Onism Qi: An Interview With the Southwest Drum & Bass Supergroup
Electronic music has seen a certain surge in popularity over the past ten years. Waves of house, dubstep and other uptempo EDM contemporaries can be found sprinkled through increasingly more festival lineups and in commercials and pop songs. As electronic dance music steps to the cultural forefront, there is one genre that always seems to fly under the radar. With its fast tempo and pumping bass lines, drum & bass has typically stayed in clubs and warehouses. A staple of the rave scene since the 90’s, DnB has seen minimal progression over the last decade. However, there was a new sound that rang out at this year’s 11th annual Gem and Jam Festival in Tucson that puts a welcoming spin on the DnB genre.
During a sunny Saturday afternoon Onism Qi took the stage for their first ever live set. The trio is comprised of Arizona-based drum & bass aficionados ThomasB, Ghast and Quentin Hiatus. Together their efforts created an amazingly aggressive yet atmospheric sound that drew festival attendees straight to their stage. The energy was flowing and the smiles were many as Onism Qi finished their festival set. Sensible Reason had a chance to catch up with guys at Gem and Jam to talk openness, music production and the future of this brand new collective.
SR: You all contain a very powerful musical talent in the gears of the drum & bass sound. What made you all come together to start Onism Qi?
ThomasB: We are all on the same record label: Free Love Digi. We all have a similar interest in music and bringing a different sound to drum & bass: different drum patterns and melodies that you wouldn’t normally hear. One day we all played an event together in Tucson and Quentin planted the seed. He suggested that we all start a supergroup. We started talking about it and formed a chat group between the three of us. Eventually Don and I drove up to Phoenix one day to have a meeting with Quentin about what we wanted our vision to be and what kind of sound we wanted to push.
SR: You all contain a specialty in drum & bass but you each contain your own stylistic variation.
Ghast: Tom is very east coast hip-hop, Quentin has a rave-y kinda sound. Very melodic and uplifting. And my stuff is more edgy.
SR: This is your first live performance as the trio Onism Qi. How did it feel?
Ghast: Natural and simple in my opinion. It’s very natural for us to take part in a B2B2B. As far as incorporating our original (Onism Qi) work we had to make the decision on if it was ready or not. Discussing whether it was ready enough to play out to the crowd or should it be tweaked a little bit because we have a whole stockpile of stuff where trying to figure out where it’s gonna end up.
ThomasB: Don (Ghast) wanted to play all of it but it wasn’t quite ready.
Ghast: You have to play to the time slot a little bit too. We didn’t wanna get too ridiculous in the middle of the afternoon. But we still probably pushed it.
SR: You had a singer and a rapper join you on stage for your performance. Are they a part of the group or just a featured guest?
Quentin: The openness of the group is very real. Matt and Joey, the two vocalists you saw today, they fit the vibe and the energy of it. The whole thing is that there is a common thread that has to be there. And I think we are all pretty open. If someone has that something in them, we are all about it. It’s hard to find.
ThomasB: Even with collabs we will seek out people that are living a similar lifestyle to our mentality which is living a fulfilled life with good and rooted values. Joey and Matthew are two of our best friends. Joey is also on the label (Free Love Digi).
SR: I noticed much of the music released by you guys is on Free Love Digi. Do you guys own that record label?
ThomasB: Quentin owns it and I’m the label manager.
Quentin: In total there have been a couple of dozen artists released on Free Love Digi. The label has been around for six years now and over that time there has been artists released from South America, Brazil, Spain and other countries who all contain a similar sound. Different tempos of tunes but all similar in sound. Free Love Digi is an Arizona-based label but there are artists on it from every continent.
SR: Are these artists you discover or through submissions?
Quentin: Back in the day, Free Love Digi was literally just me emailing artists. I literally had to recruit people. I learned that the most important thing are those that naturally connect with the idea which is bringing people together through music.
SR: What made you decide to start the label?
