Last week, I talked to Stephen Oliver Jones about his life, music and future plans. In this unedited interview, Ojay reveals all.
Let’s start with your biography. Can you tell me about your time in the Dust Junkys and the Manchester music scene?
The Manchester music scene is kind of hard for me to describe. It’s almost like an external word – the Madchester, Manchester and all that. But being from Manchester it’s obviously more personal. I started playing music when I was nineteen – thirty one years ago now – and I did it accidentally. My friend started playing guitar and I was stood next to him thinking ‘well this is really boring’ watching him play basic chords and everything, so I thought ‘what am I gonna do?’ I decided that if I was going to still hang around with him, I might as well learn how to play guitar as well. And if I was going to learn guitar, I might as well learn how to play the ‘other’ thing, the low thing.
He had a crappy guitar with two strings and so I started to tune that down because that’s what I thought you did and I remember hitting it with knives. That’s where I started and it all developed independently: I learnt things myself, played stuff too and a couple of years later, someone heard me play – somewhere – and asked me to join this other band called Ram Ram Kino, an underground Manchester indie band (the singer once filled in for Ian Curtis and this was his claim to fame). The very first thing I did with this band was to play at Cheetham Hill Park Festival and I had to do this little bass intro thing and I remember stepping forward and pulling my lead out – so there was no sound – and this was my first experience of the Manchester music scene.
So I was playing with mates and playing in bands and then I remember going out to a jam night at a place called PJ Bells and just going and playing. So then I met other musicians and all of a sudden I’m in this scene. But I never considered myself a real musician, I just thought I was some guy, drifting about, not doing much, who played a bit of bass. For whatever reason, I was technically quite good really quickly. So when people say ‘oh you must practice for ages’, I’m like not really – you know what I mean – and when people ask me to teach them, I think well you can’t teach somebody what I knew because when I look back on it I realise I hardly did anything, it was just there, I just loved it. I learnt some songs and my own thing started to come through. So I was on the jam scene and got known.
With the Dust Junkys, Nicky, MC Tunes, came up to me and said ‘do you fancy being in the band and do you know any good musicians? So I said I knew this drummer called Mikey Wilson who is one of the best drummers in the world – and still is – he’s phenomenal, an animal and angel on drums. At the flat I lived in, there was a young guitarist who used to sit on the stairs and shred, and he was fucking great, I was like ‘wow listen to that guy!’ His name was Sam and I asked him ‘do you want to be in this band?’ and that’s basically how the Dust Junkies started, well the band at least.
How successful were the Dust Junkys during this period?
Dust Junkys was pretty much successful from the very beginning because it was successful in our minds, and I think that’s the most important thing. I’ve been in loads of bands and I always had a slight dissatisfaction with them all – which is also a bit like girlfriends, I always start to get dissatisfied with them, and this is not a great way to be. But the Dust Junkys made sense because there was already this confidence that we all had, we thought this is it, this is fucking great.
What Nicky had already with the loops before we joined was OK, but when the band turned up it was like ‘oh my god’ it works, this thing has happened, it was like old school-new school and everyone looked at each other and thought ‘this is proper rock‘n’roll!’. It became a different beast because the band was fucking great and Nicky was like ‘yeah I love this’ and he started doing all this singing stuff; this growly, blues rock singing started to come out.
Our fabulous manager Jonny J was not into this. He didn’t like it. He saw it as a threat to the hip hop ethos that he had. I think this is eventually what differed between us, it wasn’t to do with the band or the record but more the internal politic of wanting to go down a certain path.
I might be wrong but Johnny wanted to be more like Dr. Dre or something, he wanted to be a big producer. He did have a hit with ‘Cotton Eye Joe’, a big moment for him. If we were like seventeen year old musicians, I think it would have gone a lot better. They would have told us what to do and we would have gone along with it. But we were older, we’d been playing for a while – I was thirty, Mikey was a little bit older – and we sort of knew a bit. And he couldn’t get it, to me he was over manipulating it and in the end they didn’t like the second album, although you could also say that to Johnny, we were trouble causers who fought with his vision too much.
