Thursday, June 9, 2016

“Diving Board Head” O’Prez wears many psychobilly hats on top of that quiff

This is the second in a series of articles I’m posting this summer about people who contribute to the psychobilly scene in ways other than performing music on stage. Today I introduce to you Johnny O’Prez: portrait illustrator, psychobilly graphic designer, Hellacious Harmonies album reviewer, musician, and host extraordinaire.

About a year ago, I posted an Examiner article about my interview with Los Angeles psychobilly staple The Quaranteds. Since I hadn’t yet actually heard their latest album, I linked to The O’Prez’s Hellacious Harmonies review. I’d learned about his snarky, entertaining, uncensored, bat-an-eyelash reviews of psychobilly, neo-rockabilly, and rockabilly records when he raved about an album by one of my favorite bands, The Mutilators. He left a comment on my Quaranteds article, noting “Wow! A link my review site! Famous at last :D”. That made me chuckle, so I decided I should try to interview him while I was in Europe for Psychobilly Meeting 2015. After wild shenanigans in Pineda de Mar, España, I headed north to meet Simon Farrell from Spellbound in Dublin, then made my way by bus through the countryside to a small town in Tipperary County, in the interior of Ireland. The drop-off location of the bus was a pub where a very lively crowd was glued to a rugby match. My instructions were to look for the only guy with cuffed jeans, and sure enough, it wasn’t hard to pinpoint the only psychobilly-rockabilly fan in that town.

Portrait of Gene Vincent by The O'Prez: http://www.the-oprez.com/
That was the start of several entertaining hours spent with Johnny O’Prez, who adopted that moniker as a tribute to The King. (But his real rockabilly hero is Gene Vincent. More on that later.) Over tea and “bikkies” (which I discovered was short for “biscuits,” what cookies are called in Ireland – which is so much more appetizing than calling them “digestives”), Johnny and I chatted about what it was like to grow up as the only psychobilly in a small town, the size of his quiff (oh, calm down), his frustration with music that lacks originality, his unapologetic admiration for Tiger Army, and his trip to the legendary Klub Foot nightclub. My Irish slang vocabulary expanded exponentially as I learned about plastic paddies, getting the baloobas, gobshites, being pissed as a flute (when I thought it was pissed as a newt, neither of which make sense to me as apt metaphors for being drunk), and how to properly spell “Jaysus,” even if I can’t quite say it right.

After the auld chinwag (did I use that right?), I got to see Johnny’s man cave. Oh, get your mind out of the gutter – it’s the workspace where he produces his grayscale photo-realistic portraits and “new old school” psychobilly graphic designs. The room was decked out top to bottom in musical inspiration (including autographed band photos and LPs), a diecast model of the 1951 Mercury, and a cute pair of psychobilly boy-and-girl resin skulls.

When he was 4, one of his teachers pointed out his natural talent for drawing. He was under the impression that everyone was good at art. But he embraced the compliment and went on to take art classes throughout secondary school, which he aced. Well, there was that one bad grade he received on his final exam from an external reviewer for his portrait of James Dean with a flick knife. Someone clearly didn’t appreciate his choice of subject. But it doesn’t matter – he went on to turn art into a profession regardless.

He specializes in photo-realistic grayscale portraits and has developed quite a reputation throughout the area, having been written up in local rags a few times. Give him a photo and you’ll have an impressive illustration in a couple days that would make a brilliant gift for a loved one. He’s also produced posters and murals for pubs, tattoo designs, and graphic artwork and album covers for bands in the -billy scene. And his work appeared on the cover of DogEatRobot, the psychobilly fanzine produced in Italy (see my interview with creator Mauri here). All this while being partly colorblind; he uses a program called Colorblind Assist that displays the name of the color in the area over which you hover the cursor.

So without further waffling (how’d I do there?), here are some highlights from the O’Prez interview. In order to evade the censors, I’ve done my best with the language. When I’ve had to substitute certain choice phrasing, I’ve indicated it in parenthesis.

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I started by asking him how he got into rockabilly and psychobilly. His mom once dated a Teddy Boy and then he discovered Stray Cats. I was curious to know how he figured out how to do his quiff. Did he look at the hair-dos on the Stray Cats album and just figure it out on his own?

O’Prez: Well, it was actually the Jets, of all people. I could not manage the Stray Cats hair at all, because that was just too extreme at the time. So I actually asked Victor McCoy, who was one of the original Shoeshine Teddy Boys, what do you put in your hair? And he told me just use Brylcreem. So when I walked into school, I got pushed around, because some of the boys down there were 12, and when you’re 11 and they’re 12, they’re colossal.

