Oscar Davey-Wraight grew up in Ngatimoti near Motueka – neither a metropolis nor musical hotbed. These days though you’ll much more likely find him on some the biggest stages in the world, performing his personal brand of electronica that he describes as ‘funkadelic bass music’, under the name Opiuo. It’s music that’s been good enough to earn him an NZ Music Awards’ Best Electronic Music Tui and an international festival audience. Silke Hartung caught up with Opiuo to talk about the off-stage side of being a working musician, deafness, social media strategy, the epic gig with the Syzygy Orchestra at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Denver, Colorado and his latest EP, ‘Dusty Bugs’, released in collaboration with UK producer Vorso.
Keen observers and electronica buffs may have come across Opiuo on occasion, like when he was in Aotearoa to accept the annually under-reported Tui for Best Electronic Music – which he won in 2014 for ‘Meraki’, and was again a finalist for in 2016 with ‘Omniversal’.
Oscar Davey-Wraight has been based in Australia for the last 15 years, and when NZM spoke with him he was sitting at home in the Byron Bay hinterland, looking out at the surrounding hilltops as brightly coloured king parrots played around in the trees.
“I lived in Melbourne for 12 beautifully growth-fuelled years, and that’s where the Opiuo project really took off. I’d play wherever I could in the early days, from 6am warehouse party sets, to literally behind the bar at some small establishments. I met my now partner of five years, Naajee, and moved to the Byron Bay area three and a half years ago, bought an 8-acre-property here a couple years ago, and haven’t looked back!
“I left New Zealand in 2005 with the drive for more to be honest. I had lived in a few of the main NZ cities and felt the draw of an even bigger city, a larger music scene, and just the excitement on an overseas adventure. I’ve never lost my love and connection to NZ, even though I have lived in Australia for over 15 years now, a piece of my heart still remains in Aotearoa.”
He’ll be 36 come December and with laughter answers that his adopted artist name Opiuo can mean whatever I want it to.
“That’s the beauty of it for me. It looks and sounds like something that should have a beautiful meaning of exponential exploration, but nope, I made it up, for you to make it your own with however you see fit!”
His business team (“… so many incredible souls who I couldn’t do this thing without,”) is an eclectic international melange, with artist management based in Denver, Colorado and business management companies in two different territories, one New York the other Queenstown. His booking agents are in New York and Melbourne, which is also home to his production management and touring crew. A true worldly adventure.
“I pinch myself daily that I have had music as my job for over a decade, and I wholeheartedly never plan to take one second for granted. I make sure I balance real life, I have kids now, and music life… it’s what makes me, me – in a healthy manner. They’re intertwined and for me to succeed in life they are mutually beneficial to both be kept moving simultaneously smoothly. Music gets me so excited, and it is who I am. I take it as serious as it needs to be, staying on top of myself to complete things when I say I will, all as professional as I can be! With a healthy dose of fun too!
“In terms of how I allocate my professional time I would say it’s currently something like 75% music, 5% socials, 5% planning, 5% listening to music and 10% dancing in my studio! Planning used to be way up, but that’s on a general hold right now as Covid has scuttled most touring possibilities for the current future. I feel very lucky to be able to focus on music so much!
“Socials are a necessary evil, they make me feel amazing, and also not so. My plan is not really a plan at all… I try not to let them consume my reality too much, and just try my best to be exactly the same person online as who I am in real life.
“I like to share the things going on in the Opiuo world, and also love to communicate and see people enjoying my creations. I think we are sometimes tricked into making our lives seem more spectacular than they may truly be online, but being nothing but yourself is what is the most captivating, I feel.”
2020 had been planned as a year of playing some of the biggest shows of his already big life, including many festivals he has never played, and taking his one-year-old daughter to her first big overseas shows.
“I was looking forward to debuting some new music and performing it in ways not done before. But I am one to never take anything thrown at me as the end but instead a beginning, and so after a couple of months of shock, I got to work. On music, on our property, on our kids, our general surroundings, and our life. It’s been incredibly hard to stop, but somewhere in there, this is what was always meant to happen – maybe weird to say that, I know. Taking time to live a real-life outside of music has grown my love for what I do and the impact I can have on people. I don’t usually have the time to truly stop and think about it, but this break, and receiving the many many messages from fans, has given this whole adventure even more infinitely positive meaning.”
In previous interviews, Opiuo has acknowledged that his hearing is rather damaged, and in fact, he’s 95% deaf in his left ear – the result, he says, of multiple surgeries to remove cysts from behind the eardrum. It has meant him taking multiple months off a couple of times in the middle of touring years to have surgery.
