Tucked into a corner of Weaver’s Court Business Park are Studios 2 and 3 of Start Together. Control room, recording booths, a treasure trove of sound equipment – this is Rocky O’Reilly’s manor, the place where the one-time Oppenheimer man, and production maestro, has helped deliver a dizzying array of music. Sitting in his favourite seat, the one beside the mixing console, Rocky has invited me here to tell me about his latest endeavour, Malibu Shark Attack. There is reason to be intrigued. First off, it’s the first band he’s been a part of since Oppenheimer called it quits in late-2009. What’s more, it’s not simply the fact that he’s making new music, it’s the direction he’s taken with that music that’s truly interesting.
Malibu Shark Attack are an alternative hip hop outfit, though one whose sound contains traces of O’Reilly’s indie-pop past. And whilst there are guest players on the forthcoming album, it’s ostensibly a duo, Rocky being joined by a rapper from Atlanta, Georgia by the name of Tribe One. And here’s the kicker, they’ve never met, never even spoken to each other. Music and rhymes are exchanged digitally as they create their transatlantic tuneage. Thankfully, as debut split single ‘Monsters Under Your Bed’/‘Internal Organs’ proved, the end results are as exciting as the means of creation are unconventional.
First off, I’ve got to ask, presumably the name of the band is borrowed from that stupendously bad film?
“That terrible film, yes. Before the band even truly started, I’d been thinking about potential names for the project. Oppenheimer had just split up and I was watching a lot of TV at the time. We watched that movie once – me, Angie and Chris (McCorry) who used to do sound for Oppenheimer. The concept for the movie was just so ridiculous and, yet, the filmmakers must’ve had such hopes and dreams for it, that it would be this, or that, that it could be the best film ever. So, I thought ‘well, I’ll take that name and try and make it the best thing ever’. And, more importantly, it was a fun and crazy and downright stupid name, one that had no Belfast connotations.”
In the wake of Oppenheimer, what were your plans?
“I’d been in a band with one person (Shaun Robinson) for nearly six years. And he was the only person I’d ever properly been in a band with as a fulltime thing. So, I just wanted to experiment. I didn’t want it to be exactly the same thing as Oppenheimer. I’d released a couple of Malibu Shark Attack songs early on and had felt the wrath of Oppenheimer fans. They were raging that, on the one hand, it wasn’t Oppenheimer, but, in some regards, it sounded quite like it. That was the point at which I decided to take a break. That was the year I focused on producing Gangs (And So I Watch You From Afar’s second album) and Tom McShane (debut album The Ural Winter). From there until this year, I got sidetracked producing other artists.”
And how did you come to hook-up with Tribe One?
“About a year ago I heard a vocalist called Tribe One from America (Atlanta, Georgia). His stuff is not by any means traditional hip hop, he’s kind of on the edge of that nerd-core scene in the States. The first two tracks of his I heard completely blew me away. He did a verse on ‘The Silver Age’, a track by a guy called Adam WarRock, one of the best hip hop tunes I’ve ever heard. Then there was a song called ‘Different’, on a split EP he’d done with WarRock. He’s got a great voice and, lyrically and storytelling-wise he’s untouchable. He was right in keeping with my concept for the project. I feel that he should be an absolute superstar and I don’t know why he isn’t. Maybe one day he will be and then he can buy me speedboats! So, I’m lucky I teamed-up with him when I did. I was also really into the idea that the other person wouldn’t be from Belfast and we wouldn’t be working in the same room together. I didn’t want that sort of interaction. I just sent him an email and he was into it and that’s how it started.”
Not even sharing the same space as your bandmate, that must have been quite a radical shift compared to how you’d worked before?
“It’s very different. We’ve never met. We’ve never spoken. There’s no real-time human interaction. In fact, even including the guest performers on the album, I’ve been in the same room as less than half of the people involved in the project. What I really like and what’s really exciting is to work on music, send it off, go to bed and then, when I wake up in the morning, there’s this new concept and idea that’s been wedded to the music. That’s a blast, it allows you to step back for a moment. You have to surrender control to some degree and, as a producer who is a bit of a control freak, it’s nice to be able to let go. It is what it is. If I really don’t like it, or if he doesn’t like something that I’ve done then, yes, we can talk about it and look to change things, but it certainly isn’t the same as working in the same room together.”
So, when you send of the music, how much of a steer do you give to Tribe One, do you give him some pointers as to potential themes, mood etc?
“On some of the tracks, I have written the choruses, or concepts. For example, ‘Internal Organs’, I had a whole song written around a particular idea. We ended up keeping only two lines from that, but, what remained, was the overall theme. Tribe One took the idea and built his own lyric around it. That’s where we’ve locked into something really good. On ‘Monsters Under Your Bed’, I sent the instrumental track only and Tribe One came up with the concept himself. Overall, I’d say that I’ve come up with concepts for around a third of the songs, Tribe One then takes those ideas and either builds on them, or goes somewhere completely different with them. If he was here beside me, though, I think I’d be inclined to try and sway him more, maybe too much. So it’s good that he’s got his own space and sends me stuff when he’s ready. And, invariably, every time I get something back, it’s bang on.”
Broadly speaking, what are the overarching concepts behind the album?
