Having shaped the chill and melodic house genre, OCULA over the years has become one of the most influential and respected artists in the beforementioned genres. Buzzing between Lane 8‘s This Never Happened and Above & Beyond’s Anjunadeep, he also released on Armada Electronic Elements. After this series of high-caliber tunes, he steps up the game with his first-ever studio album.
Crossroad, OCULA’s first studio album has been released weeks ago on This Never Happened. To celebrate the release and find out more about this incredible piece of art, we reached out to him to ask some questions. Here is what he answered:
Hi Brad, nice to e-meet you. Let’s start with your story. Could you talk about yourself, how you started producing music and why precisely this kind of electronic music?
Hey! Great to meet you! So I started producing music back when I was around 13 or 14 years old, and it was mainly out of curiosity after listening to deadmau5 on repeat for months on end. I wanted to figure out how he made those sounds just from a laptop, which led me to filling up my hand-me-down laptop with production software and samples. I think what caused me to land on this style of electronic music was listening to a lot of melodic music throughout my teens; like I said, deadmau5 was a big inspiration so his often simple but catchy melodies really resonated with me.
Your first release came out on mau5trap in 2017, which is pretty uncommon for an “unknown” artist at the time to be approved directly by deadmau5. How did you end up debuting with Ingrained on Mau5trap?
That’s always an interesting story because it’s back when I had no clue if I could make this a career or even a part-time job – so one day I just went through all the mau5trap artists at the time and found their management team, sent over some demos and crossed my fingers that I’d get a reply. Luckily, I did, and we sat down for a chat and discussed the idea of starting a fresh project – a few weeks later, ‘OCULA’ was born. With the team already having an ‘in’ with the label, we spent time fine-tuning some tracks that we all thought would catch their attention and ‘Ingrained’ was one of them. I’ll never forget the morning I woke up to an introductory email from the mau5trap A&R!
From that point on, especially in 2019, your career exploded especially with the first release on This Never Happened. Do you feel there’s been a specific turning point where you thought “I can make it into the music industry?”
I wouldn’t say there was one specific moment, it’s been more like multiple moments where you think ‘okay, this is serious now’. Although, over the last few weeks post-album, I’ve been talking to friends and family about how those thoughts of doubt and inability to make this a stable career just kind of gradually fade out of your mind, rather than one big moment of realisation. That being said, I still suffer with imposter syndrome, especially when a significant project comes up or a highly respected label or artist reaches out. I think a big moment for any artist is when you begin to build a team around you – seeing other people actually working on your project is a very strange feeling at first, but that really helps make it all feel real and genuine.
2019 and the beginning of 2020 have been your trampoline in our opinion, and then Covid happened? How did it change your perspective on the future, considering you were on a fantastic roll if impacted on it of course.
At first, I panicked. I was on the cusp of submitting my Visa application for North America and that was what all my focus and energy was going into, so it really derailed my thought process when the borders closed, not knowing when they would reopen. Then I had a chat with my manager and we created a plan to fill out the next 6 to 9 months with consistent releases; exploring different labels and opportunities to both grow my audience and build a stable platform to set us up for the future. I remember he showed me the streaming numbers for the last 3 years of another artist he works with and I noticed how it was a consistent ascending pattern, whereas mine was very sporadic with big spikes and just as big dropoffs – we wanted to fix that, knowing it would help greatly when we could eventually shift focus back to the visa. Another huge help was when This Never Happened pitched the idea of an OCULA debut album. At first, I was really against the idea because in my mind, I had to be touring first to be able to gain any attention for an album – but looking back, now that the album is out, it was the best idea and truly kept me sane during lockdowns. Having something so important and creatively my own to focus on really helped keep my head in the right place.
Let’s talk a bit about your creative process. How is an OCULA tune born? If you got a random idea, you write it down and start from there. Do you have a specific process or is it more “random” in a way?
Usually, I start with a simple, catchy melody – typically 2 or 4 bars long, sometimes with slight variation after 8 bars. For that, I’ll just start with either a piano sound or just a sawtooth pluck sound; then once the melody is there, I start experimenting with different sounds by either digging through presets, turning on one of my analog synths, or just crafting a sound from an empty patch. As I’m not musically trained, I find this is the easiest way to get to a solid starting point as I find it a lot easier to add chords and a bassline to an already-strong melodic phrase. Typically, I’ll go from melody, to a bassline, then to a chord sequence – from there, I’ll add in drums and percussion. I find I’ll build up around 75% of the main elements for the track just in an 8-bar loop, then once I’m really feeling it I’ll start working on the arrangement.
Do you prefer analog or digital? A lot of your tune includes kind of organic and ambient sounds. Do you record them IRL and then sampled them?
