Oto So Far

The band behind the Japanese name reclaims the spotlight from its departed front woman

For Chrissakes, you wouldn't buy a car without first dialing in the radio. And you wouldn't rent an apartment without asking if it came with its own indigenous creepy crawlies. These are high-commitment decisions you could be enmeshed in for months, maybe years, depending on your threshold for self-flagellation.

In comparison, asking you to jump into your dB-deficient boom car and leave your roach-infested abode for an hour or two to check out the unveiling of a new band isn't such a stringent time investment. And Oto isn't a new band, per se, since it already has a following that flocks to its infrequent live shows. And there is a recorded track history as well, recently rendered obsolete with the addition of two new personalities (singers Misty Chapman, a.k.a. "Suont," and Athené NaShea) in place of a departed one (Japanese-born singer Coppé). Ironically, Oto has chosen a sushi restaurant to talk about its recently jettisoned Asian ancestry. Think of Oto's December 7 show at the Bash on Ash as a blind date set up by a friend whose judgment you trust so implicitly that no red flags go up when he assures you this band's got a "winning personality."

Oto's got personality, all right, maybe too many for one group to contain. Several attempts to check out the band at its Van Buren rehearsal space were dashed at the last minute when some of its seven members were unable to make it. Five Oto members have shown up for this interview, which means that unless they are of one mind like an ant colony, there'll be lots of overlapping dialogue and plugs for other band side projects over dinner.

Oto: A dance band with multiple personalities.
Kevin Scanlon
Oto: A dance band with multiple personalities.

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Scheduled to perform on Friday, December 7, with Joined, and W.O.M.B. Showtime is 10 p.m. Also performing are DJ Essential, Egorock, and Jimmy the Mantis Claw.
Bash on Ash in Tempe

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Luckily, today's Oto members are on the same page about their musical agenda, whereas in the past the band has operated like Siamese twins pulling in two separate directions. The musicians formed Oto to be a performing unit that could freestyle and take improvisation cues from a crowd. Its singer was less comfortable with that idea, preferring sporadic live work and creating within the padded-room confines of a recording studio. What turned out to be the band's last show with Coppé at the Emerald Lounge last summer pointed up this ideological tug of war. Those familiar with the group's newly released self-titled CD couldn't help but notice that the secondary role of resident rapper Mister Puma M.C. had stepped up considerably, while Coppé seemed lost onstage, like the star pupil who neglected to study for the big quiz. When she wasn't required to sing in her native tongue, she mostly played button jockey on an effects pedal aptly named the Chaos Pad that still irritates Oto members months after its retirement from the group's live arsenal.

"Let's try to keep things positive here," warns good-natured drummer Stephen Pond at the first hints of animosity. But Oto's synth player and master sampler Terry Dreisher is having none of that.

"If I had a time machine, I'd go back and take out the guy at Korg who invented that Chaos Pad," he grouses. "It's a very unmanageable effects unit made for DJs and line-in situations, not for microphones. Coppé is very creative, the idea was cool, but when you get into a live environment, every situation is different. Every room is different. The Chaos Pad wasn't the type of unit you want to have a live vocal microphone going through. So it caused all sorts of problems live. Feedback through the entire set."

The Chaos Pad didn't seem quite so unmanageable at that last show, probably because the band had grown less reliable as well. The death of Coppé's father kept them from performing together or even in the same state for much of the year, and Pond maintains that "the newer stuff came off very half-assed. Coppé would come into town, we'd practice for a week and a half and play, and she'd be gone again. Then we'd be practicing the set on and on again without vocals for months. We went stir crazy.

"She didn't understand that. She said she had to be in a recording studio all the time or she'd go crazy. Well, we're live musicians; if we're not able to play live, we go crazy. We'd gone a year without playing. We wanted to be more of a band, bounce ideas off each other. It was like trying to restore a car but you're always missing pieces." The group rationally parted ways with Coppé several months ago, and its last recorded tracks together will make up the bulk of a Coppé "solo" CD due out sometime soon.

"We basically just wanted to move on and be a more cohesive unit," remarks Pond. "We just wanted to play with people who were gonna be there to play and perform a lot more often. Terry and I worked with Misty in the past. As an added bonus, she was friends with Athené, so we've had a lot of fun the last four months writing brand-new material."

"A lot of people thought Oto was Coppé's band, but the opposite was true. She was a part of Oto," says guitarist/keyboardist Rick Southern, whose work with the singer predated his participation in Oto. "Every article that came out was based on Coppé. Oto was always in the background."

Most printed articles spent more time describing what color Coppé's pigtails were than reiterating the musicians' extensive background in the Phoenix music scene. In lieu of the usual band bio, the band's Web site, www.otolive.com, contains a family tree that shows how far back the group's incestuous music associations stretch and will soon have streaming samples of all of its previous groupings on Oto's online radio station hosted by live365.com. Bassist Bart Applewhite was in Kongo Shock, considered by many to be the first ska dub band in the Valley, although Pond maintains he and Dreisher were in a ska dub band, Dubback, that predated it.

Pond and Dreisher also had an on-again, off-again project called the Martyrs that had a lineup going back to the early '90s. Current Oto personnel Mister Puma M.C. and singer Misty Chapman also clocked in time in the Martyrs, as did DJ Radar, Z-Trip and Scott White of the Hammertoes.

