OttO Vector

by
Dorothy Hernandez

 

 

"So are you not gonna suck for the show?"

"Oh boy we're sloppy today."

"We're going to put that song there?!?"

The atmosphere is a little tense amid the Nintendo beeps, random swear words and funky sounds brewing in a Dearborn basement as the members of OttO Vector practice on an early October evening. The neo-New Wave, high-energy electronic pop band is gearing up for another high moment among the many they've already had in their young career as a band: their first headlining gig that weekend at Ann Arbor's Blind Pig.

The cramped, crowded but cozy basement -- belonging to drummer Willy D -- is decked out in random gear, from the deer's head over the fireplace that is outfitted with a Raggedy Ann bib to the classic movie stills adorning the walls.

This is also where the band's songs are born and where they self-produced their first CD, OV2.0.

But they still manage to have fun despite the pressure. The General, aka Dan Lee, the bassist, and Renee Miller, the vocalist, jump like pogo sticks side by side as they run through "Lots to Say."

Renee chides guitarist Ginseng, aka Andrew Lemanek, midway through the jam session. While the men, all in their 20s, aren't pushovers, it's clear Renee likes to be in control.

"What are you doing?" she asks him challengingly, as his tall frame is hunched over his guitar. He doesn't respond.

"He usually does this goofy thing," she says to me. He turns to me as I pretend to write notes profusely at that moment. He says something about being self-conscious and turns back around.

Later that night, Ginseng grows more comfortable with having a journalist in the midst and ends up answering a lot of the questions before anyone else can answer. (Must be the alcohol). At one point, he kicks out a squeaky toy and stomps on it as if it were a wah pedal along with the music.

The band whips through its song repertoire. Renee is a poised, likable singer with an anti-diva, anti-skanky style. She sings her heart out and doesn't fondle herself onstage like Madonna circa her Blonde Ambition tour. And that's a refreshing thing in a society that idolizes slutty singers with no talent and big tits.

The General, which becomes clearly apparent, is a laid-back kinda guy. ("I get up there and do my thing," he says.)

Willy D is focused as he pounds out beats on his set, listening on headphones to the millions of tracks that make up a single OttO Vector song.

Mike Glaser, aka Mike Sonic, provides the synths and video game segues.

At about 8:30, Ginseng puts his guitar down.

"We're done," he says and practice comes to a halt. They start packing up their gear, not because they want to get the hell out of there but because this is the fun part of the night, which is far from over.

"Now they have to have like eight cigarettes and get wasted before they do anything," Renee says.

This time of the rehearsal is when they go over song ideas and write together. The seed of a song usually starts in either Ginseng's or Sonic's brain. Each guy will write it on a keyboard and bring the song to practice where the others will build songs over smokes and Canadian Club with Vernor's.

But there will be no writing tonight. Tonight a reporter is present. So instead, they offer me a drink along with thoughts on their band, which has come a long way in a short period of time.

Things are happening pretty fast for OttO Vector. At another Blind Pig show three months ago, the band caught the attention of Gregg Leonard, who has a production company called Taro Entertainment based out of Big Sky Recording in Ann Arbor. Leonard got the band a spot on a soundtrack for a movie about fat women puking called "Feed," and he produced their three-song demo, which the band just wrapped up. Leonard says he is talking with a record label in Australia to pick up the demo, which will feature "Darrin," "Take it All Off," and "Lots to Say."

Making of the band

To all the 20somethings who grew up on a steady diet of cheesy 80s music and Atari, or to just anyone with a penchant for '80s culture (outside of Don Johnson), you will most likely find kindred spirits in OttO Vector, who fuse electronic bleeps, funky bass, piercing synths and cool melodies. Only together for a few years, they have already achieved far more success than any of the previous bands they were involved with.

Music has been a part of most of the band's entire lives. Willy D, of Dearborn, started learning classical piano at age 8 and started playing in his first band, Sideshow X, at age 14, playing music in the vein of Metallica and Slayer.

The General's mother was a singer and his sister played the piano. The General, also from Dearborn, tried his hand at guitar and piano before finding his weapon of choice, the bass, while in high school.

Sonic, originally from Monroe, started Ideosonics, a Radiohead-esque band, when he was 15, three years after he started learning the guitar and piano. One of the first songs he learned to play was "November Rain."

Renee, who grew up in Warren, had the least amount of musical experience before joining. She had never sung in a band before OttO Vector; she developed her voice while singing with the church choir. But her band mates say she's a natural at writing lyrics and singing.