To be honest, there’s pros and cons of both – I think if you can afford to get some great analog gear then go for it; it’s super fun and often times I find I’ll go to them to help get out of a creative block because there’s just something fun about playing with a physical piece of equipment, rather than clicking with a mouse. One thing I’ve noticed over the last couple of years of really honing in on my sound is I incorporate as many live instruments as possible; especially when working on percussion. I love finding random samples of African or Latin instruments and working them into my tracks to just add a little more character and human-feel, or little things like opting for live recorded shakers and hi hats instead of midi-made loops to give it a more organic feel. I think when you have 30 layers of digital synthesisers, it’s a cool contrast to have organic, live instruments in there too.
2022 has been the year of your first album, Crossroad. Why an album, Where did the idea come from, and what’s the meaning behind it?
If you ask any artist who is trying to make this a career, I think they’ll agree that the journey is absolutely wild – filled with huge ups and even bigger downs. Looking back on my journey, I’d say every few months I would have slumps where I’d question if this is going to work and if I should just give up – and the most noticeable was when I took a trip to New York to celebrate my 21st Birthday; I said to myself that ‘when I get back home, that’s it. Get a normal, safe job and put this idea of being a musician to rest’; literally on the last day of the trip when I was packing up my suitcase to leave the hotel, I got an email back from one of the management teams that work with a mau5trap artist saying they’d love to chat, and like I said earlier; from there, ‘OCULA’ was born. I wanted to try and capture that journey in the album, both sonically and visually with the name and art direction.
Could you tell us also the creative process that brought to that? I mean, was it planned and you write brand new songs from scratch, or do you find a bunch of unreleased music and started from there?
So the first thing I did was go through my collection of songs that were already pretty much finished and that Daniel (Lane 8) had heard and loved. I had the theme of the album in mind so there were a few tracks that I thought fit in really well, and that gave me a solid core for the album. From there, I spent the next 9-12 months writing without trying to write a specific style of song; I wanted the tracks to come naturally and fit together organically, without saying to myself ‘I need to make an energetic club-focused track’, or ‘I need a chilled, melodic track to follow this one’.
The album features a lot of collaboration with singers. In fact a lot of tunes have vocals. What was it like collaborating with other artists on such a big projet as your first studio album?
It was amazing to work with such incredible vocalists. I think it’s one of the best parts of reaching that stage in your career where you have vocalists working on your tracks, especially when they elevate the emotions and feeling that you put into the instrumental. It’s honestly one of the most exciting times when you get that first draft land in your inbox from a vocalist, and you hear their interpretation of the song – especially when it’s a song that’s going to be a part of your debut album.
Talking about the future, you’ve also been featured on Le Youth album which will be out at the end of the month. How was it to collaborate with someone that, at least seems to have your same musical vision, if we want to call it?
Working with Wes is honestly one of the easiest experiences; we absolutely share the same vision which makes it so much more enjoyable. We definitely have different approaches to production, where I think I tend to get 8-16 bars mostly finished and then structure out the rest of the song, whereas a couple of works in progress that Wes has sent me were more barebones but the entire structure was laid out. I think that’s actually one of the reasons why I find it so easy to work with him because structure is one of the more difficult parts of writing a song for me. So for example, the collab on his album was sent to me as a barebones idea with pretty much the entire structure laid out, which is amazing because it means I get room to add my own signature and build in my own ideas to what he already laid down – whereas there’s a couple of songs I’ve sent to Wes that have full drum sections, multiple layers of synths and chords, but were only 60 seconds long.
Your career has always been around melodic house and cinematic, relaxing, dreamy sounds. Have you ever tried to produce something completely different and do you like experimenting with taking sounds from other genres or do you prefer to keep it specific to melodic?
I’ve always been inside the electronic music style, but I’ve moved between heavier, more sound-design focused genres like techno, dubstep, electro house, to the more melodic, euphoric genres. I found that when I wrote melodic music, I had a much stronger connection to it, whereas when I was writing heavier, more club-focused music, it was cool at the time but I lost interest and love for it shortly after. As for experimenting with different genre sounds, I definitely try to incorporate other genres when it comes to percussion – like I said earlier, some incredible African or Latin percussion can really take a track to a different level and give it a unique sound when layered with an electronic sound. I grew up listening to a wide variety of music, so I think that has had an impact on my production style and my interest in mixing elements from other genres.
What are OCULA’s plans for the future? Will we find you somewhere behind the decks? At some festival this summer?
You definitely will be seeing me behind the decks! I have a few more UK shows with Lane 8 coming up – Belfast, Glasgow and London. I’m currently working on my visa for the US, so fingers crossed that will be all finished up soon so I can finally hit the road for a couple months. Aside from shows, I’ve also got some great music lined up for the rest of the year – obviously a lot of time went into the album but there’s also a big collection of music that didn’t fit with the narrative and that makes more sense as singles or EPs, so keep an eye out for that as well as some awesome remixes for some industry legends.