I saw Department M perform for Live at Leeds and was blown away by the precision and intensity they created. Curious to find out more about the man behind the music, I was fortunate to catch Owen at Leeds Music Hub, for a gossip. We talked of mutual hangovers, love of Depeche mode and a fans’ planned escape from China.
What drives you and inspires you to make music?
I started playing music and writing songs when I was 12/13 and was just instantly hooked on it. Back then, we didn’t have a computer and I couldn’t find out how to play things online, so I saved up and bought music books of Nirvana, Suede and Radiohead albums. I would get through these really quickly and run out of things to learn, so I started making my own things up. I’ve never really questioned why, it’s just something that makes me feel euphoric and there’s never been anything to replace it that comes close. It’s something, that without thinking about, I do every day.
Is most of your music electronic or do you play other instruments?
Yeah, I play guitar, bass and synthesisers, but I don’t think that being unable to play an instrument should stop you. It’s worth having a go at any instrument when you’re trying to make new sounds as naivety can sound as good as prowess.
How did you end up working with James Kenosha (Producer who has worked with Pulled Apart By Horses, Mikky Ekko, Chapel Club and Steve Albini among many others) on production for this project?
After my previous band split up, I was on a night out with James and he asked me what I was doing. He knew I’d have new material written and was just like, come and record something. I was worried the tracks weren’t ready but he said not to worry, just come over and we won’t think about it too much, just get stuff down. I kept going over to his studio about over the course of about a year or so, more and more tracks amassed. The plan became ‘right we are making an album here’ but since then, that collection of songs has been mined for singles and b sides.
So is that what became Department M?
Yes, the lion’s share was created in the studio. I have my own set-up at home where I record every day, then I take the recordings to James’ studio and add the really loud elements like live drums and stuff. There will be an EP later in the year, definitely an album next year. That will probably be a lot of newer material and the best of what we have recorded so far. There is quite a lot of music to come.
What is the biggest influence on you music and lyricism, for example, are there any bands you listen to and think… I’d quite like to emulate their sound or set up?
That’s a difficult question. I would never purposely try to emulate someone else’s sound. Actually, If I’ve been listening to another band a lot it can really throw me off my stride creatively, I start pitting what I do against it, which isn’t good.
Over the last few years I have listened to much less music by other people. Until about a year and a half ago I was DJing a lot and constantly online downloading new music I could play. My big buzz with DJing, was trying to introduce the dance floor to new music. That’s what I loved so much about working in clubs but I had to stop because of my ears; my hearing was getting worse and worse. What has helped me get Department M together is stopping listening to other things and just concentrating on what I do. My vision has narrowed and my focus is totally on what I am doing.
I can see the evident element of control within your music and also an influence of art, how much importance do you place on the art that goes alongside the music?
I would go as far as saying it’s as important. Art influences the music too, I am in love with surrealist artists like Yves Tanguy and Kay Sage. I’ve been reading a lot about them and their story and looking at a lot of their work. That has informed some of the sounds I wanted to make. The beauty in their flowing lines, angles and perspective influenced the flowing reversed synthesiser I use and informed a lot of the lyrics too. The methodology of those paintings too, is similar to the method that I started to use to make music. I don’t sit down to write a song any more, I just start recording without any idea where it’s going. That to me is the most thrilling process. When you write a song at a piano or on an acoustic guitar, you then obviously have to record it. In that situation you develop goals for the recording and start trying to capture something, some kind of magic, which can add pressure and be troublesome. If you just start off with a blank canvas and record, all the magic is all captured along the way.
…Rather than a prescribed process?
Yeah…The element of surprise is something that’s inspiring, a track evolving before you as you add elements. That’s what keeps me making music. I hit a wall writing on guitar, I just couldn’t come up with anything unexpected or fresh, couldn’t surprise myself. I knew the instrument too well. I like to find something I haven’t heard before. I still think that ‘s very possible with the guitar, in other hands. For instance the way the guy from Unknown Mortal Orchestra plays, its not wholly original but there is a bit of soul and creativity in his playing that gets me. The guitarist in Chromatics too, there’s was my favourite album of last year and the way he uses the guitar is kind of spindly and slightly haunting in the way he tracks it…which I love.
