David Oakes is a fine (he hates when I say ‘talented’) musician and composer of electronic alternative rock music based in Wales, UK. In the early 2000’s, he was drummer with the British rock band Kotow, and since 2012 he’s produced a tremendous output of instrumental music as a solo artist, ranging from gentle synth-driven compositions to aggressive guitar-driven hard rock, and everything in between. In early May, he released his latest album TheMENACE, which I reviewed and you can read here. It’s a brilliant work that’s actually a double album, with the first containing 11 tracks, most with vocals, and the second being an instrumental-only version, plus two bonus tracks not found on the first.
I recently had a chat with David about his music background, influences and creative process.
1. Hello David. Thank you for wanting to talk with me about your music. You and I have spoken a bit in the past about your background, but for the sake of our readers, let’s touch on that again. You now live in Wales, but were born in England, then spent part of your childhood and early teen years in the Middle East. Living in Dubai must have been interesting, or at least an unusual experience I would think. What positive or negative things did you come away with?
Yes! I moved there when I was two so obviously I don’t remember relocating there. I remember a couple of the houses we lived in – mostly the 3rd one which is very strong in my memory. I can recall it in detail. We lived very near the sea and would go camping in the desert at the weekend. I had a little 50cc PW50 motorcycle that I drove everywhere :). It took me a very very long time to get over moving to the UK.
2. Why is that?
Hot 365 and living by the beach, etc. to … Wales… Camping in the desert at the weekend, dune bashing to … oh, nothing.
3. At what age did you start playing guitar, or other instruments? I remember you saying you attended a music institute in England after you moved back there with your family. What did you study there?
We had an electric piano in the house from around 1988 and I taught myself stuff on that. Eventually I got my own keyboard and I was off. I played it every day and wrote my own albums onto cassettes. I don’t have any of them anymore. They wouldn’t have sounded very professional. I even bought card from the newsagent and printed out artwork onto them and chopped them into cassette sleeve size. You can see the lineage all the way back . The only difference to what I do now is I don’t print out my own artwork. Everything else is the same – the tech has just improved. I went to ACM (Academy of Contemporary Music) in Guildford in 2009 for 3 years to study guitar and music theory. I passed all my exams but I never attempted my dissertation so I never got the qualification.
4. You formed a rock band called Kotow with your brother and another friend, and released a pretty decent album “Demise of the Monsters.” How or why did you guys choose that band name, and how long was Kotow an active band?
Rich wanted a Japanese name and so looked in a Japanese dictionary and found “Kotow” meaning to bow or acquiesce… We all liked the name. We formed around February 2002, whilst I was going back and forth to the city (Cardiff) to study music production on a “New Deal” course under the Labour Gov which lasted from 1997 until around 2004. Anyway – since Dad had re-married – they moved out of the house and the whole band lived in our big farmhouse so we could write and rehearse all day every day. After moving to the London area in 2004 or so, we realised that nobody really cared and got fed up with it and we split in 2006.
5. I believe you played drums for Kotow. Tell me about your experiences playing in a band – both good and bad if you care to go there. Why did the band eventually split up?
You know me, I have no ego but I did believe we were the best band in south Wales. When we moved to London, nobody gave us the time of day and we all got tired of it. Plus I wasn’t happy with the direction our music was taking. My main thing was to write catchy riffs in odd time signatures and do my best to come up with complimentary drum parts. I’d get annoyed if I couldn’t play for the song and could only think of something ordinary. We liked being unconventional. We lost two guitarists for one reason or another and we got a new guy who was great, but he and Rich wanted us to sound more like the tech bands at the time and I really wanted to stick to our original ethos of being unlike anyone else. Oh well.
6. You obviously wanted to continue making music after Kotow ended. I know some of your favourite bands are Dream Theater, Mastodon, Green Day and Metallica, so am guessing your sound is greatly influenced by their music?
I expect so. Not directly or deliberately. I just write music and what comes out, comes out. Exactly the same process as Kotow. I like making albums of different genres and styles since I listen to a lot of different genres and styles. I couldn’t imagine being in one of those metal bands who sound exactly like everyone else and only listen to that music. Boring.
7. When did you record your first solo album?
“The Juggernaut” in 2012. It was originally supposed to be the follow up to “Demise Of The Monsters” and Rich would play bass and sing and I’d produce since he’d done almost all the work on DOTM. I merely played guitar on that album. Since I’d never attempted a “proper” professional sounding album before and had only limited experience with Logic – I worked on it every day for about 6 – 8 months. I still enjoy it to this day but I think I’ve done better and I learn something new with each album I do.
8. You’ve been fairly prolific, recording and releasing quite a few albums and compilations over the past few years, several of which I’ve purchased. What inspires you to create a new album with a specific theme and sound?
I don’t like to create the same album twice in a row…So if I do a hard rock album I definitely won’t do one again as it kinda wears me out when working on an album. “Transmissions” was songs I wrote when I was learning guitar and some of those songs had been fully formed in my head for many many years until I could finally record them properly. “Transmission Part 1 & 2” was completely written and I had it all worked out in my head and even recorded a version of it way back in 1997 or so on my Dad’s 2-track reel-to-reel machine.
