11 Minutes with... Diamond Rings
On SXSW, an upcoming tour with OMD, and being a Directioner.
When you go to a Diamond Rings concert, you get a real show. There is choreography, synchronized moves, multiple costume changes, and a dazzling and frenetic dance party always seems to ensue. John O'Regan, the man synonymous with the Diamond Rings monniker, appeared in the music scene in late-2009 and quickly became a symbol of glam iconography complete with androgynous looks and disarmingly confident stage presence.
His debut album, Special Affections, was filled with sparkly synth pop that belied the dark and yearning lyrics and earned him easy comparisons to David Bowie and Depeche Mode. Last year's follow up, Free Dimensional, still had a driving beat and soaring synths, but O'Regan's lyrics and the tone veered far from the 80s-inflected tunes he was becoming known for and landed him squarely in the 90s—specifically, in a club blaring poppy house beats. It's an evolution that we can get behind, as his lead off single, "I'm Just Me," has been in heavy rotation ever since it came out. I caught up with O'Regan at SXSW to talk about what's on his iPod, guilty pleasures, and touring with OMD.
Noisey: Have you been to SXSW before?
John: Yeah, two years with Diamond Rings and the year before that, with an old band I used to be in.
Do you have things you like to do in Austin?
Tacos. Tacos are important, especially because we've been touring back and forth through the Midwest for the last few weeks.
Tacos are the antidote to that?
Tacos kind of vanquish the barbecue and the hamburgers. But seriously, I want to check out some good music. I want to see Divine Fits. I haven't seen them in awhile. I want to see Azari & III—they're a house group from Toronto. They're really great. My friends in Austra are from back home and I haven't seen them in a while and I haven't even heard their new songs. I hope to see them all, but it's kind of a catch-22 where you end up being so busy that you don't have time to see anything anyway.
How many shows are you doing?
I'm doing four, maybe five. And a few DJ sets. Eight total.
Do you prefer live shows or DJing?
Live shows are what I do. DJing is more like a semi-professional hobby. But I am really starting to get into it a lot.
Do you have go-to songs?
Yeah, for sure, depending on the night. I've been playing a lot of house and techno. I'll mix in some classics every now and then, too. I think it's a cool way to give people a better idea of what I like to listen to as a fan and to what influences me. The music that I make or record as Diamond Rings doesn't fully encompass everything that inspires me or influences me. A lot of that doesn't make it into one of my records.
What would fans be most surprised by?
Probably, I guess, the range of what I listen to. There's a lot more underground and contemporary stuff than people probably imagine.
What contemporary stuff?
Azari & III are really great. I like Duke Dumont from the UK. I like a lot of what Tiga's label is doing out of Montreal. There's a really great house scene in Toronto. Gingy & Bordello. There's a lot of music from where I'm from that I think is great, but whenever I do interviews, they're like, "Tell me about David Bowie and Depeche Mode and New Order." All of those bands are awesome, but that's not where my world ends. It's where it begins.
Tell me about David Bowie. Just kidding! When you say "house music," what do you mean exactly?
Four on the floor, 120 to 130 bpm, maybe vocals, maybe not. Just simple dance music. That's what I'm gravitating towards as a listener and probably what I'm leaning towards as a writer. Usually, that's my process. When I started writing my last album, I discovered Top 40 pop music.
Do you believe in guilty pleasures in music?
I just believe in pleasures, but in what could be described as guilty pleasure category, that's where I have my Kylie Minogue, select Britney Spears tracks.
I define guilty pleasures as those songs that you listen to only on YouTube so no one will ever know.
Oh, I definitely have some of those. The ones you don't want to make the 99 cent commitment to. Our drummer on tour got a full length album by this Canadian group from, like, 2000 called B4-4. They are like a three-boy boy band from Ontario, and one of the songs on that album was massive. I think only in Canada. That would be the closest I would get to a guilty pleasure. It's really great. It's called "Get Down". They all have blonde spikey hair—hair a lot like my mine, honestly. Check it out! I really like boy bands.
Are you more The Wanted or One Direction?
Probably more Backstreet Boys, but probably 1D. They're a little more clean-cut. But their clothes fit a little tight, they could loosen up. I like that kind of music for what it is. It's excellently-crafted, well-produced pop music. To me, it doesn't really matter if those artists don't write the songs from start to finish or if they don't have a deep level of involvement with it. There are tons of fantastic singers and musicians who perform covers or songs written by other people.
Are you going to be covering Backstreet Boys on tour?
We're not covering Backstreet Boys right now. The cover that we're doing in our set now is a cover of a Chicago house artist named Jamie Principle from the mid-80s. The songs called "Waiting on My Angel." He's one of my favorite artists. To me, he's like a bridge between all the New Wave music that I kind of got into in my early 20s when I was first starting to buy records, like Human League and Depeche Mode. Those groups mixed with a more minimal harder house sound where the kicks and snares are higher in the mix. There was more emphasis on bass, which I think is really cool, because a lot of house music at the time didn't have a typical song structure with a verse, a chorus, and a verse. So we've been covering that. But you never know, if we keep listening to B4-4, we might drop some of that into the set. The problem is that you have to really nail it. If you're going to go in that direction, you have to nail it.
And no one would recognize it and think it was a new Diamond Rings track.
Ha, yeah! Maybe!
You're going on tour with OMD soon.
Yeah, it's really exciting to be recognized by a group that has had such a sustained career. Styles and genres come and go in and out of favor. To find a path and stick to it and achieve success means a lot. I'm really hoping to learn from them. It's great going on tour with bands who are young and starting out and getting buzz, but it's harder to learn from someone else who is just like me. But someone who has been in the game for decades... Well, I'm going to be watching and listening.
Diamond Rings' Free Dimensional is in stores now.