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Dorian Concept: Synaesthetic Wonderland

It’s the first of October and a crisp morning in South London. Clear skies, a slight chill has entered the air, leaves have only just begun to drop from the large Plane trees in the area – the first time that there’s a definitive sense of seasonal change in the air. I’m following directions scribbled down on a piece of paper. “Come out of the tube station, cross over the road and walk 50 yards down to the right, turn left down a narrow street, walk 100 yards straight on, you will see a building with a brown door ahead of you, this is Ninja Tune.”

I ring the buzzer and enter, with no one to greet me, I make my way through their impressive vinyl distribution room which acts as a reception of sorts. I continue past a scattering of desks and up a narrow spiral staircase at the end of the room. I’m greeted with friendly smiles, offered a drink and ushered straight into the office of Matt Black, one half of Coldcut and head of Ninja Tune.

The converted loft style room is exactly what you might hope. Packed with retro equipment and nineties memorabilia – dated camcorders, drum kits, tribal masks and Persian rugs – a bachelor’s haven. Sat before me on a fold out sofa bed is Oliver Johnson, drinking pensively from a strong mug of builders. “We don’t have it like this in Austria, it’s one of my favourite things about coming to the UK,” he tells me, sandwiched between two novelty cushions, one shaped like an 808, the other a 909.

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He’s just celebrated his 30th Birthday but doesn’t look a day over twenty-five. In a coincidental turn of events, he hit this milestone during a Boiler Room session in his home city of Vienna, “It was funny because even though I didn’t have anything planned, the show kind of turned into my Birthday party, Sophie from BR presented it to the crowd and had everyone sing to me.” They even gave him a cake shaped like a MicroKORG, a nice nod to the instrument which made Dorian Concept a YouTube sensation over eight years ago.

Having taken two years off from touring to craft a new sound, in the process he  did away with his trusty MicroKORG in favour of a Wurlitzer electric piano and a handful of analogue synthesizers with the end result being his most refined work to date – ‘Joined Ends’ is a dense web of textures. Whimsical in sound it gives of an air of absolute wonder. Olivers agrees that it was a mixture of reaching the limitations MicroKorg and on the contrary an effort to limit his sound with the goal of refining it. “On one hand I’ve been working with the MicroKorg for upwards of six years without changing for any different gear or equipment. I had the Alesis Micron, another budget synth but those were the only things I both produced and played live with since 2007. I was running out of ideas and things to do with them. I mean, how often can you shape that one Korg sound into something by running it through different VSTs or sampling it in weird different ways?”

He ponders that as one grows older they look back into the past thinking, “Ok how did I actually get into music? Not that there was lack of passion or anything but I think that for me it started off with classical training and piano, moved on to a self-taught approach to learning about Jazz as a teenager. I wanted to find to find instruments that would help me focus on the playing and the musicianship behind it.” And hence the reason he chose the Wurlitzer, an electric piano affectionately known as “The Wurly”, the earliest models appearing in 1954 with production ending in the mid-eighties. “Basically there was this Wurlitzer sitting in the band room where I was playing with a friend of mine, he got it from his dad. We weren’t really quite sure what to do with it at first. If Rhodes was Coca Cola, the Wurlitzer was the Pepsi of stage pianos at those times.”

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He acknowledges that fact that life might be very different today if he hadn’t decided to upload videos of himself “fooling around on MicroKorg” back during the budding stages of social media in 2006. “It was something that helped me get booked back in those days when promoters were just realising that they could use a platform such as YouTube to research what an artist might do and determine whether or not what I was doing was live enough or interesting enough to book into a club context.” The very same instrument is still intact today, although it’s only retained sentimental value with Oliver borrowing a friend’s machine for recent performances. “I still have it, but it’s all beat up and I don’t really use it anymore. I’m kind of scared of getting electrocuted by it because it’s so broken open.”

He first came into contact with Ninja Tune when they we’re planning their 20th anniversary boxset, “I got a message on MySpace from Ninja, they asked me for a contribution to the compilation so I provided ‘Her Tears Taste Like Pears’ following that he was asked to do some shows in Europe. “This was where I first met Matt Black and Peter who has been my main A&R and main point of contact at Ninja Tune for the past three years. They were so into ‘Her Tears Taste Like Pears’ and thought it would be a nice thing to do an EP with it. I did three extra tracks and things have naturally grown from there.”

