Sleep disorders, UK parties and deportations, and California highways all encompass the strange but enticing journey embarked on by O. Children as guest contributor Breda Massmann speaks with front man Tobias O’Kandi.
An InterView with Tobias O’Kandi of O. Children
By: Breda Massmann (BMassmann)
Two years ago, the London, UK based O. Children released a self-titled debut album that quickly gained high praise everywhere. The eclectic mix of post-punk, dark rock and beautiful pop-driven melodies was impressively well done, while singer Tobi O’Kandi’s seductive baritone vocals were the icing on the cake. June 4, 2012 saw the release of the second album, entitled Apnea. Apnea is a sleep disorder characterized by abnormal pauses in breathing or instances of abnormally low breathing during sleep, a condition O’Kandi suffered from after having a legal battle with UK’s authorities. Rewind back to 2010: Tobi, drummer Andrew Sleath, guitarist Gauthier Ajarrista and bassist Harry James had finished playing a gig in Manchester and chose to go onto a party. They missed their train home to London and the band decided to bunk on the next train. While the rest of the band hid themselves in the toilets, Tobi tried to blend in with the other commuters. A ticket inspector came by, did not buy Tobi’s excuses, and got the police involved. They reviewed his name, and it turned out that his visa had expired and he was in the UK illegally. Unbeknownst to Tobi, the last time he’d entered the UK at age 7, he’d overstayed his visa by around 15 years, so bringing him to the attention of the police and acting as the catalyst for a long drawn-out, gruelling legal case as the Home Office tried to work out where he belonged. O’Kandi now shares his experiences and the music of O. Children with special guest contributor Breda Massmann.
It’s been quite a nightmare for you with regard to your battle with the authorities and your being ‘stateless.’ They wanted to take you to Nigeria where you have no family and no ties, since your family is based in the USA. How close were they in coming through with this?
O’Kandi: It was pretty earth-shattering news, to be honest. I’d been going about my day to day business, having no idea I wasn’t allowed to. I felt like I’d become a prisoner in Britain and didn’t really know what to do with myself. I was brought here when I was seven years old and essentially left in the dark. The three days in a holding cell was the hardest part. It was a mixture of fear and boredom, and all the while they were trying to find a way to deport me. They came close, but it didn’t come to that. I’m just glad it’s all over.
This stressing situation accompanied the work on the album. Would you say that working on the album was a kind of therapy for you?
O’Kandi: In a way, I suppose. The stress of all that happened put me in a really dark place. I became pretty depressed and tried to cut off everyone around me, even the people closest to me. I wasn’t thinking about an album. I ran away from my relationship, became homeless, turned to drugs; it was a crazy year, looking back on it. But as soon as I got into the studio and we started recording, it was like a complete release. I felt like I could escape and not think about anything else. That’s probably why the new album is so raw. I literally put my soul into it so I wouldn’t have to think about anything else. And coincidentally, as soon as the album was finished, I got told I was free. That’s a pretty crazy coincidence.
Musically, it has some dark colors, but there is a lot of positive energy running through it all. It has a thoughtful–but all in all positive–fragrance. The gothic atmosphere one could find on the debut album took a back seat; there’s nearly a relaxed vibe on Apnea. Would you agree?
O’Kandi: Definitely agree. When we came into it, I made a promise that I would not make an album that is self-pitying. If people keep feeling sorry for themselves, it gets boring. On the album we touch the themes of love, lust, escapism and parties, but always in a fun way. If I wasn’t thinking positively while recording the album, it probably would have never got made.
O’Kandi: I don’t think anyone really even knew the extent of what was going on in my life at that moment or how I was feeling. I kept it all to myself and let it all out in the music. I know that sounds cliché to the max, but that’s how it was. The way I saw it, I didn’t have to bother people with my problems. And if it ever got too much or I needed a hand, the other guys or our managers were always there looking out for me. They could have run a mile as soon as it started to go bad, but they stuck around, and I owe them a lot for that.
The title of the album mirrors your problem during that time while sleeping. The cover artwork also relates to this disorder, showing an open/awake eye where the iris is like a rainbow. Did you have the title and the artwork idea in mind?
O’Kandi: We didn’t have a name for ages. I think the name came to me just after we had finished mastering the album. Now that I look back on it, it was a pretty obvious name. I think one name was something like Havana Breakdown and another was Shoot Guns and Bang ‘Em. I’m glad we chose Apnea. As for the artwork, our illustrator friend Sam Coldy came up with it while he and I were discussing my sleep apnea. I guess the eye is supposed to be mine, and it’s been awake for so long all it sees is a colorful blur. It’s pretty apt, because that’s how I feel most of the time anyway!