The beginnings of OttO Vector trace to the end of their previous bands. The General, 27, met Ginseng, 28, on his first day at work at Buddy's Pizza, and Ginseng invited him over to jam. They eventually started playing together in Love Machine Blue, originally called Juan Valdez Love Machine. They met Willy D through friends later, and he joined LMB, which would play together for eight years.

Ginseng met Sonic a few years after LMB was founded. In fall 2000, Ginseng gave Sonic a roll of duct tape to fix his keyboard, which was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Renee was the groupie hanging out at LMB shows.

They've come a long way from the days when Ginseng and Sonic used OttO Vector as a way to experiment with video game music. Both were still in their respective bands at the time but the duo turned to video games as a way to deal with their Megaman preoccupation and tenacious hold on childhood memories.

"The dude who created the Super Mario Bros. theme is a genius," Ginseng says. Of course. Who can forget the theme song of those pudgy Italian brothers?

After making "cheesy ass video game music" for a while, the two thought they could elevate the project to become an actual band.

But doing so meant parting ways with the music projects they were involved with at the time.

Ginseng says LMB got stale for a band known for taking the stage in group costumes. "It was so refreshing to do OttO Vector," he says. "I just realized how much more fun it was to do OttO Vector. It was time to move on."

Next was the focal point - the singer. "We knew we wanted a hot chick singer who could wail," Ginseng says.

They didn't have to look very far for their frontwoman. Renee was a faithful fan who attended all their shows. At the time, she was a high school student who hung pictures of them in her locker.

"I'd give my last dollar to get their CDs," she says.

They gave her about five songs of early OttO Vector music, which Renee said was terrible.

"It was bad," she says. "I remember thinking, 'Oh God what do I do with this?' "

But she took it seriously and turned those early messes of noise and music into pop songs. One of those would end up becoming "That Way," the first track of OV2.0 and one of the first songs OttO Vector would write together.

She gave them her "demo," a tape in which she sang Stella Soleil songs and inserted her own vocals over the singer's. And she had the three at the first few sweet notes of her voice.

Now that they were a full band, they realized the difficulty of introducing the live instruments to songs whose main musical component was a video game sound clip.

And then came personnel setbacks. The drummer and bassist quit, at separate times. Willy D stepped in quickly to fill the hole on the drums, LEAVING LMB?.

As for the bassist, the Vectors didn't want the General in the band at first. Much the way the boys in Metallica couldn't relate to Les Claypool when he tried out for their open bassist spot, OttO Vector thought the General was too over-the-top with his hyper-active lead bass style.

"He was too spastic," Ginseng says.

The General learned to play bass from a funk and reggae player, explaining the ease with which his fingers seem to be all over the fretboard at once, much like a drunk hooker in a roomful of rich men.

"I felt rejected a little," The General says of being turned down.

But with a show to play coming up, they recanted, calling The General and asking him to join. The catch? He had to be ready for their show at the Shelter in two weeks.

The General learned the songs in three days and then joined the Vector fold in July 2004. And they've been making beautiful electronic pop music ever since.

Behind the music

Finding a band you really like is a lot like finding someone you want to fuck. First of all, there's just so damn many to choose from. You have to find one you actually like amongst the crowded pool.

There'll be the duds who you know right off you don't want anything to do with.

And then there are the times you find something you think you'll like, but the experience ends up being pretty average and doesn't last very long. And when it's over you say, "Oh that was nice," and you roll over.

And then there are the ones that are so intriguing, so mind-blowing that it pulls you into its inextricable spell. And no matter how many times you get it, you want more.

OttO Vector is a lot like that. They've got a golden touch, making friends and fans wherever they go.

"They pick up new fans all the time," says Jason Berry, who books talent at the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor.

Berry should know; he's witnessed the rise of OttO Vector, which played its first show as a band at the Pig in January 2004.

They all yearn for the artist's ultimate dream: To ditch the day jobs, to quit the practical professions, and get paid to make music.

"We all have our own lives," says Willy D, who helps his father run the family antique business. "We all got jobs. We do (OttO Vector) for fun, but we also do it to quit our day jobs."

Ginseng, who lives in Dearborn, stays away from technical jargon and explains the songwriting process. He says he usually plugs keyboards into his PC. His best stuff is usually born when he's half-asleep.

"Your brain does crazy things (while asleep)," he says. "You know how they say people only use 10 percent of their brain? I think a small bit of (your brain power while asleep) seeps through consciousness."

As for Sonic?

"He writes his best stuff when he's wasted," Ginseng says.

They produced their first CD by themselves using Cool Edit software. It took them about two months.

