Oppenheimer Analysis Interview (with Andy Oppenheimer)
Oppenheimer Analysis Interview (with Andy Oppenheimer)
Oppenheimer Analysis Interview with Andy Oppenheimer
Minimal Wave’s first release is Oppenheimer Analysis.
Oppenheimer Analysis Interview
with Andy Oppenheimer
Minimal Wave’s first release is Oppenheimer Analysis. Go to the artists listing for sound samples.
1. Are you and Martin both originally from the UK? What was the music scene like growing up there?
Yes, we are. For me, the arrival of the Beatles and Mersey Beat was sensational. I was 10. I grew up in the North, and it was the first time the north of England had figured in music. That Beatles sound… the harmonies, the beat, then the more complex albums… it was like we had died and gone to heaven. I spent all my hours as a child – when not buried in a book or playing soccer – listening to that wonderful music. I wanted to be a pop star even then – so did do many of us growing up in the 60s and 70s. Everyone tried to set up a ‘beat group’ at school, I did too although Martin was in far more bands than I was. Also, I was too young to go out to see bands, I never got to go to the Cavern or anywhere like that - so just immersed myself in the sound at home. Liverpool was my spiritual home; I lived there as a teenager and then became a student there - the home of the music I will love till my dying day.
2. What music or bands were most inspiring to you growing up?
The Beatles, all the Mersey bands, the Byrds, Kinks, Animals, Dusty Springfield - too many to mention. I also loved the Phil Spector sound, then Motown. The last time I heard two obscure Liverpool bands from my childhood - the Fourmost and the Merseybeats - was in the early 1990s on a radio station in …of all places, Los Alamos, New Mexico – where I often visit as part of my nuclear work. Apparently a DJ on a local radio station there loved British 60s bands and played them. One day I got caught in the usual afternoon thunderstorm. Lightning everywhere. I dashed inside, and on the radio comes… Ferry Cross the Mersey - Gerry and the Pacemakers… It was surreal. That band made a big hit in the 60s - ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. We sing it at the soccer games, I’m a big Liverpool fan - it’s our anthem. As a kid I couldn’t survive a day without music. I still can’t.
As a student I was into ‘hairier’ stuff like Curved Air – and Lennon, Neil Young, more introspective music. Later when I came to London in the mid-1970s came David Bowie, Roxy Music… then punk – I used to go to Sex Pistols gigs. And of course, Kraftwerk. I must say that, when the electro bands emerged in the late 70s, it was like that magic of the early 60s – I emphasise early, not late 60s, when all that hippy stuff came in - all over again. The club scene really took off with music that was alternative, it was tuneful while punk had been basically noise, and after years of tedious guitar and drum solos and long-haired, boring stadium bands here was a sharp, seemingly simple sound with a wonderful beat made by something else – synthesizers, by performers with style. Talk about a breath of fresh air. My all-time favourite 80s band was and still is the Human League, I love everything they have done.
3. As a child, were you surrounded by music? Can you tell us a bit about your family backrounds and how it may have affected your music?
I grew up in an affluent, very political, quite secular and hardworking Jewish family. I was under pressure to do well at school, which I did, I was very studious but didn’t want a conventional career. I would rush home from school to watch Top of the Pops on TV and listen to Radio Luxembourg on my transistor radio. Yes, music was always on. My brother, who is much older than me, played Italian and German opera and Frank Sinatra. It drove me round the bend. When the Beatles arrived, I was saved. But I also loved classical music, folk – still do. I also love Irish music as we had an Irish housekeeper who taught me all the old rebel songs, and my favourite sound is still the Uilleann pipes and flutes - which I will have played at my funeral.
4. How did you first meet one another? ?
At a science fiction convention in England. In 1979. We met at a party for the authors and from there began a great friendship.
5. What was the name of your first musical project?
New Mexico – the collection of tracks you have heard and made such kind comments about.
