An Album Leaf concert, quite a lot of alcohol and a penchant for creating swirly electro-pop formed the catalyst for the formation of Belfast-based duo Oppenheimer.
Compared to The Postal Service and hailed by Gary Lightbody from Snow Patrol as “An Irish Flaming Lips or Mates of State”, the delectable duo have been creating breezy, infectious pop since 2004.
Shaun Robinson was initially drumming for Torgas Valley Reds while Rocky O’Reilly was mixing their sound; the two later found themselves occupying their time messing around with synthesisers and, finally, at the aforementioned Album Leaf show, the pair decided to try to create a sound all of their own.
According to Rocky: “We started on a very modest set up: two guitars, some cheap keyboards and a cheap microphone. ‘Breakfast in NYC’, ‘Allen Died April 5’ and the foundations of a good few other tracks were recorded in a tiny room in my house.
“Since then we've been able to experiment a lot with recording and writing and I think our sound is getting bigger: more rock, more pop, more dance...”
With a dazzling sound grounded in a whirl of influences that range from My Bloody Valentine and Mates of State to David Lynch and Hunter S. Thompson, Oppenheimer have spent the last year on the road and have committed themselves to truly honing their craft.
“I think playing so many gigs last year has helped us morph into something different than when we started,” Rocky confesses. “When we started it was the kind of music I describe as 'KRUDLER': indie, electronica, instrumental, fun and cheap...
“I guess indie/pop/electronica sums it up for the most part. There's synthesizers a plenty, loads of harmonies and, increasingly, distorted guitars and anything we could find that sounded good. We’re always searching for nice new toys to play with and just keep trying different things, and new things come of that for us. But trying different ideas, in both writing and recording, is what keeps it fresh, so we're always looking for something we haven't had the chance to do before.”
The writing process differs greatly. The first, self-titled album is a collection of songs from 2004 to the start of 2006. Rocky reveals that for Oppenheimer, sometimes it’s good to not set down too many ground rules when composing.
“Sometimes Shaun would start a loop and leave it with me, sometimes I'd give him a melody, sometimes we'd write together. We also explore the ideas together while recording parts, then usually Shaun takes the track away to come up with vocals, and then we record those and mess a lot more. Other times it starts with a Vocoder line, and maybe we just fall into a song while sound checking.”
Basing themselves firmly in Belfast has not presented any obstacles thus far and Oppenheimer don’t feel ostracised in their choice to do so. With many bands making their way to the big smoke of London, Rocky explains that they’ve never really had the urge to follow suit and are happy to remain under the Belfast moon amongst a plethora of emerging talent.
“We were talking about this recently, after a trip to London. I think being in a city where we don't know anyone doesn't seem to be a comfortable way for us to create music. In Belfast we have friends, family, contacts – there is a really healthy bunch of bands making amazing music in Belfast, bands like In Case Of Fire, Duke Special, Mojo Fury, We Are Knives, Tom McShane, Gaju... In this day and age, London is an eight-hour drive or 50-minute flight away, so why move?”
Oppenheimer have gained considerable momentum Stateside, and have created quite a buzz around themselves thanks to constant touring there; along the way they have had the opportunity to support a lot of people they respect and admire. Are they able to pinpoint the reason why they have been so readily swept up into a cosy American embrace? “I am not sure, it's generally happy music, live it's about having a good time, and making a feeling in a room, about people not being stony faced and standing still, from our experience of audiences stateside, they like to move and be involved,” offers Rocky.
Like most bands today, Oppenheimer have had their finger on the pulse of the web for quite some time and have utilised boundless opportunities to put themselves centre stage and ensure that their music is accessible: anyone with even the remotest interest in seeking out new and exciting music to indulge their cochleae will find their work without too much effort. Rocky explains: “It's hard for us to get major radio play, television coverage et cetera, so I think for us, like a lot of bands, MySpace is a chance to directly connect with people. We're right there and so are they, and we can talk to them.
“We were made featured artists way back in early 2005. That was a really big boost: all of a sudden we were getting messages from all round the world and we hadn't even played a gig at that stage. There are plenty of important places for finding great music online, amazing sites/zines/blogs that are digging for music that makes my heart beat. I think it's never been a better time to find new music.”
There’s also been a lot of encouragement and support from established musicians back home, too. “Every so often Belfast DJ David Holmes will invite us round and let us hear some stuff he's working on. I always leave his place half with my head in my hand thinking our recordings are so flat and sterile, what's the point? The other half of me is filled with joy and the need to make myself better... that's been a driving force this year.”
2007 looks set to further propel Oppenheimer into the hearts and iPods of even more people. On February 5, Small Town America will release their debut album in the UK, which the guys will follow up with a tour of Ireland and the UK. Then it's off to the states in March/April to play SXSW and tour again. Recording the next record isn’t far behind that, and then no doubt there will be festivals and the promise of an EP at the end of the summer.
But what of that strange, oddly familiar moniker, harking back to us from Saturday morning television perhaps? Does it, in fact, reference one of the great and often quite camera shy voice actors of our generation, Alan Oppenheimer, non other than the voice of Skeletor in He-Man and the Masters of the Universe ?!
“We always get the Robert Oppenheimer (inventor of the atomic bomb) thing, but it was just a name that we liked the sound of. From now on, I shall tell everyone that it was after Alan Oppenheimer, so thank you!”
Oppenheimer’s MySpace page can be found here