In the end the second album was a compromised sound that seemed to truly suit no one. It wasn’t accepted by the record company and as there was nothing to hold us together, we disbanded.
The curve went up, the curve went down, we had a really good time, we were in the top 40, and got some really decent money, toured a lot round Europe, did some really good festivals, went to Glastonbury, and it was a great little moment that we had. I don’t have any regrets about it but it was a fucking great band, there’s no doubt about it, playing live with them was just something else.
I do sometimes think that I could have a big house now and a massive car but I realise that’s just not me, I could have made it but in the end I wanted to do what I wanted. I’ll tell you what, touring with the Dust Junkys was a real double edged sword. I remember all the good times but there was a lot of mindless kicking about in this sort of bubble.
I don’t really want to play it down but it’s kinda like this sort of fuck up machine, we were encouraged to fuck up. I realised that that’s what the world is like, it’s like a sort of fake, false world. It’s entertainment and after a while that gets really tiring. People are only there because you’re in a band, they’re not your friends. Because I was older I couldn’t ignore it, if I was younger I would have been like ‘wahey!’ Sam who was in his twenties was having a great time, he was loving it. He got really drunk every night and was with different girls but I was married and in a different world. I’ve always been quite honourable and never did that whole rock‘n’roll thing.
What brought you to Newcastle?
My partner Joanne. After the Dust Junkys I ended up doing a lot of work with playwright, producer, dancer Benji Reid, doing a lot of hip-hop theatre stuff in Australia and America – all those sorts of places – it was really good. While I was working with him I did a gig in Middlesborough. This is a bit convoluted but I had a friend that I lived with in Manchester, years ago, called Annabelle, a really good friend of mine for ten years. She moved up to Newcastle and so I came up to Newcastle once to visit her and I met her flatmate Joanne.
So I said ‘hi love’, you know. There was a little thing there but there always is because I was a bit like that at the time, a bit of a horny toad. So there was a bit of a connection. Anyway, a couple of months later, we were playing in Middlesborough and my friend Annabelle came to the gig and she brought Jo with her. And long story short, we got together. And after a while we had a baby and at that point I was like ‘I’m in’.
Forty years in Manchester I was like ‘let’s do it, something different’. So I came up here and then there was all the sort of talk in Manchester ‘oh don’t worry, you’ll still get work’, my mate Benji as well. But nothing. As soon as I got up here there was no work, too far away.
So then I was here with nothing to do and I thought I could change the way I operate completely – maybe I’m not that flexible because I didn’t. I suddenly started writing my CV out and thought ‘what to do’ and spent a bit of time signing on – it was horrible – and kicking around the house a lot. Jo was like ‘oh God what is this guy gonna do’ because I’d gone from being super professional to a guy sat about doing nothing.
And in that time of panicking, about to become a father, I remembered something which I had always thought about which is busking. I’ve always wanted to busk. And this is like a little secret thing that I’d always wanted to do when I was in bands and everything. I’d always wanted to busk but also to play what I’d played.
I always liked just jamming along, looping stuff, just little four second loopers and effects. For me it’s great but I can see how it must be really boring to others – this endless amount of bass. But when I got here it was really just a needs must, I needed to go and do something. Busking was the most direct thing to do, to make contact with other musicians and just people in general, to get my talents out there. So that’s what I did, it was a needs must – necessity is the mother of invention, isn’t it?
When did you start busking here?
About seven years ago, coming up to seven years.
Is busking your primary source of income or do you now have a day job?
Doing music is my day and night job. I do other things as well. But busking is my main income. I do one regular gig now at the Boiler Shop Steamer, first weekend of every month, Friday and Saturday, which is great. I do gigs around places when they come in. I have this long term plan which is going on – and this is not like me to have a long term plan, believe me – but it is developed.
And the only reason it has developed is because I’ve been on this improvisation tip. Basically what I decided was, when I got into it, I’m always thinking I could do it a different way, write some songs, be more conventional about it. But I haven’t done that and I’ve decided if I’m not gonna do that and I’ve got this far, I’m gonna carry on and see how far I can get with this.