6. Tell us a bit about Oppenheimer’s Analysis.
If you mean Oppenheimer’s Analysis as opposed to Oppenheimer Analysis… Well, the songs are full of Atomic Angst… and as they were written in the early 1980s, they are in a way a testimony of those times, while linking with the 40s and 50s. I am putting the ‘Oppenheimer legend’ into the lyrics. I have written love songs – but the Cold War, the atomic bomb and personal betrayal have been the main themes.
7. How did you approach collaborating with one another? Was one of you more concept oriented and the other more production oriented? If no, what were each of your roles specifically?
Martin called me one day in – probably 1981, after his single came out with Analysis - and suggested I recorded with him as he had set up a studio with synthesizers and had recorded other artists. It was great. We both would get together after work and put my lyrics into music and electronic arrangements. They would go onto tape and then we eventually made cassettes to give out or sell. I used to write the lyrics so – as in other areas - was concept orientated. But Martin was and is the music supremo – I can compose tunes, but I don’t play an instrument although I taught myself guitar and piano as a child. We used to start either with the backing tracks and percussion or I may get the basis of a tune, or he would, then we would put it together, and then he would produce the songs and turn them into reality. We could record a track in a night. I am really a person that loves to write words and perform songs but I have next to no technical abilities – despite claiming to be an expert on weapons technology…
8. What was your approach to lyric writing in the early 80’s? and how has it changed?
‘I wrote songs in the backs of cabs on the way to science labs…!’ I would just be reading or writing something about science or the Cold War or some such and put it into lyrics. It’s over 20 years since I wrote a song. I spend my working life writing reports. Our latest work will probably will be more word-economical – more concise, punchy. I also want to make the words a bit more ambiguous – so that more people can relate to them and on different levels. And now, of course, we have computer software; back then, I used to scribble lines onto bits of paper then type them up.
9. “New Mexico” is a great group of tracks and still sounds exciting today. What is the story behind this release? How was it released and how many copies were made initially?
It’s great that you like it. Now that electro has returned – did it ever go away? – it is wonderful to think people like our music. We just put a series of songs together over a few weeks, Martin recorded the arrangements, and made tapes. Can’t remember how many copies we made – Martin may know. We used to sell them at SF conventions and nightclubs and also gave them to friends. We also sent copies to the music press, and had several reviews. We never got round to sending tapes to record companies. I tried that with a subsequent music partner – we had a manager who sent tapes out - but to no avail.
10. “Cold War” is a personal favorite. Were you aiming to write any pop hits, ?and did you enjoy any radio airplay?
Yes, I love Cold War too – I guess I thought, when the four-minute warning comes, just get up and dance! I certainly aimed to write pop hits. Although my lyrics may be obscure - aren’t ‘commercial’ in the accepted sense, I love the music to be accessible, tuneful, melodic, with a great beat. I love pop, and when I have written a song I always think of it as a potential pop/disco hit. If it isn’t, no matter, as long as folks get to hear it. As far as I know, we weren’t played on the radio. Until this year…
11. What images do you think your music conveys? We noticed all the references to your profession. Do you remember at what point in your life you became interested in nuclear and chemical weapons?
Some of the images will be gloomy, but that is I hope offset by the strong beat, tunes and danceability. Prepare to think as well as to dance… Yes, I’m afraid my job gets in there – I guessed there were enough love pop songs in the world already and that I would sing about what is highly personal for me. The themes may not be the usual stuff of pop, but I put emotion into the songs. I don’t want to be self-indulgent, I want my message to get across to everyone - that to me is what pop music is all about.
I have been interested in nuclear weapons probably since the mid to late 70s and collected an extra degree in the subject. I worked in science publishing for over 20 years. I have focused on the role science played in war and how people are affected by unstoppable, cataclysmic events. I went freelance five years ago and decided to specialise as a nuclear consultant. When I speak at conferences I would love to start off with one of our tracks!
12. What is your relationship to JR exactly?
…It’s all relative!
I deal every day with WMD issues and feel in some small way that the nuclear torch has been passed to me. I spoke at the Robert Oppenheimer Centennial last year in Los Alamos about being a ‘21st century Oppenheimer’ dealing with the legacy of nuclear weapons. People kept saying I looked like him.
