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Oliver McKiernan - Interview

  by Lisa Torem

published: 3 / 10 / 2013

Oliver McKiernan - Interview


Lisa Torem chats to James McCartney bassist Oliver McKiernan about his forthcoming album 'Oliver Radio', which he is funding through PledgeMusic

I first met Oliver McKiernan in Chicago, where he performed as bass player with the James McCartney band at an out-of-the way watering hole. It was history in the making and the band was in top form. Many of the songs in the set were quite evocative, and Oliver poured himself into the task at hand. He is not only a very melodic and versatile bassist,but he rises from the ground like a human trampoline when onstage. It’s not every day that you see a musician who loves interpreting original music the way Oliver does, and who shows it with every ounce of physicality. Besides teaching bass in London, songwriting, employing everything from ska to rock and roll as a sought-after session musician, and enjoying his life back home after successful international touring, Oliver has embarked on a major project of a more personal nature. He has been working away on his debut album, “Oliver Radio” not only as artist and songwriter, but also as chief marketer. Through this venture, Oliver reminds us that today’s musicians can no longer wait for success. They have to make it happen. In his second Pennyblackmusic interview, Oliver McKiernan discussed working in the studio with James McCartney and David Kahne, his penchant for creating contemporary material and his plan for self-marketing. PB: After touring with James McCartney, you contributed to his new album, ‘Me’. What songs were you asked to perform on and who were the other players? Were you asked to arrange material or play already established parts? OM: We got to perform on eight of the twelve album tracks, which was really great. ‘Life's a Pill’ and ‘You and Me Individually’ are two of my favourites. David Kahne (Paul McCartney, Tony Bennett, the Strokes-Ed) came in to produce the album and we did the sessions at Abbey Road, somewhere I never thought I'd get to record. That part of the record was done with the live band. We had got to know James's style really well, and we had some pre-production rehearsals where we got to work on our parts and develop ideas before going in to the studio to lay them down. You never really know what's going to make it on to the final mix until the album is released, but I was delighted that pretty much all my playing stayed in. After the Abbey Road sessions, James and David worked on the rest of the record between London and New York. Paul McCartney played and sang on the record; Steven Isserlis added cello and Shawn Pelton did some additional drums. James ended up playing pretty much every instrument on the album at some point too! He's really talented, and plays, sings and writes excellently. When someone hands you a song that's great, it makes my job as a bass player easy. PB: You just came up with a highly original video to advertise your fundraising campaign on behalf of your debut as Oliver Radio. You play the newscaster and, of course, yourself. How did you come up with the fun idea for the video? OM: When I decided to use PledgeMusic to raise the funding for my album by allowing people to pre-order it, I had a look at other artists' profiles and saw clearly that video is the most important tool for spreading the word. The ones I was most drawn to were the funny ones, but I knew it had to be informative too though and what's more informative than a news program? So I wrote a little script, set up the lights in my spare room and spent a day or so talking to the camera on my own. There were moments when I thought I might be going mad, but it was just as enjoyable as making music so I rationalised that, even if I was going mad, it was probably the good type of mad. My dad added the graphics and a few sound effects to give it a nice finish too. I'm really pleased with it. About 50% of the funding for my album has now been met which is good, but there's still a long way to go and I need to sell more products before I can start to record. You can amuse yourself with the video by googling ‘Oliver Radio Pledge Music’ and clicking the first link. It'll be up until November 19th. PB: Your bass style is unique. There's a kind of Jah Wobble type treatment you give 'Bladerunner', and 'Rule of Two,' which is currently in demo form, also has a get-up-and-dance vitality. What bass players have informed your style? OM: I think those examples probably come from a time when I played bass for Laurel Aitken from the Skatalites. They were really responsible for bringing ska to the masses in the 1950s and 60s. Laurel was 72 when I played for him and has sadly passed away since. I was quite young then, and that ska feel has seeped into my playing. I guess, it still comes out every now and then. I try not to take too much influence from other bass players. As much as I like listening to a really great bass line, what I love is music as a whole. So many session players get off on technical ability but that's just not for me. Things that influence what I play on the bass can come from anywhere. I think James Jamerson said he was once inspired to play a great bass part by the way he saw a woman's bottom move as she walked. It really made me smile; I try and look around at art, films, different instruments and borrow from them rather than other bass players. Originality is important to me, and I'd be worried I might sound too much like another bass player if I took influence from them directly. PB: Speaking of 'Rule of Two,' the lyric hints at the art of compromise. Were you referring to "compromise" in the romantic sense? OM: Most of the time I write a lyric just because