John O'Connor said farewell to the UK music business with the million-selling single 'Star Trekkin'. Paul Tingen tracks him down at his new home in America, where he is one of the principal composers for the cartoon series King Of The Hill,as well as a successful recording artist in his own right.
Superficially, John O'Connor's life is the stuff of many musicians' dreams. Settled near the idyllic Californian town of Santa Barbara, he makes a comfortable living as a TV composer and recording artist, and is happy to acknowledge that he is in an enviable position: "I can't believe it. Here I am at 49, and I am more excited about playing the guitar and writing music than I have ever felt before. Every morning when I get up, I can't wait to start playing again; I come in the studio here, switch the DAT recorder on and play for five to six hours, and slowly edit together the acoustic guitar album that I really want to make. If the other music that I record here is instantly forgotten, that's OK, because it allows me to have a studio like this, and do what I really love to do, which is play the acoustic guitar."
These last few lines indicate that there's more to this story than the usual fairy tale of Briton-made-good-in-America. John O'Connor, from London, of Irish descent, indeed landed on his feet after he moved to America in 1987, and is now living a comfortable life, enjoying an income from the four CDs he has made for the American new age company Higher Octave, and also from being one of the musicians who write the music for the cutting-edge cartoon comedy series King Of The Hill. In many ways, O'Connor is living the dream of scores of SOS readers. However, his story also makes clear that making a living from music can come at a price. In his case musical compromises, loss of musical control, hard work, risks and insecurity are all part of the equation.
John O'Connor started out as a guitarist, but quickly became interested in recording. "I bought a Teac 3340 4-track reel-to-reel, in 1972, and it was the biggest thrill of my life. I enjoyed performing as a musician, but I was not a great performer, so I knew that if I wanted to make a living in music, I had a better chance if I was involved in recording. First I got the 4-track, and then an 8-track. I did demos for songwriters and started my own studio in Walthamstow, North London, called Bark Studios, which is still running today. That went to 16-track and then 24-track, and all sorts of music came through the door, from folk to pop to R&B to Indian classical. But I lost interest when punk came along and people started spitting on the control room window; I went back to the acoustic guitar. Also, I realised that after working for 14 hours in the studio each day, I didn't want to stay and record my own music. So after running a professional recording facility for 10 years, I decided to concentrate on writing and playing music."
O'Connor did exactly this in the early '80s, when he was a session musician and played guitar with pop and folk-rock bands like Maddy Prior and Rick Kemp, Isla St. Clair and Bucks Fizz. His leanings towards commercial pop music surfaced in some of this session work, and were brought to fruition in spectacular fashion with the next two major events in his life, which turned out to be turning points.
You Must Be Joking!
O'Connor: "First, I wrote a song based on the Minder TV character Arthur Daley. Nobody would release it, so I put it out myself under the name The Firm, and it got to number 8 in the UK charts, as a novelty hit. A few years later Graham Lister and I wrote another similar tune, called 'Star Trekkin'. The 20 or 30 record companies that we offered it to all laughed at us and said: 'you must be joking, we're not going to release this as a single!' But I believed in it so much that I had to get it out there. So I started this little record company, released 500 copies, and it slowly picked up. Then, suddenly, it went haywire, and in 1987 it became a number 1 hit in the UK, Europe, Australia and Japan."
'Star Trekkin' sold over 1 million copies and made O'Connor a veritable ton of money. But just as the single was taking off he moved to California, a place he had fallen in love with on a working visit in 1970. Initially, life in California was a bit hectic, because 'Star Trekkin' was in the charts all around the world; for a while, he did little else but fly all over the place promoting it. Not long afterwards, however, he found himself on his own, in an alien country, with a wad of money, but feeling distinctly uncomfortable.
"The first couple of years I didn't know what to do with myself. I felt like a fish out of water, my network of friends was in the UK, and my family was in Ireland. I also had to learn to attune my bullshit detector to American society. In your own culture, it's easier to spot someone who is just a big talker. Here, it took me a while to figure it out. There are many people here who can talk a great game, but don't have the talent to back it up."
Keen to take up something to keep him active, O'Connor quickly realised that he couldn't fall back on his London career as a studio owner. "There are so many studios here, there's no point starting another one. In California anyone with even the slightest interest in music has a $100,000 studio at home, full of the latest equipment, and many of them are producing their own stuff. But it's often very bland; good ideas don't come from sitting around in a studio with nice equipment. So I put a little demo studio together, and I made some demos that I sent to a few record companies. Higher Octave Music, who were focused on the new age market, called me up, and said that they liked a few of the tracks, and asked me to do more in that vein, including some with samples on, like pan pipes, which were popular at the time. In 1989, this became the first Eko album, called Future Primitive. It reached the Billboard new age top 10, and sold about 75,000 copies. I'm still very grateful to Higher Octave for spotting me and giving me the chance to get my music out there."
