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Escape Velocity

Virtually Reality: An Interview With Odonis Odonis
John Freeman , June 14th, 2016 08:56

John Freeman catches up with the Canadian trio to find out why their brutal third album, Post Plague, which you can stream in full below, was inspired by the technology-enhanced relationships of the very near future

Photograph courtesy of Geoff Fitzgerald

The Iranian-American philosopher Fereidoun M. Esfandiary once said, "I have a deep nostalgia for the future." And he meant it. In the 1970s, he changed his name to the avatar-like FM-2030 and after his death in 2000, became the first person to be vitrified – a process one up from cryofixation. FM-2030 was also a huge proponent of transhumanism, the notion of the utilisation of technology to overcome human limitations.

Transhumanism is also one of the concepts explored on the third Odonis Odonis album, Post Plague. It's a brilliant, unsettling record, one that takes the Toronto-based trio's visceral guitar sound, bolts on giant slabs of Front 242 and Nitzer Ebb techno psychosis and explores the potential impact of current technologies on our immediate future. Less science fiction, more science fact.

Odonis Odonis – a name apparently inspired by an acquaintance named, wonderfully, Adonis Adonis – are vocalist/guitarist Dean Tzenos, bassist Denholm Whale and drummer Jarod Gibson. I first met Tzenos in 2011, around the time of the release of their debut album Hollandaze, which at the time I described for the Quietus as a series of "three-minute electric shocks". A second album, Hard Boiled Soft Boiled, largely taken from an initial 40 tracks home-recorded by Tzenos, followed in 2014.

However, Post Plague is the first Odonis album to be a truly collaborative effort. And while some bands are defensive in citing influences, Tzenos emails through a list of musicians (including Gesaffelstein, Terence Fixmer and Ministry), films (Ex Machina, Beyond The Black Rainbow and Alphaville all get a nod) and books (the work of FM-2030 himself, Pastoralia by George Saunders and Gordon R. Dickson's classic, Necromancer) that shaped the vision for Post Plague.

As a result, when I meet Tzenos and Gibson over a Skype video link, I'm primed with a series of questions about an album obsessed with exploring a future shaped by current technologies. The band tell me that they will even be creating virtual reality videos for songs from Post Plague. I'm impressed, even if I have a wry smile to myself as Tzenos takes several minutes to work out how to turn on his laptop's video camera.

Back in 2011, we had talked about one of our favourite bands, Big Black, and the impact of Steve Albini's seminal group on Hollandaze. Tzenos told me that Big Black had "created the balls" for the album. I remind him and Gibson about that particular quote and ask them where the balls for Post Plague came from. "Us. We have grown a pair of our own," is their reassuring and future-proofed reply.

I read a quote of yours about one of the songs from the new album, the track 'Needs', and how it "caused our band to snap". Why did Odonis Odonis need to snap?

Dean Tzenos: The project has been going on for a while and we have had so many problems releasing the first two albums. We completed our second album at the same time as Hollandaze and the material we would play felt so old. Plus, those first two records were home recordings that I had done. Therefore, we had a situation where we had been a band for five years – we are a tight unit of three unique individuals – and who now could fully collaborate on a record. We didn't need to reference what we had done before and we were free to do whatever we chose. So, this is almost like the beginning of Odonis Odonis again. We are actually on time and able to release music in real time.

What was it about 'Needs' that created the tension? Was the sound of that song a deliberate attempt to move the band forward?

Jarod Gibson: I don't think it was particularly calculated. 'Needs' was a song that wasn't working for quite a long time. We broke it down into pieces and the song you hear now was revealed from that process. That concept of breaking songs down – and collaborating as a band – led us to a more spontaneous songwriting approach. We just took that process and ran with it. However, the rest of the album wasn't tethered to the sound of 'Needs', but it was more about following the same process. We would break the songs – we might remove an analogue kick and throw in a huge techno beat. And, if it worked, we would roll with that.

Why the techno beat? Was that an angle you were particularly keen to explore?

DT: It was. We had been on the rock band circuit and we would sometimes play shows that would feel like a relic from the past. I just didn't want to be stuck to that any more. If we wanted to move forward, we needed to think about what type of shows people went to and how they experienced music – and update the way we wrote accordingly. Therefore, it felt like a good time to take in new influences and start over again. It was exciting to me to jump into something I had never tried to make before. Jumping into the unknown is always where the best stuff comes from.

There is still an aspect of 'beard-stroking watchfulness' at many rock gigs, while everyone seems to be going batshit crazy at any techno-based shows I've seen.

DT: Indeed, and that's partly because the way people experience music has changed. The EDM culture is all about the DJ and immersing yourself in the moment, and less about viewing someone performing live music. For us, we are caught between the two worlds. I can still appreciate music being played live, but also want to make it a super fun show and still have people think (although people at our shows are probably thinking, "What the fuck is going on right now?") We are trying to blend the two worlds together.

