Rhyece O’Neill is an intense young man. A polemical folk singer, a producer of bass-heavy dance music, a protester, and a digital media worker for a major record label. He’s unlike anyone else in Australia’s dubstep landscape.
(Photo by David Cooper)
Growing up in the small farming community of Yarrawonga on the Murray River in Northeast Victoria – “Yorta Yorta country” – O’Neill says life was mostly great.
He played Aussie Rules football at state level for Victoria, and then New South Wales after moving across the border to Mulwala, before starting a punk band in year seven (Germ Warfare) that “eventually overtook the footy.”
The son of a “Dylan tragic,” O’Neill was raised on a diet of Pink Floyd, the Doors, Zappa and Beefheart. “Dad’s LP collection had a pretty huge influence on me,” he says.
“My earliest musical memory is lying awake at night listening to Bob Dylan’s Desire. I memorised the lyrics to the whole album. Songs like ‘Hurricane’, ‘Sara’, ‘Isis’ and ‘Black Coffee Blues’ are still amongst my all time favourites.
“Not long after that I discovered the Doors and Hendrix. Hendrix’s guitar solos gave me goose bumps every time, and still do,” he laughs. He started on drums, but a shortage of singers in the area propelled him to the microphone stand.
O’Neill escaped the tiny Sacred Heart Catholic College when his family moved to Wangaratta, and wound up at the 10-times larger local high school. Local band Double Cross asked him to join and – aged around 14 or 15 – they quickly achieved a modicum of success. They played Festival Hall, the Rockalonga Festival with Jebediah and Dallas Crane, and even wound up on the Channel V music bus. But they weren’t ready to play the game.
“We were very political and angry young men – we were vocal against the refugee detention centres and a few times I came into conflict with promoters and security for being too ‘aggressive’ on stage.”
The rest of the band had a big influence on his thinking, especially in terms of politics, introducing him to Marx and Lenin. With the angry idealism of the young, his scatterfire critique took in Liberals and Labor, big money, and so on.
“We were teenagers, living in the bush, surrounded by racism and homophobia. Punk rock gave us a way to express our disgust with all of that.
“I think we are up on the wall at Wang’ High, which is kind of weird because I had lots of run-ins with the principal,” he says. Being a Wang’ High black sheep put O’Neill in pretty good company – a 13 year-old Nick Cave was expelled from the school for trying to pull down a 16 year-old girl’s pants.
By year 11, Double Cross was “basically a funk rock band” and O’Neill was bored. Listening to psychedelic rock, reggae and dub, high school finished and he headed for Melbourne. A local DJ, Heath Myers, had an immediate influence on the nascent producer.
“I had one foot in the electro scene and the other in the drum ‘n’ bass scene,” he says. “So I tried my hand at both, but my d’n’b mates hated electro [and vice versa].” The warehouse scene captured O’Neill’s imagination, and he cut his production teeth on drum’n’bass, dub and electro.
Those three sounds make excellent raw materials for a future dubstep producer, and on relocating to Sydney in late 2005, O’Neill threw himself into the sound.
“Around the time I discovered [dubstep] I was producing a lot of dub and jungle. [I was] also busking down at Newtown train station playing Dylan and Neil Young covers to get extra cash.”
Re-christened as Westernsynthetics – “Things that are synthetic are also sometimes flimsy or vulnerable, much like global capital” – O’Neill quickly became a key member of the dubstep community, DJing and playing live at most events, and collaborating online.
“It re-ignited my enthusiasm for electronic music and sparked a rapid advancement of my skills as a producer. Having access to the production forum (dubstepforum.com) and the talented producers who hang out there took my engineering to another level.”
This kind of group dynamic – where people work together on social networks, blogging communities or message boards, sharing information and understanding – is being described as a kind of “collective evolution” by biologists. Instead of survival of the fittest, message boards like dubstepforum foster altruistic behaviour.
By sharing their dubstep production knowledge, these bedroom producers bring the whole group to a shared level of understanding – a point where all parties can critically assess one another’s sounds and advance the group’s production. O’Neill says it has been crucial to his development.
“I guess guys like Flippo [Melbourne DJ, Dave Phillips] and Farj [Sydney DJ, Garage Pressure] are my ‘producers’,” he says. “I send them new bits with the confidence they will be completely honest about what I have done. It’s a kind of ‘communal’ quality control if you like.
“I do think that there is a distinct sound coming out of this part of the world. A lot of tracks have a very South-Pacific flavour and a lot of the dubstep producers in Australia and New Zealand are doing vastly different shit from what’s coming out of London.”
(Photo by David Cooper)
The first Westernsynthetics I heard was when DJ Distance rewound O’Neill’s song, ‘New Fuse’, on his UK Rinse FM show. O’Neill sent him the 320 kbps MP3 cold, via email, and along with a handful of other prominent UK DJs, Distance caned the digital file.
Listening to the the meditative waves of tumbling percussion on ‘Revolution!’, which brings to mind El B’s work as Groove Chronicles, or the seething Asiatic pressure of ‘New Fuse’, it’s clear his sound is among the country’s most original.
