With 7 million cumulative streams under his belt, Sydney-based producer Oliver Tank is following up his well-reviewed EPs with his first studio album—OT—and a headlining national tour which kicks off in Newcastle tonight. Opus had a chat with Oliver about his creative process, his development as an artist and the state of Sydney’s arts scene.
You’ve developed quite a following over the last couple of years and there’s a lot of anticipation about your debut. What can we expect from it?
It’s got a good range of music on it, I think, music more like my earlier work. I’m trying to challenge myself to do things a little differently, have a bit more of the sort of beats-y stuff on there, which I haven’t really done before, but it’s still got that kind of classic OT sort of sound to it.
When you sat down to get this album out, what was your creative process?
It took a very long time. I kind of went through forty or fifty tracks, which I would just work on for a while before I got over them and start something new. It was starting to get me down; they never felt good enough, they never felt finished, so one day I decided I’m just going to pick the ten best ones that I liked and go down to Melbourne [to record].
I worked with a guy down there called Jono Steer. He’s done some production and engineering work with Ali Barter and Haitus Kaiyote. We sort of locked ourselves away in a studio for a couple of months and I think that that was a huge help for me to finally get it done and just have somebody to bounce ideas off. I’d written most of the songs already, the production needed a bit of work, the structuring and songwriting.
Would you say you’re a bit of a perfectionist?
Yeah, I would say so. Eventually you just have to let it go, because it starts to become a bit more a burden to me rather than something I was doing for fun. I don’t really want to do anything in my life other than music and it was getting to the point where I was starting to not enjoy myself. The album was becoming a bit of a burden and eventually I just had to let it go. I’m really proud of what I put together and I couldn’t have done it without some people around me being really helpful.
What’s your favourite track from the album?
I quite like ‘Circles’ or ‘Silhouettes’. I kind of change my mind a lot on which is my favourite, but I think ‘Circles’. It’s a nice start.
‘Circles’ is probably my favourite track from the album. I like the soundscape you crafted there.
Yeah, it was super chill, and it just really relaxed me, the music.
Carrying on with that theme, I’ve noticed that you have this ability to craft naturalistic soundscapes and there’s a lot of sophistication there. Could you talk a bit about your influences as an artist?
I always love James Blake, John Hopkins, CK, Boards of Canada… artists that mix acoustic instruments like piano or guitar with electronic-y sorts of sounds. I always thought that contrast was really interesting. You can kind of make things sound really modern, like James Blake has with piano—he sort of warps piano sounds and he has his autotune going and he’s got a real interesting, forward-thinking mix of classical styles and really modern production.
That’s a big thing for me in music. I want to mix real sounds and more artificial synths and electronic-y sort of sounds.
Following on from that, what sort of themes were pushing for on the album, musically and in terms of lyrics and ideas?
Musically, I always like to use piano, guitar, more like paddy synths, and soft beats—nothing too hard-hitting, although there are a couple of tracks that have more banging drums.
Themes-wise, it’s just about the struggles over the past few years of the album and in my life; believing in yourself, even if you’re feeling down at times. I wanted the album to be inspirational—it is quite sad at times, I wanted it to be inspirational as well. There’s a happy ending and I think the album is symbolic of me moving from some tough times in my life to better times.
In what way would you say your music has developed in the past few years?
I think I’m just become a much better producer and a much better songwriter. When I made my first EP, Dreams, I didn’t really know what I was doing. Producers would have seen how I made it and just been like “This guy’s a joke” but I think that sometimes that innocence, not really knowing what you’re doing and just being like “This sounds good” can sometimes be really great. It makes for a very honest release, for honest music. I think people can tell when you’re being honest.
I try to keep that honesty, but I think I’ve gotten better with production and just general technical skills.
So it’s more of a smoothing of the process rather than a change of you as an artist, necessarily?
Yeah, for sure.
This is your first nationwide tour since 2014, right?
Yeah, it’s been a couple of years.
Are you looking forward to getting back out there with this record?
I am. I feel like I’ve got a lot more of a range of songs I can play and I’m excited to play live again and to translate these songs to a live setting and I feel like I’ve got more songs to play—I can play a different show depending on the crowd or the setting. Sometimes, with some of my older stuff, it was a very slow, evolving thing and you had to have a patient audience.
Sometimes that’s a lot to ask at a festival, for everyone to be quiet while you’re singing gently, but now I’ve got some more upbeat songs where if people just want to jump around and sort of have a good time and not be as quiet and patient, I’ve got a set for that.
You’ve supported some stellar acts. How is it working with folks like that?
I kind of got a taste of what it would be like to be super famous. Lana Del Rey was a good example. I supported her for a couple of shows in Sydney and Melbourne and it was just insane. People were lining up at two o’clock in the afternoon when I was getting there for sound check and all these people would have flowers and letters and stuff, asking me to give them to Lana. When I started playing, there were people in the front row with flowers and when she came on they started crying…
It was nice to see how much these people have invested in this artist and music. I think that’s something really great about music, is that it can help people.
It creates an emotional connection, right?
Yeah. It was eye-opening, just seeing what it’s like for an actual big-time artist.
Are there any crazy tour stories you’d like to share?
I’m a pretty chill guy, I don’t have anything too crazy… not with the big acts, anyway. Maybe a couple of all-nighters going out drinking but I’m pretty chill. Not too much debauchery.
As a Sydney-based artist, how have the lockout laws impacted on the local music scene from your perspective?
Ugh, it’s not good. It’s just sad. In Melbourne there are so many venues, and in Sydney there just aren’t that many venues anymore. I just feel like if you’re an artist in Sydney it’s harder now than it’s ever been just to get out there and play music. There’s a few two-, three-hundred capacity venues around but from there up there’s maybe three or four venues and then you’re up to Hordern Pavilion, which is a ten-thousand seat venue.
Melbourne just has a tonne of different venues. I feel like I play a different one every time I go down there and there’s always different people checking it out. It’s sad because it’s not encouraging young artistic people. It really annoys me, to tell you the truth. I feel like it’s a starting to change: Keep Sydney Open has been doing really well and I’ve been going to the rallies and stuff so hopefully there’s some positive change in the future.
You’ve got to make it work for now, but there’s just less opportunity.
Do you think the lockout laws have had an impact on your evolution as an artist, in terms of not being able to play and work through your music in a public setting?
I’m not sure about that. It’s tough for me to say. I just feel that if the government was encouraging more activity, more of a social atmosphere, encouraging the arts a bit more, maybe Sydney in general would be a better place for musicians and artists. In Melbourne, there’s a real community of artists and the lockout laws aren’t helping at all.
Thank you very much for your time, and I look forward to seeing you play.