OK, people: Let’s brainstorm. Or mind shower. Or whatever the politically correct term is. The subject is: how to convince children to always ensure they have the correct fare when travelling on a train.
How about, ‘Get The Right Ticket, Or You’ll Never Become A Successful Musician’. Catchy, no? We could work in advertising. Who wouldn’t be convinced. We’d certainly be happy to keep Scotch in our desk drawer.
It’s a slogan that would never have been without O Children lead singer Tobi O’Kandi, who very nearly became the poster boy for the campaign after a small transgression on the railway nearly led to his deportation. We met O’Kandi and bassist Harry James to find out how how the British Transport Police and the UK Border Agency almost conspired to strip 2012 of one of its best albums.
Tobi begins. “We played a gig in Manchester and I ended up with Gauthier [O Children guitarist] at this random guy’s house. We woke up, realised our train had already gone, so we were like ‘we’ll just get on the next one’.”
Famous last words. Harry nods. “It was the classic thing. You miss a train and just jump on the next one and if you get caught you’ll just have to deal with it. I hid in the toilet.” Tobi interrupts, “EVERYONE hid in the toilet. And got away with it. I was like there’s no way I’m going to stay in a toilet.” A pause, before he adds a perfectly timed punchline. “I probably should have, looking back on it.”
Hindsight always is flawless when it comes to decisions about whether or not to stay in a toilet. However, no one could have expected how bad things were about to get, as a “hard-ass” ticket inspector called the police. Normally, as Harry remarks, that’s “just something they say”. “Yeah” agrees Tobi. Before adding, with surprising calmness, “Maybe she was having a really shitty day.”
Tobi’s day was also about to get shittier. “So she calls some people over, I tell them my name, and they’re like, are you sure that’s your name? Because if that is you might have a few more problems then you think.”
Problems like being told his visa had expired. Problems like being thrown into a cell. Problems like having to spend the next two or three years going back and forth to court and being prevented from travelling. “Yeah,” Tobi sighs, “It was a bitch. For ages we didn’t know if we were allowed to stay, so were just telling promoters and labels and people, ‘just have to wait’.”
It must have hurt. Particularly given promoters aren’t the kind of people who normally like to wait. Tobi nods. “Definitely. But luckily everyone we were working with stood by us and it has turned out a little. Bit. Better.”
You’ve got to hand it to O’Kandi. He carries what must have been a pretty traumatic experience incredibly well. Did it make him more politicised? “Did it make me more political?” Tobi turns the question over. “Not so much. I’ve always been a little bit scared of the world and some of the crazy things which happen in it. But it didn’t make me think ‘oh, the UK border agency need to sort your life out’. I felt more sorry for the people who couldn’t speak English, who were confused as hell, had just been picked up, who had come here for want of a better life, and these people could be treated like complete shit. I was just like, that’s not cool.”
“It was a bitch.” – Tobi O’Kandi succinctly sums up his visa problems
While not turning O’Kandi into Billy Bragg, it must have had some impact on the formation of the album Apnea? “I think it would have been a completely different sounding album,” is the unsurprising answer. “It would have just sounded exactly like the first one. Doomy. But with all this happening I was like; ‘I need to embrace what I have and I need to say’. OK, this is all the stuff that’s going on over there, but I have work to do and it’s something I love doing. It took me away from that, a bit of escapism from all the crazy stuff.”
Drawing on the negative experiences as inspiration rather than make them the focus? Tobi nods. “Kind of saying there’s shit in the world you have to go with. But there’s always things you can use to take your mind of it.”
You can hear the escapism in it. Apnea is joyous and free-spirited. Tobi concurs, “That’s why I’m really proud of it. That’s why I’m still going to say it’s album of the year for me,” he smiles, “because, people have a right to be arrogant even when they haven’t put their heart and their soul into something. We’ve gone through so much that we should be proud of it. I’m surprised and glad that we made it, because if we hadn’t it would feel like they won and that would suck.”
He tails off. But he’s not wrong. Apnea is a real step forward for O Children and it would suck if it wasn’t here. It’s dark, yes, but there’s so much more to it than just that. It’s bolder, tinged with all manner of other influences (funk, soul, gospel), and far more interesting than might have reasonably been expected.
It also saw O’Kandi step into the role as producer. Was that always the plan? Tobi shakes his head. “People kept asking me who I wanted to produce and I kept firing out names like Diplo; people that cost a fuck load of money.” He chuckles. “No, the thing was I had been producing for a while but I never thought I would do it for something so personal, but then I just piped up. I got to do a lot of stuff that a lot of producers wouldn’t let me do and I think it shows… Maybe that’s why it didn’t chart.” Another self-deprecating smile, before he adds, “I just had a lot of fun exploring what we could do to make it not your average, normal indie classic.”
Harry offers his take. “We’d only go with a producer who would add something.” Tobi nods, “There was nothing to add. So even if we did have a producer, unless he was like, God, unless God himself was producing, I don’t think we’d have agreed with him.”
Album of the year. Indie classic. Only improved had it been produced by God. Big talk. Arrogant band? Well, no. They’re delivered with a deadpan smirk, said with Tobi’s tongue near his cheek. But that isn’t the same as saying they’re joking. They totally believe in the album they’ve made and the band they’re in.
Are there any other artists they feel an affinity with? Tobi responds, “I feel completely separated. We have a lot of friends who are doing it, like PEACE, Swim Deep, Spector, Florence, but I wouldn’t say we’re in the same camp as them. They’re doing things very immediate. I want to be able to keep putting stuff out that I’m always going to be happy with and I never want to feel rushed again. I want to take my time. I wanna fuck around and make, like a bossa-nova record, so people are like ‘what the hell?!’. I just want to do things our way.”
Tobi looks up, “I dunno, what do you think, do you think that it is stupid in this day and age to want something to last?” Harry shakes his head. “It’s more important these days, because it’s so throwaway.”
Lots of bands are happy to claim a desire for longevity, but few seem OK with the idea that this might be at the expense of a level of fame. Tobi continues, “This is why I was saying how I listen to the same music since I was like eight years old to this day. Bands that always produce and will never be forgotten. I don’t want to be a short-term pop star but I want to make music for the rest of my life.”
There’s an air of bruised experience about Tobi. He is, in the blink-and-you’ve-missed it terms of the current scene, a veteran, first experiencing fame in 2005 in Bono Must Die. Does he think the industry has changed in the time he’s been in it? Tobi looks quizzical. “In what way?” Well, for example, the throwaway nature, has that got worse? “That’s because everyone can do it now,” he retorts. True, we agree, but maybe not everyone should?
“That’s the thing. Download a copy of Logic, be young and have a slightly model face, and you’re good to go. But then the labels have allowed this to happen. A lot of it is illegal downloading, that is what killed everything in the first place, but their [the labels] way of responding is to basically say OK, all we want is downloads, we don’t care. Get them in and get them out.”
He continues, “It’s so different now. You said do you want to be an albums band in a world where sales are declining, and yes, I still want to be an albums band. I’m just not going to be a millionare! We’ve never been, like ‘we NEED MORE MONEY. WE NEED MORE FANS!’. I don’t get people like that.”
Their tale of woe is heading towards a happy ending. The legal troubles now over, they’re about to head out on a UK tour – their first “for a while”, Tobi grins – and they really do have an album worthy of a great many plaudits. Let’s hope that from this point in, the most traumatic things they have to deal with on their train journeys are the bacon sandwiches.
Apnea is out now through Deadly People. O Children are on tour in the UK throughout October. More here.