Every time I start an album I have to come up with something great first. That’s the springboard. If I like an idea – that’ll be the blueprint for the album. I could never just write 8 -10 random songs and that’ll do. None of my albums are fully fledged concept albums but I try to imagine they are. . . As I’ve said in the past – I like albums to sound/feel like *albums* and not just Here’s 10 tracks I wrote in any order…
Even if the idea doesn’t end up lasting the whole album – the initial idea is usually enough impetus. With “Strum Und Drang” I’d been listening to the 21st Anniversary of Leftfield’s “Leftism” pretty much on repeat and wanted to do something inspired by that. I pretty much listened to nothing but Leftfield’s three albums for the summer of 2017 and wrote at the same time. “The Menace” seemed to be the next logical step.
9. Your latest effort “The Menace” is one of your finest. Some of your previous works contained a few dark tracks, but most of the songs were more melodic, almost orchestral rock like that of Dream Theater. Also, for the first time you added lyrics and vocals. You told me it’s a loose concept album, and that you kept the lyrics intentionally vague, but what was your inspiration behind “The Menace” and it’s dark theme? Also, what made you decide to add a vocal component?
Thank You. I had so much fun making “Sturm Und Drang” that I wanted to do another in that style but – as I said at the time – I wanted it “tougher and harder sounding.“ One of the few times that the album has pretty much turned out exactly how I envisioned from the beginning. Once I had “ The Slammer “ – I knew I was onto something. Loose concept album in that…I didn’t intentionally write lyrics to mean anything – I just had my microphone there – played the track and improvised some stuff until I found something I liked.
After a while I realised all the improvs could be about a few things. Notably the “MeToo” movement, #45… all of these things that were going on in the news at the time. Completely subconsciously. Only the final two tracks “Finale Part I and II” I wrote to tie up this theme. All other lyrics are improvised. And yeah I kept it intentionally vague as I’ve never wanted to align myself with any party or politics or anything and I was not a fan of Kotow’s Anti-President Bush EP. I never wanted to be a political band – one of the other factors that led to our break up. As for vocals – people kept pestering me to include them and I thought if I do it, I’m gonna distort the crap out of them… Which I did on “The Slammer”. But as the album went on, I got more confident and I turned the distortion further and further down. I think I’ll do vocals again should I do another album at some point… Probably same style too.
10. Besides my glowing review, what has been the response to The Menace?
Thank you! Well – same as ever. A few RTs from music accounts and a few more people saying they like it but nothing amazing really. About the same as it was for “Sturm Und Drang” or “The Dawn And The Dusk.” *shrug*
11. That leads me to the next question. You and I have shared our own frustrations over the lack of support from a majority of our so-called ‘followers’ on social media, who rarely if ever engage with our tweets, postings, etc. But in today’s music industry, an artist or band (or just about any other creative person) is all but forced to use social media to get people to learn about their music, unless they’re willing or able to hire an expensive publicist. Any thoughts about this?
Interesting subject since my degree course dissertation was basically gonna be all about this. “Do we need big recording studios now that people are making pro albums in their bedrooms“ etc etc… I THINK that the Internet has ruined a lot of music. Shops are closing because people are buying everything online, and it’s so hard to stand out when everyone and their dog has a band and a Bandcamp and a Soundcloud. It’s like whispering in a hurricane… And I’m not smart enough to think of some cool promo gimmick. And whenever I think I have something, it never works so…
12. Do you have any plans for a future album, or will you take a long break?
Ya know it speaks for itself – when I was putting out albums every month that I’d recorded in a week – the quality was dipping. You know how I feel about “Imaginary film soundtrack .“ I was so disappointed with it, I actually paid to have it taken down. I know I rushed it and it shows. I still cannot listen to it. Starting with “Juggernaut III” and then continuing with “Sturm Und Drang” and now “The Menace,” I’ve taken my time to craft an album over many months. Take a break..come back…listen to it….fix/adjust anything…etc. And as a result, those three albums I mentioned have a little extra going for them. I’m actually a huge fan of “The Dawn & The Dusk”. Its one of my favourite things I’ve done. And I seem to remember taking my time with that one too so… “The Menace” is still very fresh to me. It was released on May 4 – eight months after “Sturm Und Drang.” I’m not even thinking about another album and probably won’t until winter. I mentioned to someone once that i’d like to take a year to release an album at some point. Maybe I will for the next one. It won’t be a double though. I’d like to get down to doing only one album a year.
13. Anything else you’d like to share that I’ve neglected to ask?
I think that the “Sturm Und Drang” and “The Menace” “style” will be my default setting from now on. They were both really fun to create and I actually plan on buying a midi keyboard to make composing a lot easier.
I know James Lauters (a very supportive mutual friend of David’s and mine) likes the what I call the X&Y series. And I may do another one eventually but it would have to be really chilled out. Like “Dawn And The Dusk” but even more chilled. Lots more acoustic. Basically the exact opposite of “The Menace.”