Even in the 80s when I first recorded the songs with Martin we had the BBC Oppenheimer series on TV and from this and constant press coverage the public got to know the history of the Bomb and who Oppenheimer was. One day I was at a science fiction convention in Birmingham with my girlfriend and we had to take a cab. I was carrying a half-eaten pizza takeaway wrapped in foil. The cabbie says: ‘Car for Mr Oppenheimer? Is that a piece of an atom bomb you’ve got there mate?’ ‘Ordinary’ people knew about it. It was the height of the Cold War, cruise missiles, protests, etc. You can hear it in the lyrics but it doesn’t matter if you don’t know zilch about it - as I wanted the songs to be about guilt, betrayal, ‘how do I live with what I have done’.
13. Did you ever play live shows? If so, where and what was the line-up?
Yes, we did. Science fiction conventions, clubs, pubs – just the two of us. We had friends who helped out with the slide show and setting up.
14. What equipment did you use for your live shows?
Martin – over to you!
15. How would you describe your stage presence? and do you like to dance by any chance?
It was basically J. Robert Oppenheimer – thin, military-cropped hair, hat, cigarette, and all – but shorter and with rather more mascara and eyeliner!! Remember, it was the 80s! I usually wore a 1950s suit two sizes too big and didn’t move around enough, but we always got a good crowd. Oh, and I quit smoking in 1985. Our first gig was at the Bowie World Convention held in 1983 in a vast hotel in west London. There were thousands there and I was terrified. Straight after the set I found myself signing autographs for hordes of Bowie fans! We also had a slide show, I still have the slides - 50s US posters, the Red Scare, bomb tests, 50s comic strip art.
Yes, I really love to dance, but my clubbing days are over – so don’t get the chance. But I keep fit and keep my weight at 100-105 lbs - by speed walking 3 miles a day and a low-carb diet.
16. Do you remember any bands you enjoyed playing with?
We once supported Hawkwind, of all people, at a SF convention. They had more equipment than the Manhattan Project and the first Moon landing put together. Can’t remember any others…
With my subsequent music partner I supported Bronski Beat at a Miners’ Benefit concert in 1984 - during the British miners’ strike –there’s subversive left-wing credentials for you…
Also with the later partner supported Erasure at a pub gig when they were on the up. I really enjoyed the Bronski Beat gig as we got to use their sound system, which was amazing, and the atmosphere in the hall was magic. But after a while live shows are really tiring, particularly for my partners who had the brunt of hefting and unloading equipment, sound-checking, and all that. Just keeping people’s attention – at least when you speak at a conference the audience is meant to be listening! But I would love to perform live again, I have a lot of energy.
17. Tell us about your interest in painting, and any exhibitions you have had? Do you feel that your music and visual art are interconnected?
I have been painting since I was 5 years old and my art teacher - and my Dad - wanted me to go to art college. But I wasn’t really interested in art itself, just happened to be able to draw and paint. I wanted to be an academic instead. About five years ago I took up painting again. I had been on one of my many trips to the American Desert and did a painting of Monument Valley and stuck Liverpool Cathedral – the one called ‘Paddy’s Wigwam’ because of its shape - in the middle of it. I had several exhibitions of surrealist gouache paintings. I sold most of the work and everyone encouraged me to take it further. But then my defence work really took off and so something had to go. There is no connection between the music and the paintings, or the paintings and my job.
18. Do you feel an affinity with today’s generation of listeners?
I really hope so. As popular music in all its forms is primarily for young people, it is quite a challenge – not only to keep up with what’s being heard right now, but also what trends are ‘coming back’. I never expected electro to be popular again – people have been very rude about the 80s, saying synth bands were ‘precious’ and not raunchy enough. Also, there are many more genres now.