Quentin: A major reason was me being frustrated over not being heard. I also resent the idea of having to convince a person of a certain vision you have in order for it to be validated. I knew what I had to offer didn’t hurt anybody and was legitimate. So it was mostly a way to get my music, and my homies’ music, to get heard.
ThomasB: Onism Qi is releasing our first EP on Free Love Digi coming out March 6th and will be the label’s 46th release.
SR: What does Onism Qi mean? How did you come up with it and why did you decide to name your collective after it?
Ghast: Onism is the desire to occupy more than one space at a time and being angry that you cannot experience that. And Qi is energy.
ThomasB: For us it’s like bringing the energy to the feelings of inadequacy of not being able to live more than one life. The three of us together have more time to make more music when the three of us can work on one song and not even be occupying the same space. One of the ways we create is through the internet and Dropbox where one of us will start a song, we will agree to go with it, then one of us will take it to build on and it gets passed around till we decide its finished.
SR: You all have worked on tracks together for years. What brought you guys together in the first place?
Quentin: Tommy and I go back as early as 2008 — drum and bass DJing days. We connect on that super raw, very original, drum & bass.We played shows together ten years ago. Tommy and I started producing and I met Don (Ghast) through producing and I think the whole production thing is what brought us together because the production thing was something we all saw eye to eye on. Even from a DJing perspective we all differ very much. It’s amazing if you think about that, from a production standpoint, we have been able to agree on certain tunes. It’s really weird and typically you don’t get that. I think at the end of it the vision that we all have for the music from a creative perspective aligns. We all bring different elements. He (ThomasB) brings a very east coast hip-hop element. Don’s (Ghast) music is chaotically perfect. It’s all over the place but still makes sense. And we’ve all been pretty close for the past six years, we knew that (Onism Qi) was bound to happen.
SR: Can you speak to how you got into Drum & Bass? Who inspired you? How did you know that was the style of dance music you wanted pursue?
ThomasB: When I started going to raves I would see Frankie Bones, who started playing hyper-breaks and Jungle. Then my friend Mathew gave me the album ‘History of Our World’ from DJ DB who kinda brought the U.K. Jungle, hyper-break sound to the States. I got my first pair of turntables in 1996 and I started trying to mix everything. Then someone gave me a pointer and told me to stick to whatever sound you like the most right now. For me that was jungle, so I started to play jungle.
Ghast: In high school I was really into punk and underground hip-hop and, it might sound cliche but, ‘The Matrix’ soundtrack. I was introduced to a lot of big-beat and break-beat in that and spiraled out from there. Growing up in Milwaukee, there was a local group called Gein, after the famous Wisconsin serial killer, that mentored me and taught me a lot about production. Their music was very aggressive and coming from that punk/underground hip-hop background it just made sense. That and a lot of video game soundtracks too. I think my style, to this day, draws a lot from movies and video games.
Quentin: My first taste of drum & bass and break-beat came from hardcore techno. The thing that I loved about all of the hardcore genres (U.K. Hardcore, Happy Hardcore, etc) was the energy of it. For me what they call break-beat hardcore was a mixture of the 4×4 and broken beat was what got me into drum & bass. I didn’t like drum & bass at first. I was a house guy and the broken beat thing didn’t connect with me until it started becoming more of a staple in the hardcore genre.
SR: Now looking to the future of the genre: It’s obvious electronic music is becoming increasingly popular these days. Drum & Bass has always been an underground sound of sorts. Can you guys give any insight on where you think the genre is headed?
ThomasB: Drum & Bass is at a place right now where it is so hard to even identify it as drum & bass. This is because drum & bass producers are making more wavy stuff. We’re incorporating more half-time and hip-hop beat patterns. In 1996, when I started to DJ, that’s what I loved about Jungle and Drum & Bass was the hip-hop remixes that started coming out. I feel like it’s revolving back to that space where so many different sounds and styles fit into it. Quentin makes some of the most ravey Techno sounding music but it’s dubbed as Drum & Bass because of the BPM. So I think the genre is open to go anywhere right now and that’s what I love about it.
