North Carolina five-piece makes the changes
BY PAT MORAN
Andrew Wackerhagen is more than a singer and songwriter. The 30-year-old front man of R&B and elctronica infused pop band OCNS is something of a magician, because magic might be the best word to describe the sonic constructs of OCNS, a quintet comprised of Wackerhagen, bassist Esdras Bouassa, drummer Grandy Zodulua, keyboardist Isaac Buna and guitarist Drew Cooney. The band’s soulful and effortlessly insistent tunes, like their latest single “Haute Couture,” are painstaking assembled layers of addictive hooks, sinuous grooves, ambient electronics and indie rock energy. They’re supple pop constructs that soar like weightless skyscrapers.
So while I knew that Wackerhagen is a key player on a team of audio architects, I didn't know that he is also an actual architect, the kind that designs buildings. He studied technical engineering and renewable energies at NC State University in Raleigh, North Carolina where he earned a degree in architecture. Attention to detail comes second to Wackerhagen and his band mates and it even extends to the name they chose for themselves. OCNS is pronounced by saying the letters out loud, Wackerhagen explains. And he’s not shy to describe the name as a marketing ploy.
“We really like the ring of OCNS,” he says. “It gets people guessing, like what does it mean? That’s up for you to decide.” In addition to telling us how to pronounce his band’s offbeat moniker, Wackerhagen also spoke with SoundSplice about weathering line-up changes, forging new musical paths and devising shifting marketing strategies – all tools of the trade for an ambitious 21st century band that blends calculation and inspiration.
Did you have a musical upbringing?
Yes. I’m originally from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, but then I moved to Columbia, South Carolina around middle school. My mom has an operatic voice, and she sang in church choir. My dad played acoustic guitar, so he’s musical as well. My mom loved 80s pop music. My dad was on the opposite side of the spectrum. He loved 70s singer songwriter music like James Taylor and Jimmy Buffet. I discovered my voice because I started singing along with my mom. In high school I started diving into alternative, indie and rock music. At school we’d sit outside in the common area where we would play guitars. People started saying I had a really nice voice. I dove into it from there.
I went to college for a year, but I wasn’t ready for school so I took time off and I played in an indie rock band called Frontier Suns. We toured a good bit. We had some management offers and we were doing it full time. Obviously we had service jobs as side gigs when we were home, but we were pretty gung ho. But we never really found our sound. You know how a lot of bands in their early stages, they’ll mimic their influences? We never broke that habit. Some other internal things happened within the band and we split up. So I swore off music. I was 25 at the time, and I was ready to pack it all in and go back to school, and be done with it. I thought I gave it my shot and it didn’t work out.
How did you end up joining OCNS?
[After] I got my degree in architecture, I moved to Charlotte. Then I got the itch again. I started writing on my own again and I couldn’t find anybody in Charlotte [to play with.] I actually got on Craigslist and found all the guys in OCNS. At this point OCNS was a five-piece looking for a vocalist. They were in a heavy rock vein for a long time, and then they had some issues with their singer. They went almost three to four years without a vocalist just writing and trying to find what they wanted to do. Then they started expanding intro electronic and blending that with natural instrumentation.
Recently I had fallen in love again with pop music, plus a lot of electronic stuff, and that’s what they were playing. I drove up to Raleigh to try out and we all just clicked. And we’ve been really close and best friends ever since.
How did you change OCNS’s dynamic and sound?
I have a very bold personality. When I joined the band I said that everyone needs to be vocal and voice an opinion. We can’t be settling, because if we settle and go with the flow, we’re just going to be mediocre. It’s not going to be the best it can be. Everyone now in the band is bold and voices their opinion. If something doesn’t mesh and someone doesn’t like it we try to change it.
Tell me how the single “You” came about in 2018.
We had an original song that the guys had written before I joined the band, but I honestly didn’t like the song or the key. I liked little parts of it. Isaac and Esdras took it and reshaped the key and a few of the chords but kept some of the accenting features of the song. Then Grandy changed the drum work and Drew came in and changed the guitars. I was just BSing lyrics while we were jamming on it, and it just popped and took off. The song came together that night.
Why did it take a year before your next (and current) single “Haute Couture” came out?
We had a falling out with one of our guitar players, David Pierce. He had been in the band before I joined, and he decided to leave the band to do his own thing. It kind of shook us a little bit. Honestly, it was for the best and it helped us shape and move into our new sound. [With “Haute Couture”] we were trying to push the envelope. We put congas in it. For the bridge, a close friend of Isaac’s wrote a short poem in French incorporating the meaning of the song. She is from Toronto and is French Canadian. “Haute Couture” just dropped on August 9. We have a whole bunch of back catalog songs we’ve been working on that will get out a lot quicker now.
Are you releasing the singles separately or will there be a series of EPs, or an album?
We linked up with [producer/mixer/engineer] Dave Cerminara out in L.A. He’s done some mixing and production work with the Neighborhood and the recent Khalid stuff. He befriended us and we just chat. He was telling us how the game is right now. You can release an album or an EP and it may get a lot of attention for a month. Then after that month it’s on to the next thing.
With an indie band like us, where we’re funding everything ourselves, you realize it’s smarter to do a single at a time and try and get a single out every month or two until we can actually get to a point where a label will come along and help fund a bigger project like an EP or album. Our game plan right now is to keep rolling with the singles and keep the momentum going.