True North: An Interview with Brett O'Riley

Posted by Prarthana Nandini Venunathan on

Brett O'Riley

I think one of the things I enjoy most about being a writer is how much of an open road it is when it comes to expression. I’ve had the honour of meeting some absolutely inspiring people along the way. Brett O’Riley is one such person I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and recently speaking with. Based out of Melbourne, Brett runs and co-owns True North, a cafe in Coburg that is much loved by it’s locals. He is also a member of YLVA, a four-piece band whose music is astoundingly heavy, unorthodox and magnificent to say the least as well as Namazu, which exhibits another side of Brett’s musical persona. We sat down to have an in-depth conversation about his experiences as a professional musician, the thrills and risks of running a business, his love for guitars, chillies and so much more. 

Owning and running a business is a rewarding yet challenging thing on a good day but difficult during times like these although Brett and his amazing team at True North have been making all the right decisions to ensure the best for everyone involved. 

“In a way it’s been wild and crazy, we’re living in pretty unpredictable times. We’ve been closed now for about two weeks and this is the second time because both lockdowns in Melbourne, we’ve closed the business because it just feels like the responsible thing to do even though we’re allowed to do take away. It’s like we’re encouraging people to leave the house which is not what we want to do. Someone getting a skinny cappuccino is not worth me putting any of my staff at risk.”

In the true spirit of community however, fans, friends and followers of True North have been a huge support and pillar of strength. Having been around for six years now, True North has certainly grown into a favourite spot, a place that welcomes you with it’s range of hot sauces lined up at the front and impeccable music playing in the background, the warm, friendly smiles of the crew and the aroma of fresh coffee, treats and more. 

We are pretty fortunate in that we have a good community around us. The kind of place we’ve built is not for everyone. But for the people it is for, they love it. We were super supported going into and coming out of the lockdown. Everyones been too nice, incredibly lovely and supportive to the point that sometimes it’s been quite overwhelming. People have bought our merch - we sold 70 t-shirts and hoodies in one day. They’ve given us money in cash, handing us hundreds of dollars. We’ve even had some people ordering online for a couple of hundred bucks but saying not to bother making any of the orders because they’ve just wanted to support us. That’s happened more than once. I had a friend message me saying that they had put $250 into my account, to figure out how many coffees that is and that they were shouting x number of people a cup of coffee. It really made us feel very loved while all of this is going on.”

I remember the first time I walked into True North, I was taken by its quirky, alternative and charming vibe. I was working on the 2018 Amenra Australian Tour which also had YLVA on the line-up and went there for a meeting. Needless to say, I fell in love with the coffee, corn fritters and everything about this sick little joint.  Brett shared the story of how it all came to be and how it’s become a very special place for those that visit it regularly. 

“The people that come in here and the people I want to associate myself with and my kind of people. It’s the kind of place that I would love going to and that’s what I had in mind. The idea to start the cafe occurred a few years ago, around the time I was growing many many chillies and  I had time to garden, have a hobby, etc. So I had all these chillies and my business partner is a cook so I asked her if she wanted to make a hot sauce. She agreed, we sold it online, and it sold out on the first, second and third batch so that was really cool. At the same time, I was at a point in my life where I was looking for a shift, I’d always been in bands or had a crap job to let me go tour so I made the decision that in order to work in music and do what I do, I have to do something that I hate. Because what I love will never make enough money.”

“So I needed something else, a different direction and even though I had this idea that I could build, I didn't know squat. I knew nothing about running a cafe and I still don’t but I knew that I could run this place in my head. I know what I like and if I build it how I want it, people like me will come and will hopefully love it. So I put that idea forward to  my business partner, she was into it, she had the hospitality skills, I had the 20 years of tour managing skills and that’s kind of how it started! It started with a dumb idea but it’s grown and I love it. It’s definitely a very special place.”

True North

Running a business is no small feat and while there are many rewards and perks in doing so, one cannot deny or discount it’s challenging demeanor; and it hasn’t been the easiest road for Brett. However, as he reflects, all the hard work, effort and time invested does eventually pay off. 

