Legendary Organic Trip-Hop Ensemble OTO Reunites Tonight in Downtown Phoenix

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Renewal is the absolute lifeblood of this time of year. As we roll into spring, damn near everything starts growing, everyone's energy tends to pick up, and it feels like there's some cosmic reboot going on. So when long-defunct Phoenix act OTO picked this weekend to reunite and stage its first performance in more than a decade, it seemed downright apropos.

The live trip-hop/drum 'n' bass sextet, which broke up back in 2001, may have become an relatively obscure footnote in local music history (having produced only one album and starred in less than a dozen gigs), but were a relatively big deal during their heyday way back when. Their reunion tonight, which takes place during an off-the-radar First Friday affair promoted by downtown party guru Quincy Ross, should be equally as big.

If you were knocking around the Valley music scene at the dawn of the early Aughts, then you probably heard a thing or two about OTO. Generating an organic downtempo pastiche of funk, broken beat, Jamaican dub, acid jazz, and trip-hop created instrumentally, they went wild during packed and crazy gigs at old school venue's like Nita's Hideaway and Bash on Ash, frequently collaborated with the likes of Z-Trip and DJ Radar, got a bit of radio play at the time, and earned themselves a legion of fans.

Thanks to their unique mix and the trippy and dreamy vocal work of their ultra-colorful and pixie-ish Japanese-born frontwoman Coppé (pronounced "co-pay"), the ensemble's hybridizations were unlike most other sound produced locally in that era, outside of tracks spun at the time by such old school DJs as Jimmy the Mantis Claw.

However, the difference between the sort of grooves coming from the turntables of that era and the sounds being produced by OTO, says keyboardist Micah Huerta, was that they did their shit live.

"Instead of being very electronic and club-oriented like all those guys pushing drum 'n' bass at the time, we brought a whole kind of organic, improvisational thing, which is where the acid jazz factor comes in, using analog instruments," Huerta says. "We had a live drummer, no click track, an upright bass player, and Rhodes electronic piano."

And they even had a trombone to boot, which he puffed into during and in-between working the keys of a Fender Rhodes Eighty-Eight stage piano. Huerta also played the 'bone in bygone ska act Kongo Shock along with upright bassist Barton Applewhite. They weren't the only musicians in OTO (which Huerta jokes was "a side project of a side project") starring in multiple bands at once.

In fact, OTO came about through a massive amalgamation and often-complicated cross-pollination of at least a half-dozen Valley acts from that era. For instance, both drummer Stephen Pond and synth player Terry Driescher were a part of such tangentially related acts and obscure one-offs from local music lore as The Martyrs, Suite No. 3, Cousins of the Wize, and Dub Factor.

Huerta and the rest of OTO ruminate on the group's origins while gathered at Pond's swanky man-cave (nicknamed "Ponderosa Lounge") in North Scottsdale for a practice session on Thursday night.

"That's just always been the incestuous nature of the music scene in Phoenix. One person knew somebody who knew somebody, and when we first started jamming out together people just kept showing up and contributing," Huerta says.

Although hazy from more than a decade passing since OTO's heyday, not to mention the liberal amount of libations being consumed at last night's practice session, Pond says that OTO ultimately evolved out of a old trip-hop/dub project of his and Driescher's called Oscillation of Matter. And a chance meeting with Coppé in 1998.

"I'd met Coppé and we got to talking about exactly what kind of dub and electronic music she liked. So I introduced her to Terry, and we all started bonding and creating music and she started digging up these old songs that Terry and I had created back in the early '90s with [Oscillation of Matter]."

Barton soon joined the growing jam session. Then Huerta ("I kept begging to come along and check it out," he jokes. "Next thing I knew, I was dicking around on the keyboard."), and eventually M.C. Puma, who would perform an interplay with his hip-hop rhymes with Coppé's ethereal and breathy vocals in both Japanese and English

Huerta says that Coppé's singing helped add another dimension to OTO's music.

