Sometimes it’s the smallest decision that has the biggest impact on your life – just ask O Children frontman Tobi O’Kandi.
Following a gig in Manchester a couple of years ago, Tobi and the rest of the band decided to visit a house party and subsequently missed their train back to London – decision one. They decided to hitch a ride on the next available train – ticketless, decision two – and once discovered by a ticket inspector, the police were called. Once Tobi (whose family originate from Nigeria but are all now based in the USA) gave his name to the cops it transpired that although he has been in the UK since the age of 6, his Visa had expired a long time ago. What came next was four nights in a prison cell with the threat of deportation to Nigeria, followed by a near two-year legal battle to remain in the UK which was only resolved at almost the same time as the band finished recording their new album, Apnea.
For a band that could be described as gothic and dark at the best of times, you’d expect such an experience to result in a gloomy and unforgiving record, but it’s not the case. Apnea is an uplifting triumph that sees O Children genre-hop, loosen up and become a better band. As Tobi says “It’s like the Hollywood ending…”
Before we get onto the legal battle and the record itself, I ask Tobi to give me a little potted band history for the uninitiated. “I’d written a bunch of songs and didn’t know what to do with them,” is his simple answer. “I put them on the Internet and a clothes shop was playing the songs, which is crazy because those songs were really bad. Anyway, the guys who are our managers heard them and tracked me down. They asked if I had a band together and I said I did. (I didn’t.) Then I got my best friends that also happen to play instruments to join in. Harry and Andrew only met the day we met our managers.” O Children were born once Frenchman Gauthier Ajarrista joined on guitar, and if you don’t know by now, Tobi takes care of the vocal duties. Turning to the new record – O Children’s second album follwing their self-titled debut in 2010 – I want to know if Tobi chose the album title, Apnea, for personal reasons – is it a condition he has experience of? “I’ve had it for about 2 years now,” he reveals. “I didn’t really know what it was at first; I just kept waking up in a blind panic every time I finally got to sleep. I assumed I was just sleeping badly, and then as it got more frequent I decided to go see someone about it. The doctor said I had sleep apnea, which means my throat relaxes when I go to sleep and cuts off my breathing. It was scary at first but now I’ve kind of got used to it. Even if it means I’m tired most of the time.”
Given his health issues and legal battles, can Apnea be anything other than autobiographical, and did Tobi ever think it was never going to see the light of day? “I keep telling everyone that we were ordered to make this album! Obviously it wasn’t exactly like that; I just didn’t feel like I was in a good place to make a new record.” So was making the album a welcome distraction from life’s problems? “It turns out making a new record was probably the best thing for me,” agrees Tobi. “It kept me preoccupied and when we were in the studio it was like there was nothing else in the world that mattered. It took me away from the reality of everything that was going on around me and I had one focus. That’s why I decided to produce it, as well. It just kept me busy. If not for the band, our managers, and late nights in the studio I don’t really know where I’d be right now, lame as it sounds.”
Not wishing to turn to clichés, I ask if music does provide solace in hard times. Sure, it’s simple enough to put a record on when you’ve had a hard day, but does it help when you’re facing deportation to a country where you don’t know anyone? “It’s the biggest cliché around, but the fact is it’s true,” admits Tobi. “Once we were done with the record, I got a letter basically saying I was free to go. It’s like the Hollywood ending! After two years of grief, doubt and boredom, we record and master an album then we get the best news of our careers so far?” It does sound like an ending only found in fiction… “Sometimes I think there’s someone in some parallel universe writing a novel that controls my life, just fucking with me.”
I don’t want to dwell on what must have been a traumatising experience for O’Kandi, but I ask if he’s got any views on how the immigration service operates given he’s seen it firsthand? “Not really,” is the simple answer. “My only view is that they take forever to get anything done. I wasn’t particularly treated badly. When I spent 4 days in their cells I was fed and they gave me books to read. It just takes forever. I met a lady who had 3 kids here and had been waiting 5 years for an answer. That, I find crazy.” How did the rest of the band react to or cope with his visa problems; did they rally round in support? “Without the rest of the band, I would either be in Nigeria or a psych ward,” he admits. “Seriously they helped out so much and their support was unparalleled.” Tobi reveals that during his wait to find out if he could stay in the UK his life started to unravel, with relationships collapsing and falling into a downward spiral. But the rest of O Children stuck by the giant singer: “Even when I fell off the rails and started partying way too hard for my own good and sort of became homeless, they were the ones that put me back together and got me through it all. I don’t want to get too emotional, but I owe everyone around me at the time everything. I care that this album is heard, more for them, than myself.”