Photo of Geoff by Nicholas Kennedy

Knowing Where To Look: A Conversation with Geoffrey O’Connor

by Nicholas Kennedy

Before Geoffrey O’Connor invites me into a nearby room to start our interview properly, he’s got a bit of business to attend to. Pulling out a bright yellow gear case from a nearby shelf, O’Connor sets it down on the floor before flipping the clips open. Inside is a device that would look at home within a bank of synthesizers and drum machines; dials and buttons litter its surface, but I can’t actually tell what it is.

O’Connor clips the case shut again as a young boy and his dad come through the door of the Vanity Lair studio. The boy bounds along, the LEDs in his shoes flickering as he skips, and the dad whose name I don’t catch greets O’Connor warmly. Apparently the yellow case device is finding a new home for a while — the dad wants to start a new music learning program for kids, but instead of ukuleles and xylophones, the young’uns are going to be messing with synthesizers and sequencers, creating digital chaos no doubt. It’s kinda sweet to watch, a passing of the MIDI torch between generations.

Vanity Lair is an unassuming location. Most creative hovels in Brunswick are. After our interview when we’re wandering around the space taking photos, O’Connor tells me about the kids that come and hang out in the back alleyway at night. They’re a strange bunch — they’ll steal chairs but then replace them with other chairs, something O’Connor has never really been able to parse out.

We can’t use the usual studio space to chat this time. Vanity Lair gets booked out by all types, this time it’s the Vice/i-D people, models dot the room, chatting and preparing, and a shoeless producer shuffles about preparing. They’re doing some sort of fluffy pillow adorned photo shoot with a mosquito net hanging from the roof — I don’t ask questions.

When talking about Geoffrey O’Connor’s creative career, you’d be mistaken to think that either music or film came first — it’s not that simple. O’Connor’s foray into making his own music videos coincided roughly with the release of his first solo record, Vanity is Forever; O’Connor sees an amusing relationship between that album’s title and his decision to start filming himself. He holds a masters in Film Production from RMIT — “bit of a cornflakes course, really,” he determines.

His duel passions of sound and vision have served him well. O’Connor finds himself swapping between the two on a schedule that prevents over exposing himself — “I feel like [making a record] every year is basically noise pollution… as conservative as that sounds, I’d rather make something that I feel good and confident about and then push it at people”.

There’s an obsessive, glamorous, almost voyeuristic thread to be found in a lot of O’Connor’s musical efforts, made all the more obvious by his work in film.

There are lyrics about looking, objects of desire, an obsession with surface; while also attempting to subvert that realm. On The Crayon Fields 2015 album No One Deserves You, O’Connor sings, “I never wanted to be so composed.” He plays with the frames through which people present themselves in order to get what they want, and then exposes the hollowness felt once their desires are realised, later singing on that same record; “…endless lavish nights, all yours to recall. Who knows what it is you’re gonna miss, when you’ve so many dreams, but none of them are this.”

During live sets for The Crayon Fields, distorted projections show trophies of opulence destroyed and rebuilt, like a video cassette running back on itself. O’Connor finds himself drawn to this admittedly un-subtle theming when working on music videos; “You can get away with a lot more. You don’t have to worry about continuity, or whether you’re being too heavy-handed in your visuals,” and while O’Connor definitely finds himself revelling in the unchecked spectacle of music videos — “I’ve never thought vanity to be a bad thing,” he states later — he thinks their place within music culture and industry is shifting.

“It’s no longer seen as solely a marketing aspect of music” he says, and I wonder if the production of Kanye West’s ‘Famous’ would fit within that theory.

There’s still a workman-like quality to O’Connor’s business. People coming to use the studio aren’t presented with a preened receptionist and Nespresso machines, but rather O’Connor himself having just raced over from his day job as an editor for daytime television.

The large white stage which dominates a quarter of the studio space is constantly being repainted to keep it fresh for clients. When I ask him how much white paint he goes through, he answers as quick as if I’d simply asked his name: “It’s quite a lot.”

At this point, O’Connor’s work is spanning over four years — a lot happens in that time. His time as a director has seen him work with names like Sarah Mary Chadwick, Gold Class, Tim Richmond Group, Summer Flake, and Palm Springs. Whilst O’Connor definitely likes all those artists though, he’s not one to force his services on anybody.

“I’ve never been someone who, say, goes out to a gig and says to the artist performing ‘Cool show, wanna make a video and pay me $2,000?’” — something that he’s been on the uncomfortable receiving end of a couple times himself.

“I’d feel strange going up to someone and assuming they didn’t already have a plan for a music video… I’d rather they come to me. Perhaps there’s a lot of arrogance in that on my part… but I’ve been lucky people have asked me to do it.”

O’Connor certainly isn’t alone in his visual contributions to the Australian music scene. He has contemporaries in teams like Banalarama who have just come off a watershed season of their online live music show ABABCd. The show is fantastic, a mind bogglingly ambitious but eventually integral part of Melbourne’s music scene over the past year. O’Connor wouldn’t dare dip his toes into the world of live gig recording though. “My greatest fear is being in a crowded room with a camera.”

But what inspires his work? Indulging the lazy listicle part of my writer’s personality, I ask O’Connor to relay some favourites. “I remember the NO ZU video that Tooth & Claw made, I think that’s one of the best I’ve seen… it’s them in a caravan village with these young kids on bikes. That’s become its own cliché though…”

Kids on bikes is a cliché? He elaborates, “There seems to be this trend, this flirtation with poverty that a lot of musicians like to do in music videos… there’s this weird fantasy in music videos of suburbia being poverty, white suburbia especially — oh, a room with an old TV, woe is me! I don’t think [NO ZU] did it in theirs, theirs was a really interesting insight into the life of people who live in these caravans without being exploitative at all.”

“Obviously short of being a stalky creep… I guess, I really love watching films that interrogate personalities and characters. The way that a camera can depict power relations has always been fascinating to me,” he says. “I think everyone’s fascinated by other people, and when they’re not, they probably don’t have a very amazing life.”

When it comes to the creative process, O’Connor’s no dictator: budgets, ideas and concepts all fly free from both artist and director. From the performance clip simplicity of Tim Richmond Group’s ‘The Book’, to the black and white, death defying tension of Gold Class’ ‘Life as a Gun’, O’Connor’s flexibility is clear.

“Sometimes bands don’t even want to be in the video at all, or in Adam from Gold Class’ instance, they want to be tied up to a post and have knives thrown at them” says O’Connor, an idea he’s quick to point out was his own — “I’d been wanting to put a band in grievous danger for a while.”

I comment he could be turning Vanity Lair into a dangerous name to say in the local scene, “’A thousand cuts!’ they’ll say” he chuckles back.