Basically what they do is take an old video game sound, of which Ginseng has tons stashed on his computer, and morph it using different software, Sonic says.

Ginseng doesn't proclaim to be a master at the guitar; in fact, he says he's pretty bad.

"I never really learned," he admitted. The man who never took lessons tunes his guitar in a way that he doesn't even understand.

"I've been told it's an A sus," he says.

But he's quite adept at the board and did most of the production work on OV2.0 due to his background in broadcasting school.

So if Ginseng is the anti-geek production geek, Sonic is his foil, the one who could wax jargon poetic about his computer programs and Mac setup all day.

Also, when he knows what he wants, nothing is getting between him and his goal.

The band's unofficial manager, Sonic is a full-time grad student studying music composition. But the band is always at the forefront of his mind. While studying piano at Eastern Michigan University last year, he saw an ad promoting Best Music on Campus, a battle of the bands contest put on by MtvU.

He submitted an MP3 and OttO Vector ended up being a finalist (out of 300 bands nationwide) with a chance at a partial deal with a major label.

They didn't win, but it did get them more attention. And the momentum hasn't stopped since.

They have another Blind Pig show Dec. 8, which may be the band's second headlining gig (their Web site says they're "co-headlining" with a TBA band) and will play the Magic Bag for the first time in January.

The mystery of the name

The members of OttO Vector all revel in the fact that they fiercely guard the meaning of their band name. For the past couple of years, they have taunted everyone with their mysterious name by refusing to divulge the meaning behind it.

So what's up with that band name? That's probably the most common question they hear during interviews, to which they will usually reply:

"That's something we're not allowed to make a comment on. Next question."

And that's what they told me when I first met them.

"Next question," said Renee, the only OttO Vector member who doesn't have a nickname and simply goes by her first name.

Not to be thwarted, I pressed on.

"So if I guess it, will you tell me I'm right?" I ask.

"If anyone knew enough about our tastes and preferences they'll figure it out," Ginseng says.

The meaning behind the name is as secret as the location of Jimmy Hoffa's body. Even their producer, Leonard, who helped them put together their three-song demo, is in the dark.

"I think their name is a video game reference, but since I don't play video games I'm not sure," says Leonard.

"Sometimes the mystique of a legend is far more interesting than the true story," so wrote Ginseng in an e-mail.

Myths concerning their band name swirl. For example, photographer Van Kaplan, the creative genius behind the pictures you see here and who is tight with the band, offered this theory:

"The band was named after Willy's dearly departed Uncle Otto. Otto was an alcoholic transvestite. How it all happened: Uncle Otto come over for band practice - this was before the band had found their name - and per usual, poor Uncle Otto was wasted off his ass, prancing around in his glittered footsteps with a fifth of Jack in hand. He was so into the music and alcohol that he lost all control, ripping Renee's beads away from her neck, groping the bulge in Sonic's pants, pinching The General's ass - that sorta thing. Anyway, after Ginseng insisted that Uncle Otto share some of his whiskey with the rest of the band, Uncle Otto become hostile, which resulted in a pushing match between the two of them. Ginseng didn't realize the potential of his strength - ala 'mentally challenged' person's strength - pushing Uncle Otto into a live amplifier, knocking both Uncle Otto and the amp to the floor. When Uncle Otto got back up, he attempted to gain

'revenge' by throwing his whiskey bottle at the head of Ginseng. Ginseng ducked out of the way and the bottle smashed into the wall - forcing the whiskey to spill out everywhere! Apparently, all of this excitement caused Uncle Otto to suffer from 'thirst deprivation' - so he dived unto the floor and began licking the whiskey from off the ground. Anyway, to make a long story short, poor Uncle Otto ended up electrocuting himself. It was pretty gruesome, and I do wish to leave the details unspoken. So, in short, the band decided to galvanize the legacy of Willy's alcoholic transvestite Uncle Otto, by naming their band 'OttO Vector.' "

That theory made as much sense as anything else I could come up with.

The "scene"

Creating music that strays from the typical guitar-based song often leaves OttO Vector in an odd spot.

Their uniqueness doesn't translate well into the neat little labels that make up the music industry. When asked how they fit into the electronic genre, Willy D says, "Not very well. Electronic music is one or two guys pushing buttons. Nobody's like us."

Such is the story of the quintet's life. Their eccentric brand of music has a polarizing effect: you either love it or hate it. But even if it doesn't float your boat you have to respect the music because it's that good.

They also find it a bit difficult to find bands to play with, in terms of musical styles and finding bands they get along with.