So, what happens, in that making things space…and so far what happens is, some songs have come out and some ideas have repeated themselves – I’ve kept them and recorded them – lyrics have come out, singing has come out, rapping has come out. Most people in the creative arts must know that usually most artists and musicians are their worst critics, I’m certainly mine. So when something happens: I certainly have a flow of words or sing something, I’m really properly amazed by it, I’m like ‘where did that come from?’ and then I sit down and think ‘if I had some sort of training then maybe I could make sense of it’.
Things happen and they’re quite phenomenal – and they’re phenomenal to me. People go ‘wow, wow, that was amazing’ and I’m sort of looking all weirded out because I am weirded out, you know, because it isn’t rehearsed and you want to grasp at it but it’s gone. Basically the journey continues.
There is another regular gig I do in Durham at the Jam Jar, playing there this month. Last time I played there, I was really looking forward to it but I had a total meltdown. A few of my musician/artist friends have told me about their meltdowns, and I always thought ‘oh God’ maybe one of these days that sort of thing will happen to me. And it did, it happened. I froze, I couldn’t do anything, couldn’t play, had to go off. My hands even took the strings off the bass.
What do you prefer, the precariousness of busking or the guarantee that you will receive a certain amount of money, organised in advance, for a gig? Can you talk about that relationship?
Well there’s that whole psychology of what I would prefer to do. Some days I’d say ‘screw this’, I’d rather have a definite income and more recently there’s been a natural curve away from busking. I’m definitely feeling like ‘I’ve had enough of this’. I don’t really listen to myself in that way. I listen to myself and hear – when I hear myself whinging about something – ‘oh you’re getting tired of this, something else is coming’. That’s what I hear after observing myself for years. Something else is coming.
And if I observe what is coming, the things that are happening, I see that movement towards more indoor performance and festivals. I’m halfway through writing an album with the stuff that has come from and is developed from busking, ideas that have come out, some with lyrics on and some without.
So right now yes – when I first started busking I would have said ‘no I don’t, I prefer the precariousness of busking’ because that’s where I was going. But now I’m definitely like ‘I’ve had enough of this’. I’ve had enough of cold winters. If I play a really good gig and I earn say three hundred quid, I’ll be a much better busker the next day, if I’m just playing, without worrying about money and people on the street. If I have one eye on the pot, I don’t have both eyes on the music if you know what I mean.
Do you alter what you play for a live set or is it as free as your busking work?
I’d say it is freer than my busking work. There’s something about, if people have come to see live music specifically, it definitely alters what I do. I can swear more to start off with, as kids aren’t around, and I can be more of who I actually am. And again, I surprise myself a lot when that happens. I end up being like ‘whoa what am i doing’. Sometimes I get quite possessed and I kind of like it, it’s a very vulnerable feeling.
And does being known as a busker make it more difficult to enter the music industry? Do people start to see you as a street musician rather than a studio musician; can you therefore become pigeonholed as a busker?
Well, I guess so, but I don’t see it like that. I’m just me, I can do whatever I want. Tomorrow I could be a really competent studio musician but I don’t mind really. I don’t personally feel pigeonholed by it – other people might think so – but I don’t. In fact I kind of like that.
At the minute with the album planning and wanting to move on to doing something else – a lot more vocal stuff and showing what it is I want to do – I like the idea that people have got me in this pigeonhole as a busker, thinking ‘oh yeah, he’s just a busker’ or a tramp, as some people think. I like that because at the end of the day they’ll be surprised, that’s good.
Are you ever approached while you busk to arrange gigs?
Yeah people do, they stop all the time to ask me to play gigs or parties. It very rarely happens – that I actually play somewhere – but as you know, it is really good when it does. It’s really really nice when it does, it’s quite a special thing.
Much to my Mrs’ despair, I’ve not really pushed it in any way. I deliberately haven’t pushed it in any way. I haven’t even updated my website. I’ve just been low key. But I’m planning to become completely different. I’m also going to get my teeth fixed as they’re really messed up, something which I’ve been putting off for years. It’s something in my own personal life that I think, you really need to get that done. It’s on the list. And with all the other things, that’s been on the list longer than everything else, longer than the album.