What was the first song you wrote for the album? Does this song mean especially much to you, or is there another song you’d point out as especially important?
O’Kandi: ‘PT Cruiser’ was the first song I wrote, and that’s why we let everybody hear it first. A lot of people think it’s just about a car. And my god, do they hate that car! But I wrote the song from the point of view of what I wanted to be doing at the time. I wanted to be back in the States as a teenager, driving down the California highways and having fun with my friends. I wanted to be free to do and say whatever I want. I also thought it would be funny if I did all that in a PT Cruiser. Everyone talks about Bentleys and Ferraris all the time. I wanted to root for the underdog.
Which song was the most difficult to write or work on?
O’Kandi: ‘I Know You Love Me’ was pretty hard to write from a personal level, because it really happened. It was so personal that I didn’t want it to go on the album at first, but I thought it had to, sort of like therapy. You don’t want to admit things, but eventually it all comes out. I guess this is a semi-autobiographical take on something everyone has been through at least once: boy meets girl or vice versa, one of them is perfect, the other one doesn’t see it until it’s too late. It’s almost like life is playing a really funny game. Musically, ‘Red Like Fire’ was pretty hard to pin down. It took about 12 versions before we finally got it right. This song is actually inspired by a biker gang called Hell’s Lovers. I was reading a book about them at the time and thought it would be interesting to take the name of the biker gang and make it more literal: two lovers, forever in love, no matter what. Even hell can’t tear them apart.
O’Kandi: ‘Holy Wood’ was another one of first songs we wrote for the album. I guess it’s about people coming together and doing great things. I always feel that the more people there are doing something, the more results you get out of it. I guess it’s a song about coming together and breaking boundaries. It’s inspired by the friends we’ve made over the years in this band and is sort of an ode to them. We thought it would be a fitting album opener because it’s something different right off the bat.
Another song is entitled ‘H8 City.’ Do you refer to London in this song?
O’Kandi: ‘H8 City’ could be about anywhere. Once you live in the same place for so long, whether it be London New York, or Nebraska, it can become monotonous. I guess it’s just a jokey dig at people that always go on about how London is so amazing while ignoring the parts of London that are downright horrible. I think I just felt like being a buzz-kill that day. I suppose it’s a tongue in cheek look at people living in a big city. The people in small towns look at big cities like they are the Holy Grail, something to aspire to. They move down, change their look, life, loves and claim they are living it. Everybody does it; it’s nothing to be weird about. I just find the concept funny.
The song ‘Oceanside’ somehow feels as if Nick Cave and Johnny Cash would’ve joined forces; it has some kind of blues-driven vibe to it. The rhythm is quite relaxed, and one can imagine driving on Highway 1 in California in an old car. Can you tell us about the inspirations for this song?
O’Kandi: I’m from Manhattan Beach, California, and I guess it’s sort of an ode to California. It’s still my favorite state, and I miss it very much. It’s where all my family and many friends are, and not being able to see them for so long was driving me a little bit crazy, so I wrote a song about it. I guess the song has two meanings, as well; one being about relationships and the other about waiting till you get to the place that you want to be. It’s also a love song, in a way.
If you’d have the possibility to shoot a movie based on the album, whom would you choose as director and actors? How would the movie in your imagination look like? What are some of your favorite movies ever?
O’Kandi: It would have to be based in between Los Angeles and Joshua Tree, a love story starring Woody Harrelson and…Jennifer Aniston (when they were young and cool). I think I’d like it to be directed by Martin Scorsese. That would probably be the best, strangest movie in the world! I’m pretty sure my favorite movie is Natural Born Killers. I’ve seen it about 20 times and first saw it when I was 11. It was pretty scary back then.
Between your debut album and Apnea, you released a remix album and an acoustic EP. As for the remix release, how did you choose the remixing candidates and what was important for you with regard to the result? And with regard to the acoustic EP, how did you choose the songs that you wanted to include and what was important regarding the outcome?
O’Kandi: None of that was my idea, to be honest. It was all down to the label, but I’m glad we did the remix album and the acoustic EP. The remix album got a lot of people that wouldn’t really listen to O. Children into the band, and the acoustic album made me realize that we can actually play in whatever style we want. It made us feel freer, in a way. We did an acoustic show at Rough Trade East, and I was more nervous than I’d ever been in my life. But it was a full house and the songs went down well. That felt amazing, so we thought we’d record them.