I suppose another big influence was when I was 14, and there was this record shop in Rosemary Street. They had an LP there by Gene Vincent. And I remember my mother telling me about meeting Gene Vincent. She said she’d seen him in Manchester. And she’d just seen this very pale, slim, dark kind of individual, with a limp, and he sounded fantastic. Then I see his record down in the record shop. And that was how my big enormous love affair with Gene Vincent started, hearing that. He’s like numero uno for all psychobilly stuff in my book. That 1956 stuff. I liked his whole image. Back then I was reading books about him, how he shot Gary Glitter, and I thought, this is the guy for me. It was the whole bad boy thing, romanticized, the loner down at the pool hall. And I’m thinking, I’m 15, this is me.

[Want to know more about Gene Vincent and shooting Gary Glitter (the bullets missed, by the way)? Here's a nice little recap: http://www.goldminemag.com/article/dont-go-calling-rockabilly-artist-gene-vincent-one-hit-wonder]

Then by the time I actually came around to hearing Guana Batz, I was in secondary school. So when I heard them, the razor came out and the sides got shaved, and the quiff got gradually bigger and bigger. When I was 17, it hit 14 inches.

Kim: You know this, that it was 14 inches?

O’Prez: I measured it meself. My friend was a punk - David - only he and I had coifs. And in secondary school, that did not go down well. So they actually brought in new rules based around my image. The wording of the rules was: “No fancy hair. No fancy shoes.”

Kim: So by this point you had discovered Guana Batz?

O’Prez: Yeah, I heard “King Rat”. And then I was off to Dublin - I think it was the following Saturday on the bus - to Freebird Records and bought the album. They had a psychobilly section, which was unbelievable to me.

Kim: Unbelievable that there would be a whole section devoted to it?

O’Prez: Yeah, and then I went to the Klub Foot shortly after. I just went over to London on a whim. Turned out there was no psychobilly band playing.

Kim: Womp Womp. That’s a bummer.

O’Prez: But at least I went there. And I went to some of the record shops in London as well with big massive psychobilly sections.

Kim: And when was this?

O’Prez: 1987.

Kim: What else were you starting to get into?

O’Prez: Well I heard Frenzy’s first album, Hall of Mirrors, around the same time. When I went up to Dublin and bought the Guana Batz album, then I was up to Dublin every second week just chancing me arm and stuff, because there was no outlet for this where you could hear it before you buy it. So I started to hear of Frenzy, and Batmobile, and Frantic Flintstones and stuff like that.

[Note: I hadn’t heard that phrase before. Pretty clear from the context, but just in case: to “chance one’s arm” is to take a risk to get something you want.]

Kim: So if there was no scene here, were you able to find any shows?

O’Prez: There used to be this place in Birr. They used to run this, well they still do, this vintage week. And there was a band at the time called Aces Wild from Dublin, and they used to play over there. And in Dublin, we used to go up to the Voodoo Lounge, but not in the ‘80s and ‘90s, this was fairly recent history. They brought over The Long Tall Texans and bands like that. Oh Jaysus, I used to get so drunk it was unbelievable. I went to see Polecats, and I was going mad to meet Tim Polecat - he’s a big hero of mine! And I remember none of it. I was shown the photographs the next day – “look, there are you hugging Tim Polecat.” But no recollection….

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Next I wanted to know what he liked about psychobilly. What did psychobilly have that he preferred to anything mainstream at the time?

O’Prez: It had the aggression. When I was listening to, say, bands like Polecats and Stray Cats, or to a lesser extent The Jets, who were very sugar sweet, sometimes if I was playing their LPs, I’d stick them up to 45 rpm so it would go faster and think, Jaysus, why isn’t the band like this? And then it was with Guana Batz.

Kim: So you liked that it was faster, and more aggressive. Since you were the only one to go to school with a psychobilly quiff, do you think you also liked something about the shock value of it?

O’Prez: Oh yeah, I liked to walk down the street and stare people out. Like “I’ll kill you if you look at me again.” All decked out in me boots with padlocks hanging from the tags. I liked to give off the impression I was some kind of vicious thug.

Kim: Which you clearly are ;-)

O’Prez: Yeah, I just liked to pretend I was. And it worked.

Kim: You also mentioned earlier that you liked how psychobilly wasn’t too serious?

O’Prez: Yeah, it’s just a bit of fun. There’s no political bullsh!te or any of that stuff like there is in punk.