"They're a unique band on the local scene. They're a weird combo of styles so it's hard to find similar bands to book them with," says Berry of the Blind Pig.

While the band is fond of making friends with and hanging out with fans, that's not often the case when it comes to other Detroit bands.

They're a little guarded and cynical when it comes to the region's current music scene. They see the local music community as splintered and cold.

At an October show, the drummer from another band started heckling them.

"This isn't 1985 anymore," the heckler yelled, recalls Willy D.

And at the inaugural Motor City Music Conference this year, they were slated to play on a bill that featured all-girl garage bands, another example how the eccentric band ends up being the odd one out on bills. And the (insert appropriate term here) definitely didn't extend the grrl solidarity to Renee, who said the chicks even gave her shit about her wearing glasses onstage.

The General sees Detroit's scene as "very clique-ish," and perhaps a little behind in the times.

"The Midwest is stuck in garage rock/depressed emo," he says.

But they're not isolationists. They have a few bands they enjoy rocking out with, including SLAVE to the SQUAREWave (One of the best bands to see live because they have so much energy, says Ginseng) of Toronto, Innervision (They blew us away at a show) and Novada, who hooked them up with producer Leonard.

And in a display of high principles, OttO Vector won't do shows just for the sake of having a place to jam. They're strong critics of the pay-to-play scenario that's a frequent feature of most local bigger venue gigs. Often, promoters will require local bands to sell X number of tickets in order to play a show. If they can't sell them, then the bands have to shell out the cash for the unsold tickets.

"You're basically ripping off your friends," Ginseng says of the whole selling tickets in order to play game.

Just a few years after it was born, OttO Vector is generating a lot of buzz.

Berry says the Pig, which usually books about 70 percent touring acts versus local acts this time of year, is going to keep booking them until "people stop to care or when they break up."

Their hard work and professionalism has paid off. After their first show at the Pig in January 2004, it was only a matter of time before they would hit it big, Berry says. The Pig has a capacity of 400 and at their October show, OttO Vector had brought in a couple hundred. So for a local band who hasn't been around that long to score a headlining show at the Pig during the school year is quite a feat.

It's gotten to the point that they see one another more than they see their significant others or friends. But they're cool with that.

"We want to really do it," Sonic says. "We work our asses off."

Their actions show that they're dead serious. They have retained an entertainment lawyer to lessen the chance that the demos they send to labels don't end up in a trash bin. Having an attorney also helps them weed out the scumbags because often, the dreaded words, "Talk to our lawyer," sends the riff raff packing.

Like 90 percent of the bands out there who aren't U2, OttO Vector are living the rock and roll lifestyle, albeit the unglamorous side: driving in crappy weather to faraway locations for a gig, often playing to practically empty bars, dealing with scammers and performing at unusual gigs, such as the welcome back to school party in a cafeteria at the University of Michigan.

"We've done so many bullshit shows," says Willy D.

For those early shows, Renee was a little uncomfortable as the band's focal point.

"I don't like it," she says of the attention. Renee actually had bad stage fright in the first few shows.

Willy D says she was petrified in front of an audience and didn't know what to say to them. The band had to prompt her with reminders on what to say.

"Now we don't say anything anymore," Willy D says.

She broke out of her shell last year.

"She's light years from the first show," Ginseng says.

To write lyrics, she sits in front of the stereo listening to the music until inspiration hits.

Relationships provide most of the subject matter for her songs. Half of the songs are about her ex-fiancé; her strained relationship with her father inspired the other half.

To all of them, the band is an essential part of all of their lives. The five have a high amount of respect for one another. While they rag and rip on each other at practice, or whenever they're together as a group, in private each has only good things to say about the others. How much like a family is that?

And they have high hopes for the future.

"All of us hold on to fleeting dream that this could be something more," says the General.

Epilogue

The day after I had my last interview for this story, I was looking up useless information on the Net. I thought about the mystery behind the name OttO Vector, and suddenly the wheels turning in my head kicked into overdrive.

An idea hit me like an SUV doing 90 whose driver wasn't looking in his blind spot. I thought I had figured out the mystery behind the name.

I immediately e-mailed Ginseng and Sonic with my theory. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I did not have to wait long for an answer.

"Well holy shit, you're quite the detective!" Ginseng wrote back minutes later. "That's indeed the gayness behind the moniker."

Yup, I had done what no other journalist, colleague, friend or fan could. I figured out the meaning of the name. So, you're probably wondering what it is. I meant to write in this space what it means, but I am not allowed to comment at this time. Next question, please.



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