"It's not full of sunshine." Fixing his gaze out of the window, Carlos Oni could well be referring to the weather — the streets outside the Gables Diner in Coral Gables are still slick and damp from an early-morning downpour. But in fact, he is attempting to describe the type of music he and Ramiro Jeancarlo, also present for this breakfast interview on a recent weekend, make together as Opus Finis. "Industrial music is not for the faint-hearted," Oni continues. "And neither is experimental or punk music, but that is the music we make."
A casual listener might classify the music of Opus Finis as difficult or even obtuse. True, it features a heavy reliance on drum machines and the analog synth, an instrument most readily associated with 1980s pop pioneers like Depeche Mode and Soft Cell. But Oni readily admits that it's anything but immediately accessible.
Throughout the band's five-year existence, Oni (the duo's vocalist and lyricist) and Jeancarlo (pretty much everything else) have labored under the firm belief that experimental, minimalist synth music can resonate more broadly, in South Florida and beyond. "There's so much potential in this genre," Oni says of what its practitioners have dubbed "minimal electronics." "It's uptempo, has strong rhythms and beats. It has a dark allure that I believe people could love if they gave it a chance."
Neither Oni nor Jeancarlo is the most likely champion of this rare, often-misunderstood movement, which emerged from continental Europe in the early 1980s. Oni, who has lived in Miami since relocating from Cuba at an early age, studied the harp for a time at the New World School of the Arts. And Jeancarlo's earliest and most enduring love is classical music, which he continues to explore through synth-based compositions under the alias Fioritura.
Still, both also found themselves drawn to darker, more aggressive fare like Throbbing Gristle and Zoviet France and in fact met while attending club nights in the mid-1990s. Sean 8*, a longtime fixture on the Miami club circuit and frequent Jeancarlo collaborator, remembers the era fondly. "The most famous [club night] was the Kitchen Club, which played 1980s and new wave, gothic, and industrial," he says. "Back in the day, it was pretty intense. People dressed up, and when you went there, you felt like you were going to a vampire club or something. But little by little, the culture faded away."
The Kitchen Club may have petered out, but its demise seems to have only strengthened Oni and Jeancarlo's resolve. Opus Finis remains the duo's primary focus, but they have spearheaded a number of side projects. These include Staccato du mal (Jeancarlo solo), the Siamese Pearl (Oni solo), and Flesh Graey Display (Jeancarlo & Sean 8*). Another unaffiliated local project by the name of Ronin has also sprung up, toeing the line of a similar sound.
Unfortunately, local live performances for all, including Opus Finis, have been scarce. Oni claims he would like to play out more frequently but says finding an appropriate lineup can be troublesome. "It's hard to play with, say, a bunch of glam artists," he says. "It doesn't go well with our sound, so it's tough for us to do shows in Miami because when we try to do shows, [bookers] want to put us with whoever's hip."
Apparently, South Florida's loss has been New York City's gain. Opus Finis has found ardent support from Wierd Records, a Brooklyn-based label specializing in minimal electronics and French coldwave, a guitar-based movement descended from the icy post-punk of Joy Division. Wierd has hosted Opus Finis in New York on two occasions as part of its club nights, which feature live performances from contemporary bands who embrace the label's ominous aesthetic.
Clips from the Opus Finis appearances posted to YouTube capture a rare intensity and focus. Clad in black, Jeancarlo commands a phalanx of keyboards. Oni stalks the stage, words tumbling out as if possessed. It's an intensity born of improvisation: Opus Finis shows have no set, no predetermined course or destination.
According to Oni, before taking the stage, he and Jeancarlo ask each other only one question: "How are we feeling today?" Explains Oni: "If I'm feeling a bit off, Ramiro will do a midtempo beat, and whatever I'm feeling, well, I'll just say it."
