When I met O Mer—or Omer, something we’ll get more into later—for the first time, he was performing in the back room of Alphaville, a trendy bar in Bushwick that doubles as a venue. The spot has become a fan-favorite among emerging NYC-based acts, hosting eclectic three- or four-band bills on a nearly daily basis. He was the closer of the night, following the notably more indie-rock oriented Secret Crush and No Ice. By the time he began playing, everyone was sweating; it was the middle of July and the back room lacks air conditioning. But, somehow, there was something chilling when he and his band took the stage. The semi-electronic band pulled together soulful and eastern influences to create a performance unlike anything I had ever seen before. He only had a couple of singles out on SoundCloud at the time. When I sat down with him again in anticipation of the upcoming Refugee EP release, we reminisced about that night.
“How long has it been since that Alphaville show?”
“That was when I had just started interning, so I think it was May or June.” Actually, I was wrong; it was definitely in July. But the rapidity of time passing was evident, regardless.
“Wow, it’s been a sec,” he laughed.
The passage of time was surely more noticable for him than it was for me; we discussed how I had been away at college, while he had been working on his music amidst record label complications that derailed his progress multiple times. We were still on the topic of Alphaville when he brought up the road bumps: “The album [Refugee] was supposed to be released then; that was the initial plan.”
When he began telling me about why the release was postponed so severely, it turned into a story that—unfortunately—many artists know all too well.
“We wanted to release it independently, and we released the first single in February.” He was referencing “Now I’m Alive,” the breakout single that led me to his show in the first place. This is one of the more electronically grounded songs he’s released, making heavy use of looping and vocal distortions to create a mesmerizing and anthemic track with soulful sensibilities. Currently, the single has nearly half a million streams on Spotify.
“The album was supposed to be all out by May. But what happened was that we released that single, and then we were approached by a record label. We signed with them, and they wanted to push it back a little, so they had extra time to re-release that single. And then the release was pushed to August.”
I vaguely remember the mention of an upcoming EP release at Alphaville, but little concrete detail. It seems this show took place right at the peak of this battle between himself and his label. He called the situation “a bummer,” recalling the initial excitement that came with the prospect of major label distribution and the subsequent disappointment that resulted from realizing “they just did a bad job.”
By now, O Mer and his manager, Ron Shpindler of Tron Management, are back to releasing the project independently. But this was not without the loss of an immense amount of time, an unfortunate consequence that I lamented on his behalf. He responded to my sympathizing with surprising positivity, calling it “an experience worth having when you are first starting out.”
“I don’t know why, but it felt like the more zen I got about it, the more I learned about it, and the more comfortable I got being a musician, which is a messed up job to have. It lacks structure, you know. Structure has to come from you.”
Internal structure seems to an important aspect of who O Mer is as a musician. He’s meticulous about how he comes across as an artist—he produces and perfects all of his own beats—and as a performer. But he’s also bent on sometimes relinquishing this structure at certain key moments, especially when performing. He bounces back and forth.
When I asked him how he came about his stage name, he said plainly, “Well, it’s just my name.” But then, he began elaborating on the space between the letters—the structure of the word.
“It comes from a bunch of different places. First of all, mer is like the ocean in French. And I’m not sure that I’m getting this right, but O in psychoanalysis can mean the undefinable—so a sea of undefinable stuff.” A sea of undefinable stuff. This seems to be an accurate way to describe his art, as every track bounces between rhythms and melodies, manipulating styles to create something unrecognizable to any specific genre. Before I could truly let that sink in, though, he quickly followed up with a second answer—explaining that splitting the syllables also encourages correct pronunciation: “I mostly get called ‘Omar’ or ‘Omir’ or whatever else… I get a lot of ‘Omen’ too. But that’s more what it is. It’s just a pun and I like the way it looks. It’s a way to stay me without being completely myself.”
“O in psychoanalysis can mean the undefinable—so a sea of undefinable stuff.”
Like a lot of artists, he is looking for a way to separate the person from the performer: “if you are performing…it doesn’t necessarily feel like it’s you that’s doing it. You kind of—especially when performing—you have to have another personality be the ambassador of whatever it is you did. And that split, I think, is necessary.”
This can be tricky territory to navigate for some, but he’s far from being a method actor. It’s more a matter of shedding one’s own artificialities, rather than adding on new ones. He noticed that, when he is performing, he allows himself to be “a little bit more vulnerable” and “not as aware of [his] physicality.” In his opinion, as a performer, this is essential, “otherwise, you’re just getting in the way of the music. You have to give up the security of your elegance.”
The idea of a split came up time and time again. Besides the obvious split in his name, there are many other points where this idea of an intentionally fractured sense of self becomes crucial to understanding him. His nationality is another relevant example. He moved to Brooklyn nearly six years ago to pursue music, although he was already gaining recognition for being a session guitar player in Tel Aviv. He was very clear in explaining that this move was integral to his reinvention as an artist:
“The goal wasn’t to become what I was in Israel, here… New York was kind of—I should say Brooklyn—was kind of the way to get a clean slate. To be unknown. Israel was so small that I was known. It’s so tiny that I was just ‘the guy that does the thing’ by the time that I was 21, playing guitar with singers.”
