Ian Graham said the pandemic coincided with a point in time in which he had become disillusioned not only with making music, but with the person he had become within that space.
“I spent too much time in my 20s just being angry for no good reason, and I surrounded myself with a lot of angry and arrogant people,” Graham said by phone in late September from his record store The Needle Exchange. “And I think it might be a byproduct of getting older, but I want to make a conscious effort to be fucking happy and be grateful for all of the wonderful things I have in my life.”
This turning point was preceded by a stretch during which Graham said most of the relationships in his life – including friends with whom he made music, romantic interests and even business partners – imploded due in part to what he described as his own deep-seated anger issues and long-brewing problems with communication. Forced by the pandemic to sit alone with these realities, Graham took time out to read and write, losing himself in books such as Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography. “I was just trying to figure out my own shit,” he said, “and that’s just a really great story about … being able to live long enough to see positive change in yourself, I guess.”
As the months stretched on, Graham said his anger began to recede, and started to treat himself with more patience. He also learned to be less demanding of others, realizing that in the past he frequently asked too much of people, operating without an understanding of other demands to which they might have to attend and that might not involve him.
Along with this personal awakening, Graham started to take tentative steps back making music, eventually forming Oft Dreamy with producer and DJ Alex Durr. The collaboration, which releases its self-titled debut on Friday, Sept. 29, finds the pair turning out lo-fi new wave songs that take heavy inspiration from the 1980s – a decade for which Graham previously harbored a strong distaste, to put it mildly. “I used to despise the ’80s with a fucking passion,” he said. “Especially the music. When I was a kid and even in my early 20s, I hated the sound of like the gated [reverb] snare drum in hair metal. There’s a specific sound [to that era] and it always grated me, and I don’t know why.”
But over the last couple of years, Graham’s rancor for the decade lessened, and he started to gain more appreciation for early new wave and acid house, much of it introduced to him by Durr. “We’d hang out and listen to records together and put on Duran Duran and Egyptian Lover and a lot of Laurie Anderson, funnily enough,” Graham said. “Wham! was a huge one. I probably listened to a cassette of Make It Big like three times a day for six months or more in 2020. It’s just a strange hole I found myself in during that time when everyone was sitting at home alone.”
These sounds began to shape the synth and drum machine-based experimentations Graham and Durr crafted together during ongoing “tinkering sessions,” the two building throwback beats on vintage equipment owned by Durr, including the Roland TR-808 drum machine. “I wanted it to be as vapid as possible. And I’ve been using that word a lot. … But I wanted it to be vapid pop for vapid people and a celebration of what came before it,” Graham said. “I didn’t want to make something super snide.”
And yet “Like Want Have,” the first song recorded by the pair and the opening track on Oft Dreamy’s debut, contains echoes of the sneering punk Graham frequently made prior to the lockdown. “I have the best intentions,” Graham offers in a halting cadence atop fuzzy metallic drum claps and ping-ponging electronics, “to fuck, to fight, to ruin your life.”
“So, yeah, I had a goal. And then I went ahead and did the opposite,” the musician said, and laughed.
Elsewhere, though, Graham drops his guard in more pronounced ways, turning out robotic songs buoyed by deeply human emotions such as alienation, emotional disconnect and the ways people will contort themselves in order to find a sense of belonging.
Throughout the five-track EP, the singer’s detached, sing-speak vocals express a desire for connection. On “Somebody Else,” the narrator finds themselves on a packed dance floor but with “no one to relate to,” while “Talk Tonight” explores the idea that, over time, a small rift in a relationship can grow to become a yawning gulf. “You’ve gotta talk to me,” Graham pleads. Then there’s the EP-closing “Bending & Stretching,” which pogos along on a hypnotic beat that could have been lifted from a Richard Simmons jazzercise routine and finds the singer twisting himself to fit in. “Be real cool. Don’t seek help,” he intones. “Be anyone but yourself.”
“My lyrics are always kind of out on Front Street. There isn’t a lot of subtleness,” Graham said.
But despite Graham’s earlier characterization of the music, the songs aren’t vapid, either, and he later offered that he adopted the term partly to deflect from to the more heartfelt nature of some of the material. “It’s definitely a defense thing. For sure. You got me,” he said. “I’m just trying not to take this stuff as seriously as I used to. And I took it so seriously for essentially no reason. I’m just trying to have fun making music for a change.”