Quentin: It’s been really hard for people to connect to drum & bass because it is such a specific sound. The genre needs to be more palatable to the average person. Drum & Bass has always been a language that very few people understand. Now we are getting out of that and I think that’s good. It’s important to reach people at their level then bring them in.
ThomasB: The way that we are able to connect to our listeners is that we have an openness. There are certain players in the drum & bass arena who are very elitist. If it’s not the common beat pattern and BPM then it’s not Drum & Bass type of mentality. But that’s how we resonate with each other and our audience is that we are open to push the boundaries of what Drum & Bass can be. With Onism Qi we wanted to create a platform of openness.
SR: That being said, you guys are the only Drum&Bass act on this mostly Jam and Funk filled lineup here at Gem and Jam. Have you all played many festivals? Do you like playing shows or bigger events more? Why?
Quentin: I’m a hermit. I just don’t play many shows anymore. From 2005-2008 was the peak of my playing out. I played around 270 shows between that period. That was during an era where there were so many show opportunities. But it got to a point as I got older to where I began thinking I could either play out and be exposed or be marinating and working on my own creative process. For me, when I got into producing and realized how personal that was, I really got to know myself. Being in a room with yourself for six hours working on a beat is extremely meditative for me. I feel many people don’t DJ in the traditional way, on turntables without any visual aid, because playing live is one of the most vulnerable things you can do.
ThomasB: I play both festivals and shows but the festival thing is pretty new. I’ve played at Gem and Jam a couple times with my other project Electric Feel. Phat Entertainment is a production company I’m heavily involved with in Tucson and we throw raves, electronic music shows and aim to keep the underground sound in Tucson going. What I see is that rave culture has moved into the festival culture and that’s where we want to be right now.
SR: So we have three Drum & Bass legends of sorts stemming from the state. Is there a large Drum & Bass scene in Tucson? Arizona? Southwest?
ThomasB: In Tucson and Phoenix we hit a point where the Drum & Bass scene was really strong. What happened was that we over-saturated the market. We started doing more frequent shows and people started to get complacent. We’ve been scaling that back in attempt to enrich the local scene again.
SR: Gem and Jam has always been great at support local talent. I know this is the first time you guys are playing as a trio, but have any of you attended or played this festival as a solo act? If so, when? What do you like most about Gem and Jam?
ThomasB: I am part of the DJ collective Electric Feel who have played Gem and Jam previously. Phat Entertainment used to throw the Gem and Jam pre-party and still do much of the in-town promotion. But I love this festival. I would come here and play and promote just for the wristband and ability to be here. It’s brilliant what they do: the artists they bring together, the people, the mindset, the contentedness. Last year after coming to this festival I decided that I didn’t have to live the life I was living. I was always stressed out, then I came here and saw these people living a life that wasn’t based on money, it was based on community. It inspired me to quit my stressful job and start doing what I love. The music.
SR: Now that you have your first Onism Qi live performance in the books and a couple of singles posted online, what’s next for Onism Qi? Should we expect to see this name across show marquees and festival lineups to come?
ThomasB: Right now it’s getting this first EP out there. We are also in talks with a couple other labels that we have a lot of respect for and are similar in their ideologies. We have over 20 songs that are about 90 percent done. We started last December with the idea of Onism Qi, and has done no real harm to our solo projects either.
Quentin: The biggest thing for us this year is to get this product out that we’ve been suppressing for the past year. We have talking about, working on, marinating and very actively creating this for a long time now. So we are focused on just getting it out there.
ThomasB: We don’t have much expectations and that’s what allows us to be creative. We don’t think about the end goal, we just keep doing the work.
Quentin: All three of us have our own separate identities in the world of music. So us collectively producing together is very intriguing to our peers. Onism Qi is a way for us to not care about perception. We are all rigid and stuck in our own ways, but as soon as we step into the Onism thing it forces us to be more open. We all have to be very open and trust in the process.