"It had a lot of musicians," says Pond, who was drummer for Cousins of the Wize at the time he met Coppé, who was looking for new producers. "I hooked her up with Terry. At the time, he was into a lot of down-tempo stuff. And those two started recording together."

The lack of recognition in print for the band has been especially bothersome to Dreisher, who constructed much of the music on her third CD. "Here we are working really hard and here comes an article and we get one sentence out of a two-page article. There's been stuff released in Europe without my name on it."

Much of the local media fascination centers on Coppé's celebrity status in Japan. Just how big in Japan was she? "We've never seen any royalties off anything, so to us she wasn't that successful," says Pond, laughing.

"When she was a little girl, she got to sing this nursery rhyme song on a TV show. Well, it got used on a recording that won the Japanese equivalent of a Grammy," Southern explains. "Then she became a video jock and used to interview all the touring bands, even people like Michael Jackson. She's had her picture taken with everyone you can imagine. There were TV shows, and she was really successful hosting them. Her parents lived between here and Hawaii and they had some developments, some golf courses here she helped manage."

Despite all this activity, she missed making music and subsequently spent much of her time in recording studios, where she first met Pond and later Dreisher. Says Southern, "The one thing Coppé always lacked was a real live band. She was always looking for somebody to power her vocals. That's why it was a perfect match since Oto was a strong bunch of musicians. She's been doing a lot of stuff with DJs."

Before gradually mutating into Oto, this final set of Martyrs was O of M for a 1998 CD. "We argued about band names for months," Dreisher says. "Finally one day, many names later, Coppé was on the phone with her mom and they were talking Japanese and she said, 'Hey, how about Oto?' Everybody was pretty blitzed at the time, so we all said, 'That sounds good to me.' We'd been through this routine a few times with other names and we'd say, 'I don't know if we really want to be called that.' But this time it stuck."

Oto is the abbreviated name of a religious organization, Ordo Templi Orientis, as well as a toilet manufacturer in Japan that produces a high-end throne which actually plays the sounds of a waterfall "so that other bathroom users don't have to hear the splashing and gurgling as you go to town with the washlette!!" How face-saving is that?

"The first time I saw the Oto toilet was in New York City at some restaurant and I looked down on the urinal," Pond says. "So it really did exist. It's also the Japanese word for sound. It's sort of cheesy. I wouldn't name a band 'sound.' But it works. It's too hard to go back now."

Although you could probably count them on your hands, Oto did play a couple of shows in 1999: a record-breaking attendance show at Nita's Hideaway, a show at the Bash on Ash with Radio Free America and a couple of raves. "Our first show was one of the raves out at Cowtown, the 'Cryptic Secret Rave,'" recalls Pond. "We'd play these freestyle sets that would have to last from midnight to 3 or 4 in the morning. The only problem is they would give the DJ massive PAs and give the bands these glorified home speakers."

"One time we were playing with Tranquility, a pretty big name in electronic music," adds Dreisher. "We were gonna do something together with them. The guy down the way from us is this Eddie Van Halen DJ who has the top of the ceiling stacked with speakers. It was so loud it was triggering Stephen's bass drum before he could hit it with a mallet. They fire it up and our whole setup is triggering. We couldn't even talk to each other. The wall was shaking."

"That was the only bummer about the rave experience," says Pond, shaking. "No respect for the live musicians. You want to go up to a DJ and say, 'Look here, we're musicians. We make the music that's on the vinyl you guys spin.'"

During the group's yearlong drought of gigs, it added Southern to guitar, something of a departure for a group that was staunchly opposed to six-string interference.

Admits Dreisher, "I had a problem with guitarists for a long time. It was all rock shit. Which was cool, it has its place, but it's not what we're doing. In Phoenix, the first time you play with a guitarist, they want to crank the distortion and turn it past 11. We're a bass-heavy group, so it was hard to find guitarists in this city who were tasteful. Rick's guitar style is that old school meets western meets surf, and he also plays the Rhodes. A lot of the samples are Rhodes keyboards, and he uses vintage guitars and it sounds real spacy-trancey."

While fans of the group's old sound will miss the dichotomy of Coppé's Japanese melodies going up against Puma's in-your-face word bazookas, they can enjoy hearing broken beat with surf guitar and a more R&B sound than Oto has ever dared before, with the addition of Misty Chapman.

"I sang with DJ Radar, Bombshelter DJs. I even sang with Coppé once at Higher Ground one New Year's Eve," she says, giggling. Chapman brought in her friend Athené NaShea, a dancer who had plenty of theater experience but had never sung with a band before. "Misty's voice reminds me of Billie Holiday. Athené's vocals are grittier, more harsh. They have completely different sound, but it goes together really well," notes Southern. "And then you have Puma on top of that. He's great live, he really works the crowd."

"If you're gonna lump Oto's music in a category, it's hip-hop broken beat, with bass and drums, a hybrid of acid jazz, hip-hop and drums and bass," says Dreisher. "We've got a new song, 'Athereal,' which is pretty broken beat. There's some dub stuff; we've slowed it up from the drums and bass."

"The main difference," stresses Southern, "is that we're actually developing songs together now. It's more of a controlled environment. It's not that we're controlling one another but the musicians are following each other. There's not one of us into the cosmos visiting some kinda space monster."

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