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Driven By Honesty: Barry Dolan Discusses Oxygen Thief's 'Confusion Species'

Thursday, 22 November 2018 Written by Jonathan Rimmer

Photo: Chris Taylor

When Bristol-based songwriter Barry Dolan released 'Destroy It Yourself', the first Oxygen Thief album, in 2011, he stood out for his entirely acoustic take on melodic hardcore if not the subjects he explored. Dolan conveyed ruminations on love, loss and hypocrisy through cryptic metaphors and sharp turns of phrase, complemented by fitful riffing without a backdrop.

It was a raw and unfiltered piece of work that embraced the folk-punk tag quite literally. Seven years on, though, Dolan's vision has evolved dramatically: he's swapped his acoustic guitar for an electric, at least on recordings, and Oxygen Thief is now a rock trio in a more traditional sense, with bass and drums added to the mix. Most discernibly, he's unafraid to mix the personal with the overtly political.

‘Confusion Species'—his third album and second with bassist Neil Elliott and drummer Ben Whyntie—tries to make sense of the “sludge and noise of this modern, post-Brexit, post-Trump world”. Dolan, now in his mid-30s, sees apathy towards the current state of things as being rooted in aloofness and privilege. While his natural mode has been to convey a sense of aggression and chaos by drawing on his own soul-searching dilemmas, 'Confusion Species' shifts his gaze outwards.

“As time's gone on and I've explored different avenues, I've become more confident putting a direct message out there rather than always wrapping things up and trying to squirrel meaning behind concepts,” he says. “Age is definitely a part of it. I do try and do something a bit different each time, but I'm now more confident in speaking with an authority on things. Maybe I admit I'm a grown-up now. Playing heavy music is a great outlet when it comes to finding things to rage about. When it comes to the politics, it's such a huge part our lives and it's hard to write about anything else.”

The album's title comes from a pamphlet of poetry published by Dolan's friend Suzannah Evans in 2011. A reference to birdwatching, it describes a species that initially seems similar to another but is actually entirely different on closer inspection. Dolan uses this to illustrate the polarisation that exists in society as he sees it, an issue similarly articulated by artists such as Idles, Black Peaks, Nadine Shah and others over the past 12 months. Has 2018 been the year British rock rediscovered its political spark?

“It's interesting—the majority of those artists are white men,” he says. “I am too, as are my bandmates. The three of us are cis-gendered white men. We have the bingo card of privilege. We're in a position where I feel we have a duty to step up and take part and it's not enough to just passively be not racist or homophobic or sexist or whatever. You have to be actively anti those things. I'm not of a demographic that's too directly affected—these are just my experiences and how I've reacted to various situations and things going on.

“I've had a side project over the past couple of years [Non Canon], which is folky, mellow indie stuff. It was very self-centred and introspective and dealt with my experiences with depression. But when I started writing the new Oxygen Thief album, I felt an element of politics creeping into everything. It's all encroaching and ever-present. It takes up so much of your consciousness.”

The motivating factors behind the band's primal rage might have shifted, but the Oxygen Thief sound still draws from grunge, metal and post-hardcore. Reuben and Mclusky both remain key touchstones, while Dolan points to Thrice, Therapy? and Placebo as personal influences in his songwriting. Since being convinced in 2013 by sometime producers and professional engineers Elliott and Whyntie to form a trio, Oxygen Thief has become progressively heavier and more technical outfit. However, the songwriting process remains the same.

“I still write on an acoustic guitar and still play shows on my own from time to time,” he says. “It's still at the core of what the band is—that songs should be able to be played by just me. Some of the riffs on this album are ridiculous for an acoustic guitar even by my standards, but it's part of the shtick. I write in a way that other musicians say is a bid odd. It's the Manic Street Preachers approach: I write all the lyrics separately then I write all the music separately and smash them together as opposed to writing songs and a melody and then fitting around.”

The Manics aren't just an influence on Dolan's process. They, in a way, reflect a rock ethos he's trying to resurrect. He believes the Oxygen Thief project has to be built on empathy, humour and nuance because that's the only way in which it can connect with new listeners at a time when trauma and displacement are everyday concerns for an increasing number of people. He still loves rock music, but Dolan is adamant that the words behind the noise must hold a direct resonance

“I have this old DAB radio and still love listening to rock stations,” he says. “But there's very few songs that seem to be about anything other than looking for women and going out, having fun being a band and succeeding in your dreams. Nothing is really about anything. Rock was something that came from a point of rebellion. It's great that at least some other bands are putting their colours out and saying what they believe in. For me, that's kind of an extension of the idea of writing about what you know—writing about the truth.

“You pick your battles and obviously can't change something happening thousands of miles away on your own. But I'd like other people to have the confidence I've been building to be able to talk about these issues and bring attention them and become aware of their privilege. We support the Safe Gigs for Women campaign, for example, at our gigs. I want to gently encourage people down that same path. We're not here to blindly share things—even standing up and bellowing about something you're passionate about, there still needs to be an element of self examination—but at its core, it's honesty that's really driving us.”

'Confusion Species' is out now on Xtra Mile.

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