Even though he had his first official album release with ‘When Planets Explode’ on Kindred Spirits back in 2009, Oliver feels that ‘Joined Ends’ is the first record that he has consciously put together. “With this album it was the first time I sat down and wanted to do something that worked in the classic sense of an album: to work in one flow.” In elegant PR fanfare, Ninja have labeled the record as something that “sits somewhere between a floating lucid dream and a deep trip into a synaesthetic wonderland.” He firmly believes that the perception of the album is always different to the intention. “Sadly I’ve never had any personal experiences with lucid dreaming, I’ve always been too lazy for the training required to get it going… For me even though it doesn’t sound like a Hip-Hop or sample based record, it goes back to the fact of me wanting to approach music in a more simplistic way and failing at it. In my past I’ve had this very experimental, all-over-the-place way to work, genre-wise. I’ve really wanted to strip things down and at the same time not lose the complexity or edge that it has. So trying to do something more simple and failing in the process is something that really stuck with me.”

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The new record also marks the first time that he’s properly used his own voice and sung over his music, “I’ve always had vocal elements on my tracks but it was for a weird coincidence because I often sing in order to memorise the key synthesiser lines that I’m going to play, putting my vocals into tracks as a placeholder or reminder for the next day to record the synthesiser line.” With the new equipment sounding a lot more analog, the vocals have now begun to fit into the tracks and he has become increasingly interested in working with such an emotionally direct element in music. It’s subtle though and you might not even recognise it at first. Listen to tracks such as ‘Ann, River, Mn’, ‘Nest Nest’ or the shimmering ‘Draft Culture’ for a good example. “I was definitely trying to layer it in ways so it sounds like a children’s choir or an androgynous female.”

No stranger to creativity, Oliver draws inspiration from everyday life when writing. “Personally I like finding weird ways of expressing through music, nothing world moving, just simple things like if I had a fight with my brother for example or just a naturally bad day.” Although for the new album he was majorly influenced by things that don’t necessarily sound like the record, “I definitely went back to stuff that influenced me as a teenanger like Modal Jazz, film scores from the likes of Thomas Newman, watching old movies and more modern ones like American Beauty or the work of Sofia Coppola.” He’s a big fan of McCoy Tyner who played in the Coltrane quartets, “His approach as a soloist and especially the collective improv energy that he had with Elvin Jones, I’ve always been very drawn to that.”

Video games have always played a big influence in his life, the first and second generations of gaming in particular. “I’ve been curiously watching Red Bull Music Academy’s documentary series and was probably as excited for it as I was about Breaking Bad’s finale. If you’re born in the eighties, there’s no way around it. I grew up walking past arcades, it’s surreal to think about that now… It makes so much sense now that some of the sounds were inspired by Reggae, I always wondered where they got the idea for that shuffle, that half-tempo groove.” A past attendee of the academy in 2008, he’s at this year’s Tokyo edition as a member of their dedicated studio team, “I’ll be there alongside the likes of Benji B, Just Blaze, Marco Passarani, it’s my third time there as a studio member, I’ve done it before in New York and Madrid. It’s been nice being invited back as part of the family.”

His talent behind the keyboard has landed him some noteworthy roles, playing the European legs of a Flying Lotus’ tour in 2011 for example. Between the times of ‘Cosmogramma’ and ‘Until The Quiet Comes’, this also led to him playing some keys on ‘See Thru To U’ a track with Erykah Badu track on the latter “It’s such a crazy phenomenon to be in some city like Madrid on a Tuesday, performing in a huge theatre as part of a sold out show. Myself, Richard Spaven and Steve (FlyLo) playing stuff at a Hip Hop tempo and improvising over it. It’s something that was so odd but people still got it. I was fascinated by the fact that something so awkward can be so normal when it comes across with the right energy. Steve never doubted or was insecure about what he was doing. He could go straight from one of his 160BPM multi-layered banger tracks into a Burial joint and people would love it.”

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For his own gigs moving forward, he’s going to split things down the middle between solo and group performances. For the solo side of things, he’s exchanged the MicroKorg for a Roland SH-101, “It’s harder to tuck the MicroKorg into my new productions. The plasticy sound doesn’t fit in as easily anymore. I’m also going to be performing as a group with friends Cid Rim and The cloniOUs, a drummer and a bass player. “We’re going to play in a trio formation with a Midi backing, but it’s not going to sound like us jamming – we’re trying to find the perfect setup for us to improvise as well as perform the tracks off the album.”

With this pivotal new record under his belt, the new tour having just begun and his twenties now behind him, it’s clear that Dorian Concept has opened a new chapter in his life, maturing as both an artist and a person to reach a new plateau of professionalism. Still living in Vienna, he’s confident in saying that it’s always going to be the place that he calls home. “Even though I have an American father, I grew up and have lived there all my life. I was thinking of leaving for a while but that just made me want to stay more.” One thing that is for certain, no matter where he goes, the piano will always be at the core of his methods.

‘Joined Ends’ is out now on Ninja Tune. You can buy it here.

You can catch the Dorian Concept Trio live at KOKO in London on November 15th

Words: Conor McTernan
Photography: Rachel Walsh