By Mario Varricchio
Shane O’Mara is a producer, musician, engineer, composer, visionary and one of the best guitarists in the country. Working with some of Australia’s greatest songwriters, his home studio ‘Yikesville’ has spawned some incredible music.
“My mum sang and her mother was this crazy Cockney who played all those old show tunes and there was always music around the house. She had a guitar and there was always a piano in the house when we went to her mums and they’d sing and play. I was sort of brought up with musical theatre and lots of classical music.
When I was 9, I started messing around with mum’s guitar. I started playing it left handed. She took me to have lessons and they balanced me up and from then I just played and played.
Then when I was about 11 or 12 I got the bug. My mum did a lot of amateur theatre and she befriended this guy, Uncle Mervin, he wasn’t my uncle. He did set design and sound for the Melbourne Theatre Company and he had a reel to reel tape recorder that he’d replaced with a later model, so I got that and it just blew my mind.
All I had was my classical guitar, because my mum was a bit of a purest, she wouldn’t listen to the ‘screamer’ as she used to call the radio. So the first thing I did was source a pick-up for my classical guitar and just devise a way to plug it into this reel to reel tape recorder. Around that time there was an album by Joe Cocker and unbeknownst to me Jimmy Page and half of Led Zeppelin were playing on it and it freaked me out. I wondered why the fuck I couldn’t make this classical guitar play like that.
My interest in recording and playing coincided from the get go.
“I took classical guitar lessons and I took a handful of rock, you know, when I was 14 or so but everything else by then I’d learnt by experience of studying which I really embraced.
I was doing music at night school, Box Hill High I think and having weekly classical guitar lessons. I knew no other classical guitar players and I was one of only a handful of guitar players at school. I was pretty handy and I thought I was really handy and then due to imbibing certain substances I failed my HSC.
I really wanted to study music so I got into Blackburn High which was an incredible music school. I remember my first day of going there. I had my guitar and went up the back steps and I’m hearing this cacophony and I’m thinking, why is everyone playing records, or tapes, cassettes of violins and cellos. I was a bit anxious, first day of school, new boy and stuff. I’d gone in and here were all these 16 year old mother fuckers playing the shit out of their instruments, like all these little virtuosos and it scared the shit out of me and I thought, I’ve got some work to do. It was the best thing for me, that year of going ‘It’s not good enough, raise the bar’, it was really inspiring.
Then I auditioned for the Melbourne Con (Melbourne Conservatory of Music), and my girlfriend at the time went into the VCA. It was the same sort of thing but up another level. You can look back on it now and it was an elite school and it was performance based. It was an incredible thing to be able to spend three years just pursuing excellence in your field. I deferred from the Con, I thought I really have to go to this place (VCA) but I’m not good enough. I’ve got to practice so I did, for a year. I was practicing on my classical guitar plus playing in rock bands on the side, balancing that too.”
My first band was with a bunch of friends and we played all sorts of stuff.
“We were called Terra Australis as in the old maps, we didn’t think to spell it ‘Terror’. We’d play the local school dance and Box Hill Town Hall. We’d be the first band on and you weren’t paid unless you helped lug the PA out. And we were like 15 years old and the main band’s roadies would give us shit. I had roadies later on I assure you.
By the end of my studying I was playing a whole lot of different music. The VCA had just started up their jazz interpretation course so I made a lot of friends there. It was such a fecund time to be playing, so many venues. I stopped playing classical guitar and just played in a couple of experimental jazz bands, more of that European slanted stuff; I was playing with a folk singer, a little bit of rock, I was in a Brazilian band playing traditional Brazilian stuff.”
Then I went for an audition.
“Some friends ended up playing with Stephen Cummings, right after The Sports and after he had that hit Gymnasium. The guitar player was sacked from Stephen’s band and they needed someone quick. I auditioned and then the next week we were supporting Whitney Houston at Rod Laver Arena. It was wild. Stephen and I got on really well. He was right on the upswing of his solo career and we were playing all the time, three or four times a week we could play which was amazing compared to now when you can only play once every two months.
I’ve been a lucky stiff because I’ve played with arguably Australia’s greatest songwriters – Paul Kelly, Stephen, and Tim Rogers.
It’s around then I first started recording properly. I’d been dabbling with a 4-track or whatever, but when I got to go into proper studios, I’d just be looking around going ‘fuck how do you do this’ and taking mental notes.