“It’s not easy at all, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done! I knew nothing when we first opened; I could barely make a cup of coffee! I had hardly any experience in hospitality so brave or stupid my friend, you tell me. But all those years of tour managing has helped. It was really tough for the first two or three years - I worked seven days a week and it was really not a good time. But it reached a point last year where I wasn’t working every single day, just a couple of shifts on the floor and a couple of shifts working on the business to grow it, come up with new ideas and hustle. It's been 6 years and it has come a long way. I’m also glad I don’t have to take out the bins anymore!” 

Brett, along with co-owning and running the fantastic establishment and all round sick joint that is True North, is also quite involved in his local business community and there’s a fun story behind how he got into it.  

“That’s a weird one. I’m the President of the Central Coburg Business Association which I have been for a little while now - almost a few years, I fell into it to be honest. The old President came into the shop one day and wanted me to come to a meeting. They sort of pitched everything they do, could do or want to do. So I went to the meeting on my way to a boxing class and it was in the middle of summer so I’m wearing a pair of shorts and a cut-off shirt, covered in tattoos. I’m literally sitting at this meeting, putting wraps on my hands to prepare for boxing and listening to this whole meeting. It was hilarious. But I kind of cracked it and just called them out on their inefficiencies and mild racism. “Here are all the flaws that I see,  I’m leaving goodbye!” Then the next day, a guy from the council came into the shop and said that that was the best thing that has happened to that committee for more years than  I can remember, I have to get you involved in this. It’s been a long and hard road but touchwood it’s all going well. I only have to attend a meeting once a week, follow up on a few emails. But everyone hired there to do their jobs, does it well.  So it runs it’s own race.”

Brett is one of the most passionate people I’ve spoken to. Not only does he run a beautiful cafe, he is heavily involved with his local community, but he has been a professional, touring musician for a very long time, stepping into the role of a tour manager quite often as well. Intrigued by all that he does and has done, we delved deeper into his life as a musician and his experiences in the world of music. 

“I’ve successfully wasted my entire adult life playing in bands since I was a little kid. I was in my first band when I was 18 or 19 which got signed to a label in the 90’s. It was great because they gave you money, we went on tours and since then, I’ve just kept going. My first real band was a band called Ricaine which I was in for ages. It was a noisy, arty, punk thing and we used to tour a lot. I was in a rock band for a long time as well, and a couple of other bands which went on for 10 to 15 years. There were also a couple of quiet, instrumental bands that I played in - I tend to lean towards the noisy, artsy side of music.” 

Sharing how I thought it was amazing that he got signed to a label so young and back in the 90’s, he responded in a way in which his passion came through, as clear as crystal. He also threw light on how he was able to dedicate so much time to his music and touring while also holding down a job back home.

“Honestly, I’m just a lucky dude and all I ever wanted to do was play music. I figured that out pretty early on in my life and I started. When I was a kid in Melbourne, there was a big all ages scene back then so you could go see bands like The Meanies or The Hard-Ons. As soon as I fell into that world of live music, I was like ‘holy shit, this is all I wanna do’. For a very long time in my life, that was all I was focused on. I was never overly interested in being a rockstar. I just wanted to make records, travel around and see stuff. When I was younger, for a few years I was able to get the dole and go on tour as everyone did but by my early 20’s I got a job at Melbourne University which was the best job ever. They let me run a little department and pretty much do whatever I wanted. I kept that job for almost 10 years, so I could go on tour and I’d still have money coming in. My boss was a legend and it was the sweetest deal one could have!”

Why was it the sweetest deal? Because not only could he tour when he pleased and play music around the world, there were lots of perks that came with the job.

“I worked in the bookstore, art supply and stationery department. I went in, drank cups of coffee, listened to records, talked shit with people, and could come and go as I pleased. I had something that I had to look after but it was a very sweet little situation I had going on. I also had two months of paid holiday when the Uni closed in December and January. It really was the best job I’ve ever had!” 

Brett O'Riley

Along with playing music around the world as well as holding down a job at home, Brett did occasionally step into the role of Tour Manager while he was on tour with his bands, paving the way for the eventual opening of his own business. 

“I was very young when I was in my first band so I would just show up and play. But by the time I was in the second band I was the only responsible  one so I just sort of fell into that as well. because no one else was going to do it. I was doing all the driving, tour managing, handling the cash, managing everything, it was a full on role. So from doing that, it led to getting a few other gigs, it was sort of known that I was in that role because I was never loose on tour, pretty responsible. I've always had the outlook of ‘I’ve gotta get up and do it again so I don't want to half arse shows’. Even if it's that one person who has come to see the band, you don't want to be shit even for that one person. You want to put on a good show for them.”

