Last week, LA-based Oliver Riot released Neurosis, their sophomore EP. At a brisk four tracks and just over 15 minutes, Oliver Riot’s vibe goes through a complete experimental overhaul compared to their previous output. Their journey from gypsy-jazz playing buskers to avant-garde indie pop performers has been a strange and irregular one, but their talented storytelling capabilities have only become more powerful with each release.
These narrative skills shine brightest with their new EP, Neurosis, which is simultaneously life-affirming and genre-bending. The narrative pulls you deeper and deeper into this strange, dark subconscious with each subsequent listen. All four songs easily stand alone on their own merits, but knowing the story behind the EP’s inception will make you appreciate it all the more. You see, each member of Oliver Riot – twin brothers Ben and Alex Moore – survives with a rare and still little known neurosis:
Pure O Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
“Rancid?” Ben turns and asks his brother.
“Yeah, I think it might’ve been Rancid, yeah,” Alex replies.
I’ve asked the twins to highlight for me their first concert-going experience. It was about eight years earlier, when the twins’ older brother took them to an all-ages Rancid show in Albuquerque. “Yeah, now looking back at it,” Alex says, “I’m like… I dunno how that happened, how that was possible.”
Alex and Ben reminisce for a moment over a memory about watching a heavily pierced female in the crowd lick the bald and overly tattooed head of a guy right next to them. “And I was like ‘What the fuck!?’ I was like ‘ooooohhhh’ and I was just trying not to make eye contact, I was like, ‘I don’t want you to beat me up.’” Alex remarks.
Ben chimes in: “…I remember that too.”
“It was the first introduction to something like that… I was terrified,” Alex finishes.
Both Alex and Ben grew up with a healthy variety of musical influences. Their parents were raised outside the U.S. – their mother in Peru and their father in Chile – and, for a time, the boys lived in Peru themselves. Neither of their parents were huge music aficionados, but they peppered the boys with classical music, Brazilian samba and other Latin American artists as they grew up. “It wasn’t hip. It wasn’t cool,” Ben laments, “especially when you’re a kid, you’re so self-conscious of what your parents do, y’know? So it was like, ‘Man, my neighbor’s dad listens to Nelly. That’s fucking awesome.’”
In retrospect, however, both members of Oliver Riot recognize how much this influenced their own musical stylings over the years: “I can remember when we were recording the strings on Hallucinate,” Alex recalls, “I was like, ‘Oh, I just want this to sound like a João Gilberto track–’” “Yeah!” Ben immediately chimes in, knowing exactly where Alex is heading with the story (the two boys do this often, recognizing what conversation avenue the other twin is careening down), “The way (João Gilberto) would have the violin swoon in and out and everything felt so liquid-y and water-y.”
And while Ben and Alex’s older brother was sneaking them into Rancid concerts and their parents were incepting them with a subliminal love of João Gilberto and Antônio Carlos Jobim, the twin boys were personally digging into ska music and, by necessity, Christian rock. “We grew up in the church,” Ben comments, “and so the music we were allowed to listen to was Christian music – Thousand Foot Krutch, Newsboys.”
It wasn’t until around age 11 that the boys began playing music themselves. Both boys wanted to originally pursue drumming (Alex: “Because drummers were the coolest”), but eventually the two boys received cheap fender-strapped electric guitars. Ben and Alex’s uncle agreed to pay for their lessons, but only if they would take them at the same time – it was cheaper if they were taught simultaneously. “The instructor was the hipster before hipsters,” Ben noted, quickly followed by Alex chiming in with, “That’s so accurate.” “He was obsessed with gypsy jazz, that was his thing… then at 13 or 14, he suggested we go to grocery stores or coffee stores (and perform),” Ben recalls.