the words sound nice next to each other. A good proportion of them are deliberately abstract and people will always see their own meaning in them anyway. What I often find, though, is that I write them when I'm at certain points in my life and, retrospectively, I realise that they reflect a mood or ambience rather than being about a specific subject. I suppose, broadly, the song is about being frustrated by life. I don't feel that way now. PB: 'Easier to Kill' is a piano-driven ballad that sounds very personal. Is it? OM: I had the chorus melody and chords for ‘Easier to Kill’ for ages, years actually. Then the 'better and easier to kill' lyric came along from a Langston Hughes poem I read, which fitted the feel perfectly, and the imagery of the song started to reveal itself to me. Once I had that then filling in the blanks was easy. The song does reflect on me emotionally and, although that's not intentional, I see more pertinence in the words each time I hear them. I heard Iain Banks once say that he tries to “write from the side of his eye”, and I think I identify with that as a good way to let the thoughts flow too. PB: For your crowd funding campaign, you offer some grand treats, including a customized ukulele, a living room concert and a cover version of the fan's choice. What has garnered the most interest? OM: Well the video has gotten a lot of attention but that's free to watch. Getting your name in the Oliver Radio debut album liner notes (on all formats for ever!) has been popular actually. I'm looking forward to delivering the cover versions that people have asked for though, I've got a few great ideas to make them really interesting. There's still a few of those left. I'm still waiting for someone to opt for a recording of Happy Birthday to the person of their choice. All still available at the Oliver Radio Pledge Music page. PB: How do you balance the time needed to both create and market your music? Do you feel hopeful about this type of campaign or would it have been easier to simply rely on the record label? OM: It's tough. It took me ages to accept that I need to spend time doing admin (sexy!) and marketing and all the stuff that makes it possible for people to find my music. The competition is stiff, and I go through phases of making music and phases of pushing on with the 'office' bit. I work every day on it, sometimes long hours with no results. Luckily, I love it. I'd say it's about a 60/40split with the majority of time spent making or playing music. I do feel optimistic about this campaign, but it's not the be all and end all and if it doesn't work I'll try another way. Record companies know they don't have to risk their money on recording albums that might not sound great these days. Sites like PledgeMusic mean someone like me can make the album, and then approach people to help promote it, distribute it, market it and the like. That may include record companies. They're still powerful. PB: Your demos show a range of talents: sweeping harmonies, gritty and thought-provoking lyrics and some fresh sounds that are truly hard to pinpoint. In under ten words, can you tell the fans what to expect on the completed album? OM: I want to deliver diversity and originality. An album for people who listen to and know about interesting music. When it comes to fans I want quality not quantity. PB: Once in the studio, how do you see yourself expanding on the themes of your demos? What players will record with you and how will you balance out their skills? OM: Most of the work is already done. I have a home studio that I use to pre-produce my ideas so it doesn't cost me. Even if I do get the funding through PledgeMusic that budget is limited so working everything out before I go into an expensive studio is vital. I'll play most of the instruments and sing but I'll get some friends in to help with stuff like drums and keys. I'm lucky in that I know some really tremendous musicians. There's some programming to do, too. Again I can do that well in advance. Preparation! PB: When was the last time you had a melody in your head that you just couldn't forget? OM: I was on holiday last week in Cornwall and we went to The Eden Project (a big botanical garden), a melody popped into my head from the night before when I'd been playing guitar in the cottage we stayed in. It was going round and round in my head for hours, so I sang it into my phone right then and there in middle of the rainforest section! Most of the time, though, I just sit and try loads of melodies until one sounds good. It's not very scientific; I just work on the law of averages. If I try enough of 'em then one will be good! PB: I'm a genie and I'm granting you two wishes. One can be quite personal and the other will have to benefit the world at large. OM: Ooh, that's tough! I'd like for my own music to become something I can do more and more of. I'd like to build it slowly and sustainably, and turn it into something that people with good ears enjoy. I'd love to be able to tour it, and sell enough records to keep going making music into ripe old age. As for something that benefits the world... Can you make everyone feel loved? PB: What's in the future for Oliver McKiernan and Oliver Radio? OM: Well, Oliver McKiernan continues to play bass for different people. I'm on tour in Ireland with Pete Molinari at the end of this month. I hope I can always keep doing gigs for artists whose music I dig. I wish for the future to hold more of that, it's really a great joy. As for Oliver Radio? Well, provided that funding for the album is met then the rest of the year will be spent recording and then promoting the album whilst trying to stay sane. Hopefully the future holds happiness for both Olivers; McKiernan and Radio!

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