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We start talking about his tattoos, all of which he designed himself (other than the Guana Batz logo, of course). This soon revealed his preferences when it comes to good – and original – rockabilly and psychobilly. So let’s start with the meaning of the two tattoos on his wrist, the years 1956 and 1986…

O’Prez: It’s quite simple really. 1956 is for Gene Vincent – that’s when he recorded his best stuff and my favorite song of all time, “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” which I’ve told a few people I want played at my funeral. So that’s for him. My next tattoo will be “The Screaming End” across my chest, which was his nickname. 1984 is for when I was first hearing the tides of psychobilly. There’s a Dublin band called Those Handsome Devils. Sean Foy is the lead singer. They put out their single called “Hep Bop” in 1984, which was like nothing I’d ever heard before - not quite psychobilly, and not really rockabilly either, just in between the two. And then I saw them on telly. There was this program called Job Suss. Dave Fanning - the Irish John Peel - he had a program called Job Suss which was about finding jobs for the youth, and Dave had Those Handsome Devils on as special guest, and I thought fuckin’ hell, who are these guys? So that would’ve been ‘84 when I first got an inkling that I liked something different.

Kim: So what made them not quite psychobilly, but not really rockabilly?

O’Prez: I suppose the lyrical content and the speed. It wasn’t fast enough, like psychobilly would be. And the lyrics were basically rockabilly lyrics. They went, like, “see that cat with the flattop bop,” and all that lark. But they were too edgy to be rockabilly. They were out on their own. They weren’t like any other band I’d heard. And I’d heard loads. I’d heard Polecats, Stray Cats, The Jets, Shakin’ Stevens, The Shakin’ Pyramids. But Those Handsome Devils - they weren’t sticking to a set of rules.

[Take a reading break. Go on now, it’s a good time to watch the spastic “Hep Bop.” Check out the awesome 1980s quiffs and the state-of-the-art video graphics! There’s even a section where you can snap along. You know you wanna. My favorite part is where the singer says “dig that cat with the flattop” as the camera pans in on a guy whose hair is sprayed a foot tall in the front and shorn tight across the back. Some flattop! Click here to watch "Hep Bop." Then head over here to watch a live performance of Gene Vincent performing "Be-Bop-A-Lula" in 1958]

Kim: A lot of people on my trip have pointed out that one of the distinguishing features of psychobilly was that the lyrics weren’t about 1950s rockabilly stuff.

O’Prez: Yeah. I’ve had a few rockabilly bands ask me to review stuff for Hellacious Harmonies, but I won’t review it if it’s (just the same ol’) “a-rockin’ on a Saturday night, rockin’ with my chick.” I just turn it off. I’ve no interest in that. Come back with something more original.

Kim: So, it’s not original. Is it also something you don’t like because you can’t identify with it? Like it means nothing to you?

O’Prez: No, it means fuck all. Write that down!

Kim: Ha! I’ll remember that! I guess it’s different in the States than here. Over there, it’s a home-bred nostalgia for that ‘50s type of lyric.

O’Prez: Well, it was, I suppose, over there in the ‘50s, it was about cars, and bopping on a Saturday night. Over here it wasn’t. So we don’t give a shite.

Kim: And a few people have pointed out to me during this trip that the post-WWII experience was very different here than in the States. In the U.S., there were cool cars, and everything was going great in the post-war economic boom. But over here it was bombed out and people were struggling to recover from the war.

O’Prez: Yeah, I remember my mother telling me they were the first house in town to have a television, and they’d all crowd around. That was the ‘50s here: wow, someone has a television. And my uncle Sean was the first to have a car. So there was a big difference.

Kim: Do you think there is a lack of originality in some psychobilly too?

O’Prez: I suppose the lyrical content, with rockabilly being the same shit over and over, psychobilly suffers an awful lot from that too. The nonstop horror themes. And everybody trying to sound like Sparky. That really (ticks) me off and I always bring it up in reviews.

Kim: Did you like Demented Are Go before everybody started copying them?

O’Prez: Yeah, when I went to London that time, that’s when I bought the In Sickness and In Health LP. Fuckin’ hell! I thought, what’s this lad’s voice all about? And the cover, dressed up as a woman on the front! I liked them immediately. They were really pushing the boundaries. For horror-based lyrics, I liked Demented and Nekromantix, because they do it well. I’ll always like them. And Tiger Army. I don’t (care) what anyone says. I love Nick 13’s lyrics. I like their whole Edgar Allen Poe-esque stuff. But I think the best singer of the whole lot is Frankie Hayes of Spellbound. He’s a brilliant singer.

Kim: So you like the horror aspect of the lyrics, as long as it doesn’t become a cliché?

O’Prez: Well I loved it when I was a teenager, but then when you get older you prefer a bit more substance to your lyrics, and that’s where Paul Roman of The Quakes comes in. They’re one of my favorite bands. His lyrics are fantastic.

