Milwaukee Artist You Should Know: OQ

An interview with OQ

The Milwaukee duo OQ was originally meant to be a compilation album dreamed up by a percussionist, until it emerged beyond bedroom recording to become a full-fledged project.

Radio Milwaukee had a chat with vocalist/guitarist/flute player Liam O’Brien to learn more about how OQ is bringing world music and poly-rhythmic beats together and how they wrote their debut EP on a worm farm in rural Wisconsin.

Did you grow up in Milwaukee?

I grew up outside of Milwaukee in Oconomowoc. That’s strangely enough how I met Cole [Quamme]. I grew up with Matt Pappas who is in The Fatty Acids with Cole. I was living in Portland and Matt and the band came out and stayed at the house with me and we hung out. Then, I moved back to Wisconsin after a few years and started Holy Sheboygan and we played some shows with Fatty Acids, and that’s how this whole thing started.

When did you start making music?

I was writing music really young. My parents didn’t know what to do with me. Neither of them were musicians. My mom had a friend who played for the Milwaukee Symphony so I started going into Milwaukee for composition lessons when I was 11.

My mom is a writer and my dad is a painter and also an engineer. They were artistic, just not musical. I was taking lessons and writing funny, thematic movie-music type stuff. The Milwaukee Symphony ended up playing one of them when I was 14.

How did you transition composing for the symphony to the indie-folk of Holy Sheboygan?

I was going to school for composition and by the time I was in school it was less movie music and more minimalist inspired like Philip Glass, Terry Riley, Steve Reich. That led me toward folk music. I love repetition. That stuff all comes out of pop and folk music. I’m always doing music, and it’s always a little different every time.

Listening to your EP, I feel like your album art does a good job of describing it: equal parts natural, organic and then you have this tangle of electrical cords with cement and grass.

It’s really Cole’s brainchild. Three years ago he started making these world beats and sent it out to a bunch of folk musicians around Milwaukee. It was originally going to be a compilation that he was going to put out as “Cole Quamme.” Everyone else flaked on him.

He saw me at a Holy Sheboygan show and said, “I really want you to make a song to these beats.” So I took it home and within a month I sent him a completed song, which was the first song on the record. He was like, “I love this! Now we’ll just wait.”

We waited a year. He was my neighbor so I said, “Hey dude, what’s up with that compilation?” He said nobody got back to him. Then we decided to just go for it ourselves. As we got deeper into the process, we realized it was a lot of fun.

Cole had a lot to do with the conceptual framework, he’s really into this concept of “re-wilding” – which is a vision of the future in which humans have figured their shit out and live with nature in a more wholesome way.

The music that this all derives from is very chant-y. Originally used as witchcraft incantations, we were trying to manifest something in all the lyrical content and chanting.

It’s funny you’re calling me; right now I’m where I was when I wrote all those songs. I’m out at The Wormfarm Institute, a farm in Western Wisconsin. I get the beats from Cole, then I blast them through the speakers, I dance a little, move around. I have instruments around me, play around with what I’m hearing, what’s coming out of the beat, what is the beat speaking to, and marry that to an Irish traditional melody.

Cole wanted it to be folk-based. I mostly know Irish folk music, so I went with that. Some Dorian, Mixolydian, modal stuff. Then I start mumbling words until the words come out.

This story is from our partner 88Nine Radio Milwaukee.