Free Dimensionality
Stephan Horbelt

If you're not yet familiar with the glam-rock sensation that is Diamond Rings, give it time. His musical persona—built on a fun throwback sound, lyrical candor and gorgeous, deep-register vocals—has of late been praised across the board. His second full-length album, Free Dimensional, released in October, has been touted as superb by the likes of Pitchfork, SPIN, NME, Billboard, MTV and the New York Times. Grammy.com referred to him as “one of the bright new acts in music,” and we hereby designate him one of the year’s most fascinating people.

Born John O’Regan, Diamond Rings is the fashion-forward stage presence behind some of the most mature pop tracks in recent memory. As an artist, his ability to weave emotional complexity and existentialism with modern musical tropes is astounding. Whether a track is written to be bubbly or brooding, Diamond Rings has showcased an uncanny ability to keep things honest and emotionally resonant, an acomplishment many artists seem unable to achieve.

We caught Diamond Rings at an interesting time. While he was technically in the middle of touring (and had been for months), at the moment he was on his home turf in Toronto, set to deliver a hometown show later that night. For anyone who leaves home to make a name for himself, the moment of return is always a personal milestone, a time of mixed emotions, and it’s one Diamond Rings described as “surreal,” referring to his time in Canada as “the victory lap.”

Tell me about the name Diamond Rings.
I wanted a name that first and foremost evokes glamour, and I think in addition to that, I wanted something tough and hard, which a diamond also is—it’s one of the hardest rocks out there. I think that dualism goes a long way in describing who I am as an artist, and I think some of the qualities you need to be an artist.

Was there a reason you decided not to release music under your own name? Well, besides the fact that my name’s kinda boring and plain, no, not really. I wanted an identity that I could create and that would in some ways enhance who I am. No one wants to go see John, but they’ll go see Diamond Rings. [Laughs]

You got your start as a member of The D’Urbervilles, and only later went solo. When you made the decision to go out on your own, did you have to deal with any tension with bandmates, as sometimes happens? Yeah, definitely. Initially Diamond Rings was just a diversion for me—something to do that was completely different from what I’d ever done in a band before, particularly your regular four-piece, punk-rock-style outfit. It was a way for me to indulge in all the creative influences I had growing up, admiring artists like Grace Jones and Kylie Minogue and Devo—people who had really awesome, crazy-but-put-together images. It was my way of doing that. And then it kinda took off. Once that started happening, there was some tension, but things are good now, and ultimately I’m doing what I want, and that’s all I can hope or ask for.

I would say so. Do you see any possibility of ever going back to creating music as a band? Right now, no, but who knows where I’ll be in two years, three years. If that’s what I feel like I need to do to satisfy myself creatively, then I think that’s one of the great things about being an artist—you get to make your own rules. If it feels right, then I’m going to do it. That’s always the way I’ve operated artistically.

How has the process of making new music been different for you as a solo artist, and now that you’ve had it both ways, do you prefer making music alone?
I think definitely there’s a form of creative license you’re afforded when you’re making your own music, which is great. You don’t have to run anything by anybody, and you can follow whatever whim you want and really indulge yourself in that respect. But it does make it a lot harder—not only when it comes time to be creative and make decisions about what you want to keep and what you want to throw away, but also, when the record’s out and you’re on tour and you’re up there singing your songs, there’s really nothing to hide behind. Sometimes that creates a lot of pressure. But I think it’s something I thrive off of and definitely enjoy.

Let’s talk about your latest album, Free Dimensional, which dropped in October. How long in the making was the album?
I started making it as soon as the first album, Special Affections, was done, but I went on a bunch of tours and spent a lot of time away. I try to get work done on tour, but it’s not the same as being at home or in the studio. Everything I learned before applies to this one, and that’s hopefully how I’m going to work moving forward. It’s great that now I’ve got two albums done, and I’ve got a ton of new ideas, so I’m excited to keep playing.

For someone not yet familiar with your music, would you recommend they start with the new album, or should they first check out Special Affections—or does it even matter?
I don’t think it does matter. That’s one of the great things about music—I don’t really have control over how people are going to see what I’m doing or interpret what I’m doing. I’ve had a lot of people who got into me because somebody put one of my songs on a mix tape or a mix CD, or they heard a song on the radio or found a video online. I think whatever their point of entry may be into my world, that’s fine. What I hope is that they take that first experience and hopefully enjoy it and use it to move on and explore other aspects of what I do.

In your mind, how do your two albums differ?
Well, the second one is much more confident. It’s technically better produced, I’d say—more hi-fi. I don’t think that necessarily makes it better, but it’s a step up, which is what I think a second album should be—more confident, more brash, a little more outlandish. I take some risks on [this second album] that I didn’t take the first time. The first time, the whole album itself was a risk, in and of itself. I didn’t even know I was making an album while I was writing it—I was just killing time in my room.

