A few months back, two of Northern Ireland’s finest producers in Ryan McGroarty and Start Together’s Rocky O’Reilly announced a surprise project and album under the name Vivid Dreamer. Written, recorded and even released in a short space of time, the album is their love letter to synths and dreamy indie pop melodies. A welcome meeting of the minds behind Oppenheimer, Malibu Shark Attack, Beauty Sleep and the Wonder Villains.
With no great plan or expectations, the two started to work on something. “I think we both had ideas floating around that didn’t fit with other projects we were doing.” says Rocky. With ideas bounced back and forth between them, Ryan says the concept of a character began to emerge. “A person on a journey through everyday pressures, regrets, anxieties striving for purpose and resolve. It’s made us think a lot about the things we can do to help fellow musicians and we’re excited to begin exploring that further.”
The release itself came soon after the unexpected announcement, which appears to have been very much the intention according to Rocky. “We have been working with a lot of talented musicians, watching them become frustrated, unsure and fearful about making, committing to and releasing their music. Getting together was an opportunity to act totally freely with no consequences, no worries, nothing but experimentation, enjoyment and fun.” What came out of the project however was more serious in tone. “Because I think it reflects all of those stresses and worries that, whether we admit it or not, definitely have a massive impact on our own existences.”
They have a history of collaboration, hardly surprisingly considering their combined love of the indie pop world and their proximity in the Oh Yeah Centre.
“We’ve collaborated on so many projects, from me mixing Ryan’s band when he was still in school, to Wonder Villains, recording workshops across Ireland and Morocco and both working on projects at Start Together Studios. I guess it was just deciding that it could just be the two of us in the room. We share a very similar outlook and approach in terms of what’s important, and that’s being honest and trying to enjoy life.”
For Ryan, Rocky’s approach felt natural from day one. “I remember walking into Start Together for the first time in 2008 and thinking it was a magical wonderland and one day I hoped to work there. Rocky’s enthusiasm was inspiring and familiar and I really responded to the ethos there. We share mix studios across the hall so we probably talk about music for a few hours every week. This kind of felt like that but we pointed the microphones back at ourselves.”
Nonetheless, there were still attempts to create a new approaches, writing lines while watching cartoons, and encouraging an instinctual approach. “Ryan’s talents for vocal melodies and harmonies are unreal, so sometimes I would howl ideas and he would turn them into songs, I wouldn’t allow him to throw ideas away. Together we didn’t let each other get into any second guessing. We had no concept of what it was, or could be until it was finished. It’s been so exciting and refreshing.”
That shared admiration has been key to the album coming together, and comes across as they dissect their own work.
“It’s been a refreshing and inspiring collaboration that’s taught me a lot that I’m already carrying forward. I’ve never focused on vocals and lyrics quite as much, Rocky has an incredible talent for picking up on moments, lyrics and sounds that could easily be discarded. It felt like hanging out but somehow we wound up with an album.”
This Is Not Living
Rocky: I think this was the first idea. The intro is a chopped & pitched glockenspiel I played. I sent it to Ryan, he sent back an entire song and I knew this was going to be a fun album!
Ryan: These were definitely the lyrics that prompted the album concept for us. It describes the lowest point and is the catalyst to find positive change within, to explore difficult emotions, to be honest and good for yourself and others.
Rocky: I often write very “blocky” structures around four bars. This song is in 9/4, inspired by bands like Fridge and Tortoise a bit. I wanted a triumphant, defiant feeling but with a twist of sadness and that relentless uneasiness that the timing brings to it.
Ryan: With this song I learned loads about counting! 9/4 was a challenge. I remember us cracking up over the vocal tracking. Hopefully the timing has been committed to muscle memory for live performances. It’s dream-like and unsteady but looks forward with hope. The dream doesn’t change, it changes shape.
He Said He Didn’t Know
Rocky: We wrote these lyrics together based on a few episodes of the Simpsons. Feeling out of your depth, jealousy, anger all feature.
Ryan: There’s always something new to learn, especially through the wisdom of The Simpsons.
Rocky: This started as a soundscape, evoking memories of something long gone; it feels magical and distant, but you can’t be sure if it was actually that special, or if it’s just the way you remember it. It was sort of written with the image of Strangford Lough at dusk, Scrabo Tower on the horizon and sun casting shadows on the water, and then you jump in. Ryan adapted that to the story of our character, and he also landed one of my favourite ever lyrics “If I could have another chance, I’d f*ck it up the same way.”
Ryan: The initial demo was hypnotic and wonderful. It feels like orbiting the world. I’m pretty sure the drum hit at 2.10 is a sample called “KABLAMMO!” that Rocky made dropping stuff down the old service elevator in the early days of the Oh Yeah Centre. The verse in the last 1/3 of the track has a sentiment that I’ve tried to write many times, it’s embracing of the “drift”, the things you can’t control and finding strength and purpose in that. Also you can hear one of the voice chips failing with triumphant whirr on Beauty Sleep’s constantly breaking Juno 106 at the very end. Perfect.
Rocky: We’ve managed to have a dog barking on a track played on many radio stations. I think that sums up our carefree approach to this whole thing.
Ryan: Yes! And that the intro is 20 second woodblock solo. This one is about being too caught up in your head, not being there and too anxious to feel that you can.
Beck To The Future
Rocky: This was the final track written, possibly in about two hours. I recorded all the guitars on a kid’s guitar into my laptop microphone on the sofa, sent it to Ryan and I think we were mixing it the next day.
Ryan: This has become one on my favourites. From my memory we were chatting about what a final track should feel like, Rocky went home that evening and wrote beautiful twinkly music box sounding guitars. I think I gave it a beat, some synths and a structure and recorded the vocals at about 1am in the middle of the control room. We mixed it the following day. My vocals are all pitch shifted and odd at the end, I wanted them to sound half remembered and like in a dream. It’s a momentary wonder about “What if things turned out differently?”
Rocky: Can’t remember too much of this, but it makes me feel like I’m standing in my back garden looking up at the night sky.
Ryan: I remember putting some really cheap sounding chords and melodies behind Rocky’s demo at 7am one morning on a little Casio Rapman, then writing the lyrics on the walk to the studio. Think we dug into them together for a bit and recorded pretty quick, it must have been early because I sound half awake!
What Are We Waiting For
Rocky: Hypnotic, repeating, circular movements and a return to my once much-used vocoders. Two lines “Maybe we can be ourselves again” and “What are we waiting for?” repeat and intertwine, because everything really can be this simple if you let yourself believe it.
Ryan: I tried many drafts of writing vocals to this track but Rocky’s vocoded lyric “What Are We Waiting For?” said it better in fewer words.
THINK ABOUT IT
Rocky: This one appeared while we were recording another song. It’s a look at the ramblings of internet conspiracy theorists. Another one of Ryan’s best ever lines “Delusions stole your focus, conspiracies and bonged-out hocus pocus.”
Ryan: This was one of the funnest, I remember Rocky firing in an acoustic and we glitched, distorted and echoed with destructive freedom. This one’s for the internet conspiracists. The title is dedicated to Dr. S for all the fellow Simpsons fans.
Count to Ten
Rocky: This is one for end of the day; floating, reflecting, returning to child-like innocence and simplicity. I recorded the chorus vocals with my then three-year-old son. He’s pretty delighted to have his first record out.
Ryan: The tensions ease and the album nods off to sleep. Also so cool to have Rocky’s son making his album debut!