I'd like to talk about the conceptual themes underpinning Post Plague. Can you tell me where the idea for the lyrics came from?

DT: We are big fans of the film Ex Machina and Beyond The Black Rainbow, which are movies that begin to step into the future. We thought it would be cool to base the album on the not-too-distant future. So Post Plague is a concept record, not necessarily as futuristic as something like Mad Max, but based on the technologies that are already coming in, like virtual reality [VR] and social media-driven avatars. The songs may still be about love and relationships, but we wanted to present them from a different standpoint – as everyone is having their roles redefined because of technology. We wanted to explore how technology has irrevocably changed the connections between people, and have the album play with those themes. So, when I was thinking about the lyrics, I wanted to avoid the clichés of a 'dystopian future'.

JG: We wanted to explore fresh ideas – like the notion of transhumanity – as we found them more interesting than the general post-apocalyptic survival-mode trope. It was interesting to imagine a not-too-distant future, which would keep things grounded, and a little more realistic.

So, tell me a little bit more about transhumanity and how it impacted the album.

JG: The notion of transhumanity is the concept of being able to transfer your consciousness into another form, while still retaining all the senses. There was an Iranian philosopher from 1980s who went by the handle of FM-2030 and he talked a lot about the concept. Now, we have avatars and you can begin to wonder what would happen if an avatar became much more real – and that you could transfer your entire self into another format. That's the basics of transhumanity.

DT: The first track on the record ['Fearless'] is about that moment you are transferring and by the end of the song, it is the beginning of your new life. The album then goes on from that point.

JG: So, assuming you heard the record without any of this context, what was your take on the record? You had a completely unbiased listen.

I actually found it disconcerting and I liked that it made me feel that way. It was a little bit like my reaction to Fear The Walking Dead: I found the initial stages of the breakdown of society really unnerving, because they were more easily relatable. And, while The Walking Dead is a better show, the post-apocalypse survival concept was less 'immediate'. Similarly, Post Plague does sound like that very next step in the future.

JG: I am glad it had that impact. It is great to know. We were not trying to project what 'music might be like in a 100 years' and I think that's one of the things that has helped keep it away from the clichés.

How did you ensure the record didn't sound too futuristic, and how did you try to achieve the feeling of the not-too-distant future?

DT: We didn't want the music to sound dated. I love Front 242 and Nitzer Ebb, and a lot of that stuff had an industrial dystopian future vibe. So, we took elements of that and brought it into the present with the influence of a lot of new records we have been listening to like Gesaffelstein, Death Grips and Terence Fixmer. We tried to tie those two things together.

I assume you are into the technology you are talking about. Will there be Odonis Odonis VR or avatars in the not-too-distant future?

DT: We are working on VR videos. Both Jared and I work in post-effects for film and TV, so we thought it would be interesting to explore the technology as we were talking about it. We knew nothing about VR and now we are doing it. It's a DIY project but it is working. There will be videos for our songs that will involve VR.

As for the concept of transhumanism and playing with the notion of an avatar 'becoming' the person, that must open up all sorts of artistic and creative opportunities?

JG: Well, there is a Japanese anime character [Hatsune Miku] that is a huge pop star, playing sold-out shows in huge stadiums. She is a hologram and is very popular. So, these things are already happening in a form. It's like the first step.

DT: Once you start playing even with the VR stuff, the artistic possibilities are incredible. You could switch your personality to an avatar and live as a completely different person. It seems scary to us, as we would be letting go of a certain part of our humanity, but maybe our kids would embrace it more readily. There are experiences to be gained and things to be learned from these advances. We hope some of this stuff can spark some discussion. Whenever I get into these conversations, I am struck by the infinite possibilities of where technology could eventually take us.

Is this the future for Odonis Odonis? Will you always be exploring the next steps or could you ever have an acoustic campfire record in the making?

JG: [laughs] It goes back to the process. The process brought us into this Post Plague era and we are not sure where we will go next, but we will let the process decide. We do love technology, but the next construct will be different. We won't get stuck in a rut.

DT: We always felt that if the band isn't always evolving and changing, there is probably little reason to carry on. The change is the exciting part. It is hard to be in a band now. It is really expensive and people have short attention spans, so our focus is more on pleasing ourselves, as opposed to trying to please a fictitious crowd. Right now, this record makes sense. However, we have already been playing around with new songs and will include them in our live shows. We will evolve again.

Post Plague is out on Friday, June 17, via felte. Odonis Odonis play The Velvet Underground in Toronto on June 24 before beginning a European tour at Patronaat in Haarlem, Netherlands on July 16, heading to The Waiting Room in London on July 20; for full details and tickets, head here