Liam O’Connell of the Bristol Experimental Rock Band, My Octopus Mind, Discusses How Improvising During the COVID-19 Lockdowns Made Them Create Their Most Conventional Album to Date, “Trying to Be Normal”

Last Friday, the Bristol experimental outfit, My Octopus Mind, released their third studio album, Trying to Be Normal. The album was written in 2020, in an old, 1920s theatre during the COVID-19 lockdowns, and recorded the following year, with producer James Bright, at Giant Wafer Studios in the rural Welsh town of Llandrindod Wells.

Back in September, whilst the band were finishing up a short European run, we tried unsuccessfully to set up a call, but data coverage in rural Belgium was not allowing such a thing. After weeks of communication and scheduling between myself (the author of this piece) and My Octopus Mind’s vocalist and guitarist, Liam O’Connell, to set up an interview before the album’s release, we managed to schedule an interview for last Tuesday. Hooray! The day before, however, I got a last-minute text, asking if I could head into the city centre and speak with the members of Bombay Bicycle Club for the Irish Daily Star, a half-hour before I was to interview Liam.

After the interview with Ed and Jamie from Bombay Bicycle Club in a nearby hotel, I went to St Stephen’s Green and called Liam, only for me to realise that my power bank didn’t charge, despite having plugged it in, hours ahead of time! As such, I only had 10% battery on my phone when this interview began. Such is life, ey? Anyway, please enjoy this interview which was months in the making and less than twenty minutes in the execution.


The first question I was going to ask is, how would you describe My Octopus Mind to somebody who’s never heard your music before?

Usually, “weird joy.”

[Laughs] “Weird joy”?

Yeah! Usually, I say, “experimental rock,” because we used to say things like, “post-face,” but that’s just a bit too confusing. [Laughs] “Experimental rock” seems to do it; we experiment with what rock is.

Do you even find, with the confines of genre, that it gets kind of restrictive? In terms of people like yourself, who want to do kind of interesting art, stuff that’s kind of out there, do you find it kind of restrictive to be like, “Oh, we’re this thing” or “We’re that thing”?

Yeah. It’s just a marketing concept, isn’t it? I think there’s a lot of bands who maybe write music that they want to be within a genre, but I don’t think any of us know how to do that, or not in this context of how we play music together; we just play what we want to play and then, later, we find out what it is, kind of thing. There’s no kind of, “Ah, let’s try to write a song like this,” or…There’s none of that, so we just play what we want, and that ends up not really making sense as a genre, I guess. And then it’s just marketing people who want something kind of clear, succinct, that they can say to people…which I think’s…I won’t go on a rant about that. [Laughs]

No, if you want! [Laughs]

I just think it’s sad, because I think that people are looking for new music but they’re not actually looking for new music, because they don’t know what to do with new music; they’re looking for stuff that they can categorise, so they can quickly get on with their lives, I guess. [Laughs]

What I wonder then is, I still think a lot of music festivals, for example, are kind of atomised into genres; so, it’s like, “Hey, we’re a metal fest,” or “We’re an indie fest,” or “We’re a punk fest,” or whatever. Do you think when it comes to doing shows… – and when I say “fest,” I don’t necessarily even mean festivals, but even a line-up on a Friday night. Like, this club is doing a line-up or something – do you find My Octopus Mind ever had difficulty in that area, or have you guys always been OK with getting in front of an audience?

Eh, no. That’s definitely been a big challenge for us. I remember, for years, trying to get the math rock scene to pay attention, but because we had stringy, orchestral intros – it was post-rock. It fitted completely within what they’re into – but it was using string players and everything, so the first – what? – 30 seconds, to 45, maybe even a minute-and-a-half of a nine-minute track was this ambient, beautiful thing, so people just went, “Oh, I don’t know why this folk band’s contacting us,” and then just moved it off to the side, and it’s literally been, like, five, six years later, people have come to our gigs and gone, “Oh, you’re a punk band!” and we’re like, “Well, yeah, we’ve always been this band, but it’s just that people mostly watch fifteen seconds of whatever you send,” which ruins art, doesn’t it? But I mean, what can you expect? Everyone’s getting so much art all the time, it’s not like it’s anyone’s fault, it’s just that, basically, if you do an intro to a track – which is a beautiful thing to have in a piece of art – then no-one knows what to do with it, because they don’t listen past that; they just hear that and they think that’s what the music is, and they think, “Why’s this person sent this thing?” and the fact that, you know, over the course of nine minutes, it touches on everything is…Yeah. [Laughs]

Well, actually, when it comes to kind of the songwriting of your music, is it individualised? Is it kind of like…– what do you call it? Because the music is kind of ethereal, and it’s kind of out there, you know what I mean? How does the actual songwriting process go itself, I guess?

We’re talking about this new album, aren’t we?


