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Otto

Agent: Yiwei Meng
Territory: N. America

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ABOUT

In conversation with Massachusetts-based producer Otto, there's a particular feeling he describes a few times: it's a feeling of, "What is this?" It's a specific kind of non-specificity, or the strange, overwhelming sense of newness you get when you encounter something totally different to anything you've felt before. He mentions having this jarring feeling when he watched surreal kids' TV shows like the Teletubbies in the early 00s, and when his dad would play Kraftwerk to him in the car on the way to soccer practice, and when he was taken to a Marina Abramovic performance as a kid, seeing "naked people hanging from the walls and stuff". In his own music, a headrush of psychedelic electronics and lo-fi songwriting, he captures that queasy Technicolour novelty to a tee.

Otto was exposed to experimental art and culture growing up thanks to his parents, art school graduates who raised him in Brooklyn, and gave him an early love of Neu, the Sex Pistols, and The Pixies. The city was "chaotic" to grow up in, but the site of many formative cultural experiences for Otto – among the most notable being his discovery of a store named CONTROL, in Brooklyn, which formed the nucleus of a scene of devout synthesiser module obsessives. "There's this really vibrant culture of people making modules and selling them," he says, which he discovered for himself in middle school. "I went to this mini convention, and I met Paul Schreiber, who runs this company called Synthesis Technologies, and he gave me this broken mixer module and was like, 'You should fix this'." From there, Otto was hooked – he's now in his third year of studying electronics in Massachusetts.

Otto had already played guitar from the age of 10, and as he grew up and got deeper into krautrock, he found himself wanting to "make the sounds that synthesisers usually produce, but with the guitar." In middle school he got an Electro-Harmonix Memory Boy reverb and delay pedal, and so began using Memo Boy as an alias for the short, surreal musical sketches that he began posting online. "It started out with me one day making a SoundCloud, kind of by accident," he says. The alias became a home for the songs he had written for the shoegaze and grunge bands he floated through at school, as well as his own exploratory productions and bedroom pop. He counted Clairo as an early fan, and she even guested on a song with him in 2017.

Along the way, his interest grew in creating hardware that challenges preconceived ideas of what hardware should look or sound like. His latest creation, a wavetable synth, is a fluffy blob of a machine that's designed to look like a "genderless body". "Conventional synthesiser interfaces are really inaccessible," explains Otto. "They're kind of covered in language and knobs that, if you don't already know a lot about electronics... It can be very challenging to learn how to use these machines. So I wanted to make something that combated that." To Otto, the allure of a synth is its "infinite potential". From simple levels of input – his new wavetable synth can be controlled with one button – "you can create any waveform you could ever want".

After retiring the Memo Boy moniker with a glimmering, acidic collection of synth-based tunes titled I Got Laid Off From Soundcloud in 2017, Otto began sharing occasional tracks under his own name. Now, he's preparing for his first release proper, showcasing music that comes from the same restlessly innovative, "subtly bizarre" part of his imagination (the part where he gets that "what is this?" feeling). It all began a couple of summers ago, when he and his friend Max B – who he says has the "voice of an angel" – decided to make their own warped version of a kids' band, with Otto pitch-shifting Max's vocals and playing around with sine waves to create eerie, addictive songs that channeled some of the uncanny vibe of the early 2000s internet and children's media. As Otto describes it, things like the Teletubbies, or a dimly remembered Bionicle flash game that he played as a child have "really potent, weird atmospheres that are just kind of exotic and special" in his mind.  "I think these environments have subconsciously inhibited a lot of the guitar tones I sought to achieve as a child, and now I'm trying to pursue them more intentionally."

It was these songs that caught the attention of London-based musician Vegyn, who signed Otto to his PLZ Make It Ruins label, where Otto is now preparing to release his debut EP, World Greetings. "I was sitting in a circuits class," remembers Otto, "and I got this email from Joe, and he's like, 'I was wondering if you wanted to, like, make a record?' I was like, 'Cool. Yeah. I'll do that.'"

World Greetings is a tongue-in-cheek welcome handshake to the world of commercial music from Otto, while also being a maximalist, unpredictable electronic journey. He's prepping an album, also due on PLZ, that will contain more "delicate" pop songs, but wanted listeners to meet his most surrealist side first. "It's maybe like the bread basket before the meal," he explains, "but the bread is a deep-fried cheese ball with a fully ignited cheese sauce. Not necessarily a meal, but something to jolt the customer."

The EP opens with the immersive, triumphant track 'Greeting', before fizzling into life with the off-the-wall production of 'Bathroom On The Bus': a high-octane club production that balances light flashes of synth melody with a rubbery bassline. Then there's 'About You Now', a melancholic interpretation of the song first recorded by UK girl group the Sugababes, and made famous in the US by kids' TV star Miranda Cosgrove. In Otto's version, the melody echoes out as if recorded in a deep cavern, while chaotic drum patterns erupt all around it, giving the impression that time is slowing down and speeding up at once.

The EP reaches its frenetic peak with 'Hiding From the Cops in My Range Rover', a skittering, paranoid track that was inspired by an infamous paparazzi shot of Paris Hilton. "I made 'Hiding from the Cops' very quickly in a common area in a dorm one Friday evening," says Otto. "I made it during a period where I was making mostly drum-focused tracks that I could program solenoids [electromagnets] to play. Also during this time, I would usually try and push the tempo as high as possible, making things uncomfortable but not 'too' uncomfortable."

The occasional voices in Otto's music, which is tuned and pitch-shifted so as to barely sound human at all, represent the disembodied spirits of what he refers to as "corporate sprites" – the sinister-looking mascots or cartoons adopted by brands. In the parallel universe he has created on both World Greetings and the forthcoming album, Otto imagines these warped figures coming to life, creating havoc all around us. "This project is mostly based off of a narrative I made up that all material objects have spirits, and they dance around and control the world when you aren't looking," he says. "Sometimes you'll see a real one in a deli or something, illustrated with some sort of menacing grin."

Those voices become even more prominent on Otto's upcoming full-length album, which leans more into his songwriting capabilities. While sprawling, psychedelic tracks like the seven-minute composition 'Microplastics in my Bloodstream' and the taut, elastic opener 'Sprained My Ankle in Gristedes Juice Aisle' continue to showcase Otto's flair for strange electornic textures, he also provides what feels like a parallel universe pop song with the dreamy 'Guess My Crush'. Starting life as a song he wrote on the guitar, 'Guess My Crush' is "just 4 sine waves slightly detuned," explains Otto, "which I find really fascinating. It's one of the most low-level simple sounds one could synthesize - but it gave me this incredibly peaceful feeling and I knew that I had finally found a song or sound that I could use to channel a lot of very specific feelings into."

Otto's music may sound playful, but it also reveals his preoccupation with the idea of material (especially electronic) waste, and so a vague sense of decay and dread clings to the fringes of his songs. Imagine the face of a cartoon character staring at you from beneath the translucent sheen of a trash bag – that's the funny-yet-grim space that Otto's music occupies. "I find it funny and also very troubling that 15-20 years after all of this kids' media, there are still bits and pieces of these obsolete franchises drifting around in the form of cheap plastic shit, now in landfills and contributing to lakes of toxic leachate," he reflects. "It's something I feel pretty stressed out about." That very real anxiety gives Otto's songs a sinister edge: those corporate sprites can often sound like they're taunting you, and soothing tones can shift to something more sombre in barely a beat. That discomfort is part of the joy of Otto's strange, bristling music. His songs never make clear exactly how you're meant to feel –what would be the fun in that?




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