“I kept it secret for a long time as it was quite traumatic, but now I’m super happy to talk about it and hopefully help others with hearing issues too. In a way, I feel this has been a blessing, not a curse as I have had to appreciate every moment of music and touring. And I theoretically mix in mono! The cysts and operations are both something I don’t wish upon anyone, but I am happy it has given me a drive and direction that maybe I might not have had without such a thing.”
With minimal Youtube research, you can find full coverage of a massive Opiuo show at the famed Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Denver, Colorado. There’s him, an orchestra, huge production and what looks like a very happy sold-out crowd. Pretty sure most Kiwis don’t even know one of ours created something so epic I ask him to tell a little about how that particular show came to be.
“I was offered the honour of my very own Red Rocks headline show in 2018 after playing a couple of support slots for various acts the years previous. This venue is the ultimate, in my opinion, and one I was not going to pass up without doing something truly challenging. I had made passing comments to friends for years about how epic it would be to do an orchestra show, so when this opportunity came along I had to do it. When I told my manager I wanted to do an orchestra he said, ‘You know you won’t make a cent if you do that,’ and I was like, ‘I know, but I have to do it, now’s the time!’
“I had no idea how or where to start. We put together a budget and I called all the people I knew who had orchestra contacts or backgrounds. Then I was fortunate enough to meet the complete legend of a man, Tom Hagerman, via my manager’s awesome connection, and together we worked for months and months preparing the music for the show. I was pulling apart the music and sending little snippets of electric ideas to Tom, and he would rework and compose them into masterful pieces.
“So many days were spent on my end just imagining how it would look and feel in the venue, and then trying to make it flow musically, and then visually. My production manager Matt and I spent an insane amount of time on all the technical sides of things as well. From musician placement, mic choices, the look and feel of the whole thing. And to be honest, when the show finally started we were both just deep breathing, hoping it was going to work. We had no idea!
“I didn’t want to do it in the same way as anyone before me. I wanted it to be fresh, and to be felt and loved by everyone in attendance as something truly special. So I had no reference to know it would work. Part of the excitement I guess. Thankfully, it did. Once it was over, I was in shock. All the work and then we were done. It still almost doesn’t seem real now, haha. Definitely a highlight of my entire musical journey so far!”
In August, Opiuo released ‘Dusty Bugs’ in collaboration with UK’s Vorso – a 2020 collab across continents, released during one of the toughest of recent times. Like the rest of his back catalogue ‘Dusty Bugs’ has a stunning cover.
“Vorso and I met online as I had just heard his new EP, and played one of his songs in the solo section of my Red Rocks performance, actually. He is a super lovely human and we just clicked. He told me he used to ride the bus to school and listen to my music, which was a super cool moment. So we decided to make some music. We caught up in Bristol when I was on tour one year, and then ideas were sent over the internets. We got to work and it all came together over nearly a two-year period. Things take time when you’re busy touring and on the other sides of the globe!
“The production side of things was genuinely even. We both brought sounds and ideas to the table in equal fashion, and no one of us had more say or sway. It is easily the most balanced collab project I’ve worked on. ”
He plays drums and keys on stage and says his ‘essential live set’ kit has Ableton Live at the core, running on a few Mac laptops. A couple of Yamaha DTX-Multi 12 drum machines, Akai controllers and keyboards.
“Some cymbals. Some raw energy. Some sweat. Some good times! Plus my trusty production manager and FOH engineer Matt. My main working set up I couldn’t do without starts with iMac running Ableton & Logic.”
The rest of his key gear list includes Focal Trio 6 Be speakers and Audeze LCD-X headphones. Prophet 6, Virus Polar, Minimoog Voyager hardware synths. Various plug ins like Serum, U-he Diva, UAD Collection, Fab Filter bundle. An Eventide H9 effect pedal, Great River pre amp and AKG 414 microphone.
Hand in hand with the sound goes his visual style, as seen in his various album and EP covers.
“I like the art to reflect the tone or aesthetic of the audio, but there is no defined meaning to it. The interpretation is all yours to make it what you want. I just love colour and shapes and things that make you feel good about life.”
It’s easy to guess what makes Oscar Davey-Wraight feel good (family aside), making and playing music. With 2020 coming to an end he announced a festival a few weeks before we talk and says his inspiration went through the roof.
“I’m actually on a roll at the moment and it feels amazing. It’s how I like to create, imagining all the people getting down on the dance floor, eyes shut, limbs flying! I plan to do more shows, and I’m starting to build a whole new way to play my stuff live. Who knows when it will be finished, but that’s what it’s all about to me, the beautiful unknown.