So, with the new album, it was 100% written through the COVID experience, and it was all jammed; there was no ideas brought…maybe occasionally, like, the bass player was like, “Oh, I’ve got this riff I’ve been working on at home,” but, mostly, we just got together in a room, and ‘cause there was no time – we weren’t very close, by the way. [Laughs] It was a big theatre, and we were able to be actually properly spaced out. So, we would have our little zones – but we would just play for like, six, even twelve hours in a day sometimes, at that point, which is something we’d usually never get the opportunity to, because we’re normally rehearsing to gig, rehearsing to gig. So, yeah, in this album, this album has come all from, like, just collaboration, and everyone just jamming, recording everything, going home, finding the bits from the jams that we liked, then bringing it back, and refining it and refining it, and kind of…and some of the tracks on the album, they just happened like that, and they didn’t need much tweaking, and some of them, obviously, took, like, most of the year to kind of nudge into place and find the characters.

Photo by Sam Woollcott
Courtesy of Memphia

And actually, when it comes to the album – ‘cause it’s called Tying to Be Normal – so, like, was there an intent for the get-go of what it was meant to be, what the album was actually meant to be…? [The end of the question is drowned out by a gale of wind]

Eh, I think the drummer joked and said that in a rehearsal when we were, like…We were trying to make things shorter and more succinct, so we were trying to…like, it’s still odd time signatures and it’s still things like that, but it’s…there’s a lot more groove in the music, it’s a lot more on-point, and the songs are, like, much closer to three-to-four minutes – some are, like, two-and-a-half minutes – which, previously, we were in the kind of nine-minute…six-to-nine minute category. And we’ve got more verse/chorus structures and things like that, which we’ve never really had before, which, actually, for kind of experimental, “proggy” people is actually a lot more work, to try and remove all the fun, in a way, but not, you know…How to distil it down into these, and condense it into these short, punchy moments. So, that kind of was a focus that we had, and so we kind of joked that we basically…this is what happens when we’re trying to be normal, and we listened to it and were like, “Oh, it’s not normal. Oh, right. [Laughs] OK,” and we just thought that was quite hilarious, so we just kind of rolled with that. But then, in the Bristol music scene, there was literally…Waldo’s Gift released an album called Normflex and someone else released an album…Hippo…what was their one? The New Normal? [Editor’s Note: It’s called New Normal]. And, so, I was like, “I bet it was just getting into our heads,” because the Government was constantly talking about “the new normal” and the media was all talking about that, because it’s just like three bands in the same scene came out with…titles that use “normal” in it but kind of poke fun at that. So, I was like, “Ah, right! Yeah! We’re just part of a thing!” It was quite annoying, because they put their albums out before us, and we were like, “No! We didn’t [copy] it!” [Laughs]

[Laughs] Well, what’s kind of interesting is, it’s kind of subconscious, I guess, in that sense. It’s kind of like…I don’t know. It seems very influenced by the environment of COVID; not just in the recording of the music, as you were mentioning, the kind of…the setting, the restrictions, the isolation, sort of influenced both the writing and the production of the record, but I think, simultaneously, might have also – even on a subconscious level – might have influenced the concept, you know?

Yeah. I’m a huge fan of the subconscious is the main thing that does the writing, in my book, and what I always love is, after writing music – whether it’s me or with the band – is you look at afterwards and you go, “Oh, what is that?! What’s that saying?”, because it’s always something…you’re not thinking about it. At the time, you just need to do something and express something, and then you come out at the end and you’re like, “Oh, wow, that’s…” Because one thing we did kind of say about that album – because it was such a break from the panic and everything – we previously wrote quite heavy political subjects. I mean, they still are in there but much more on identity stuff and consent is a bigger issue on this album, but it’s not so much, like, critiquing the Government, you know? “The system,” blah, blah, blah. That kind of stuff was much more present before, but everything was so messed up that it just felt like a cliché to point out how messed up it was, and also, post-Trump and everything like that, it’s like…I mean, Trump…no, Trump was there! So, it’s like irony was murdered, and you couldn’t really poke fun at things. I mean, there is a song on there, called “Draining the Swamp,” which was obviously, like…And, initially, it was a big rant about, you know…kind of Trump-esque, pretending to be Trump, shouting stuff stupidly, and then we just decided to remove that and take it off on a different direction because that just felt boring. It was the same…recently, I met a guy, and we started talking. We started getting into politics and why the world’s messed up, and we both just looked at each other, bored by it, and just went, [He lets out an exasperated sigh], and I was like, “Wow.” We’re kind of in this era now, where it’s just like we know that they’re all lying, we know that it’s all a joke. OK. What are we going to do? So, I think in this album, we were like, “Well, let’s just mess about and be stupid.” And there’s still serious stuff in there, but there’s also a lot more just silly, just “Let’s not filter ourselves.”

