Interview: LA Duo, Oliver Riot, Use Genre-Bending Soundscapes To Bring Their Demons To Life
When identical twins Benjamin and Alexander Moore were younger, they busked around Albuquerque serenading diners with guitar renditions of gypsy jazz. At 18, they moved to Los Angeles to pursue a steadier path of music, promptly winning a songwriting competition hosted by the Grammys.
Today, Ben and Alex are known as the genre-bending duo Oliver Riot. With two wildly majestic EPs under their belts, it wouldn't quite be fair to box them up with any musical epithets. Their sound transcends categorization: classical swells meet indie harmony, smooth R&B riff off anthemic pop.
In our exclusive interview with Oliver Riot, the Moore brothers get candid about their musical evolution, how their dual OCD diagnoses have informed their work, how an old church was both their home and their workspace, and so much more.
You can read the interview in its entirety following this review.
Three years ago, Oliver Riot released their debut EP, Hallucinate, five tracks of poignant, poetic confessions in the form of buzzy indie ballads. The record's opener, "We Popped The Moon," is desperate and brooding, a slow-rolling lullaby built on distant harmony and organic percussion. Following is "Ivory Black," a smooth piano-led track with twinkling R&B vibes. Breathy falsetto and slick croons take turns in the spotlight here, both providing top-notch vocal performances. On "Tired and Awake," a minimalist piano rhythm, slightly touched by guitar, leads a bittersweet reflection. The EP's title track once again finds confessional-style songwriting doled out by strong vocals humming above pops of rhythm. Hallucinate ends with "Alcatraz," the EP's stand-out track that starts off with an unassuming guitar line and tired vocals before booming, jangling percussion hits, pulsing steadily beneath a resigned voice sighing, "prison is home."
Flash forward to 2017. Oliver Riot return with yet another cacophonous EP, Neurosis, four songs stuck in a sonic whirlwind. The title track opens the EP, another piano-led tune that reintroduces us to soulful vocals, though they are interspersed this time with piercing tones and spooky heartbeat-like thumps. Next comes "Harder," a stirring ballad built on swells of strings and discordant partnerships of distortion and clinking sounds. "Omen" is unrelenting in its schizophrenic soundscape: the rapid, grim opening gives way to swollen melody, the rest of the track following with a decadent arrangement cut by fragile harmony. Neurosis ends with "Phobia Orgasma," another exceptionally created sensory-overload piece. Dizzying, dazzling strings wail while a chiming rhythm remains in tact despite interruptions (or maybe just eruptions) of crashing glass and climaxing: jarring elements that come together to form a bizarrely stunning piece.
To dive into these records and uncover each intricacy is nothing short of a gift. As Oliver Riot, Ben and Alex give a voice to their OCD. They make the monsters of mental health feel just a little bit more bearable, and in turn, they weave the beauty of their music with disturbing truths. This is a skill. Oliver Riot are no strangers to gratitude: they have seen the power of music, they've found allure in elements normally unappreciated, and they are designing a genre-bending style that links haunting, heavenly harmony with wild, warring arrangements. Oliver Riot don't quite make music so much as they make experiences.
Read our exclusive interview with Oliver Riot right here:
The Music Mermaid: First, can you tell The Music Mermaid a little about yourselves and your music?
Oliver Riot: We've always been big music fans -- we would busk gypsy jazz songs around town in New Mexico since we were kids. Grew up wanting to both be solely guitar players but found our way into songwriting after getting lucky enough to win a songwriting competition hosted by the Grammys. That was a turning point for us when we decided to do the songwriting thing, instead of improv guitar thing, and really switch from music fans to music pushers.
TMM: You mentioned briefly that you guys got started in music courtesy of gypsy jazz and blues, but your own sound can be pretty far off from that. In what ways did those styles influence your current work?
OR: Yeah that was mainly veering pretty strongly from “jazz improv” to more “standard songwriting” after the Grammy talent competition. We don’t put bebop lines, or super jazz-characterized swing elements, etc, into our music now, but we still hold onto the roots of abstract art that jazz has opened up for us when we’re songwriting. Loving chords that have a little deeper colors, trying to lean into dissonance, and accept chaos as beautiful in its own mellow, comforting, but off-putting way sometimes.
TMM: You grew up in Albuquerque (after living in Peru for a bit) before moving out to LA. What are the music scenes like in these different places and how have each influenced your work?
OR: Albuquerque had no music scene really when we were kids. There were a couple of ska bands that rose up, and punk acts that we’d go see a lot that our older brother would take us to, but we were into gypsy jazz and always played in burnt-out breweries and coffee shops for just a couple of old people who were willing to listen to all guitar renditions of old jazz standards. Moving out here to LA is like NY kind of, where there's a huge scene for more abstract music, and people actually think that shit is cool. There's a community out here of specific music lovers / identifiers that we’ve been welcomed into, which probably wouldn’t be as prominent in New Mexico.