Eko is Sanskrit for 'one' and the project consisted of O'Connor (who wrote all the music) together with reputable sidekicks like keyboardist and programmer Paul Ellis (who had worked with a varied spread of artists, from Billy Ocean and Alison Moyet to The Sugarcubes), and eminent violinist Bob Loveday (one-time member of the Penguin Café Orchestra). The music was a pleasant, optimistic blend of new age and folk music. With Future Primitive exceeding initial sales expectations, O'Connor seemed set for another stint at hit-parade success and jet-set lifestyle. But things didn't quite work out like that. Eko's follow-up albums, Logikal (1992), Alter Eko (1994) and Celtica (1996), failed to sell in such large quantities as the debut (about 30,000 each), and somehow the compromises that O'Connor had to make to get this music out started to grate on him: "The first two albums had quite a lot of drum machines, synths and samplers on them, and I found that I wasn't listening to those albums. I really like music that I can have a long-term relationship with; the stuff that really connects with me is recorded in a very heartfelt way. I started to feel that the synths were getting in the way of the guitar playing; they were little more than
"Record companies will always look at ways to sell music... I'd rather sell some albums than be a starving purist."
It turned out that O'Connor's true musical tastes were neither as throwaway as they appeared from 'Star Trekkin', nor as mainstream new age as they seemed from Future Primitive. He cut down on the synths and samples, but found that he wasn't satisfied with his next (and last) two releases under the Eko banner. The final Eko album, Celtica, had a Celtic music flavour suggested by Higher Octave, because Celtic music had been very popular in the US in the previous few years. Although O'Connor was happy with the recording sessions, he wasn't pleased with the mixes that were done in-house by Higher Octave, and found himself not listening to this album either. "I was happy with the tunes and the playing, but I felt it lost something during mixing and mastering," he remarks, but adds fair-spiritedly: "Record companies will always look at ways to sell music, and Higher Octave never pushed me further than I wanted to go. And I'd rather sell some albums than be a starving purist. That's a decision that everyone has to make. So I made some concessions on those albums. I don't regret them, but I just don't feel as close to them now as I might.
"When I look back and ask myself whether I have done anything worthwhile, it's my relationship to the acoustic guitar that I value most. The CDs, the novelty hits, the music for King Of The Hill, they are things that I am lucky enough to be able to do to sustain a studio and a lifestyle where I can do what
I really need to do, which is play the guitar. I keep coming back to the joy and satisfaction which comes from that."
O'Connor explains that his home studio started from modest beginnings in the late '80s, expanding to one ADAT and one DAT recorder, and a small computer system with Sound Designer editing software a few years later: "I could not believe what you could do with Sound Designer and the ADATs; it was wonderful. I think that the ADAT will eventually be seen as a really huge leap forward in the history of record-making; it certainly made it possible for me to make my last three albums the way I did. Often, I would record the demos here, and then take an ADAT recorder over to Bob Loveday's house or Paul Ellis's place, set it up in a living room, and record there.
These days, O'Connor's studio is where he writes, plays, and records all his music for TV, apart from orchestral work and occasional guitar overdubs, which are done in LA. The heart of the setup is now formed by his Macintosh computer, which contains a 16-track Digidesign Pro Tools system, Digidesign Sound Designer editor, Opcode Studio Vision, MOTU Digital Performer, and Passport Encore as main software. "I now record all my music in my 16-track Pro Tools system, working out orchestral parts with sample CDs in Digital Performer or Studio Vision. If I'm working for TV, all that gets downloaded onto a Tascam DA88. Much as I like ADATs, they do have real problems locking up, which is why they are not used in the audio-visual industry. In that world, the DA88 is the standard." Oddly, given the importance of the machine for TV work, O'Connor doesn't yet own a DA88 -- he just rents one in when he needs it. "Everybody is now waiting for tape to die out, and it would make sense to me to be able to store all your cues on hard disk and then ISDN them down to the office," he explains.
The well-equipped O'Connor studio also contains a Korg M1 workstation, a Mackie 24-channel desk, and an Akai S2000 complete with rows of sample CDs containing all manner of grooves, strings, and orchestral sounds. An effects rack boasts a budget Sony MP5 reverb, two Neve 9098 mic preamps, two Dbx160A compressors, a Tascam DA30 MkII DAT recorder, his Digidesign 888 Pro Tools I/O interface, Eventide H3000S multi-effects/pitch-shifter, and there's also a pair of Mackie HR824 monitors. His favourite microphones are the Neumann KM184, Audio Technica 4030 and Shure SM58; he uses the KM184 and 4030 mainly for acoustic guitars, and the SM58 on his Fender electric guitar amp. Finally, he owns a little Roland PMA5 palmtop sequencer, which is "very handy on the beach. I once had to do 30 different demos for King Of The Hill in a 24-hour period, and the Roland was really useful for getting my ideas down quickly."
As O'Connor has already hinted during our interview, the job writing music for this cartoon series has been his most lucrative TV work so far; KOTH is a top 20 show in the States and won a BMI Award this year. O'Connor's involvement in the series started in January 1997, when the production company which makes the cartoon, Judgemental Films, invited him and seven other composers to write the music to the first 13 episodes. They gave each composer one or two episodes to do whilst they were looking for the style that would best suit the program. After that first season they settled on O'Connor and two other composers, and the former Briton now finds himself fully stretched to provide the music for these shows, which go out every Sunday night in the US.