“I have always considered most of what I do musically to be psychedelic in nature, a lot of it is spaced out and self indulgent, you could call it other-worldly, but when I make music sometimes I feel it’s a form of escapism.”
It’s a sound defined by the tools he can afford. “I saved for six months to get Pro Tools,” he says. “I have a Maton acoustic and an electric [guitar] and I try to use my own samples. I need a new computer, but that ain’t going to happen unless I go into debt.”
O’Neill collaborates prolifically, generally online, producing tracks with JD Bigfoot (‘Burnin’ Remould’ – “a real homage to King Tubby in the dubstep style” – and a favourite on Rinse FM and Sub FM), and with Funk Ethics and Dynamix (all from Newcastle, UK).
“The thing I’m most excited about at the moment is my collaboration with Farj,” he says of working with the veteran garage and dubstep DJ. Amen break filled, skank-out summer dance floor business is the way O’Neill describes it, laughing as he says that Farj could be the Rick Rubin of dubstep.
Dubstep has progressed at an unusually fast pace from people making music influenced by a wide range of sounds to people making music influenced by dubstep.
“It’s evolving,” he says, “some say evolving to the point of stagnation. Some people are influenced by a wide range of styles – you can hear it – and some are influenced mostly by dubstep. This is inevitable.
“I am interested in dubstep because there is a lot of scope for experimentation. I draw on all my influences when making this music. For example, I was listening to Bob Dylan’s ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ the other day and it inspired me to pick up the guitar and write a kind of shuffle/dubby tune. Don’t ask me why…”
(Photo by David Cooper)
As well as busking, O’Neill plays at folk festivals – he has another catalogue of folk/blues songs, for example, the song ‘Yorta Yorta’ about the Supreme Court dismissing the community’s native title claim.
“With my guitar-based stuff I get to sing and express myself lyrically. I don’t really fancy myself as an MC, but I enjoy doing the occasional spoken word with dubstep.
“Around 2002 and 2003 and especially when the war in Iraq broke out I was in a weird place. But out of that came books of poetry, most of which has not seen the light of day. I aim to pull the good bits out and do some spoken word with my dubstep productions.”
Dubstep is often described as “post-apocalyptic” or “dystopian,” but although the mood of O’Neill’s recordings is often dark, he is loathe to draw the bow too far. “It’s a collage of sound reflecting my disposition at the time I was making it,” he says, “not a concept album to paint an abstract vision of the future. It reflects the ‘current climate’ or material conditions that influence their development at the time of production.”
Last time I caught up with O’Neill was days before the federal election. Since then, of course, there has been a change of government in Australia. O’Neill’s latest recordings, such as the loping dub ‘Engine no 999′ circulated via Myspace and message board connections, hint at a newfound optimism. But any suggestion it’s connected to the change of government is quickly squashed.
He’s fiercely critical of the new prime minister’s approach to East Timor, Afghanistan, indigenous Australians, privatisation of electrical utilities and a handful of other topics, and of what he sees as US and Australian imperialism.
“Am I optimistic?” he asks. “Yes, because there is visible resistance to Rudd’s policies. This week I attended an Aboriginal Rights Council rally for the opening of parliament to protest the invasion of Northern Territory aboriginal communities.
“I heard story after story from elders and young aboriginal people from the NT speaking of the disgusting racist conditions they currently endure. One aboriginal speaker spoke of the ID cards they are forced to use – an aboriginal woman yelled from the crowd: ‘The dog tags!’
“Basic services including stores and schools that the local people have built and maintained have been closed and requisitioned by the government. The state has taken possession of the land. It is effectively a state of martial law for blacks only. The military and cops are everywhere.
“The formal apology is a welcome gesture, but that’s all it is from Rudd: a gesture with no substance. He is offering no compensation for the stolen generations and I say generations because as this intervention continues the genocide continues. Future generations of the indigenous peoples of this land will feel the long term effects of the racist land grab currently occurring in the NT and in five years we will need to apologise again.
“I’m not under any illusions that my music can do anything to actually change the world. It’s just that I can’t bring myself to write crappy love songs, so just about everything I write has a political message.”
In any case, music is just a side project to the main game: helping “build a revolutionary organisation around Marxist politics that can base its roots in the working class.” A Socialist Alternative member, he tries to convince his workmates to join the union, works on anti-war stalls and builds/attends rallies. “I guess that rubs off,” he says, “when you constantly agitate politically on the side of the working class this can influence how you approach music and how people perceive it, regardless of the political content within the song itself.”
“If people listen to propaganda I communicate then this can alert people to where I’m at. But music is not something that can have a fundamental impact on changing the world. A song can’t go on strike or defeat fascism. I don’t harbour any illusions that my music can challenge capitalism and awaken the masses.
“To think I can fundamentally challenge poverty through writing a sick beat or even putting on a fundraiser gig would be elitist. However, this doesn’t prevent me from participating in fundraising events or supporting causes of the oppressed. All I’m saying is that fundamental change can only come about through the revolutionary action of workers challenging capital. John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ didn’t spark the anti-war movement in the ‘60s, rather the song was written in response to it.”
Like I said, not your average dubstep music maker.
Westernsynthetics’ releases are available from Sub Continental Dub and via Myspace.