“There’s a track called ‘Back To The Start’, we’ve a guest vocal from a guy called MC Lars and the whole idea of the song is about being able to go back to a point before the present, at which you are able to make things different. So, Tribe One wrote a verse about a school friend and how the different choices they made – right and wrong – profoundly affected their present. MC Lars meanwhile wrote a verse about a teenage friend who was killed in a car crash and how he’d like to go back and intervene in the past and change that. The songs also touch on religion, or, to be more accurate, faith. There’s one track about relationships – the next single ‘Moment of Truth’ – which focuses on a man who is presented with the opportunity to cheat on his wife. Then there’s ‘Internal Organs’, which is about death. I think Tribe One’s serious raps are his best and, out of everything I’ve been involved with, if someone asked the 60-year-old me to play one song for them, that’s the one I’d choose.”
Speaking of ‘Internal Organs’, “entropy” isn’t a common word in the pop lexicon.
“I know! And that was a track that came about after a friend’s parent had died. I had attended the funeral and the whole thing just struck me. I emailed Tribe One about it and, when he sent back the verses for that song, that was when I knew he was the guy. He’d taken four lines from me and spun it, the delivery, everything about it was perfect. I suppose it is quite strange that a band called Malibu Shark Attack, which started as a party band, have arrived at those types of songs. So, the album has serious moments, but it’s not all like that, after all, we all have different moods. There’s a song that’s just about going nuts in New York, we’ve got guests on there and it touches on unusual party concepts. There are tracks about fistfights, burglaries, but, essentially, it all comes down to storytelling. That’s what I love about rap, being able to compose a picture with words.”
Were you at all concerned about getting Tribe One to be as committed to the project as you are, just considered the fact that you’ve never met?
“Tribe One is just so focused. I think part of the appeal for him is simply the fact that this weird guy from halfway across the world has sent him this music that’s unlike anything he’d worked on before. It was intriguing for him. But, there are always potential problems with this kind of endeavour and, previously, I had some other people lined-up to be involved in a similar capacity. People who also lived a long distance away, potential contributors who were initially enthusiastic and coming up with ideas for tracks, but then just couldn’t get around to delivering their part. And I totally understand that, sometimes life just gets in the way. In fact, we just got one guest vocal back some seven months after they’d been sent the demo. Then there’s Tim (Wheeler) from Ash. He played on the album, but that only finally happened when I was in New York and he invited me round to the studio and we plugged-in. But, if we hadn’t ended-up in the same city, we might never have got it together.”
Do you think that the album will confound people’s expectations of you, particularly Oppenheimer fans?
“I was fifty percent of Oppenheimer, I was the producer and mixer of the band and owned most of the synths that were used on the Oppenheimer records. So, I don’t think you can just flick a switch and suddenly be something completely different. That was part of the reason for taking a break after Oppenheimer, to put a little distance between what I’d do next and people’s expectations. Initially, it was a difficult transition, but I’m quite relaxed about it now and there’s even a song on the album addressing the situation. And, though Shaun’s not involved, there is still undeniably an aspect of Malibu Shark Attack – a sensibility in terms of sonics and melody – that harks back to what I was doing in Oppenheimer. And I think that would be true of anything I’m involved with, whether as a music-maker, or producer.”
What are your own expectations for this album?
“Had this album been released straight after Oppenheimer then I think my expectations might have been different. Back then, in terms of my career, I had a different idea of the path I needed to follow. Now, it’s not career-driven, it’s music-driven. As a consequence, I’m not so intense about things. There are different goals, but you find that with every band, or project you’re involved in, the goals vary and change over time and from one scenario to another. It might be that you want to play a gig with your favourite band, or, if you once got paid money to have a song used in a TV show, you might have an expectation for that to happen again.”
And your goals this time around?
“To tour the record in America – Tribe One is actually going out this summer to tour it solo across 50 dates and, then, I’m hoping to join him at the end of the year. He’s never played Europe and the UK, so touring there is another ambition. We could do the live thing the hip hop way, just me, him, maybe a third vocalist, backing tracks and limited live instrumentation. But, it might also work with the full band set-up. We’ll see. Essentially, though my main hope has already been realised, namely, to make this record with an American rapper. And, also, just having the opportunity to work with guests like Tim Wheeler – I learned to play guitar to Ash songs, so that was amazing – MC Lars and Dizzy (Dustin) from Ugly Duckling, people whose work has changed how I think about music, collaborating with those people, and getting the album completed, means I’ve already met a number of my goals.”
You seem to have a well formulated idea of what you want from Malibu Shark Attack, what are the next steps?
“Well, I am already thinking of album number two. The debut will get us up and running, out and about. However, on the follow-up, I want to get even more ridiculous with the collaborations and just to keep writing, seeing what I can do. I’d also like to try and get in the same room with Tribe One, see how that alters the relationship. And I do like getting songs onto TV, or film, I think it’s really cool to see how your music can be used, be it to set a scene, or deepen an emotion.”
When did your interest in alternative hip hop originate?
“Even at the end of Oppenheimer, there was a track amongst the last batch of songs we’d written where I’d started to head in that direction. Perhaps that was part of the problem. I’d gotten to a point where I was just so bored with the music being made by indie bands. I needed something new to excite me and I found it in the hip hop world – the way they construct songs and think about things, it just made sense. But, it’s not something I just jumped into. It’s like a tattoo, I thought seriously about it for a long time, before deciding that it was the direction I wanted to take with my own music.”
How have you found the experience of working with the American hip hop fraternity?
“It’s exciting, though I do sometimes feel like a big square when I’m hanging out with all these cool guys! No, I’m really enjoying the experience and it’s interesting to meet new people, be it the guests, or their fan bases – actually about eighty percent of our sales so far have been in America. Even thinking back to when I was in the US previously, it was as an indie-kid, so this time it feels like a totally new land.”
Malibu Shark Attack’s debut album is released July 11.