O golly, O gosh, O boy
“It’s a lot of pedals,” Joe Henwood says, reaching for a monolithic black box big enough for several dead bodies, “but also not enough.”
I am sitting in the Peckham Rye rehearsal space of noise-rock duo O, and the saxophonist is taking me through the delays, the reverbs, the envelope filters and distortion pedals that really make his horn skronk. It could be the control panel for a light spacecraft, or the inner workings of HAL, but instead it is the biggest pedalboard in South London. (citation needed)
Across from me sit Henwood and his bandmate, the powerhouse drummer Tash Keary. O are an affable, charming duo, and sitting across from them and their array of rehearsal space houseplants you get very little sense of the mania and chaos of the group’s live exploits.
O just released their debut single ‘OGO’ via Speedy Wunderground, and look set to become the label’s latest alumni to break out. All blaring horns and thunderous drums, O make a helluva racket, a righteous maelstrom, with two instruments. ‘OGO’ sees Henwood lay down his pedigree as a premier saxophone riff-meister, a brass-wielding Angus Young, whilst Keary’s propulsive drumming sends O regularly into frenzy.
O golly, O gosh, O boy, O wonder.
O can perhaps be compared to contemporaries like Sons of Kemet, who mix their jazz training with thunderous songcraft to create music that is more about momentum and motion than melody and harmony. Indeed, despite connections in London’s fertile jazz scene, O have more in common with dozens of other genres than they do with jazz.
“I did a lot of stuff that I’d say was more in the jazz world,” Keary says, having cut her teeth as part of the Tomorrow’s Warriors initiative, an organisation focused on getting enthused minority players on stage and playing jazz. “While we’re inspired by jazz musicians, we write and make music in a way that is more akin to the rock and electronic stuff we listen to.”
“A lot of our songs come from ‘improvisation’, so they’re similar to jazz in that way,” says Henwood with a laugh, who himself has spent the last decade as part of jazz and afrobeat party outfit Nubiyan Twist. “But when you think about it, ‘improvisation’ and ‘jamming’ are the same thing, aren’t they? ‘Improvisation’ just sounds more sophisticated and jazzy.”
Originally, Henwood and Keary had met and jammed together after a Tomorrow’s Warriors show in 2019, but avoided re-igniting their electric musical chemistry due to other commitments. “I enjoyed jamming with Tash so much,” Henwood remarks, “but we said we didn’t have time because we were in all of these other bands. Then the pandemic happened.”
O formed just before the pandemic, but didn’t start to play live until the spring of 2022, which quickly led to the band’s biggest break to date. After their riotous second show ever, at The Windmill, Brixton, the band were approached for a support slot by local gods Black Midi, catapulting their sax-based noise-rock to a new and receptive audience, “and we’re still riding that train,” laughs Henwood.
“At that point, we were still called ‘Toe’,” Keary says. “Like ‘Tash and Joe’, because we’re shit at band names. But there’s another, great, Japanese post-rock band called Toe, and people would come to to our shows expecting to see them. As if they’d flown over to play a one-off show at Paper Dress Vintage…”
“One guy came up to us after a show, and said: ‘You know there’s another band called Toe?’” Henwood laughs. “‘Well, I was here to see them.’”
“We couldn’t risk this going any further, so we changed it before the Black Midi tour,” says Keary, “got rid of two letters. O.”
Alongside the music, Tash Keary is an accomplished juggler (“I think most drummers would be able to pick it up”), Joe Henwood is a dab hand in the kitchen, and the duo love to play video games of the Nintendo persuasion – in fact, an unreleased O track bears the name ‘Tom Nook’ after Animal Crossing’s malevolent racoon land baron. But it is for the music, and the music alone, that will see 2023 morph into the year of the O. O wow, O yes, O my god, O my word.