Brett has performed in hundreds of shows around the world, playing with his different bands and projects over the years. The first time I had the honour of seeing him perform was with YLVA, a band that, to me, is quite genre-defying as it’s hard to describe their music. I still remember that night like it was yesterday; feeling so taken by how intense, unpredictably beautiful and balanced YLVA’s sound was. You could say, it was love at first listen. It was wonderful to hear Brett talk about how this project came together. 

“Wow, it’s been a while now since we started YLVA. Mike (Deslandes) and I have been friends for a very long time. I actually filled in in one of his old bands because the bass player had gone to Europe for something and I ended up filling in for a couple of tours as a favour to Mike. We became super close, travelling around the place. We stayed close and at some point, we had a conversation about doing a band together. We started picking the right people, and from memory I think I suggested Dave Byrne, and Mike suggested Leigh.  Dave, Mike and I started catching up pretty regularly before Leigh got involved - we had a few jams, it was good and we enjoyed each other's company, we wrote for a very long time and recorded an album's worth of material. But on this one night, Mike came into rehearsal with a different tuning, we wrote a song and that was it. We were like ‘this is what we do and this is what we sound like’. 

While Brett’s bands in the past toured extensively, YLVA, in it’s five years of existence has been a project wherein there is more time and thought that goes into the creation of it’s music, something that is quite clear when you listen to their debut album ‘META’ as well as watch the band’s captivating and almost hypnotic live performances. 

“Once Mike brought that new tuning in, we scrapped everything we had and started again. Him walking in with that new tune and us writing that one key song together was a defining point for YLVA. After that we worked on the META stuff for quite a while. It takes us a long time to get stuff together given that we’re all very busy people. We were also rehearsing for a long time, at least a year before we even played a show.  I think it sort of coincided with the time I was opening up the shop and everyone else in the band had a lot going on too, we had full lives and still do. We’re older as well and there was no real rush. We’ve played hundreds or even thousands of shows between us so we just wanted to be good at what we were doing. It’s that nerdy part of all of our personalities where we don’t want to present our music until we are the best we can be. It’s been four or five years since that record now.”

YLVA - Meta

YLVA’s music is an absolutely moving, sonic experience. Having released META in 2015, I was curious to know if there was any new music on the way, as I’m sure, many other fans of the band are. 

We had studio time booked to go in and do pre-production on our second record on that first weekend of lockdown. It was paid for and we were going to put down what we had but that got blown off the table. Mike’s been writing, recording and sending us almost completed songs to learn. We’ll probably go in and some parts will be rearranged. We’ll approach them as a group. We have very solid ideas kicking around but it’s just the ability to get in the same place at the same time to work on them. We have a rehearsal room which we pay rent for and which has all our equipment set up. Hopefully we’ll find some time to be able to go in and rehearse at some point. I don’t think we’ve all been in the same room together since January!”

There is something very exceptionally unique about YLVA and it’s members, and I can’t quite put my finger on it but I’ve been a fan from that first day I saw them live. And the more I spoke with Brett, the more I realised what made them stand out. 

“We could go for six months without seeing each other as that’s just the nature of our schedules. But when we do see each other, we live in each other’s pockets working on something. We’re a very tight unit and we can share so much between us, anything that has been going on in our lives and there has been some pretty heavy stuff that has been happening. We are able to share it with each other, topics come up and we discuss them amongst ourselves. Mike does all the lyrics and it gets tweaked by Dave. I approach it sonically. There is nothing but love and respect in this band. It’s great to go out and have people enjoy what we do but we would probably do it anyway; it’s very personal and intimate and YLVA means something to all of us.”

In stark contrast to the dark, mysterious and heavy tones of YLVA however, Brett has another project which is, in my humble opinion, quite magical. Namazu, I came across when he shared it on his page one day, and not knowing what to expect, I played  ‘Hymns: Transitional’. I was inspired to sit down and meditate as I let the sounds of Namazu guide my meditation, leading me into another world. 

