I think when you’re young, it was a lot easier because we all went to the same school, we all finished school at 4 o’clock, and none of us had girlfriends or real lives, so it was like 'yeah lets go practice and do that gig.' So in a way it was kind of easy, but it didn’t feel like that at the time.

And I started to realize that I really knew what I wanted and I had to sing other people’s lyrics which frankly I didn’t like and it wasn’t the best.

So was performing the plan then or did you want to go to school?
I did the whole art school route; I thought it was the promised land. You read about art school and you read about punk and all the great bands that went there and you think 'God that must be such an exciting place, you can dress how you want and you can just express yourself and do what you want.'

Of course that wasn’t the reality. Capitalism has kind of taken such a stranglehold on any kind of individual education system. It’s no longer a school of art, it’s actually a university which the semantics of are completely different. It's incredibly prescriptive and academic and in a way you can’t really call it art school anymore.

I definitely had a hard time there and that was definitely when I started doing the Oscar stuff. I was so pissed off with art school; I was just spending all my time at home writing and coming in occasionally and showing some work and sort of bullsh***ing.

Was the early music you were doing as Oscar for school at all or just an escape from all the bulls***? It was to get away from all the bulls***... I was kind of going through this conflict with everybody around me saying 'why the f*** can’t I come in and play my album or play my songs?' Because it’s as much art as whatever the painting is or whatever the installation is. So it was definitely the kind of escape from that.

How much of that was a conscious decision?

I was tired of straight indie music going to see boys with guitars. The whole thing was boring and tired. It was all either super electronic or complete rip offs. I wanted to exaggerate the fact that I’m an avid record collector. In a way the art school was helpful in that it makes you quite cynical and does strengthen all your references and makes you look at things in or out of context.

The music came about because I wanted to write pop songs, but I’m real, I’m in a bedroom. I’m not a manufactured artist, so I just kind of did it the way I knew best. I played around with lots of old school drum loops because I didn’t have a drumkit and couldn’t make a noise in my bedroom because I live in a flat. So it was the easiest way to do it. All late at night; just drum loops and singing really quietly into a microphone.

Lo-fi approach intentional or because you don’t have the equipment for it?
It’s not intentional. I think if I had a proper drumkit and I knew how to record it and I had studio time, of course I would love to have the songs fully realized. And in a way the songwriting has been improving. Now the songs I’m writing are kind of like album tracks and they do need a kind of high-fidelity.

I think the next thing is to release a new single or EP. Just keep building it.

Oscar's debut EP 146b is out now on Smalltown Supersound imprint Brown Rice.

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