"I think she's one of bravest musicians I've ever had the pleasure of playing with because she kinda lives in her own space and always has and doesn't make any apologies for it," he says. "When I first met her I was really freaked out because I thought she was really weird. She's got those screamy, weird vocals. She's not necessarily singing with a melody like a pop singer, its different. But musically, no apologies."

An ultra-hyphenated sub-genre act like OTO was par for the course for the unusual career of the affably quirky Tokyo-born vocalist, who eagerly describes herself as being "from Mars." Classically trained on the piano from age 3, she regularly performed as a child singer on the NHK TV variety program Uta No Tomodachi before starring on a number of Japanese music-related television shows in her 20s. Over the years, she's also released more than a dozen solo albums via her Mango + Sweet Rice record label and previously collaborated with Spirit Cave's Ryan Breen before his days in Back Ted N-Ted.

"Sometime if the music doesn't make me trip, or it doesn't have element of noise, sometimes I don't get turned on," she says.

During her days in OTO, Coppé tells Up on the Sun that she would never put an overwhelming amount of thought when creating her vocals and instead would just come from gut instinct.

"They give me brilliant beats and made me sound good and I just started singing. I don't have an ability to think [when singing] I just do it. I am a junkie, can't live without making music." she says. "This is not going to sound pretty, but if you can't go poo, you feel really bad. If I'm not recording, if I'm not making new tracks, that's how I feel."

After a beat, Huerta asks, "Did you just compare your recording process to poop?"

Coppé considers this for a moment before answering, "Yeah."

After things gelled for OTO, they started playing gigs, like their crazy debut at Cowtown out in the West Valley.

"It was nutty. We dressed up as burglars with stocking on our heads I ate a bunch of ecstasy before that show," Huerta says. "It was a really terrible idea because it turned out that I couldn't feel my hands and had to use my hands in a very articulated way in order to make music and I was just slapping. Coppé kicked over a studio monitor and fell off stage."

Gigs at such now-defunct nightlife havens as Sanctuary in Scottsdale, The Emerald Lounge, and Bash on Ash followed. Then their was their S.R.O. show at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe, which was filled to absolute capacity, featured hundreds of inflated condoms as decoration, and boasted Z-Trip spinning nothing by classic rock 45's as an opener.

All good thing have to come to an end, however, and OTO was no exception. First, Huerta quit suddenly in 2001 after a losing his shit during blowup with Driescher while mixing their self-titled album, which the keyboardist says was from a "perfect storm" of bad timing, personal issues, internal band drama, exhaustion, and the stress of production.

"It was so hard to be involved in that project, so many strong personalities involved. And I foolishly left on an emotional decision," he says. "And I've regretted it to this day. It was a really great record and a really great band with a lot of really talented musicians."

Then, Coppé dropped out later that year because of family issues and internal band drama.

"My papa was sick, so I had to go back home to Japan," she says. "And around the same time I was getting into this brand new [effects processor] called Kaoss Pad. And every time I sung I needed to use that baby, making my voice like 'waaaaaaaah' and they got sick and tired of it."

Applewhite says that OTO didn't stick around long after that.

"It was really over after Micah was gone and then after Coppe left. It was just completely dead. It was right around then that we played that last show at Bash on Ash [in December 2001]. It wasn't the same, sp we decided to split ways. There hasn't been anything for like more than a decade."

Until tonight, however, when OTO does a special one-off at one of The Quincy's parties. The reunion came about after Coppé was paying a visit to the Valley from Tokyo and decided to reconnect with some of her old bandmates. Bad memories and past breakups were all forgotten, things began to gel once again, and everyone seemed game for one more show. Huerta, who now lives in Baltimore, booked a last-minute plane ticket for the occasion.

"When we first were jamming tonight, it was like no time passed at all," Huerta says. "I looked around and we all had these shit-eating grins on our faces. It feels like riding a bike only you're like really drunk . . . It's hard but fun."

See Also: Oto So Far: The band behind the Japanese name reclaims the spotlight from its departed frontwoman

Oto is scheduled to perform tonight at 10 p.m. in Downtown Phoenix. Admission is $5. Visit The Quincy's Facebook page later today for the location of the party.

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