“That is so, so sweet and awesome and the exact result I wanted. Thank you so much. I started Namazu around that time I was working in the shop every single day. I worked every shift, every day of the week for several years before I had somewhat of a breakdown. I realised that you just can’t work like that and keep that up - it becomes too much for you. There was a whole bunch of stuff going on in my life, everything seemed like it had turned upside down, a relationship had ended and I figured out that I just can’t keep living like this. It’s terrible. I didn't know what to do and had to relearn how to be a human being outside of working seven days a week.”

“So, part of that process was Namazu because I knew I needed music, I had to make records and decided I’m going to do this thing. I've got a friend of mine who lives up the street in an old church and I asked him if he wanted to join me in doing this project. It was very healing music, part of a healing process. By the second record, it became something that relaxes me because it brings me a great deal of pleasure, so it’s now something I have in my life which is there for that purpose and at the moment, I’m doing it a lot!”

“Namazu is essentially me and I pick different people to make music with, although having said that I’ve collaborated with one guy throughout and we work well together so Namazu is him and I. But right now, I sort of just write it all down, demo it since we can't collaborate, put it on a harddrive, walk to his place, put it in his letterbox and he adds his bits and he puts it in my letterbox, it works!” 

Namazu - Hymns: Transitional

I highly recommend checking out Namazu - it is unlike anything you’ve heard before, and is a truly beautiful aural experience when you listen to it. Appreciating the art behind Namazu, it was even more special to hear the recording process behind the first two records as Brett talked about the lengths he went to, to bring in an extremely  touching element to the music. 

“There is one record that will  hopefully come out in the next few months, that I recorded in an old prison. So I got access to an old prison man three years ago And we made two records in two days so the second record, I went around and I found anyone I could get into contact with that had something to do with that prison. I Interviewed them. So I interviewed, nuns, priests, psychs, inmates and guards, like anyone. So it’s taken me about three years to compile all the audio and hopefully it’ll be out in the next couple of months so that’s exciting. That’s nearly done and we’re working on another one in conjunction with the city of Melbourne. So we’re going to use the grand organ in Melbourne Town Hall and the Federation  Bells but that’s come to a bit of a halt at the moment because of the lockdown but there will be new music soon! Each album is kind of a different chapter - like honouring what’s going on in life at that particular time and using it as an outlet to release, celebrate, or let go of whatever you need to.”

There was one last thing I had to talk to this incredible human about, knowing fully well the reaction I would get when the topic was brought up. Brett is a lover of guitars and gear, owning a very wide, rather impressive collection that he has put together over the years, and one that he is certainly proud of!

“Don’t even get me started! I’ve never really sold anything that I’ve bought. I worked in a second-hand guitar shop after Melbourne Uni for six years. So I had more gear than you could even imagine. I’m a hoarder, collector, f*cking geek. I’ve got so much shit and I love all of it! I don’t use all of it though haha. Within bands that I’ve been in, there’s particular applications for particular instruments depending on what music I’m working on. In any band that I’ve been in, I’ve been fortunate enough that we’ve operated at a reasonably high level. I’ve toured at the very least, nationally, non-stop. So I’ve always had the main bass that I’m using plus a back-up. Along with that, I’m also a collector who can see a good deal every so often so I’ll grab pieces as I go along. I really love it. It’s cool because everything I own is quite rare or of high value and worth quite a bit so it’s a sick little hobby!” 

“My parents live out in the country so they’ve got literally tens of thousands of dollars sitting in one of their  bedrooms because I don't really use them too much but Namazu is another excuse for me to play around because it's not locked in to a particular sound or tone. I can do whatever I want.  So for the record that I’m working on now, the bass that I chose, I chose purely because I hadn't opened the case for 12 years. It's beautiful and I’ve fallen in love with it again. So I might make this record, take it back to mum and dad’s  and then not see it for another ten years.  One of my favourites is a sentimental piece that’s pretty trash now but it’s a 1974 Rickenbacker 4000 that I bought when I was probably 19 or 20 for about $800. It’s been around the world with me, made at least 10 records and was mint when I bought it but now completely thrashed. I still love it.” 

I had such a wonderful time speaking with Brett, learning and laughing so much throughout. Check out YLVA and Namazu for some of the best music to come out of Melbourne. 

Brett O'Riley

Brett's music is available on Bandcamp now. Check out YLVA here, and Namazu here.

True North merchandise available right here on Direct Merch. Check out the full collection here.

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