And so they did. And their gamut was decently successful. After performing in Albuquerque for a couple of years at The Painted Horse Café (Ben: “We’d perform for two hours and making nothing…”) and The Sunflower Market (Ben: “…$200 in two hours every single time”), the two were finally able to afford a green Ford Explorer and start their touring life together. It would be another few years before they would make it to Los Angeles permanently, but eventually they did and that’s where Oliver Riot was really born.
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The first time I saw the brothers perform was a little over a year ago, opening for Kevin Garrett at The Hotel Cafe. At this time, they were promoting their first EP, Hallucinate. What made the performance immediately memorable was how they carried each other throughout their time on stage – the moments in between songs felt light, airy, whimsical even – but what was odd was how that playfulness could abruptly disappear the moment their songs began. It was clear that these brothers had something to say and a unique perspective from which to say it; it was also just as clear that they were still mulling over exactly how to best tell their tale.
Ben and Alex’s teen years were complicated for a multitude of reasons –the realization that each of them shared a diagnosis of Pure O OCD, for example (which, more on that later) – but since neither of them wanted to be separated when college rolled around, they eschewed universities that wouldn’t accept both of them. This insistence on attending college together stemmed from the fact that, up until that moment in their lives, the twins had never experienced more than 72ish hours apart from each other. After they finally decided to attend Azusa Pacific University together, they eventually took jobs as counselors at summer camps… separately.
“Our first time apart for more than three days was…” Alex says, kind of waiting for Ben to answer.
“19,” Ben recollects.
“When we were 19, yeah,” Alex confirms.
Being on their own gave both a lot of confidence that neither of them knew they had prior to the experience. It allowed them to separately realize that while they appreciated their pursuit of higher education, it came with some caveats. “(Azusa) became a ticket (to Los Angeles), but then a gun to the head,” Alex notes. The school wanted Ben and Alex to become the face of the jazz music program, but the twins were more interested in pursuing an independent route. After finagling the situation so as to keep their scholarships while also weaning off their improv jazz designation, the boys finally began to write and record together.
At first the twins played shows around SoCal under the name Ben and Alex, but eventually the duo surmised that they needed a real band name. Alex had always been a fan of the word ‘Riot’ ever since he saw sweatshirts from metal band Chariot that looked like they said ‘Cha’-‘Riot’. And because Alex and Ben also liked the singer-songwriter idea of having a real first name with a fake last name, they ended up choosing ‘Oliver’ to represent a fake first name to go along with their fake last name. Admittedly, the two boys say, it has created some confusion. “Every single email (that we get) is like, ‘Can you run this by Oliver?’” Ben says, causing the two boys to smile, “And we’re like… ‘Hey, sure!’” Alex laughs.
But it wasn’t until Real Miilk, a Los Angeles-based producer, musician and artist, asked to record and engineer their material that the final piece of the Oliver Riot equation fell perfectly into place. Aside from his musical skills and knowledge, Real Miilk also had access to a space for Oliver Riot to record – the back room of an old church in Koreatown. Combining an inexpensive Yeti microphone, MIDI keyboard, and a lot of Real Miilk’s out-of-the-box ideas — “’Let’s record this Bible!’” Ben says out of nowhere as they’re explaining this time in their lives, immediately followed by Alex remembering, “Oh yeah. The percussion on the song ‘Hallucinate’ is actually the flipping of pages from a Bible!” – resulted in the creation of their first EP, Hallucinate. “We wanna be with Real Miilk for life,” Alex exclaims, “I gotta tattoo on my foot that says ‘Thanks’ to him.”
“In high school, Ben started getting super bad anxiety – because we both have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder,” Alex tells me, very matter-of-factly over a year ago. Ben began to notice the symptoms first and, in short order, became terrified of talking with people. So while Ben was being treated for his OCD diagnosis, Alex was feeling more awkward himself, to the point where, as Alex tells it, “I would sit in my bed and rehearse conversations. I came up with 16 topics I had memorized so that when I got to school I could unleash the topics.” It didn’t take long after Ben’s diagnosis for Alex to realize that he was living with the same disorder as his twin.
