Chris Leary is the British guy you always wanted in your group. Charmingly self-deprecating with that trademark brand of Brit, dry-as-a-desert deadpan humor, and the inexplicable ear and taste for electronic music.
With Chris as part of your completed possé, you could make plans to catch up after work in your usual neighborhood bar, one that has its fair share of groups drifting in and out, but still cozy enough to maintain conversation. The type of establishment that keeps a fair amount of dim yellow lights, dark wooden furnishings, and a dartboard, which, though pockmarked, no one ever actually uses. Drinks and dialogue flow freely, with Chris, occasionally putting in his two cents, but mostly taking in everyone’s stories of the day with an amused smile on his face.
Hours pass and you all get up to leave, hurriedly bidding your farewells outside the door. “Oh yeah,” he calls out, reaching deep into his coat pockets for a stack of CDs and dealing them amongst the group. Just some of the new material he’s been working on.
Once home, you pop it into your laptop’s CD slot while checking email. You hear a few random sounds at first—is that someone knocking on the door? Then, in a gradual symphonic progression, an arrangement of effects, instruments, and synths are carefully folded in as the track builds on, creating a blend of the richest, smoothest, most melodic sounds you’ve heard in a while. I mean, it just feels good in your ear.
“Electronic music in particular appealed to me,” recalls Chris, who goes by the name of Ochre in musical circles. “I think what I saw was its inherent flexibility—without the lyrics of pop and rock, or the functional aesthetics of dance, electronica allowed me to interpret and engage with the music. “It sounded apolitical, antisocial, and fantastically futuristic. Perfect for the daydreaming loner that I was. It seemed only natural that I try my hand in producing my own music.”
A career in music, though, wasn’t Christopher’s first choice. He was actually enrolled in Aeronautical Systems Engineering at the Coventry University, finding himself more and more depressed with his studies, and more and more obsessed with music. “It sounds stupid, but it had never occurred to me that I could study something I enjoyed—I’d always steer towards the ‘sensible’ academic choice,” he shares. “But I figured I’d have a better chance at passing if I made music my degree. That was probably the first time in my life when I actually acted on my own decision, rather than those of tutors or family members… and I don’t regret it for a moment.”
I find writing music incredibly personal and individual, especially electronic music, so I’m happiest left to write on my own.
Chris grew up to the sounds of his father’s favorites, Jean-Michel Jarre and Mike Oldfield. His first own CD, purchased mainly because he liked the album art, was Pop Will Eat Itself’s Sixteen Different Flavours of Hell. “Not knowing at the time how to find more electronic music, I naively tried to select music that looked electronic from the artwork, or if the artist’s name sounded electronic. This is where alphabetic sorting helped me out in the music shops, leading me from Orb to Orbital, and from Aphex to Autechre,” he says.
“Another landmark musical moment was when Princess Diana died. Remember the music Radio 1 played the day after? They set up a massive playlist of trippy ambient tunes. I didn’t have a clue who any of the artists were, but I managed to tape the lot and play it constantly. I only found out who was behind my favorite tracks years later.”
It was also years later, in 2001, when Chris started seriously put his music out for public consumption. “I had about an hour of material I was relatively pleased with at that time. My tactic was to burn CDs and give them out to as many people as possible.” This generous grassroots plan went on for a while, eliciting a good response, until Chris soon grew tired of all the repetitive manual work required of home-produced CDs and simply resorted to releasing his tracks directly onto the Internet as he wrote them. “I think it’s almost impossible to completely snub an online presence these days,” he reasons. “It’s a great chance to interact with fans directly and shorten the release pipeline.”
The problem with electronic musicians is that it’s no great spectacle… I mean it’s no surprise that I won’t be able to do scissor kicks or moonwalk across the stage while trying to adjust the bass.
—Quote from an interview with The Milk Factory
Sure enough, Chris’s online fame received a significant spike, most notably after winning the online Global Goon remix competition in 2002; followed up with yet another win, this time for his memorable Zelda remix in a Computer and Video Games magazine contest, the year after. “It’s very much an ongoing process. Any foothold I may have gained feels as though it could crumble away immediately,” Chris admits. “Hopefully I’ve put enough work in over the years to keep a little momentum going. Once I have a little momentum behind me, the music often writes itself.”
Chris’s work, as Ochre, includes a self-released debut EP and album in 2001, a label-released EP Sound System Bangers Volume 1 in 2003, a label-released album A Midsummer Nice Dream in 2004, and something new almost every year since then. Also on the plate is Melograf, a self-run audio mastering business. “I’ll always have a soft spot for my Ochre material, and it’s undoubtedly my most personal work, but so long as I’m being creative and productive, I don’t mind whether I’m writing music for Ochre, scoring a film, or mastering—I’ll feel content.”
It’s a sincere statement, and one that has probably reveals why Chris the business-owning, award-winning musician he is. Here, at last, is a musician that consciously carved out his own career path every step of the way; actually likes, if not obsessively needs, to handle his own business; and is still surprisingly modest—one might even say downright nonchalant—enough to think nothing of it.
WORDS BY KATRINA TAN.