Interview: Diamond Rings
November 16th, 2010
Acid washed denim. Rainbow coloured war paint. Anthematic new wave. These are the things that Special Affections are made of. Hailing from Oshawa, Ontario, John O’Regan has made a name for himself as the shimmering, gender-bending artist and epicentre of Diamond Rings. With a strong penchant for retro basketball attire and a love of David Bowie, Regan seamlessly weaves together all the best artifacts of the 1980s. Although he’s probably best known as the bespectacled guitarist in techno rock outfit The D’Ubervilles, Regan’s solo work shines as vividly as his bejwelled name implies. The 25-year-old gave us some time to talk about his debut, which was released October 26th.
The Block: You’ve been described before as a gender-bending glam rocker in the same style as David Bowie. How have you been received in the hipster-heavy music scene in Toronto?
Diamond Rings: I don’t really think about Toronto being a hipster hotbed as much as a great place where my friends and I live and work on our art and music. The whole concept of something being hipster is fraught with so many contradictions that I try to avoid thinking about it altogether. The ultimate in cool is being yourself and not giving a second thought to whether or not you’re going to end up as a “Do” or a “Don’t” in the Sunday style section. Toronto, of course, is one of my favourite places to be myself.
TB: A lot of musicians who wield an original, unusual genre often get stereotyped. Have you had to break though any particular stereotypes, or felt misunderstood?
DR: My entire life, really. I think everyone feels as though they can’t relate at some point in their lives, and expressing those feelings openly is what Diamond Rings is all about. I cut a fairly striking figure when I’m all dressed up so obviously I have to deal with homophobes and jerks all the time. That’s part of the process though, challenging others by first challenging myself. If I wasn’t getting called a faggot I honestly don’t think I’d be pushing the envelope far enough.
TB: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced personally, and how have these events influenced your music?
DR: I’ve been really fortunate that relative to lots of people I’ve thus far enjoyed a great life. My family is incredibly supportive and I have a really close circle of friends. That said, I think the biggest struggle that I’ve faced has been just coming to terms with my own individual identity and embracing all those weird, in-between spaces that are so difficult to confront sometimes. I’m really interested in where my own gender and sexuality begins and ends, you know? I’ve more or less started to realize that nothing ever really matters – it’s all about doing what I want and being free.
TB: Special Affections is honest, glittery and downright danceable. Tell me a little bit about your creative process.
DR: The album began as a collection of acoustic folk songs. I’m inspired by artists who approach their work from a lyrical perspective – people like Gordon Lightfoot or Leonard Cohen at his less obtuse. There’s something really beautiful and poignant about a well written song and that’s always my goal when I sit down to write. Sonically, however, folk music doesn’t really cut it for me. I want to be in and of my own time, so utilizing a computer and becoming an electronic artist was a necessary step in bringing these songs into the here and now.
TB: Speaking of creative process, your video for “Show Me Your Stuff” has gotten nearly 80,000 views on YouTube, making you one of the most viewed Canadian musicians on the site. What inspired this video?
DR: I was fortunate to have had the privilege to work with a really fantastic team on the video, the kind of people who understood where I was coming from and were able to take those ideas to the next level. The director, Claire Edmondson and I were really inspired by the Leo DiCaprio flick The Basketball Diaries, Nirvana, and Britney Spears. Costume designer Vanessa Fischer and I had a few talks about the Alejandro Jodorowsky film Holy Mountain. The peacock outfit was my own design, and was inspired by a mutual respect for Klaus Nomi and the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.
TB: Any secret musical influences, or artists you hold very near and dear to your heart?
DR: Yes. My Nana Gwen was a real inspiration. She was an actor in a local theatre group in the town where I grew up and was such a real character. She’d always be rocking these totally crazy outfits and really followed her heart and went for it. I like to think she’d be really proud of what I’m doing right now.
TB: From sporting beanies in The D’Ubervilles to rainbow coloured makeup in Diamond Rings, you seem to straddle polar opposites, or maybe even multiple personalities. Is that the case, or is it a fashion statement in general?
DR: During a Canadian winter I’m far more concerned about getting frostbite than I am making fashion statements! Everybody saw this one press photo that our band took outside in last January or whatever and now all of a sudden we’re this toque and parka group or something. What I do is about embracing the complexity of my own inner being, but I don’t look at it like opposites. The idea of a binary is so ridiculously dated. I mean, we’re not computers, right? It’s about embracing my own multiplicity and doing what’s right by each project. Our band would look patently ridiculous if we were all dressed up in tights and had big hair or whatever.
TB: I’m curious to know why you chose to study art in Guelph, Ontario, rather than a more cosmopolitan Toronto or Montreal. Any reason for this decision?
DR: Growing up in the suburbs of Toronto, I was really intimidated by the big city and the idea of moving there at the age of 18 was too much for me. Fact of the matter is that the program at Guelph is one of the best in the country as well – way more focused and in depth than most of the stuff going on at the arts colleges in the city. Places like OCAD seem to be more about turning everyone into a designer anyways, whereas I wanted an actual arts education. Anyone can teach themselves how to read an instruction manual and use a computer, but wrapping your head around concepts like relational aesthetics and heteronormativity just seemed a bit more challenging.
TB: What happens next with Diamond Rings?
DR: Performing the record for as many people as possible. I’ve worked really hard putting Special Affections together and I’m really excited to have been given the opportunity to play these songs for my friends and fans night after night. I’m looking forward to it! After that it’s about finding time to keep writing and recording and following my heart.
Words Miné SalkinTweet