If you were to catch a Diamond Rings set for the first time, and had absolutely no expectations for or knowledge of their music, your initial reaction might be…whoa.
Because the synth-pop outfit (the solo project of Toronto-bred John O’Regan, that has recently expanded to include a full band) seems designed to catch you off guard, and throw you off balance. O’Regan dresses the part of a Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie — makeup and all — voguing for the crowd and throwing his angular, androgynous form around the stage with abandon.
“Yeah, Bowie comes up a lot,” says O’Regan. “I think because, obviously, there aren’t as many men in music who wear makeup as there are women. And that’s totally fair, I’m a Bowie fan as much as anyone else. But I think when I look to my inspiration in terms of what I do aesthetically, it’s probably women more…say from people like Annie Lennox or Grace Jones. Women who are assertive and powerful without sort of stooping to the lowest common denominator and just prancing around in a bra and panties. I think it’s empowering and it’s more of a powerful statement not to show off everything all the time.”
O’Regan’s empathy for and identification with femininity has obviously spurred some speculation about his sexuality (he’s deliberately ambiguous about that). And, for some, his flamboyant stage persona might seem like schtick. But that’s all sort of beside the point.
“I think, initially, it was just a way for me to unsettle the audience, by kind of unsettling myself,” he muses. “When I started out in Toronto, trying to make a name for myself, a lot of what was going on was just heteronormative indie rock. Big bands, six or seven people up on stage, there’s like four people playing guitar and someone playing like a glockenspiel and everyone kind of chanting and yelling and running around.”
With Diamond Rings, O’Regan (who had previously briefly fronted a fairly heteronormative indie band of his own, The D’Urbervilles, before going solo in 2009), wanted to step outside that box. Moreover, he wanted to smash apart that box’s walls.
“The goal became to kind of present a show where I could leave people not fully sure of what they’ve just seen,” he says. “A lot of times you go see a band and you feel like you’ve figured out the whole thing within the first minute. My goal is to always keep engaging people, or re-engaging people, and that was kind of a big approach with the new record [2012’s Free Dimensional]. I think it’s important for people to see that people aren’t just one thing. People can be a lot of different things all trapped in one body.”
Indeed, O’Regan compares gearing himself up for one of his dynamic performances to an athlete pumping himself up in the locker room. “Part of the ritual of playing hockey or football or whatever is just getting your equipment on, getting the uniform on,” he says. “I feel like that gets everyone kind of out of their regular character and into their stage character.” He grew up playing sports, a fact that might surprise those who have a certain idea about a man who dons glittery eye makeup and skin tight lamé pants on a nightly basis.
You’d be wrong to pigeonhole Diamond Rings, however, as their heavily 80s-influenced brand of synth-pop is ever evolving. O’Regan attributes a lot of this growth — both musically and in a slightly toned down stage persona, now that he’s sharing stages with a full band — to the influence of bands he admires. For his current tour, he’s opening for UK new wave vets Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD), a band he cites as a huge influence.
“I’ve toured with a lot of different artists but I haven’t yet really spent a lot of time on the road with a real career band,” he enthuses. “Never with a group that has sustained a career over multiple decades. We’ve been learning a lot. You’d be a fool to not learn a lot from a group that that has seen music grow and change over such a big stretch of time.”
He pauses, searching for an appropriate analogy. “It would be like being on a hockey team with an amazing player who’s been around for 15 years, like Wayne Gretzky on the Kings,” he says. “You learn just by watching and being around them, that’s enough. Just trying not to miss anything.”