Sunday, August 19, 2018

Don't You Listen?: A Profile of Tona Walt Ohama

Music is the master

“My ideal fan,” Tona Walt Ohama says, “is still a loner who lives with their parents, hiding out in the bedroom, listening to an album and reading all the liner notes.” To help future generations of loners navigate his career, Ohama agrees to walk Bongo Jazz through most of his back catalogue. Many titles are available for streaming or as digital downloads. CDBaby even sells select Ohama vinyl and CD titles for those kickin’ it old skool.

Midnite News
(Cassette, 1982)
Confident and accomplished first outing containing early versions of My Time, Part in Peace, Midnite News and Of Whales. It’s a more dynamic recording than many synth-pop records of the time, which Ohama attributes to the lack of competing radio-wave interference on the farm. Only 100 copies made; today, Ohama owns just one, No. 27. On an album of future Ohama standards, deep cut Mushin No Shin still stands out for its driving ‘sequencer’ riff and its discordant piano solo, an ’80s equivalent of the Mike Garson piano solo on Aladdin Sane.

Ohama: “The sound of that piano solo, I could never do it again. It’s done in real time with cut-up tapes playing backwards through an echo machine and, at the end of the solo, there’s an echo that’s perfectly timed. I could never do that again in 100 years with that equipment. It was one take that worked. I didn’t have a sequencer. The drum machine had no ability to sync up to a synthesizer at that time. Those notes were played at half that speed then sped up.”

Play this: Mushin No Shin
Available: Digital download, streaming

• • •

Ohama (a.k.a. White Album or Julie is a TV Set)
(Cassette, 1983)
Only 50 copies made of a sophomore album that introduced a very select number of fans to songs he’d later revisit, including The Drum, Sometimes, The Call, I Tie My Shoes, A Giant Starfish and Julie is a TV Set.

Ohama: “I don’t think it’s that strong because I was experimenting with different studio techniques and so on. It’s almost like a demo tape. I didn’t have a copy and I had erased the master. There was a fan in Sweden. He kept writing me: ‘I want a copy of that album.’ I said I don’t have one. And he’d keep writing to me to say: ‘You’re not telling me the truth!’ He offered me $250 for a copy of the cassette. So when I went back to New York, my sister is there and she said: ‘You give me everything you do. I don’t throw it out. Maybe it’s in the closet.’ So she pulled out a shoebox and goes, ‘Is this it?’ I was so grateful someone had kept it. It was never played, so it’s in pretty good condition. That’s what’s on the (career-spanning) box set. And then I took that original cassette and I gave it to the guy in Sweden as a gift.”

Play this: The Drum
Available: Ohama box set

• • •

Julie is a TV Set
(7-inch single, 1983)
From the White Album cassette. A strong candidate for Ohama’s signature song, co-written with friend Johannes Halbertsma.

Ohama: “We were engineering students together. He wrote me a letter: ‘A little pause before I start. I need a little time to think. Like the end of a board sawn off. The dream was just disturbance.’ That’s how he started his letter. I thought that is going into this song! The rest was me. And I gave him a songwriting credit. He never joined SOCAN and he never got any royalties. Who’s it about? A friend who’s long gone. Her name was Judy and she used to watch TV a lot. I would say Judy is a TV set. I changed it to Julie so she wouldn’t get angry. That’s where it started. It wasn’t meant to be a statement about technology. It’s Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds or something like that. It is the first song where I programmed the drums. You hear how simple they are? I was learning the machine. That song probably took two to three hours to make. Total. It’s a magic song.”

Available: The Potato Farm Tapes (Minimal Wave, 2012)

• • •

Midnite News
(12-inch EP, 1984)
Re-recorded versions of four White Album tracks. Julie is a TV Set and Midnite News seemingly retooled for the dance floor; the thudding electro bass drum on the latter recalling the previous year’s New Order smash Blue Monday.

Ohama: “They had the same drum machine. That’s why they sound similar. But (the EP) was not meant to be a club record; it was just meant to have lots of bass.”

Play this: Midnite News
Available: Digital download, streaming

• • •

I Fear What I Might Hear
(LP, 1984)
Essential Ohama music; some would argue he’s never bettered this. Although Ohama was widely viewed as part of the ’80s synth-pop movement at the time, in retrospect there are ’70s rock influences throughout: the prog-rock majesty of Sometimes’ middle section, the bucolic soft rock of Feelings and, of course, the Pink Floydian integration of music and sound effects. The use of barking dogs in Midnite News II is particularly hypnotic.

Ohama: “It was a song cycle. I wanted it that way. I looked at it as Side A and Side B, not really as individual songs. It was one big track. I was really proud of that record. I knew, for the first time, I had an album that sounded really close to what I was aiming for. Everybody who does electronic music comes from Kraftwerk — that world. I’m a rock guy. I listen to Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper. That’s where I come from.”