"The songs you heard at our show, you'll never hear again. I don't plan to redo them," Jeancarlo adds. "Whatever came out that day, that's it." Some might bristle at the prospect of going to a show that promises no rehearsed material, but both Oni and Jeancarlo insist that the approach forces them to stay fully engaged from start to finish. It's hard to argue with the results.
Pieter Schoolwerth, a renowned visual artist and founder of Wierd Records, is also a vocal supporter of the duo's efforts and has known Jeancarlo since the early part of this decade. They bonded online after they both realized they were trading, selling, and collecting the same rare vinyl recordings. "We both buy and sell a lot of stuff online, and we were both very avid about doing parties and DJing our favorite records," says Schoolwerth. "He turned me on to a ton of music I didn't know."
The two finally met in person in 2004, when Schoolwerth threw a Wierd party in Miami. They have, in Schoolwerth's words, been close allies ever since. Wierd has released tracks from each of Oni's and Jeancarlo's various projects (save for Fioritura) on label compilations and handled distribution for Opus Finis' debut album, Pursue the Tragic Tune, late last year.
Clocking in at more than 76 minutes, by design, the full-length is virtually indistinguishable from the Opus Finis live experience. Just as with a typical performance, all material was written on the spot and recorded live, with no preprogrammed backing tracks. The grainy quality of the recording, the distant, echoing vocals, and loose strands of ambient noise lend the album a spontaneous, organic feel, unusual for music emanating from electronic equipment.
One might easily mistake Tune for a live bootleg as opposed to an album proper, which is something its creators are well aware of and welcome. "[Listeners] may find it muffled or not as crisp," says Oni. "But [to me], it sounds so warm, so deep compared to today's laptop sound."
Schoolwerth not only prefers the primitive, analog sound of Tune but sees it as an absolutely essential form of protest. In a 2008 essay titled "The Analogue Synthesizer as a Folk Instrument of Humanist Resistance," he contends that the analog synth should be viewed as a vital vestige of humanity in a world in which computers themselves have become the de facto creative force. In the process, he also underscores an odd paradox about the electronic music released by his label.
"The frailty of these [analog] machines, the near-impossibility of ever creating the same sound twice, and the risk that at any moment everything may come undone reflects the inherent humanity that pilots them," he writes in the essay. "An irony becomes apparent: that the very electric current which powers the abstracting technologies of our day also has the potential to defy abstraction."
The irony is not lost on Opus Finis, whose very name roughly translates to "completed work." Like the South Florida weather, the lone constant for its music is its perpetual state of flux.
To receive updates on Opus Finis' live performances and Jeancarlo's DJ nights, email [email protected].
South Florida Minimal Electronics 101
Staccato du Mal
Ramiro Jeancarlo's solo venture is easily the densest and most cinematic of the current South Florida projects—and the most influenced by his classical sensibilities. Listen to enough of these entrancing, labyrinthine songs and you may start to buy Pieter Schoolwerth's contention that Jeancarlo "makes some of the most finely crafted and incredibly complex minimal electronic compositions in the world right now."
The Siamese Pearl
Mostly forsaking the analog synth, the Siamese Pearl allows Carlos Oni to indulge his abrasive, experimental impulses. He mixes sound collages, field recordings, and tape loops to approximate a primordial form of industrial music. And unlike the spontaneous creativity of Opus Finis, Oni describes his side project as "very premeditated."
Flesh Graey Display
Sean 8* was a member of the earliest incarnation of Opus Finis, and in some ways, with Jeancarlo providing the musical backing, Flesh is simply the flip side of the same coin. But where Oni applies blunt force, Sean 8* prefers a more subdued, considered approach. Flesh still gets under the skin without being as purposefully antagonistic as Opus Finis.
Some might call it simple, others stripped down. Either way, Ronin is nothing if not direct. And directness has its benefits: Tracks like "In the Provisions" and "Black Bird Watch" are probably as explicitly pop and danceable as minimal electronics get. It's the perfect soundtrack for a night out or sitting in your room thinking about one.