One thing I wanted to ask you, actually – because, as you were saying, the album was produced during COVID – and, obviously, there was a lot of politics at the time. Like, you were mentioning Trump, and lockdown measures, and what’s excessive, what’s actually necessary?, etc., etc.  But now, in the three years it’s been since the album was recorded and its release on Friday, we’re in such a different political environment now; you see what’s happening in Gaza, you see what’s happening in Ukraine, and so on. Do you wonder if doing political music can, in some ways, date the record, then?

Like, it would be more relevant now?

Well, I was wondering, do you think sometimes when you’re making declarations in a song about the politics of any given time, do you ever worry about it kind of dating the record, as in…? Because politics is always moving, and by the time you write a song, record a song, release a song, the world can change so drastically on a whim.

Yeah, definitely. In terms of referencing political…particular political figures and everything like that, it’s…there’s no point; it all moves so quickly. And albums are timestamps. We recorded it after lockdown – like, it was mostly written over that year – but, it was recorded later, and so a lot of the lyrics were refined later. A lot of it would be lyrically written through improvisation, and then I’d just listen through the recordings and jot down all the lyrics I’ve sung, and then, literally the week before I go into the studio to record the vocals, that’s when I wrote definitive versions of a lot of the songs. So, they are…they do encompass quite a long period of time, I guess, but they’re always going to be a timestamp, aren’t they, to a type of headspace or a type of thought? And I think…yeah, I think things could get very dated very easily if I was more explicit, as well, but I’m very against being very explicit. Like, I often am doing a character roleplay of messed-up people’s points of view and embodying it, or I have my own metaphors; like, the walrus. In this album, the walrus is the kind of toxic, archaic male who doesn’t, like, look at itself, and just kind of blunders through the world without self-awareness, I guess, and that’s something that kind of comes up maybe just once – actually, once or twice – in it, but it’s kind of there, but it’s like no-one would know that unless I said that. Sometimes, it’s just a funny lyric, and at the end of the day…Ah! This is a thing I’ve been talking to a friend about; I need to not explain too much of this, anyway, because people can just get what they get out of it, but if we were being really explicit and we were being like, “Oh, this political thing…blah, blah, blah,” like, or whatever, yeah, that would date really quickly, and I feel like it would make the album have a shelf life.

I’ve really enjoyed this conversation. I just might have to go because I think my phone is about to die. [Laughs] One final thing I wanted to ask, actually, we were kind of talking about the Bristol music scene and stuff. Obviously, you guys have enjoyed some international success; you’ve been able to tour Europe, for example. Yeah, I was wondering, how do you find the reception outside of Bristol to you guys? Because, I don’t know, it seems, from my perspective, that people seem very receptive to what you’re doing. Yeah. It’s been really great. We really love going over to Europe. I think it’s partly because you’re travelling, but, also, we’ve been getting really great reception in towns where it’s like we don’t know anyone and we haven’t got that big an online presence, so it’s just amazing, people show up. Some of the best gigs have been in Germany, I think. In Germany, there seemed to be a really great…Yeah, people are just immediately there, super present, dancing, going crazy, and just seeming to really love it, and they’re kind of asking us back quite a lot. And, yeah, it’s just felt really easy. It was very scary after Brexit and COVID [Laughs] to go back over there, and we were like, “Oh, are we going to get fined for everything?” Turns out, it was alright. It was great. And, yeah, just being over there, and I think it’s just so exciting to know that we’re still part of the world, I guess, because that whole COVID and Brexit combined just made, I think, me and a lot of people start to forget that we are connected to the world and that we can just go out and be in other places.

Is there ever a concern when you go to a new place of, like, “Oh, shit. Will people even turn up?” or do you just kind of go, “Oh, it’s just fun”? Because I know some people just treat it as a holiday; they’re just like, “Oh, yeah. You know, whatever.” But there is a financial risk, in terms of actually going somewhere and no one turns up, you know?I think we’re gradually learning that people do turn up, so that’s making us feel better. [Laughs] Like, I think we did two tours of Europe just before COVID, in 2019, and that…I think, as a band, we had more anxiety about no one showing up, much more then, and now we kind of feel…it seems like everywhere we play – even if it’s only thirty people. Like, in-between thirty and a hundred or something – thirty is great, you know, if you’re a small, little space and they’re into it, and they’re all just there. [At this point, before he can continue, my phone dies and ends the Zoom call. Liam responds to my final question on WhatsApp].

What do you have planned for the future? 

After our album launch this week, we will be retreating to our cave to plan the future before reemerging to play Portals Festival in May, followed by some potential European festivals in the summer. Our focus has shifted to quality over quantity when it comes to gigs, so wish us luck.

My Octopus Mind’s latest album, Trying to Be Normal, is out now and available to stream and purchase on the band’s website, where you can also keep up to date with their live shows and social media links.


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