Great Escape 2018 Interview: ONR.

By on Thursday, 7th June 2018 at 11:00 am
 

The Paginini Ballroom of the Old Ship Hotel in Brighton is one of the more atmospheric places to play during The Great Escape Festival. This is where I find myself sat next to Robert Shields, the Scottish mastermind behind the electropop act ONR. (pronounced “honour”). “I can’t remember having played a ballroom before”, he says. “My ballroom dancing days were a long time ago, so…” he quips with a grin. Shields and his band have just come offstage following their set at the BBC Introducing showcase Friday night during The Great Escape 2018. I ask him how it felt to be so high up on the stage, far above the crowd. “I loved it! I absolutely love being so high up, it brings out of your inner rock star!”

It’s good to be Shields at this very moment. Things with ONR. have moved rapidly, and even Shields himself acknowledges the flight path for him and his band has been highly unusual. “It was so bizarre because I was literally signed off the back of a couple of demos. It was the weirdest thing. There was no live show at that point, no production, no nothing. I hadn’t played a show, I didn’t have a Facebook page, it was so embryonic. Everyone really believed in these two tracks. It just went from there.

“The beauty of doing it that way is that you can give yourself time: there’s no pressure to fulfill anything, so you can take your time to cultivate the music and [ensure] the production is on spec and strategise what’s going where. So I’ve been really lucky to be able to do that as well. A lot of artists are out there chasing the next single or are on tour, so to be allowed that time has been amazing.”

ONR. at Paginini Ballroom, Great Escape 2018

How Shields describes it explains well why, at least over the last year, there’s been a minimalistic approach with ONR.’s social media channels. Everything has been monochrome. As mentioned in this SXSW 2018 Bands to Watch piece, his face wasn’t even revealed until this past February. “For us, we wanted to keep it small to begin with and very Joy Division-like, nondescript and mysterious. So hopefully, when the bigger songs start to come out and the bigger production start to evolve, then that look will evolve with it as well, and you’ll start to see colour behind it. That’s the idea, at least. I’m a big fan of the image of everything matching an artist’s evolution.” It’s a fascinating idea and something to look forward to.

Hearing the irrepressible, electronic bombast of the ONR. songs released so far – including first single ‘Jericho’, ‘Five Years Time’ and the more recent ‘American Gods’ – it comes as a major surprise that electronic was not Shields’ favoured genre until relatively recently. “It’s odd, because I’m a keys player. It’s like my thing. I’ve always used synthesisers and been into them. But I think almost because of that, I rebelled against myself for a while and got into ‘New New Wave’, like Interpol and that kind of stuff. So I came back to electronica through David Bowie’s ‘Scary Monsters’ and Gary Numan.” Bowie, he says, is his biggest musical influence, with quite the legacy to look up to.

One of the most daunting things for an electronic act to sort out is making sure the live show provides the kind of experience worthy of the music on record. Given that I felt their live performance this evening was even more powerful than the songs as they are presented and available now on streaming services, I wanted to know his philosophy towards delivering a live experience. “I like of the idea of it [of ONR.’s sound as] as being as big as a rock band. That’s the kind of upwards scale that I want to be able to have, and that totally works for that [gigs]. With the production and the recordings, you have more freedom to ebb and flow there. For a half-hour set, you really want to go in and hit people between the eyes. We’re still building it, and that will evolve again and again, and we’ll never stop evolving.” The massive stage at the Paginini Ballroom allowed for Shields as frontman to roam across its wide expanse and play to the audience, and you could tell he was massively enjoying himself the entire time.

So how did this priceless BBC Introducing slot come about? “It was great, I really didn’t expect it to be honest. It was a real bolt from the blue. We’ve been lucky to put things out. Then I heard [Vic] Galloway on BBC Radio Scotland played one of my tracks, which is amazing. From that, it just really snowballed.” To elaborate, ONR., along with acts Alacai Hartley, Mahalia and Ten Tonnes, were asked not only to appear in Brighton but in a series of shows advertised as the UK-wide tour for the Biggest Weekend UK Fringe that took place days before the second May bank holiday, culminating in key appearances bank holiday weekend. “Then a couple weeks later there was talk about this show, and this little BBC [Introducing] tour that came after, and finally we got the call that we were playing Biggest Weekend in Perth as well, so it’s five BBC Introducing shows back to back.” Shields is so humble, he’s quick to point out his luck. “I know so many incredible artists from BBC Introducing, the uploading is so insane, to have made the cut, it’s great.”

ONR. at Paginini Ballroom, Great Escape 2018

Electronic music is one of the more detail-minded of today’s genres, but Robert is well-equipped in personality to handle this. “I think people would call me a perfectionist. I would call myself a control freak, absolutely. I absolutely love being in control!” How does this go over with his bandmates, who all hail from his current hometown of Dumfries? He’s eager to give them kudos. “My band are the most patient people in the world because I am not the easy taskmaster. It’s little things. It’s not like I never turn off. I just like things to be right. With electronica, you have to be careful, it’s all triggers and timings, so you have to be on it.”

I finish our interview asking Robert what’s the biggest aspiration for success he has with ONR. “It’s hard. When I was a kid, I would have said absolute superstardom. No questions asked. All the time, like the Flintstones, it’s always playing somewhere. A few years ago, I probably would have said that, too.” He laughs, probably at the folly of youth, then turns to a slightly more serious tone. “But to be honest, we want to get it [their music] to people who love it. See crowd reactions, and see people really connect to the music. It does mean a hell of a lot, it really does. You can see it. So to take it out to different places is a massive ambition of mine, to bring it to different countries, and hopefully it connects the same way there as it does elsewhere. That would be the big thing.”

What’s eminently clear is Shields’ eye on the prize and his willingness to work hard to get where every musician dreams of. “I have no lack of ambition, I totally want to push it as far as I can. I’ve been doing this for a while. I feel like I’ve served the apprenticeship, I’m ready to go. It feels good.” We here at TGTF are right behind him.

Robert Shields and ONR. begin their string of North American appearances tomorrow night, the 8th of June, with a headline show at San Francisco PopScene. The next ONR. single ‘Love in Suburbia’ will be out on the 15th of June, the same day they’ll be in Washington, DC at DC9 (yes!).

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