We needed a singer and a friend said they knew this incredible vocalist Rebecca (Barnard). She started singing with Stephen; we did lots of tours together and sort of from that, you just get asked. I started playing with Chris Wilson and then Rebecca and I started a band together.
People see you play and then the dudes who were playing with Stephen, the drummer Peter Luscombe, started playing with Paul Kelly who needed a guitar player; so I was six years with Paul.
The incredible thing with all these people is you got to tour a lot and then be privy to their song writing process, because that’s what you kind of did, jamming stuff at sound checks and then going and recording.”
By that stage we were given, through Rebecca’s Empire, recording advances.
“Every recording advance I’d use to buy sound gear. We used to do all the recording at the house I was living, and eventually where ‘we’ were living and that’s how we started the studio. I was really ridiculously busy, it was before download, there were lots of places to play, people were buying records and merch and you were kind of rewarded financially.”
We built a studio (Yikesville) and suddenly started recording bands.
“The first band I recorded in there, apart from Rebecca’s Empire, was The Meanies. Then I started playing with Lisa Miller and recorded all her records. When we first got together we did an album called ‘Car Tape’. It was sort of when everything clicked and I found my feet or something. It was through that album that I met Tim Rogers who told me he loved what I did on Lisa’s album and I said ‘Well, get your tall arse down to Yikesville!’ I did all Tim’s solo records, bar his first one, and that relationship still stands now.”
I’ve just been enamoured with all aspects of guitar playing.
“It’s really hard to talk about what you pursue but I was bitten by the bug really early and was completely enamoured with music, all music. I still practise two or three hours every morning and I’ll sit down and try to learn Bach. None of the great composers wrote for guitar. Bach wrote for lute and without sounding like a total squid, it is the most, it’s perfection, it’s masterful beyond, you know, greatness; it’s perfect music. Even when you’re playing something that’s ostensibly virtuosic and very difficult, even if you’re playing that at a deadly slow tempo, just to sit and have these sublime melodies come out, it’s like a meditation. All your chakras get all tickled up.”
Because I do have an academic understanding.
“It’s a double-edged sword, there’s an adage that says ‘Whatever you’ve learnt, you then try to forget’. Initially I made sure that wasn’t going to interfere with anything in my pursuit because you can just disappear up your own arse.
There are people who don’t know what chord they’re playing and they write the most beautiful melodies and chord progressions because it’s purely instinctive and that’s where having academic knowledge can really mess with your creativity, because it’s deemed right and wrong.”
If I’ve seen someone that I really get excited about …
“I’ll say would you like to do something. We did this Bob Dylan thing recently and I’ve been asking Liz Stringer to do it for the last few years and she hasn’t been able to do it but she did it this time and she just blew me away. I try not to rehearse things too much, and really seat of your pants is exciting and a little dangerous but it can engender the best performances. Liz just grabbed it by the neck and that was thrilling in that, I’m going to hound her down.”
I’m really excited about Ponyface.
“We’ve got (had) a July residency at The Old Bar on Sundays and that’s just like getting the band warmed up to conquer the world when the albums released. That’s really exciting for me because it’s just like being in my first band again.”
This year’s been incredible for me.
“Started off with Tim’s (Rogers) record, which is arguably his best, it’s such an incredible record. That was really commando style recording, really quick, everyone brought their A game. Tim’s songs were just to die for. I mean I am a lucky stiff, then to do a rock ‘n’ roll record with Nick Barker, Scottish harrowing ballads about murder with Fiona Ross, and psychedelic masterpieces.”
Anytime I’ve thought I’m going to do something because I think they’ll like it …
“It really doesn’t quite work, it becomes a little disingenuous. Shoot me for saying it but you have to follow your heart. There’s nothing wrong with striving to be as best you can be or the best that fulfils your pursuit as an artist. Now, having worked with really inspiring people, every time you go out, every time you step onto the boards, you have to play it like it’s the last thing you’re going to play. Why give a half-arsed performance? I’m not talking about showing off or being flash, you have to serve whatever you’re doing, you have to serve the song that someone’s given you, whether it’s a recording or someone’s asked me to play with them, you have to serve that to the best of your ability with as much heartfelt response as you can do.
My philosophy in recording, it’s not about gear, it’s not about that beautiful RCA mike from the 1940s or that Neve console that you found in a dustbin or whatever – you can make the best record on the shittest gear and you can make the worst records on the greatest gear – if you don’t enable the artist to be the best they can be. If you listen to your favourite record, if the song is good and the performance is good, it’s really good. That said there are the times when the marriage is sublime.”