On March 26, Oxford Drama released their newest album: What's the Deal with Time? The record is a conceptual one, taking its title from Seinfeld humor. Sonically, the album leans into its guitars, much more than the indie pop duo has done on previous records. Oxford Drama, which comprises Gosia Dryjańska and Marcin Mrówka, are based in Poland, and recently, I got the chance to speak with them. We discussed the band's origins, the songwriting process for What's the Deal with Time?, and their favorite bits of music nerd trivia.
Can you tell me how Oxford Drama came to be? How did you meet?
Gosia: It's kind of embarrassing, but we met at an English language competition when we were both in high school. The form of the competition was that every contestant had to prepare a speech about youth, and coincidentally, both of us decided to work some music themes into our texts. We decided to get to know each other feeling that we might have a lot in common. Two years later, two longs years of Marcin persuading me to form a band together, I said yes and here we are.
Are you both currently in Poland now?
Gosia: Yes, we're in Wrocław (Poland) where Marcin was born, and I've basically lived here my whole life. Sometimes we dream about living in Berlin (because it's so vibrant but still close to home) or in Barcelona (because it's warm), but Wrocław is a great hang-out music city for us because our best friends who are musicians live here as well.
What’s The Deal With Time? will be out on March 26th. What did the writing process look like for this record?
Gosia: The writing process itself was very quick, but what happened later was a longer and turbulent journey. Both Marcin and I had some ideas, sketches of songs, both with and without lyrics, that we really liked, and very quickly, after some time of exploring the compositions, we came up with this idea of making a concept album. We brainstormed the idea and all the sketches that needed lyrics got them very fast. The process was so creative that new ideas were emerging out of the blue. Some of them fit perfectly for album number three, and others are saved for the next release.
But as I've mentioned before, when we had the tracklist absolutely closed, then the fun began. For a couple of months, Marcin was producing the songs until we felt that they got the right treatment. It was demanding but in the end we're very happy about the outcome.
In regards to sound, will this record continue in the vein of electro-pop? Your single sounds like a new direction.
Gosia: For some time we did indeed play electro-pop, but it was also dictated by the fact that we only played duo concerts with limited instrumentation. The moment we started playing as a trio with drums we also started composing new songs for a larger band, having in mind that there will be hands for the parts. We've always had the guitar close to our hearts, and it was only a matter of time to have them as the leading instruments. Our second album, Songs already took a more guitar-y turn but What's The Deal With Time? took it to the next level.
Journalists have called your music “unpretentious” in the past. How would you describe your music?
Gosia: Someone also told us that our music can be described as "music for shy people," which may be true but maybe "music for people who listen to dad rock but are not dads?" And to be completely serious now, we look at our music as being "indie pop" meets "indie alternative rock" with a twist of "music nerds making music."
I read in your bio that you call yourselves “big music nerds.” And that you also like fun facts. What genres and artists are you fascinated by? And what is one of your favorite fun facts or anecdotes regarding music?
Gosia: Guitars forever! I guess I will always feel the most comfortable and like myself listening to guitars, but sometimes I feel it's just a matter of finding this certain emotion when you hear a song or an album. As I'm getting older, I find this feeling in other genres as well. But to the point. My heroes are Paul McCartney, David Byrne, David Bowie, Brian Eno, Kate Bush, Stevie Nicks, Joni Mitchell - the list goes on and on. I have a special place in my heart for pop melodies and catchy words. I guess I look in music for this kind of energy that transports you out of the real world into the word of the composition.
I love the anecdote about why George Martin decided to work with The Beatles. It was because he thought that the guys were especially funny after George Harrison came to George Martin and said that he doesn't like his tie when the band and him met.
Marcin: I'd also lean towards what Gosia said about the guitars. I think it's because the guitar was the first instrument I picked. This was around the early secondary school period, which is also when I had my first music crush, U2. As bad as it may sound for someone who evaluates them solely on the last 10-15 years of their career, honestly, for me, this is the band that developed my sense of what I look for in music the most. But there wasn't much diversity in my music taste back in those U2 days. It wasn't until high school when I started looking for something more, and while visiting all the milestones in the pop music history, I also started paying more attention to various, apparently infinite ways that songs can be arranged. The instrumentation, the orchestration, the production, the textures – all these new concepts started to bloom in my mind, and Radiohead – my second music crush, still from the secondary school days – was the portal to everything else. I still have a very vivid memory of the moment I'm listening to "Where I End And You Begin," and I begin to hear all those textures in the background, and they are so good, I begin to cry. Throughout the years, the artists that developed me the most are, chronologically: The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Fleetwood Mac, Talking Heads, Can, The Clash, Blur, Modest Mouse, Beach House, Tame Impala, and Grizzly Bear.
There's tons of anecdotes. But oddly enough, the one that came to my mind first is the one about Phil Brown, the man who engineered Talk Talk's The Colour of Spring, who after a relentless year of attempting to satisfy Mark Hollis' perfectionism during the making of the album (which was a fruitful but extremely painstaking process, involving working in a specially designed studio space, set in darkness, countless sleepless nights, hours of tapes of music, retaking the songs, rearranging them, then retaking again...in a state of mind that only we can guess), on the last day of working on the album, he went back home to his wife. And she said, "If you're ever going to work with that band again, you move out.” And he did work with them again, on Laughing Stock. But he never moved out. And they're still happily married.
I also read that Seinfeld inspired this album in part. In what ways? How does that connect with themes of time and normalcy?
Gosia: Seinfeld has been inspiring me since I was a kid, because my parents fed me with a lot of it, as well as a good amount of Chevy Chase films and Saturday Night Live humor. The phrase "what's the deal with...." (that is a part of the album title) comes from Seinfeld episodes, and I feel that it was only a matter of time for me to show what influenced me since I was a kid.
"What's The Deal With Time?" is our first album where we decided that we want to juxtapose the serious topics of time, modern problems, technology, and relationships with a lot of humor, irony, and absurdity. On the album, we talk a lot about feeling alienated amongst people or technology and about keeping ourselves informed about the state of the modern world. I've noticed some years ago that comedy helps me in coping with all of this and keeps me sane. We chose humor in describing the modern world, as we didn't want to school people in how they should or shouldn't act. The idea was also to have fun with some lyrics as if I was a stand-up comedian making jokes about the world.
The fact that your album deals with themes of time and normalcy, I think, will ring very true regarding the pandemic experience. Did you begin writing this record before or after the beginning of COVID?
Gosia: We were afraid that because it's a concept album and the themes are very specific, the moment the album will be released, it's not going to stand the test of time. "What's The Deal With Time?" was written before the pandemic, later COVID-19 came along, and then we worried a lot because we didn't know when is it going to be released and whether the concept of it won't seem just plain silly. But we were wrong. The new reality looked different, but somehow some feelings were familiar. We could feel isolated before, we were glued to our phones, we worried about the future, but during the pandemic it was all put in a a new context.
Do you think, after writing and recording, that you have any answer to the question “what is normal”? Or maybe it’s unanswerable?
Gosia: I think that the question is definitely unanswerable and that the word "normal" is a tricky one, as people can use it for their advantage and have their own definitions of what is "normal." Also, it makes me laugh a bit when people say that they wish things could get back to normal after the pandemic. I know what they mean by it, but I think we had a lot of problems before COVID-19, and my inner-dreamer wishes that people could see them and work on them to make a real change.
I guess it's a bit like with the question "what's the deal with time?" It's also unanswerable, but it's fun to think about it and try to grasp that concept.
Listen to What's The Deal With Time? below.