But I hope that the lyrics will have relevance to today or just people’s own personal feelings. As I said they don’t have to know about the Cold War to feel the desperation – but also the beat - in that song. I have long experience in my job in making difficult material accessible to a mass audience, and I try to do the same with music. The wonderful thing about now is that people of all ages remember the music they heard in the 80s and that it is still something they enjoy.
19. What are your plans or ambitions for the next couple years in regards to creativity?
It’s hard to say right now – we have just finished recording three new tracks. Much will depend on our punishing work schedules and other commitments. We would welcome the chance to perform live again.
20. Do tell us what your typical day consists of!?
Get up at 9am - quite late, but I work from home and don’t usually finish the day until 1 am. No breakfast. Work will be anything from a big consultancy report on proliferation of nuclear materials to shorter articles on terrorists obtaining dirty bombs, or bioterrorism, or being called by press or researchers to conduct an interview or ask advice about weapons issues. When there’s something up, this’ll happen every day. Before lunch I go for the first of three 1-mile speed walks round the local mini-park, listening and singing to music.
If we’re in, 6 pm is gin and tonic time and check the TV news. Cook dinner or be cooked for, often have dinner parties, always with wine. Or go out to friends for dinner or to a restaurant, theatre, cinema. Maybe resume work or media interviews after dinner and catch up on latest nuclear stuff on my databases. These days, check for music news and email Martin or other contacts on our latest work. Then go for another walk and shut down around 1 am or later; read; and, if I’m lucky, sleep…
21. How do you think technology has affected music creation these days and do you welcome the changes? What do you listen to these days?
Martin is much more the expert on this. I think that some pop has become more minimal, not so heavily produced, but quite tuneful, with more acoustics. But there are some nice electronic effects around which are probably more subtle than in the 80s. For example I loved the first Dido album because the electronics were really original. I also love William Orbit’s work with Madonna. I listen to music from all times. Apart from classical – I particularly love medieval and choral music and modern stuff like Einaudi and Michael Nyman – I will hear anything from current Indie guitar bands to 80s electronic, techno, or trance. Or vintage pop – Abba, Beatles, Bee Gees.
22. Would be so kind and send us a current photo to accompany the interview? along with any other photos, flyers, paintings?
Sure – I have pix from things like conferences, publicity photos, and concert pics.
23. At what point did you stop making music and why?
We stopped around 1984. I carried on working with a subsequent music partner, Chris, which ended in 1986 when he went back to Australia. I guess other priorities took over. Over the years I never thought to team up with anyone else, just thought I was too old or that the trends had overtaken anything I wanted to do.
24. Where and when did you / Martin purchase your first synth? What kind was it?
For Martin -
25. For Andy specifically, where did you grow up? Please tell us about interesting childhood experiences that you feel shaped your current outlook on life?
I was ahead at school, a loner, I had a nanny, I was rather sheltered and precious [apart from football!], I wanted to do great things, I didn’t know whether to do arts, history or sciences when I left school, I loved music. A great influence on my childhood was our wonderful Irish housekeeper, my ‘second Mum’, who taught me the history of Ireland, and then went to live in Liverpool – which I already loved because of the Beatles and soccer - when she got married. I made up my mind that I would go to university there.
The last war also had a great influence. I read everything about it – it was the greatest disaster to befall the human race and I was born only 8 years after it ended. What happened to the Jews, and then later about the Bomb. I did my dissertation on totalitarianism.
Childhood passions which persist are music, space travel and soccer. My first great hero was Yuri Gagarin – I still go all teary if I see anything about him. Oh, and clothes – not ‘fashion’ as such but mainly retro. Clothes are my big extravagance – I design my suits and get them tailor-made now as I’m too thin to buy them in the shops.
26. Do you have any siblings? and are you close?
I have an elder brother. We are very close despite the distance between us and events that have separated us. We used to spend endless hours playing football together when I was a kid and we both still love football and music, although his musical tastes are different from mine. But I have led a totally different life to him for many years, in a different part of the country. He is totally different from me. I am ambitious and have led an unconventional life; he is conventional, old-fashioned and easy-going.
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