A lot of artists deal with the “sophomore slump,” but it doesn’t seem like you really had to deal with that, or did you?
[Laughs] Well, I have my own battles day to day. I always just sit down and try to write a great riff or write a great hook or write a great vocal melody, and then from there I try to turn that into a great verse or a great chorus, then turn that into a great song. And as soon as that song is done, or if it’s just not happening like I want, I pick up and move on and I try something else. I never try to burden myself with the weight of the expectation that comes with thinking, OK, now I’m making an album. That would be completely and utterly paralyzing, to think that way. That doesn’t mean it’s easy for me to do what I do by any means, but it means I’m hopefully keeping it fun, because if it’s not fun, there’s no point.

As a solo artist, you’re still a relative newcomer, and I assume that ‘part and parcel’ with that is a constant comparison to other sounds and other artists. Have you had to deal with a lot of that?
A little bit. There’s the obvious ones that people bring out, like Grace Jones, and sometimes there are more subtle and nuanced references, sometimes to artists I don’t even know. I think that just proves to me that I still have work to do to become my own comparison. Hopefully that is what’s next for me. But I can understand that if someone’s never heard of me or heard my music, the easiest way to get the message across is to name something else that’s similar. I think most comparisons are really flattering.

So you don’t really take offense when someone compares you to other—maybe older—artists, you just see it as constructive? That’s very mature.
I ultimately would like to just be known for who I am, but I recognize that’s not always possible. I think just the fact that people are listening and care enough to even think about what it reminds them of is special.

How would you yourself describe your sound?
Pop. I try to avoid labels whenever I can, whether they’re gender labels or genre labels. For me, creatively, it’s about being open as an artist, but also leaving things open to the listener to interpret how they want. But I’m definitely operating in the realm of pop—pop music, pop culture—meaning that it’s accessible, and it’s accessible because I think that’s what art should be, first and foremost. It isn’t accessible because I want to sell a million records or be on a giant billboard. It’s accessible because I want to communicate and be what I see is the basic tool for making this communication happen.

I’m dying to know what you grew up listening to, and maybe what you were listening to during the making of this album.
I started listening to my dad’s record collection, which was Fine Young Cannibals, Bruce Springsteen and Joan Armatrading—[Laughs] he had some really random stuff. And making the new album, I was all over the place—The-Dream, Kylie, Kraftwerk, old house and techno. I was really trying to be a musical magpie, trying to get my finger in as many places I could. That’s probably the best part about creating.

You previously mentioned Grace Jones. Are there any other artists who, musically or visually, you consider your favorites?
I’m really inspired a lot by fashion and art, more now than ever before. Designers who have adopted a unisexual styling to their work—really angular and form-based kind of stuff. The sort of aesthetic I see in a lot of conceptual and visual art from the ‘60s. Stuff with clean lines and strong, bold forms I really gravitate towards. People like Grace Jones, groups like Devo. Groups like NWA and Public Enemy. People who have a really defined and clear visual aesthetic. And on a more local level, Peaches and Hidden Cameras—that really brash and almost confrontational queer stance in the way their work is presented. I grew up going to those shows and wanting to incorporate some of that into the work that I do. I could never be so sassy lyrically, though. My stuff is a lot more feel-good. Stuff you could listen to with your mom. [Laughs]

You mentioned fashion, and aside from your music, you have a pretty distinctive look, especially in your music videos. How would you describe your own fashion sensibility, whether onstage or in your daily life?
I would say, first and foremost, that it’s evolving. When I started out, I didn’t have any fashion sensibility other than a desire to be different in whatever 20 dollars could get me at the vintage store—and raiding my mom’s closet for tights and weird shirts. Fashion was a little foreign to me, but at this point I’m becoming a little more aware of what’s out there and seeing how fashion and makeup and this whole industry—which I think kinda gets a bad rap, and for good reason I think, for enforcing, whether intentionally or not, an unobtainable standard on the population. I think there’s a lot of good that can come from breaking down barriers, blurring the lines between genders. I think that’s a really good thing, for sure.

As you know, this is our annual “Year in Review” issue. Tell me, how was your 2012 overall?
It was great. I started the year in a loft in Montréal working on my album in one of the coldest winters in years, and then playing the Echoplex in L.A. [in early November] to a bunch of people and having a blast. To see those songs through and have them exist in the world has been great. Hopefully I’m gonna take what I’ve learned and what I’ve done and apply that to what I’m working on, and will hopefully make something that’s bigger and better next time out.


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