It’s no surprise that he chose to come to Brooklyn of all places to find himself as an artist. Combine the excitement of living in the city, which all but defines itself as the mecca of DIY music in the Northeast, with the promise of mainstream success and what you get is a manifestation of a musician’s American Dream. As if on cue, he said one of the main reasons he was excited about coming to New York “was the whole independent scene going on in Brooklyn—Terrible Records, DFA, all that kind of stuff. Those labels. They seemed to be doing something that was really helping art be art, rather than commercial.” I could explain what happened on the label-front again, but then we would just be moving backwards. Besides being the location of some type of “a cliché dream” for catching a ‘big break,’ New York can also be a centrifuge for talent. It separates the impassioned from the passive, without any regard to external forces. O Mer commented that, for him, “mostly what it did is it created an urgency [within himself] to make music. By the nature of life in Israel, where it was a little bit more slow and mundane… New York is just ten times more intense.”
“otherwise, you’re just getting in the way of the music. You have to give up the security of your elegance.”
But living in the city that never sleeps, the home of all dreamers, is overwhelming in more than one way. Anyone that’s ever stopped for a second in the street, and then been immediately bumped into can attest to this fact. That’s what makes it so paradoxical; terrifying and beautiful all at once.
“There’s something to be said about living far away from your home—just that basic parting. You kind of get this strange perspective about who you are that you would not have had otherwise, because you are so out of your depth in a lot of ways. And I think that’s what happens to most people who come to New York. I might be wrong. Even if they come from within the United States. You’re just being thrown into the deep water.”
He’s come a long way since this initial move, hanging up his session guitar in exchange for various electronic instruments. Another split appears, this time between the acoustic and the electronic, but he does not see this one as being as defined as other aspects of his life. He began working with electronic sounds in New York “out of necessity.” That’s essentially the only important difference he sees between the two genres of music; while the ability to perform with a band or in a studio is limited, the possibilities of working alone on a computer are “endless.” But that doesn’t mean he’s ever going to go completely solo, either.
Even though he describes himself as a micromanager when it comes to his sound (“I certainly lead this band,” he told me at one point) he also views the experience of playing with a band as extremely collaborative:
“It’s my project and they just have a lot of room in it, and the place they have in my music, I don’t have in my music. It’s theirs. But it’s my music. So that’s the way it has to be. I have to let them have this wiggle room and go wild, and then I have to kind of massage it into something that I feel makes the song work. That’s the fun of it.”
This quickly shifted into a conversation about the experience of watching a band perform, in general, and how remarkably different this can be from seeing a solo artist. In many ways, this is a difficult opinion to argue against. We both agreed that there is something cosmic about the moment where a band is able to come together—despite all of their split identities—and smile about hitting a note the right way.
“That’s why I perform with a band. Basically, technology-wise, practically every artist can go on tour without a band. A lot of pop artists do that… You perform with a band so that you can have that moment with people, and then let people see it. I think it’s fucking beautiful, to be honest. I get really excited just thinking about it. It’s so worth the economical downside of moving around with a band and just the hardship of it. I think I need that. I need people to constantly criticize what I’m doing, even just with their faces, you know.”
It seems that this is the point where all of the different ends meet—in the music, itself. This is where the contradictions lie—alongside all of the questions, the answers, the personas, the risks, the consequences… you name it. The desire to be the leader meets with the need for external input. The performer collides with the producer, and the splintered selves must finally meet. New York becomes home, but Tel Aviv does not stop being home. The list goes on. But can that come as a surprise to anyone, really?
O Mer described this notion of music performance as the safe space for the self-contradictory—the hyper-malleable—as intentionally inexplicable. He compared it to “[looking] at something, and [letting] your eyes go out of focus” until something “floats up to the surface” and “hits you from this totally unexpected place.” To him, “it’s not concentrating on yourself, being isolated, or feeling everyone else. It’s letting yourself get lost in what is happening.”
“You perform with a band so that you can have that moment with people, and then let people see it. I think it’s fucking beautiful, to be honest. I get really excited just thinking about it.”
This process of getting caught up in the moment is analogous to how O Mer views the term genre, which means little to nothing to him. When I asked if he would ever try to move away from the type of music that he’s been making, he gave me an answer that perfectly fell in line with what I expected from him:
“I’m definitely interested in doing different genres, but for me, what that means is just changing the instruments—changing the tools. I’m not going to write as a different person or try to fit a different genre. I want keep being myself. I just want to maybe try other things.”
He also mentioned that there “there isn’t one artist that [he likes] that doesn’t do it every album.” This ability to transition it seems, for him, is reflective of talent. He brought up Elvis Costello as one example, and then I mentioned Bon Iver. We agreed once again; these artists are great not because they have perfected a sound, but because they do refuse to let the dust settle. Obviously, a conversation regarding chameleon-esque musical genius had a naturally progression towards Kanye West—an artist that O Mer considerations one of his biggest admirations.
We talked about My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy at length and how Kanye operates so unapologetically in his work. He compared him, briefly, to Dostoevsky when talking about art that functions under extreme anticipation:
“I’m drawn to that type of art, generally. The type of art that gets you almost on the verge of exploding, where you’re like I have to know where this is going. Like with music. I think Kanye has that, to be honest. All of his music is a lot of anticipation and a lot of pressure, and then a little bit of release. There something very dramatic about it.”
The Dirty Projectors also came up—Swing Lo Magellan, specifically. O Mer was completely in awe when talking about this work and how “precise and aware of what it’s doing it is, but also free and naturally occurring.”
Ultimately, these are the types of works where all the individual threads meet—in this sea of undefinable stuff—and create large, inseparable tangles. It is at this moment that the whole band smiles. It’s something that cannot be rehearsed, and it’s the reason why artists like O Mer create music.
Stream O Mer’s Refugee EP below, and watch him perform these tracks live at New York City’s Berlin on May 25.
Read more Music Reviews on ClicheMag.com.
‘A Sea of Undefinable Stuff’: Sitting Down With Brooklyn’s O Mer: Featured image courtesy of Gaya Feldheim Schorr