By David Perri
OSI has always been adept at combining the two seemingly irreconcilable worlds of prog metal and electronic music. It’s a tall order, to be sure: most metal/electro amalgamations quickly end up sounding dated and unappealing, but OSI has never succumbed to that ill fortune. The band’s success is no doubt a product of its motivators, Kevin Moore and Jim Matheos, both musicians eager to use their experience and know-how to facilitate the boundary-pushing nature of OSI. Moore - OSI keyboard player and vocalist - was once DREAM THEATER’s main key-shred guy, but after his departure from that group he went on to create ethereal, ambient music with his CHROMA KEY project (check out the three Chroma Key full-lengths - they’ll change your life) and his various film scores. Matheos is the guiding force behind legendary prog-metal archetype FATES WARNING, and his massive riffs are the muscle that power the grandiose OSI machine. Together, Moore and Matheos have created three interesting and incomparable OSI records since 2002, and new album Blood is the collective’s most cohesive and confident work thus far.
BW&BK: Each OSI record seems more cohesive than the previous, especially when you listen to them in order. You can really hear the band is a lot more confident now with the songwriting process, it seems. Is that how you and Jim feel about it?
KM: “I haven’t really talked to Jim about that, but I think that’s true. I think we’ve sort of distilled the OSI vibe that we’ve been going for all along with this album. That probably creates problems for the next album, because we’ve distilled it. So we’ll see what happens. If we’ve reached the goal of finding the voice we were looking for, then who knows if we can generate the kind of enthusiasm that kind of exploration usually affords? We’ll see.”
BW&BK: So what are the goals for OSI at this point?
KM: “Nothing at the moment… interviews? (laughs). At the end of a project, when it just seems like it’s done there’s a few months where I don’t really think about what’s next. Usually what comes next just comes naturally, with whatever I end up writing. Or whatever I have the urge to do or whatever people have the idea to do. But there’s no immediate plans.”
BW&BK: There’s no grand design? No boardroom meetings between you and Jim (laughs)?
KM: “No (laughs). We’ve never really had a meeting (laughs). We just usually play it by ear. We never really know if we’re going to do another OSI, we never agree on it. I don’t remember ever agreeing to start a new one, really. But Jim will send me an idea or something and we just start talking about it.”
BW&BK: Where is the inspiration for the music and lyrics coming from, three records in? The first album was very political, but it seems like you guys have sort of stepped back from that on the other two.
KM: “Well, even when it’s not about personal experience it always ends up being about personal experience (laughs). Like I’ll start writing a song that has a little bit of a world view or political view or something, but then by the time I’m finished the lyrics it’ll be about a relationship or something like that. That’s the way it usually goes. But all of the songs are based on personal experiences.”
BW&BK: Are you drawing from the same places that you drew your writing from for Chroma Key?
KM: “Lyrically, probably. I don’t take a different approach. I don’t have an OSI book and a Chroma Key book. It’s all just the same book.”
BW&BK: Are you guys going to tour with OSI? There were mentions of an OSI tour for the previous record.
KM: “No. The last couple of albums we tried to get together, but it just didn’t happen. We sort of disappointed people by saying that we were trying to making it happen and we wanted to make it happen, so this time we’re not going to say that stuff.”
BW&BK: So OSI remains a studio project?
KM: “Yeah, we’re just going to keep it a studio project. Until further notice.”
BW&BK: Do you find it difficult to reconcile the very different worlds of electronic music and prog metal?
KM: “Yeah, but I find it difficult to just write any kind of music. At least this gives me a few starting points. It’s easier, to me, than just writing progressive music or just writing electronic music. There’s people who do that better. Working with the two genres, they’re different enough from each other – almost natural enemies – that it keeps it interesting. It doesn’t feel like being in conquered territory, it feels like there’s still room to explore. There’s always conflicts between the two writing elements that keeps it interesting.”
BW&BK: Like you’re saying, there’s a real tension between the two styles… there’s the sparseness of electronic music and the non-sparseness of progressive music.
KM: “That conflict is what keeps it interesting, those identifying elements of prog and electronic music.”
BW&BK: Has it been difficult for the band to find a solid fanbase because you have these diametric opposite styles of music coming together in one project?
KM: “No, but it might be difficult for the fanbase to find us (laughs). I’m happy with our fanbase. I don’t really think about it, as cliché as it sounds. I don’t think about trying to develop a fanbase, we just think about trying to put out good albums. We still think about the fans and hope they like it. We hope anyone likes it, and we like to get feedback. But we don’t think about demographics and stuff like that. We’re just happy we get to put out albums and get a little bit of money for it.”
BW&BK: Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater) is no longer involved in OSI. What happened there?
KM: “I don’t think anything happened, it was just that we were continuing to try to get new voices involved with the album. Jim was in control of personnel on this album, and he’s a big fan of PORCUPINE TREE. He contacted Gavin (Harrison) and we were happy he was willing to get involved on drums. We worked with him long-distance over the internet, sending files back and forth. We did a lot of back and forth, making changes and bouncing ideas off of each other. It went well.”
BW&BK: Mike Portnoy seems to be more of a traditional prog guy, especially with all his side-projects… they’re very much based in traditional progressive music. Did he find it challenging to work with the more electronic aspects of OSI that you brought to the table?
KM: “I guess you’d have to talk to him about that, but that was another clash of styles that makes for interesting music. I think it worked out, and his contributions to the music were great. That conflict between progressive songwriting and the electronic style was there, but I think it worked out.”
BW&BK: How did you end up working with Mike (Akerfeldt) from OPETH on this new record?
KM: “That was really all Jim’s thing. Jim sort of organized it, because he’s a fan of Opeth and he approached him and we were both really happy when he agreed to do it. It was just a matter of sending him a track we wanted him to work on, and he sent back a rough mix of his vocals and it was great. We were really happy with it. We didn’t do any revisions or ask for any changes, like we were expecting to. It just sort of worked. It was a different approach than I would have taken, and that’s what was refreshing about it. That’s why we wanted to get somebody else to do some vocals on the album. And he’s an awesome vocalist, almost too awesome. He’s got a wide range, slightly wider than mine (laughs).”
BW&BK: In terms of your own vocals, a lot of people have called them “world-weary.” I don’t know if you’ve heard that description, but your vocals fit the style of your bands and projects perfectly. What are your thoughts on your vocal style?
KM: “That’s funny, because Jim says my vocals are world-weary all the time (laughs). People say that all the time. I have a narrow range. It’s just the way I sing, and this is a good question because it’s a hard one to answer. It’s just the way I sing, I don’t know what to say (laughs). It’s just the only way I can sing. I guess it comes from how I feel when I’m singing, when I’m in the zone of writing lyrics and recording which, a lot of times, comes as the same time. It’s sort of an introspective time. A lot of the material lends itself to that kind of voice and that kind of spirit.”
BW&BK: Speaking of that kind of voice, what’s the status of Chroma Key at this point?
KM: “I rarely have any future plans (laughs). And I rarely have future plans when I’m putting one project to bed, so I’m not really sure about what’s going on with Chroma Key. I would only want to do it if there was something interesting there, and I would only want to do it for a good reason. I don’t want to do it just to put out another Chroma Key album. So we’ll see what happens.”
BW&BK: That project is cherished by a lot people, myself very much included.
KM: “Thank you. And, well, it’s still there.”
BW&BK: That’s good to know. What are your thoughts on the Chroma Key catalogue, several years removed from it?
KM: “I can’t listen to it, but I’m glad you can. It’s like reading your diary from years ago; you sort of cringe. There’s a lot of cringing. But you’ve got to take a step back and look at it like a journey. I’m proud that I was able to find a voice, some kind of voice. After being in Dream Theater, I sort of wondered if it was possible to find a voice. I was just a keyboard player, really. I hadn’t written that many songs, but I had written enough that I wanted to write more solo stuff. In that sense, I guess I’m proud of getting it all together and putting out the albums and having found some kind of audience.”
BW&BK: What are your thoughts on the song ‘Go’ from the second OSI record? It’s a highlight in the OSI catalogue, I think.
KM: “I was actually thinking about that song earlier today, I don’t know why. I like it. I remember how it came together, when Jim sent me the verse riff. I remember chopping it a little and putting that strange sort of hesitating beat on it. Everything came together on that song pretty fast. It had a good vibe to it.”
BW&BK: What about ‘When You’re Ready’, from the debut?
KM: “Why do you choose those two songs?”
BW&BK: They’re just two of my favourite songs from the OSI catalogue.
KM: “Ah, I see. They’ve both got kind of similar vibes.”
KM: “I think I was really playing around with time-stretching and pitch-altering stuff with that song, and I got really detailed into that stuff with ‘When You’re Ready’. When I listen to it now, it’s sort of like, ‘Oh my God, take it easy.’ It’s a production-filled song, and I think I like it, too.”
BW&BK: What can you say about ‘Hello, Helicopter!’, also from the debut?
KM: “It’s a little different, I guess. It’s a guitar strumming kind of song. The way Jim sent it to me was pretty complete. I don’t think I altered it that much. It was his playing and just a matter of recording vocals and getting some beat going to it, so it was a little more straight-forward. I calmed down a little bit with the production.”
BW&BK: You lived in Montreal for a while. Will you live here again?
KM: “I love Montreal, and I want to come back. I actually tried to immigrate there, but it didn’t work. It ended up being too expensive. I would have had to hire a lawyer and it wasn’t as simple as it was made out to be. But I loved it, and I’ll be back.”
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