What interests me is that your attitude towards your life and professional career seem to mirror your music. It’s laid-back, free, exploring, just waiting to see what happens. Would you say that there is a connection there?
Well if that’s the case then what’s happening with the music now is that it is being honed down into something with much more structure. There’s always going to be some leeway to mess about but its definitely being honed now. I’ve had enough of that. That sort of flow needs to come from something that has been captured and developed into a more solid idea and shared.
One of the things that most interests me as a fan is that you never play recognisable music, and that the music is always purely of your own creation. Have you ever been tempted to play pop tunes in order to increase your income?
Experimentally, yes, but I’ve only played pop tunes when they’ve actually come into my head. It is pretty rare that that happens. I did ask somebody to show me ‘Wonderwall’ because I knew that you could make loads of money playing it. But I just didn’t do it, it just doesn’t happen. Even if I set off in that direction, it just doesn’t happen, it just falls away.
I did learn ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ by Journey because I love the bassline, I would put it on a dance beat and stuff. I have done little things but no I don’t have a set list and think ‘right, I’m gonna make some money now, I’m going to do this’. I did used to do some gratuitous slapping now and again. But now I don’t, I do less. I’m less bothered, it’s not necessarily a good thing but my heart is kind of going out of it and into something else for now.
I want to play more gigs and do some work on the album. On Friday I’m going up to Northumberland to develop the album. I’ve been offered a space to work on it. But to go back to your question, I’m starting to use repetition, repeating things, more and more what I play is repeated. I’m capturing this stuff, putting it into this pedal in this way, and playing with that and experimenting with that. It’s almost like the gates of total improvisation are closing now.
Let’s talk about the music itself. Your style seems to be a fusion of numerous genres, from rock to funk and jazz, but with an improvisational spirit definitely inherited from jazz. What genre would you say your music belongs to and is it all improvised, how does it work?
It doesn’t really belong to any genre and it’s just basically what goes in comes out. That’s basically it. It’s all of them and it’s none of them. There is a lot of music out there these days that is just a mash up of stuff. That is the modern genre, I don’t know what it’s called but it’s not specific, it’s whatever happens.
I know we have touched on this earlier but what is the role of theory in your music – I know you once studied it formally at college. Do you use certain scales or simply feel the music and let it take you somewhere?
Unfortunately, I haven’t really got any of that. I was self taught and only went to college because my son started school. And at that time, I don’t know why, but it really inspired me to go and learn. So I thought ‘OK, I’m going to go start school as well’. I did Music 101, the very basic course. People were saying ‘Ojay, you’re great, you need to go and do this’ but I was like ‘I need to go right back to the beginning’ and forget what I thought I knew.
At the time it was fantastic but how much of it I now use, I’m unsure. I see it as just the beginning, I want to learn a lot more about it. One of the things that was said by the bass tutor, ‘OK you’ve got all that, you’ve done really well, you’ve got a really good grade’ and all this sort of stuff, ‘now just forget about it’.
And that’s what I’ve done, I’ve forgotten about it. But I kind of haven’t, it comes back into my mind. I occasionally think not for now but it will be really useful one day. I do have more of understanding of chords and where they come from and the family of them, how they work and I can play with that. It’s a bit like rubbing my hands together and saying ‘oh God, I have something to play with!’
And to return to your upcoming album, can you tell me about its structure? Are you going to work with other musicians and will the songs be mainly instrumentals?
Yes, I will be working with other musicians but mainly people I’ve busked with. There are themes developing and I want to play with those themes. There is only one person on it so far that I’ve not busked with on the street, just a friend I know from Whitley Bay. There is a sort of street improvised, busking theme going on. There are definitely some songs coming out of it now, fifteen ideas, half of them which are pretty much there, but the others need lyrics developing. It’s hard for me to say but so far, but half instrumentals, half sung. Some riff bass stuff, some drum and bass stuff, pretty much what I do on the street, but captured.
I smile every time I think about it, I think people will like it. I think they will recognise it as I am playing it more and more every day.