“We both suffer from Pure Obsession which is a part of OCD. It’s less in the external and more in the internal,” Alex says, “When most people think of OCD, they think of the person who turns on the light, off the light, on the light, off the light… but for us it was more obsessions based off of fears.” In particular for Ben and Alex, some of the more harrowing obsessions stemmed from imagined, yet unwanted, overtly sexual imagery. “It’s not like schizophrenia in the sense of seeing it, but it would feel like it was real because you would hyper-focus on an idea, or any thought you don’t want to think about, and then you’d get stuck in that thought.” Ben recalls that part of the reason Alex eventually pursued treatment was because Ben’s own therapist told him that “statistically, if there’s one identical twin that has an anxiety disorder of some kind, (95% of the time) the other one has the same (disorder) because their genetics are so similar.”
After touring with Hallucinate under their belt for the first half of 2016, Ben and Alex were ready to tackle their second EP, but this time they decided to go the crowd-funding route. On their Indiegogo page, Ben and Alex announced their second release was going to “raise awareness for ‘Pure O’ OCD and anxiety.” While the Indiegogo failed to raise the desired amount, Ben and Alex forged ahead with what they had amassed and found a way to complete their new EP, Neurosis, budget be damned.
The album opens with a piercing, Psycho-esque violin crescendo on “Neurosis” – it immediately unsettles the listener and lets them know this isn’t your average EP – before a comforting four-note piano chord progression arrives, harkening back to the elements that made Oliver Riot’s debut EP such a musical success. But this is not Hallucinate. Throughout all four tracks, a voice-modulated confessional (of what sounds like a therapy session) carries listeners into the mind of someone living with Pure O. The EP becomes more experimental in structure and form as it moves along, punctuated halfway through by the thunderous opening to third track “Omen”. Toward the end of the final track, “Phobia Orgasma”, the EP climaxes with an eruption of strings, supplemented by the sound of an actual woman climaxing. It’s a sonic representation of how Pure O can force those diagnosed to hyper-focus on sexual images that are deemed shameful or taboo by society. The climax of the song (and, consequently, the album) brings this obscure, alien interpretation of Pure O directly to the forefront – and successfully so at that. As the EP comes to a close, with a whimsical violin (as opposed to the startling one at the beginning) combined with footsteps walking over fallen leaves, you certainly feel like you’ve been on a full mental odyssey. Astonishingly, Neurosis gives the audience a true peek into what living with Pure O OCD may actually be like.
Now that their latest EP is out – an EP that exorcises a lot of internal demons that the twins have been dealing with privately for quite some time – it’s easy to ponder over what lies ahead for these two young artists. “The original plan was to finish up and then put ‘Paradise Blues’ [new song] out on a LP, but now…” Alex trails off, giggling as he does so, “…we may just stick with EPs”. After coaxing Alex a tad more, I get him to admit that “(with an LP) there’s this pressure to stick within a style (whereas) with an EP you can change your context, your theme within those five songs… then move onto another EP…”
When I first saw Oliver Riot perform, they were a complete mystery to me – and they also were not publicly advocating on behalf of their Pure O diagnoses. Now? They’re still a mystery, although the peeks I’ve seen into their life and musical evolution over the last year add a few more brushstrokes to their portrait. Ben and Alex may not be entirely sure what’s next for them, but, either way, I would keep your eyes peeled. Their follow-up EP (or LP?) to Neurosis will push their narrative musical skills past their current boundaries, adding further brushstrokes to their undeniably unique portrait along with it.
Conor Patrick Hogan is a writer living in Los Angeles. He pens articles exclusively about debut LPs on his own website Debuts of Note. You can find him on Twitter @cpatrickdood. Oh! And his favorite My Little Pony is Magic Star. Duh.
LISTEN TO OLIVER RIOT’S NEUROSIS BELOW: