Blending the traditional songwriting talent and uniquely nuanced voice of singer and guitar player Mike Sharp with the ominous futuristic soundscapes of electronica wizard Joel Roberts, the bizarrely named Otzeki have been making waves in all the right places ahead of the release of their debut ‘Binary Childhood.’
Cousins Mike and Joel have been around on the London scene for a while now, and it seemed like only a matter of time before a breakthrough was in order. I was offered the rare chance to chat to the remarkably erudite pair whilst they had some downtime on their current tour. Here’s what they had to say for themselves.
KG: It’s a great privilege to be able to chat to you guys – I guess the best place to start is the beginning: can you tell us a bit about the band’s origin and where the name “Otzeki” came from?
MS: “We needed to have a name for a long time, because we’d been playing music together for a couple of years under various different names and nothing had stuck. I think we were in a pub in Finsbury park, and we needed a name that night, so we picked out a book which happened to be on the shelf and the first page it opened on was an entry on “Ostrenski,” which the surname of a Russian person who’d set up this commune that got disbanded by the Soviet government. We thought it was ironic, because the commune represented everything that the communists supposedly stood for, yet they shut it down. Unfortunately we couldn’t remember how to spell it properly later, and so we ended up with “Otzeki”! I suppose we also saw the benefit of having a name that sounded somewhat multinational without actually belonging to any one particular language. It sounds Japanese, Russian, Greek…Basque even…”
JR: “And also if you google it we’re the only thing that comes up, which is quite handy…”
The pair share a laugh at this point. They communicate like a classic duo, finishing each other’s sentences and operating as each other’s foils. Mike strikes me as the more outspoken of the two – he’s taken the role of spokesperson, whilst Joel is happy to take the backseat, offering well timed witticisms.
KG: And what about you guys as a musical partnership? When did you start playing together? Did you always have a clear vision of what you wanted the project to be, or did it just take shape organically?
MS: “Well, we were both interested in lots of different types of music – Joel’s main interest was in minimal techno which hasn’t really featured in our writing that much because we don’t write at such fast tempos usually. A lot of our sound was down to practicality as well – we could get around just with a laptop, a synth and a guitar, rather than needing to lug around a drum kit or whatever. We’re cousins, but we only started playing together properly once we’d left school, or university in Joel’s case…”
JR: “Yeah I went to university, but I was mainly just doing the band throughout that.”
KG: Could you tell us a little about your writing and recording process? Do think that the limitations with respect to gear that you mentioned earlier helped with creativity?
MS: “We tend to write in a rehearsal studio in New Cross, because we live in different places so we need a free space to make noise. The album’s really varied – the more energetic tracks will have been written in the rehearsal studio, whilst the more intimate tracks like ‘Are You For Real’ will have been written in the bedroom – you can’t write that kind of stuff with people thrashing about!”
JR: “Or with Mum and Dad downstairs for that matter.”
KG: It’s interesting that you guys mentioned that track (‘Are You For Real’) because I was planning to bring it up myself actually. It really sticks out on the album – it’s got an almost Cat Stevens or Tobias Jesso Jr. kind of “classic songwriter” vibe to it, which contrasts sharply with a lot of the rest of the album.
MS: “A lot of the stuff I listened to growing up was that sort of thing. Classic songwriters – people like John Lennon, Cat Stevens and Lou Reed. I guess it comes through that it was originally written on a piano. Then Benny Giles, our friend, co-collaborator and co-producer, he wrote a horn arrangement for it that just gave it that extra push over the top. When you listen to people like Nick Drake, they’d always be working with people, trying to add something to the songs beyond just acoustic guitar songwriting.”
KG: And so what about your musical background? Are you guys formally trained or is this a more DIY approach?
JR: “For me it was definitely a more DIY approach – I’ve come from more of an experimental music background. I studied sound art at university, and I’ve always been interested in more atmospheric and minimal stuff. That brought an edge to the production style I suppose.”
Mike quickly cuts off Joel, mimicking “I dooo suuppossssee,” in a comically overblown posh accent and before I know it, the pair have spiraled into an arms race of ever-increasingly exaggerated impersonations. Although Otzeki’s music is deadly serious, they clearly don’t take themselves too seriously and are willing to have a laugh at their own expense. It’s an endearing trait that instantly shields them from allegations of pretension – a realistic possibility given the experimental nature of some of their songs.
JR: “But yeah, not massively classically trained whatsoever. I think Mike did Grade 5 Theory at school…”
At this point Mike is quick to interject again – this time in defense of his alleged punk rock credentials.
MS: “I DEFINITELY didn’t! 100% did not do Grade 5 Theory. Did music tech. Got a B. ‘Nuff said.”
KG: You guys have managed to balance the atmospheric textural stuff in your work whilst retaining conventional form and structure in your songwriting. Is balance an important concept to you?
JR: “People always say we balance each other out during our live performances…”
MS: “I think it’s actually a very imbalanced relationship.”
KG: So who’s in charge then?
Yet more laughter ensues – The pair are extremely friendly and open which puts my nerves at ease. I find myself struggling to keep them on topic with the constant horsing around, though! Fortunately the pair have a serious side too, which they are more than willing to share.
MS: “Actually I think the balance comes when we’re working with Benny. When you’ve got a third pair of ears, everything becomes more dynamic.”
KG: So what about singing, Mike? Did you ever have singing lessons?
MS: “Oh no I absolutely did. When I was at school I had lessons with a guy called Tom Williams who was a countertenor. I remember when my voice was just breaking, I was just so concerned with “being cool” – I had bleach blonde died hair and everything, and when I met Tom, he did these singing lessons in falsetto. He never taught me how to sing like that, but just being around a grown man singing like that gave me the confidence to really vary my singing. If I hadn’t had those lessons, I would have probably ended up as a punk singer or something.”
KG: I was going to say, there’s such a diversity in the singing on the album – you have all this wonderfully delicate and precise stuff floating around, but then again on a track like ‘Already Dead,’ you’re almost in full on rock belter mode! Is that punk attitude still secretly living somewhere in the background?
MS: “Yeahhhh, I think it’s because when you’re growing up you think you have to be cool. So you listen to stuff that you think is “cool”. And the reality is that nothing is, it’s all a show, an expression of some sort. If you’re not blessed with a voice like Jeff Buckley you might as well try to get as much out of it as you can though!”
KG: I suppose that’s what makes all these unique singers so brilliant though, isn’t it? People look back and say that Jeff Buckley had a fantastic voice, but it’s pretty unconventional in purely technical terms. If he’d spent all his time trying to do things by the book then maybe he might have not ended up being quite so revered. Anyway, so back to you guys – ‘Pay the Tax’ is the big single right?
MS: “It’s a convenient single because it’s a track that we haven’t released yet.”
KG: Convenient timing perhaps, considering all the revelations with the Paradise papers.
MS: “Yeah that’s basically what it’s inspired by. The truth comes out, and we all knew it to begin with, but for some reason people who are in power are able to hide behind the facade.”
KG: I think it’s probably easiest for most people to look the other way. Do you guys consider your art political? ‘Pay the Tax’ is a pretty provocative title…
MS: “Not particularly in that we’re not saying anything that’s any different from what everyone already thinks. I don’t think our art is intentionally political, but I guess on that front, we’re living in fascinating times. There’s a paradigm shift in moral values towards existentialism and authenticity, to such a high degree, that it becomes very difficult to engage with politics on a level that is separate from your own life. Even if you say that you’re not political, you always are, which is perhaps why I think you’re asking that question.”
Mike has completely caught me off guard with this cleverly thought out response to a question designed to put him on the spot. I’m extremely impressed by his ability to reel off such an articulate and well informed answer at drop of the hat. I decide it’s probably best not to probe too much further here, lest he make a fool out of me!
KG: Well there’s no such thing as a free lunch with a question like that!
I decide to steer the conversation back to safer waters.
KG: You guys are making the kind of music that requires effort on the part of the listener. I find that kind of music more rewarding in the long run, but is it a conscious choice to avoid instant gratification or is just something that flows naturally?
JR: “To be honest it’s just a taste thing really. I think we can overthink things sometimes and that probably shows.”
MS: “I’m glad that we’re more…digestible!”
KG: Could you recommend us some music that people should be listening to and maybe aren’t?
MS: “I quite like Oscar Jerome, he’s pretty good.”
JR: “Check out our friend’s band, ISLAND as well.”
MS: “I’ve been more interested in learning some older stuff recently.”
JR: “I’ve mainly been listening to classical music recently – Schubert, Schumann and Steve Reich.”
MS: “Actually in classical, I’m really interested in Daphne Oram. She invented this machine where you paint on a machine and it makes notes based on the width of the brush strokes and other stuff like that. It’s completely unique, and people don’t even know how to make it work any more.”
KG: Where is Otzeki going after ‘Binary Childhood’? Teen Angst Techno?
MS: “I think we’re skipping straight to late adulthood as evidenced by the discussion of classical! No, I think we just wanna write some super energetic electronic stuff, get hold of some really cool gear and maybe consider working with some live musicians for the live show.”
KG: When can we see you in London again?
JR: “Probably after the summer festivals, we’ll do a headline show. I’d like to play Village Underground, but we might have to talk our booking agents about that!”
Otzeki’s album ‘Binary Childhood’ is out on Discophorus Records.
Otzeki are playing the following live dates through May:
Wed 9th – Soup Kitchen, Manchester
Sat 12th – Crofter’s Rights, Bristol
Sun 13th – Bau Wow, Brighton
Wed 30th – Flux Day & Night Party, Leeds