How much of a perfectionist are you?
I never considered myself as a perfectionist, but I seem to get that levelled at me a lot. I don’t know, I suppose there are so many things you can’t control in life, so with my music, I like to have things in order. This might change in the future, to keep things fresh I think you have to try the opposite of what you have just done. There’s so much loose stuff out there, it’s been cool to be slack and not care for a long time now. So at the moment, I’m a fan of brutal precision within the Department M stuff. A band like Gang Of Four, there is a tension in the tautness ,an anxiety ingrained in them that I love. With Department M, I think a lot of the tension I’ve felt over the last few years comes out in the music.
Where can we see Department M next?
Beacons and Tramlines festivals are next. The single comes out on Too Pure, Monday 24th June. It’s a double A-Side of ‘The Second Prize’ and ‘Absentia’. Listen here : http://www.deptm.co.uk/
What gets you angry?
(A long considered breath out, he says) ….Everything!
You don’t seem like an angry person…?
Well, what really gets me is being set upon by strangers. I don’t know why but I’ve always attracted a lot of negative attention. I’m not the most masculine guy but I find it hard not to say something back. I probably don’t know my own limitations physically!
Have you had any bizarre fan experiences?
The most bizarre experience was with a guy who wanted to get out of China who emailed me a few years ago. He wanted me to send him a belt I’d worn for a photo shoot and asked if he could have it as a good luck charm. He also asked me to meet him at the Chinese border and help him escape. His email was long, very bizarre and actually quite harrowing. He was worried about the Chinese government firewall, that the email wouldn’t get to me. He talked about how he was a teenager and felt repressed in his country, that he wanted me to help him escape into Europe. I didn’t quite have the confidence or resources to take on the Chinese government!
Do you have any tattoos?
No. I’m probably one of the few people in my group of friends that doesn’t have any. I’m too skinny and I don’t have any muscle for it to live on so I can’t imagine how bad it would look.
What is your proudest achievement so far?
I think the thing that keeps me going forward is that when I look back at what I have done, I’m pretty scathing and want to improve. It’s like a constant quest to eventually come up with something I am happy with.
So you are very self critical?
I think you have to be. The way in which I make music, I listen to things and refine them over such a great period of time; I’m probably bound to become really sick of it.
Are you ever happy with it, can you ever sit back and say, you know what… I am really proud of that?
(A hesitant)Yeah… yeah, we just had the next single mastered at Abbey Road. Afterwards I was thinking, ‘yeah I’m happy with that, James and I did a good job with this one, sounds great’. After a few months though, I’ll probably decide its rubbish! The cure to that feeling is always to do something new and fresh.
It does sound fresh and interesting…listening to Department M I hear a little early Depeche Mode mixed with a little SBTRKT…
Depeche Mode have definitely been an influence, but not recently. They’re just one of those bands you take for granted, that have always been there, like New Order, you just absorb them growing up. I really like the Violator era, that was my favourite Depeche Mode period. To me, Depeche Mode, The KLF, Erasure, New Order…all those great 80’s and early 90s acts, that was the first music I heard, so with Department M I’m referencing this. There’s an innocence and enthusiasm ingrained in those sounds.
How did you decide on the name Department M, is there a meaning behind it?
It’s from the film, The Lives of Others’, watch it and you’ll see. It was poignant to me because I started recording the first Department M track one night after watching that film, and that song completely changed the way I write. So when I was looking for a name, I wanted something that reflected that.
I feel so comfortable sat here chatting away and Owen is relaxed and obviously passionate about this new project, I could talk forever! But, I take a pause there, as we had been talking for way longer than I expected. I wish him luck for the year and do hope I can catch another gig or a festival soon. If you want to hear Department M go to www.deptm.co.uk and look out for the Double A Side single release through Too Pure 24th June.
Department M are Playing at the Harley at 8pm in Sheffield on Saturday 20th July as part of Tramlines Festival.