Kim: And do you like horror movies?

O’Prez: That’s all I watched. And still. I love horror.

Kim: So psychobilly was perfect for you. There was the rockabilly stuff you liked, sped up, more aggressive, and with the horror stuff you were watching. So it was made for you!

O’Prez: It was, wasn’t it?!

Kim: What are some other bands that you like?

O’Prez: I’ll always love Batmobile. And The Magnetix are very good, and Stressor. And the Minestompers from Germany. Yer man has this kind of Pip Hancox hiccupping vocal style. As I said in my review, he’s like a demented Charlie Feathers. He’s really cool.

Kim: What do you like about these bands?

O’Prez: Unlike some other bands today, they don’t neglect the whole billy aspect. They have the rhythmic beat of psychobilly / rockabilly, and the vocal style. It’s not just screaming in your face for the sake of being like “look at us, we’re so wild.”

Kim: I don’t like when all you can hear is click, and none of the bass tone.

O’Prez: Yeah, I’ve often said that as well in Hellacious Harmonies. You have to hear all of the bass notes and the woody resonance, not just the click.

Kim: And you’re a guitar player yourself. You’ve shown me your Gibson over there. What do you prefer aesthetically from the guitar?

O’Prez: What I like for the psychobilly sound is a clean guitar sound with a bit of reverb, as opposed to the more garage-y sound some bands get where it’s all fuzzed up.

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Here I transitioned into asking him about playing music himself. So we started by talking about whether he was self-taught or if he took lessons, and how he figured out what to play…

O’Prez: I didn’t even know what a scale was or anything at first. I’d listen to a song and pick it out, get it wrong 10 times and eventually get it right. Then I went to one lesson and that lasted about 10 minutes. I walked out, I just couldn’t be bothered. She was trying to teach me “Frère Jacques.” Fer fuck sake. “King Rat” - teach me that will you? And back then, if you went out to buy a book at a music shop or whatever, they’d be like, “Here’s your favorite Irish folk songs to play along with!” I had no interest in that at the time. And you couldn’t very well buy a book about psychobilly!

Kim: Have you never had an interest in traditional Irish music?

O’Prez: I actually do like Irish folk, yeah. I liked it more as I got older. I like The Dubliners and The Clancy Brothers. I really like the Pogues, because with them the whole punk thing started to come into the Irish traditional music. They actually played in a village called Shinrone back in about 1989. And all the different towns came into this one hall for the Pogues and such a fight broke out that they had to bring ambulances in from different cities. The cops were all over the place, stretchers out, the whole place broke up.

Kim: Wow, that’s a punk rock show!

O’Prez: It is, isn’t it?!

Kim: So I have to ask, then. What do you think of Flogging Molly?

O’Prez: I could take them or leave them. Same as the Dropkick Murphys. I like some Celtic punk. There’s a band called Blood or Whiskey from Dublin - they’re very good because yer man has a Dublin accent. He’s not a plastic paddy.

[Note: Another phrase I’d never heard before. Some people find it quite offensive, as it’s a term some Irish nationals use to refer to people outside of Ireland who identify as Irish and appropriate Irish customs and accents, often stereotypically. If you want another reading break, check out this article about whether or not it’s “time for Irish to stop calling Irish Americans Plastic Paddies”]

Kim: Have you ever wanted to be in a band and not been able to here?

O’Prez: Yeah, I would’ve loved to have been a drummer as opposed to a guitar player, because I can hold down a beat fairly good. I go fuckin’ baloobas when I listen to music. And with the drums you can really go mental. Listening to psychobilly, I go berserk.

[Note: I had to look up what the baloobas where. Urban dictionary says: “to get baloobas or go baloobas is a set of behaviour occurring when a person has a consumed a large amount of drink or drugs and behaves wildly, erratically, but all the while having fun.”]

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Finally, I was curious to know how people in his small town react to him, as he’s the only one to walk around in rockabilly clothes and to listen to psychobilly music.

O’Prez: They’re used to me. There’s a whole new generation of teenage wankers that were calling me Elvis and singing “Hound Dog” as I walked down the street. Fer fuck’s sake. I dyed my hair red at one stage and went downtown and they called me “Redvis.” And when that 14 inch quiff is on, they call me “Diving Board Head.”

Kim: They’re very creative ;-)

O’Prez: Oh, it’s hilarious stuff. Jaysus.

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Commission a one-of-a-kind gift by contacting O’Prez through his website where you can check out his portraits and his rockabilly/psychobilly graphic designs. And fine reviews of psychobilly/rockabilly/neo-rockabilly albums here at Hellacious Harmonies.

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