Having shared recent singles, “Memento Mori” and “Squares and Triangles“, London-based producer On Man is offering a third insight into his album with new single “Worse Than It Seems“, which also features vocalist Tailor. The track is taken from his self-titled debut LP, which is due July 15th via Houndstooth. On Man also worked with the director, Ian Roderick Gray, to create a visual in which he deconstructed “Worse Than It Seems” and used it as a soundtrack for a short film to run alongside the single.
With roots in hip hop, pop and electronica On Man uses these sonic foundations as tools to carve a new space filled with corroded, cinematic left-field pop that explores themes of love, grief, and rediscovery. In the words of On Man, “Worse Than It Seems” is ” about getting to a certain point in a relationship and assessing everything in the hope that it’ll be ok, but sometimes it’s even worse than it seems. Which sounds kind of bleak but ultimately the song is about hope – that driving force that can drag you through the hardest of times.”
Created as an extended short film, On Man had this to say on the visuals ‘I approached the director, Ian Roderick Gray, about doing this video pretty much as soon as the song was finished and way before the album was even a firm idea. It started with a simple “what if” of a third eye appearing on someone’s forehead, and it just went from there, taking in influences of Cronenberg, Lynch, the comic books of Charles Burns – all those body horror tropes. Every musical sound and sound design is a sample from the original song, pitched or warped or distorted into something new – which seemed kind of fitting given the transformation of the characters.”
On Man’s creative roots lie deep. An artist with a unique gift for sound design, he’s able to conjure perfect pop songs and then corrode them, revealing the emotional truths underneath. An electronic artist with a human touch, he’s worked in the studio for an array of other artists, as well as delivering huge cinematic soundtrack projects, all while pursuing his own solitary agenda.
On Man’s eponymous debut album is his graduation point, a record framed by grief, the loss of identity, and the process of rediscovery. Challenging and rewarding in equal measure, it’s a revelatory listen. “It’s all been leading up to this point,” he explains. “I feel completely confident in this project. Before, there’d always been an element of me that was unsure… but not now.”
Working from his home studio in Hertfordshire, On Man has patiently developed his sound, assembling a unique creative cosmology in the process. As a child, he grew up surrounded by the sounds of his mother’s record collection, vintage pop from the Beach Boys, Michael Jackson, and the Pet Shop Boys. Diving into alt rock as a teen, his adolescence was spent pouring over record sleeves by PJ Harvey and Sonic Youth, before developing a thirst for electronic abstraction. “Making noise beautiful really appeals to me,” he smiles.
At its core, however, On Man is about connection. As left-field as some of his sonic impulses are, the producer wants to sculpt something melodic and open. “I just love good pop songs!” he exclaims. “The simple ones about love are the ones I’ve connected with.”
Yet if On Man’s debut album is about love, then it concentrates on its absence. For a while there, he was ready to place his sketches to one side, before the loss of a parent shattered his world, and left him in desperate need to process his emotions. “The idea of being an actual artist felt a bit silly for a while,” he admits. “So I stepped away. But then my mum died, and that had an enormous impact on my life. It completely changed the way I looked at my older material. And I basically started writing again.”
“Losing my mother changed the framework of those songs – a lot of them are about loss more generally, the end of a relationship, or losing your sense of self. When you go through a really intense period of grief or trauma, you can forget about what it’s like to be a person.”
A profound, engaging, and cathartic experience, On Man’s debut album works because it uses the cracks to let the light in; it’s the fusion of white amid the black that makes his songwriting so powerful. “This isn’t a concept album about grief,” he points out. “I think – in a way – the shock freed me to explore the loss of a sense of self. And equally, much of the album has been collaborative, so I’ve been able to explore my own position from the vantage point of other people, with completely different life experiences.”
If On Man’s world was broken by the solitary nature of grief, it was pieced together by the power of collaboration. Guests would drop by, gently pushing his music into fresh spaces; take the rap bars of F-M-M-F on ‘Squares And Triangles’ for example, or the incredible songwriting talent of HAELOS’ Lottie Benardout. On a more subtle level, there’s the contributions of On Man’s Herts neighbour Phil Plested – a hugely successful songwriter who recently worked on Bastille’s No. 1 album ‘Give Me The Future’.
“A lot of these songs have this conversational element, like one person talking to another. It’s like a work of prose, really,” he insists. “Collaboration stopped me navel-gazing, stopped me being morose and self-absorbed.”
Gradually, the album came into focus. By day, On Man was busy soundtracking massive projects for cinema and TV. At night, though, he was pinning down the fleeting feelings that come with loss. There’s a difference, though, between working to commission, and setting your own boundaries. It’s a fine line, he says, between obeying the whims of others, and truly expressing yourself on record. “There’s often a time limit with commissioned work,” he comments. “Whereas with my own work, I’ll spend two days on a kick-drum if I want. I’ve got the luxury of time – I can work in a slow, iterative way.”
A truly multi-dimensional project, On Man’s debut album will be accompanied by a flurry of ambitious, cinematic clips. The producer has directed some of these himself, as well as working in conjunction with guest director Ian Roderick Gray for others. Every bit as involving as the music itself, the clips have a riveting sense of emotional depth. ‘Survive This’ stars Christopher Fairbank and Tim Bentinck, while Keeley Forsyth was recruited for ‘United’ – only after the producer cold-called the actress himself, urging her to take part.
A carefully defined record yet one also imbued with remarkable depth, everything about On Man’s debut album feels pointed and exact – nothing is left to chance, granting his work an incredible sense of power. “I’m not really into long albums,” he smiles. “All of my favourite albums are short. I always wanted this to be as concise as possible and so I kept asking myself: what’s the smallest amount of information that can be used to get the feeling across?”