Play this: Sometimes
Available: Digital download, streaming

• • •

(12-inch single, 1986)
Sonically, this song and Thin Lines, on the flip, wouldn’t sound out of place on a Depeche Mode album of the era. Ohama digs into his family’s history and sets out to create a club single about Japanese internment and resettlement in Canada.

Ohama: My dad was born in 1912. He’s 30 years old, married with a daughter (Shoko) and they were in Steveston, near Vancouver. The police come to his door. They say you have 48 hours to move inland or we’re going to move you. My dad quits his job (as a fisherman), packs up his stuff and comes to Alberta within 48 hours in the middle of winter. The Japanese were not allowed to buy land so he made a gentleman’s agreement with some people that he could farm their land and that’s how he got my family to come to Rainier. My dad did all that. He was not interned. I thought maybe I should do something about Japanese heritage. The man who talks on (Midway); that’s my brother-in-law Dick Motokado (who was interned). That man never said a word to me hardly in my entire life. Very gruff, silent guy. And so I said, ‘I’d like you to talk about the internment and we’ll put it on this music,’ and he was into doing that. I had him do it in English and Japanese. I think (my parents) were quite proud that I did that record but they never said a word. And Dick, I think, he was really proud of it but he never said anything either.”

Available: Digital download, streaming

• • •

Love Only Lasts Awhile (with Dania)
(LP, 1986)
Ohama surrounds Dania’s timeless European melodies with haunting synth arrangements on five outstanding tracks that comprise half of LOLA. Ohama remains unhappy with Dania’s efforts in the studio but, for others, her sometimes pitch-challenged vocals favourably recall Nico’s blank, detached cool. If only they had a full album’s worth of this stuff. Woulda, shoulda been a contender.

Ohama: “I just felt it could have been done better.”

Play this: Take Me Dancing
Available: Digital download, streaming

• • •

On The Edge of the Dream
(CD, 1994)
An adventurous hour-long album and soundtrack to his 1994 multimedia performances at the Calgary Planetarium. Ohama is clearly branching out; he says the tribal drumming on the opening cut was inspired by Peter Gabriel’s Rhythm of the Heat. Ohama started work on this album after being denied visitation with his newborn son and perhaps his subconscious is leaking into these sessions, with an ominous transitional piece using sounds effects of a crying baby and lyrics that occasionally sound like advice from a father to a child: “You can be whatever you believe/ You can be whatever that you dream.”

Ohama: “I realized, ok, (my son) is not going to be in my life. I’m going to work on music again. And that’s how that came about. It’s a very special album.”

Play this: Discipline is Freedom
Available: Digital download, streaming

• • •

Earth History Multiambient
(CD, 2010)
An uneven re-entry into his recording career after a 16-year break. Frivolous near-instrumentals jostle with songs that probe the darkest corners of the human heart. The title track, a 16-minute eco anthem, is worth the price of admission alone; Ohama tapping into his love of free-flowing ’70s rock as a one-man jam band … with rap! A second disc cherry-picks highlights from his earlier releases.

Ohama: “I wrote (the title track) on Earth Day. I was just so frustrated with the environment; how we’re destroying the planet and how I’m so helpless. I had to figure it out and put it into that song.”

Play this: Earth (full version)
Available: Digital download, streaming.

• • •

Thick as a Brick: The Synth Edition
(CD, 2012)
An artistic and technical triumph. Every detail of Jethro Tull’s 1972 album is lovingly and painstakingly recreated on retro synths.

Ohama: This is my masterwork. Every phrase and note was laboured over, moving a synth note 20 or 40 milliseconds forward or back to make it sound more alive, more real … until it felt ‘in the pocket.’ The album is so iconic that straying from the original just sounds like a mistake. My version of Thick as a Brick can be played simultaneously with the original and, tempo-wise, it will line up from start to finish pretty well. I admit I got obsessed with the project.”

Play this: 7:21 to 9:20 of the album-long title track
Available: Digital download, streaming

• • •

Grrlz Monosynth Tower
(CD, 2017)
Ohama takes existing, mainly acoustic recordings by female singer-songwriters and adds monophonic synthesizer to them. Inspired by two recent purchases: his first synth, a 1975 ARP Axxe, from a seller on eBay; and Cinder, a painting by Mandy Tsung, that appears on the album cover. Includes a second album featuring his Multiambient Tower Soundscape from the 2014 High Performance Rodeo.

Ohama: “I personally love the synth sounds on this album but I didn’t set out to exactly replicate vintage sounds. Still, if they don’t exactly come from the ’70s, they could have. I feel I’ve made an album that I could have recorded in 1975.”

Play this: Beginning of Fall (Dolly Sillito)
Available: Digital download, CDBaby


NEXT: 'He was quite something': Dennis Marcenko

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