O Children release ‘Apnea’, the follow up to their 2010 eponymous debut album, via Deadly People on May 28th 2012. ‘Apnea’ represents the culmination of over 2 years of torturous travails that lead singer Tobi O’Kandi has described as “soul destroying”, as he found himself “essentially stateless, stuck here, a prisoner in England”.
Re-wind back to 2009 and there was no indication that this was to be the fate that would befall Tobi and, by extension, the rest of O Children. Having just released their critically acclaimed debut album, the boys had finished playing a gig in Manchester (a “horrible” one according to guitarist Gauthier Ajarrista) when a decision to sample the questionable delights of a student after party, rather than tuck themselves up in Travelodge beds, sparked a chain of events that could have put an end to their burgeoning career and gave the cliché ‘difficult second album’ a wholly literal meaning in relation to theirs.
“It turns out that decision to go to said house party was one of the worst decisions of my entire life” says Tobi. “People ended up dispersing and bailing, a couple of us go to this guy’s house we just met and we all end up missing our train.” A decision to bunk a later train was agreed upon and, whilst the rest of the band hid in toilets, Tobi decided against cramming his longer-than-average limbs into a cubicle; a decision he’d come to regret as he unsuccessfully tried to blend in with the other commuters as he dismounted the train upon its London arrival. “This lady asks for my ticket and doesn’t buy my excuses so then decides to get the police involved. They ask for my name and it rings up that I’m here illegally – I was like ‘What?! What are you talking about?’ I end up getting hauled off to a holding cell waiting to be deported.”
Tobi had left his band mates on the platform, whilst they presumed that he’d just be fined for bunking the train they soon realised something was amiss when they couldn’t contact him for 3 days. “Seeing Tobi getting picked up by the cops and not being able to contact him was pretty bad” remembers Gauthier. “It was scary”, adds Andrew Sleath, “It was a serious weight on our shoulders and has been for the last couple of years since.”
Unbeknown to Tobi the last time he’d entered the UK aged 6 he’d overstayed his visa by around 15 years, so bringing himself to the attention of the police was to act as the catalyst for a prolonged legal case as the Home Office tried to work out where he belonged and what to do with him. “They were going to take me to Nigeria... all my family is based in the United States so they were basically just going to drop me off somewhere that I have no idea about and no current family ties to. That wasn’t too good,” deadpans Tobi, “It’s been really hard, it got me into a massive depression about it because I didn’t know who I was, it got to the point where I couldn’t function as a human being and I didn’t know if there was any future for me or for us as a band.”
Backed by Deadly and their management team, who Tobi describes as “surrogate dads”, he was released from his holding cell but unable to leave the country and tour anywhere other than the UK. Whilst being regularly in and out of court trying to resolve his future, Tobi and the rest of O Children concentrated their efforts on writing and recording ‘Apnea’. “It’s a really personal record”, says Tobi, “I didn’t really write it for anyone else and I think that’s how all music should be made. It’s a very different album but it’s kind of a ‘heart on your sleeve’ record. It’s the way that we are, and the way that we were, and the way that we’ll always be. To be honest this album almost killed me both metaphorically and physically. I was getting to a point with the whole immigration thing where I was in a pit and depressed. The nearly dying incident was when, soon after a break up, I started suffering from involuntary Apnea during sleep. It’s basically a term for the suspension of breathing during sleep and left me waking up at all hours and putting me off actually sleeping for a long time. The only thing at that point in my life that was holding me together was going into a studio and being able to focus on something. This album is basically the only thing that I had. I didn’t have a house and I didn’t have one set studio, I’d go out and get fucked up but when I was in a studio it was like being away from the reality of what was going on in my life. This album saved my life. It seemed to be the only thing in my life that made sense at all, I’m really grateful we got to make it, I think what I was going through really shows in this album; both subject matter and the way that it sounds. I see it as escapism followed by freedom, which is really crazy because about a month after it was done they said I was free. It sounds rough and ready and it’s a big ‘fuck you’ to everything that’s gone on.”
Tobi’s problems with the Home Office further cemented the bonds between O Children that started to form when he had quickly assembled a band in order to con their (still to this day) management that the demo’s they’d been listening to on Myspace had been performed by a bunch of lads who’d known each other for ages. “I just had a collection of songs on Myspace and it kind of blew up, so I looked around me and tried to find people to be in the band. I knew Andrew from previous project ‘Bono Must Die’ but with Gauthier he was like fresh off the boat and people were saying ‘Hey there’s this new mysterious guy in town and I hear he wields an axe like Tony Iommi on crack but with all his fingers intact’. I became mates with Harry after bonding at a house party after we’d been to Frog or somewhere, so basically we just got a bunch of friends together and said ‘Let’s do this’.”
“Me and Harry only met Andrew 5 minutes before we met our management”, laughs Gauthier, with Andrew believing “I never remember people anyway so if I’d met them before it wouldn’t have made much difference”. Considering their pretty disparate musical backgrounds Tobi says the first few shows were “surprisingly cohesive”. The artists the band were influenced by in their formative years are as wide ranging and varied as you are likely to find in a band made up of people still in their early 20’s. “My family listened essentially to gospel music and African church choirs”, says Tobi, “Boney M, Tina Turner and Whitney Houston were all big names as well though; a lot of Tom Jones, Jimmy Cliff, Michael Jackson – basically sex music. My parents had 5 children in the family... they had to come from somewhere right.” Gauthier grew up in France and remembers his parents having slightly different tastes, “My parents listened to classical music and jazz, nothing too trendy, but they always made sure there was a load of instruments in the house. My dad always regretted not learning to play an instrument so I was put in front of a piano at an early age and learnt a lot from it.” Bassist Harry, on the other hand, was introduced to the sort of music at an early age you can reference with pride 15 years on, “From a young age I listened to a lot of The Clash, David Bowie and Elvis Costello; a lot of Motown and soul as well. The fact there was always good and varied music playing in the house when I was younger definitely got me more interested it.” Andrew, enforcing the stereotype that most drummers are slightly different from the rest of society, remembers his childhood in simpler terms, “First instruments were pots and pans... Before 9 I don’t think I’d seen a drum kit but I’d definitely hit stuff... I was a quiet kid with a mean streak, I loved hitting stuff.”
Looking to the future the band all believe that the release of ‘Apnea’ represents a distinct new chapter in their career. “This might sound arrogant but I don’t give a fuck”, says Tobi, “We’ve grown a lot as songwriters, as musicians, as people damn it, to make a big dent in what’s going on in the music industry at the moment. You’ve got a lot of bands that I think are resting on their laurels a bit, they’re not aspiring to be bigger than East London and playing a few shows. I kind of want to shake things up a bit. If people come to this record with an open mind I think they’ll be pleasantly surprised. I want a Grammy... I produced it and have taken techniques from a lot of different genres I’m into. I don’t care about saving guitar music, guitar music needs to save itself because essentially it’s in a hole that it refuses to get out of whilst there’s a lot more progressive and interesting production techniques being used elsewhere.” “We’ve updated our sound but it’s not contrived” agrees Andrew, “If people give it a chance they’ll get it”. Gauthier believes being on Deadly allowed the band to “make the record that we wanted to, rather than make the record we were told to”, with Harry agreeing “This is more a reflection of ourselves than we’ve ever produced before.”