If you haven’t kept up with Justin OH over the past couple years, I think it’s fair to say that you’ve been sorely missing out.
After having already been a well-established house artist for several years (with releases on Spinnin’ Records, Armada, Revealed and Enhanced Music), Justin OH began taking his brand in a totally new direction in 2018. Once known for easygoing beats and euphoric progressive house melodies, OH made a drastic shift into a new style of bass music on the Monstercat-released “She’s a Killer,” which featured brutal basses laced with twinkly arps, along with a healthy dose of unsettling dystopian dialogue.
Since that point, Justin OH has been gradually crafting his own immersive world (i.e., the City of OZ). Each time a song released, listeners would be rewarded with a new piece of the puzzle; a new chapter of the story. The occasional crossover episode would occur throughout the process as well, like when Xilent‘s similarly dark world came into the picture on “Assemble” last year.
Earlier this month, that story –or, at least, this era of it– finally came to a close with the release of OH’s second studio LP Welcome to the City of OZ. We had the pleasure of chatting with the producer about his process behind creating the album, the media that influenced it, the way its collaborations came together, and more. Read the full interview below:
Good afternoon Justin, and congratulations on a successful album release! What kind of emotions are you experiencing as Welcome to the City of OZ is finally hitting stores after over two years of teasers and single releases?
Thanks for having me! It feels great to finally have it out there for people to experience. There was a lot of buildup and work to get to this point and I think the journey was equally rewarding.
As someone who was intrigued with the “City of OZ” concept from the first single, I’m really excited to see all the pieces of the puzzle come together for the first time. I have to ask, how planned out was this album? Was it something that started as a simple idea that grew over time, or was it completely conceptualized before things started rolling out?
A lot of it was pre-conceptualized even before the music was made. I think having as much of it planned out ahead of time helped a lot with the decision making process and sound design choices along the way. You know the rules of the City. You know what it should sound like, the look and the feel. And most importantly, you know the endgame of the story to build towards. There are little easter eggs and clues that were featured in songs years ago that were only recently revealed. Luckily, Monstercat is a label that embraces those types of creative ideas. I remember when I first approached them with “She’s a Killer” at Amsterdam Dance Event back in 2017, Jon Winter (the A&R) really liked the track and my sound as it was a bit different than typical dubstep music at the time. They were also very interested in how I planned to weave the story elements into the music. I brought with me animated visuals, a mood board, screen tests, live show footage, branding ideas, storylines, etc. I must’ve looked like that Charlie meme from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, “Pepe Silvia”.
The track on the album that really made me want to ask you that question is “She’s a Killer, Pt. 2” with Feint & Mazare. The song seems to show up as a moment of triumph and redemption, feeling like the emotional climax of the entire LP. I know that Mazare didn’t start working with Monstercat until several months after the original “She’s a Killer” came out, so how did this track come together?
Yes, story wise it is exactly a moment of both triumph and redemption. I always knew I wanted to bring it back full circle with the song that started it all. Back in 2018, I made an early drum and bass VIP version of “She’s a Killer” that I started to test out in my live shows as an encore track to close out my DJ performances during my Thailand and India tours. It worked really well and the vibe was right. Hit all the feels. But Drum and Bass was a new genre to me and Mazare at the time had a string of incredible releases that were very much on the same wavelength as me. I reached out to him and it was an obvious decision. One of the nicest guys out there, super glad to have him jump on this project and take this song to the next level! Feint as well, I met him last year in China at a festival. We connected right away and I was super hyped when he wanted to jump on the track. His expertise really raised the energy of the track and brought it all together. Behind the scenes, the Monstercat team were also very much involved in the A&R process, especially with Jon Winter being such a big dnb guy. Huge team effort!
What specific media (films, television shows, books, video games, etc.) can you cite as influences to the LP’s story?
Probably too many to list. The stuff I end up enjoying plays a big part in what goes on inside my head. Aside from the obvious, examples like Blade Runner, The Matrix, Tron, Watchmen, Robocop, Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Paprika, Arrival, Children of Men, Sin City, Ex Machina, Equilibrium, Snowpiercer, Afro Samurai, Metropolis, Planet of the Apes, Astroboy, The Twilight Zone, Isaac Asimov, Westworld, Brave New World, Ozymandias, Neuromancer, Wolfenstein, Deus Ex Machina, Portal, and more.
You released another album back in 2013 called The Time Traveller. It’s clear that the album’s title took some inspiration from science fiction as well; is it connected to the City of OZ storyline at all?
Unfortunately, they’re not connected. I wish I could say it was all part of a master plan but they are separate concepts. The Time Traveller was my first artist album and it was where I originally toyed with the idea of having the songs interconnect and tell a (loose) story through progression and different genres. Some of the stuff I learnt from making that album helped me in City Of OZ.
Regardless, I think it is fair to say that the Justin OH who made The Time Traveller is a very different Justin OH than the one who made Welcome to the City of OZ, at least in the way you approached your concept and musical style this time around. What inspired this change for you?
I really wanted to see how far I could push the story idea for Welcome to the City of OZ. Having an entire city gave us a lot of possibilities. An entire city of characters, perspectives, and events. Each song played out like chapters which helped connect the different songs together even though they are many different genres. Unfortunately this year we couldn’t do an album tour but it would’ve been really cool to see the vision complete with a live audiovisual performance.
This album is significantly more collaborative than your last as well. Was this done intentionally to push across the message of joining together with others to reach a common goal, or was it just something that happened as you were experimenting with new styles?
For sure. It is one of the main underlying themes in Welcome to the City of OZ. We were selective with the artist collaborations, I wanted to make sure that the artists are able to fit into the story somehow and add to the narrative. I think fans and listeners feel rewarded when things are connected in such a way. There are also things we planned to bring the fans together and be a part of the story. For example, for the song “Killswitch” with Nitro Fun, the artwork had some computer code on it with no directions or instructions. People came together from all over and figured out that it converted into a scrambled message that they had to crack, which tied into the music video. Sounds nerdy but I love that shit! Gotta pay homage to the godfather of computing and artificial intelligence, Alan Turing.
I would be one to say that Welcome to the City of OZ is greater than the sum of its parts, with each track building off of the others and being elevated to greater heights than it would achieve by itself. Do you agree?
One of my favorite moments on the album is the interlude “Remember This,” which pushes a powerful message of hope –especially needed in 2020– and features dialogue from yourself and many others. What was your process for creating this track?
Thank you. Yeah, that song was made last minute and barely made the deadline! I’m super glad it did though. I think this year was a rough year for a lot of people. Everyone locked down and isolated. I think even though everyone might feel hope, to say it out loud and hear it together hits differently. This was also a way to make City of OZ “real” for the fans. These are all their real voices and real recordings. The fact that they all came together to help make this possible really speaks the message.
Lastly, are there any up-and-coming artists you’d like to shout out here?
Shoutout to all the homies on the album; Rogue, Xilent, Mazare, Feint, Jamie,
Delaney Kai, Nitro Fun. Super shoutout to the Monstercat team and community!
Welcome to the City of OZ is available on all streaming platforms now (linked below for your listening pleasure). Be sure to also catch Justin OH at his virtual concert on MCTV this November 26th!