O'Connor: "The schedules are really brutal. I have just over a week to write, arrange and record the music for one show. There are about 15 scriptwriters and the amount of care they take is amazing. It takes about nine months to take an original story idea to completion. Most of the animation work is done in Korea, and after it comes back to the US I get a rough cut of the show, about three weeks before the show goes out. So the music is done at the last minute; I meet the producers in Los Angeles for the spotting session, usually on a Thursday or Friday
"There are usually 25 to 35 cues, so I go home and demo the music in Pro Tools. Then, a few days later, we have another meeting in LA where I'll play the producers the video with my ideas, to see if I'm going in the right direction musically, and which cues need to be rewritten or altered. The orchestral sessions are usually on the Thursday or Friday a week before the show goes out. On Wednesday or Thursday afternoon, I transfer the MIDI files of my orchestral parts from Digital Performer or Studio Vision into Encore, which is my music composition software, and I'll fax or email those files to the 20th Century Fox music library, where music copyists are standing by pretty much 24 hours a day to write out all the parts for the orchestra. I then lay my tracks and a click track on a DA88, go down to LA, and conduct and record the orchestra, which is recorded on two tracks. Occasionally I will play guitar with the orchestra if a certain cue demands it. Normally my stuff and the orchestra combined does not exceed eight tracks, because we mix everything to stereo pairs, but sometimes we go up to 16 tracks.
"Even after that session, we may need to do some more tweaking, so often I'll take the DA88 tape back home, throw it into Sound Designer or Pro Tools for editing, redo some guitar parts and make a few more changes. I have been known to email little bits of music to LA as AIFF files for last-minute fixes! We then pass the music on to post-production, who spend two days mixing the show, adding dialogue, sound effects, foley and music. The finished show is often aired within a week of completion."
As if the King Of The Hill music recording schedule isn't already gruelling enough, O'Connor also explains his amazement and admiration at the attitude of the show's producers to the music, and how their expectations stretch him. "The producers are really experienced guys. Many of them have worked on The Simpsons, and the music editor regularly works with Martin Scorcese. They know absolutely what the effect of the music is likely to be, or the effect of having no music at all. They see music in a totally different way from me; they're not interested in how well you can play, or how you write. They just want music that can help sell a scene or transition between scenes, or convey the passage of time. One thing you have to avoid is being funny. King Of The Hill is already a funny show, and music that tells the audience what they're watching is funny just kills it. We treat the show as a drama and underscore the characters' emotions.
"A few weeks ago, I did a scene where the guys were watching the Super Bowl on TV. We needed sports programme music coming from the TV, then a few commercials, cutting into religious music from another TV channel, and then into a long sequence with orchestral '40s Hollywood music -- and all that in the space of three to four minutes! Your job as composer for the show is to solve these sorts of musical problems.
"They say that to write music for television you need thick skin and no ego, so you can't be precious about your music. Last season, I wrote maybe 400 or 500 little pieces of different styles of music that I would never have written otherwise; it has really pushed me into new areas. I am learning how to conduct and write for orchestra and write in all sorts of musical styles, like big band jazz, or as though I was scoring a classic '50s Hitchcock movie. Many people who work in home studios don't have the chance to try out their music in other environments. I'm lucky enough to have the chance to record real orchestra and guitar in a pro studio, then bring the tapes back and compare them to my own demos here. I learn a lot from that."
A Pure Voice
"I think I have a slight addiction to studio gear, which I know many people have. I have heard really good music made on much lower-quality gear than I have, but I still like to have the best equipment I can afford -- I get upset when equipment doesn't work. It's the one thing guaranteed to take me out of a creative state of mind. Also, as new technology arrives, people's expectations of what's possible also change. Now that it's possible to deliver high-quality demos of 30 pieces of music in a couple of days, you're deemed not quite ready to work in the business if you can't provide that, so I need equipment that is fast and reliable. I don't want anything to be a problem for me, like the ADATs failing to lock up; you get pissed off and lose the thread of what you're doing. The technology I have fits nicely together, and it works, although I suppose there will always be problems with hard disks and systems, which means you have to become your own technician.
"Overall, I think technology will keep on developing and getting cheaper and better, and I will continue to upgrade. I'm looking forward to buying various TDM plug-ins, and I hope that soon I'll be able to master my own albums here. My relationship with Higher Octave and King Of The Hill have made this studio possible, and taught me a lot about the way I approach music. The Higher Octave albums are fun, but I can also see them as a failure on my part to dig deeper, to go where the deeper emotions are and bring them out. I think that's what people respond to. The fun stuff will be forgotten in six months. It's uplifting for a while and serves a purpose, but as a musician I want to contribute more to people's lives when they hand over their hard-earned cash for one of my CDs. I think you do them more of a service when you dig deeper and give them a purer voice to listen to."