TMM: In an interview with Pass The Aux, you dive into the mental health-related components of your music. Do you mind talking a little more about that?
OR: We both have Pure - O [purely obsessional] OCD and are fucked in the head -laughs-. We try to constantly depict that inner mental nightmare through music a lot with lots of visuals and obsessions that we put into the album art and songwriting. We're currently having a mini documentary filmed on our story with more details about that -- if or when it comes out, you can hear more fucked up details there.
TMM: What was the production process like for Neurosis?
OR: Neurosis was tracked in the back of an old church that we were squatting in illegally for a year and a half. We then produced the track with our long time best friend Real Miilk in his apartment living room where his girlfriend Dez (also one of our really dear friends and a badass on the violin) tracked strings on the songs for both Hallucinate and Neurosis.
TMM: Is the songwriting a collaborative process? What are some themes you tend to employ?
OR: For our third upcoming EP, we wrote most of the songs together in our now new garage. This was really great because for the prior EP, Neurosis, Ben had been working so much at a job that broke his back for little pay, so he only had time on weekends to come in and track electric guitar, harmonica, backing vocals, etc. He would orchestrate and arrange the songs as they came together but was spending so much time trying to make enough money for us to scrape by that he didn’t get to songwrite as much. It’s been really fun writing songs together again. The next EP has three songs we wrote together, and the [fourth EP after that] has a song that just Ben wrote when he was sixteen, which we're really excited to feature.
TMM: Your music is a dazzling amalgamation of soundscapes. Can you talk a little about all the different textures and tones that the EP works with?
OR: A lot of those soundscapes and tones were recording the old church sounds and natural intricacies and ornamentation that existed there with Real Miilk. He would record a creaky door closing, the sounds of birds chirping outside the window, and tapping on the wood floor to pull in the whole room sound. At one point we even recorded an old bible shuffling through pages for a percussive beat. That was really fun to play with, bending sounds around the norm.
TMM: There’s a lot of cohesion when it comes to your music: song-to-song flow being a big part of it. Can you talk a little about that?
OR: We wanted to make Neurosis a "concept EP" so we tried to make every piece bleed into the next, telling one story -- letting the nightmare develop. We’ve always been extra drawn to that since today especially, it seems most people only release in singles.
TMM: We know it’s a tough question but bear with us -- which song off Neurosis are you guys most proud of and why does it stand out for you guys?
OR: "Neurosis". There are a couple things musically that have always stuck out as sweet. The subtle swooning electric guitar bends in the back that Ben recorded on slide was really fun. The piano has a part going into the bridge where it lands strangely on a minor 6th chord on the 1st downbeat, which shouldn’t necessarily work, but it pulls in the emotion perfectly. The strings are perfectly haunting. Random things added together to make it a favorite.
TMM: How has your work evolved since releasing your debut EP, Hallucinate, back in 2015?
OR: Since releasing Hallucinate, we’ve started to deeply fall in love with strings. When we were recently writing songs for our upcoming EP, Ben would often look at me and say “Holy shit this is gonna sound so good with strings here, or there, etc”. Hearing the emotion that strings brings to the table, and how it really crumples the listener, or us, emotionally, has become a recent obsession for us. When we had Dez track the violin parts for Hallucinate in the back of the church, we fell in love with strings forever and I think we’ll never be able to look away from them again.
TMM: How has social media helped you cultivate a fanbase?
OR: Hmmm, we'd probably say it hasn’t much. We both, like a lot of people, really despise social media and what it means and stands for, so it's been nice to get the 12 million streams organically on Spotify, outside of a “social media presence,” although we still hypocritically participate in the devastation of social media by currently holding social media accounts.
TMM: Who are three musicians you think the world needs to hear ASAP?
OR: Bill Evans (already big, but not enough people soak him in right now). We’re loving Timbre Timbre lately. We recently fell in love with Lianne La Havas; she's playing in our living room 24/7. She's a genius.
TMM: What has been your most memorable musical moment so far?
OR: Probably recording in the back of the church while living in it. It was just such a tough time. Hiding every night while trying to fall asleep was exhausting. However, looking back and seeing that it amounted to something, seeing that the music has been positively embraced despite that time in our lives sucking so bad and being so negative, is cool for us.
The Music Mermaid: Finally, what’s next for Oliver Riot?
Oliver Riot: We had a great SXSW and right after when we get back we're gonna start recording the third EP with Real Miilk. We’re currently finishing last touches writing a couple songs, and then we are gonna bring 'em in to record more. Just finished up a showcase for Gibson guitars -- excited to do some more fun upcoming guitar-centered showcases with them.