With a recent mini EP release, summer festival stints and an eight-stop ‘Late Night Hype’ North Island tour under their belt, Otium is a growing presence on the local music scene. First established during high school in 2014, things really got cracking two years back and the now five-man band have since been making waves well beyond Whangarei with their dynamic live performances and unique evolving vibe. Lana Andelane had a chat with them.
A diverse spectrum of influences ranging from Aotearoa’s own Fat Freddy’s Drop and Sons of Zion, to American funk and soul collectives Vulfpeck and Snarky Puppy, marks Otium as an innovative addition to our current music milieu. Austyn Mills, Jesse Samu, Scott Wynne, Toban Taylor, Devon Mason and Grayson Barnes currently average 20 years between them.
Following a self-titled EP released the October 2017, Otium have continued to develop their stylised, genre-bending approach to music. In September last year the funk/rock/pop/soul fusionists released a new EP titled ‘You’, a two-track project comprising of the thematically similar but vastly different tracks, With You and For You.
With You presents an upbeat musical offering, drawing on fleeting flirtation. The song encapsulates the feel-good excitement of being with someone new. An ode to coquettish attraction it’s suitably dance-floor appropriate. With psychedelic synth undertones and funky bass line, With You is an example of Otium’s ability to adapt old-school influences into something current.
“With You describes the feeling of walking into a room / bar / party full of beautiful people and falling head over heels in love with basically everyone you see,” according to Austyn.
While With You connotes short-lived attachment For You proves its romantic counterpart, exploring more intimate devotion. For You moves away from one-dimensional R&B ballad territory with an uplifting inclusion of classic Kiwi soul. Smooth, tender vocals, a reggae-infused beat and summery soul inflexions make this the perfect summer love song.
“We wanted to write a kind of tribute to all of the people who have set good examples for us of how to treat your loved ones,” Jesse explains.
The band enjoyed a busy and successful 2018. They shook up Raglan with their Soundsplash set, headlined the Deadman Disco show in Auckland, revived their Late Night Hype local talent showcase, gigged widely and signed up with Stone Cold Records. Their success is a testament to how far they’ve come from humble Northland high school beginnings, as Austyn explains.
“We started as a high-school band. The other gentleman in the band, who’s actually in Samoa at the moment [frontman Jesse Samu], and I went to school together, and we’ve been writing music since we were 17. These guys [Scott, Devon and Grayson] were actually a separate band in Whangarei, and they were doing the best covers on the scene at the time.
“The band had a few personnel changes – the guitarist wanted to spend more time with his family, our drummer wanted to go fishing,” he laughs. “I knew Scott through one of my good friends at school… heard him play guitar, and holy moly… so the master plan began. Once we got Scott on board, Grayson and Devon came purely of their own volition.
“Otium didn’t really become Otium until these guys joined. About a year and a half ago it was Scott’s birthday, we set up in the shed, and that was the first time we played together as a five-piece. That’s probably why Otium has been so fun for us as well, it’s purely about the music and putting into something that’s bigger than any one of us. Our first big gig [for us] was that we got to play Soundsplash, where we got to really push the original stuff.”
Both this year and last, the band performed at the multi-genre festival Soundsplash, an event which showcases up-and-coming local talent with bigger international headliners. Alongside other homegrown heroes Homebrew, Sachi, L.A.B, and Kings, the three-day festival gives acts the chance to find new followers from all age demographics.
“We had a fantastic time and it opened our eyes to what it’s like to be at that level, but what is required to get to the next level. It’s been a very clear trajectory of us writing like people who want to be heard and want to be taken seriously; this is how we behave and this is how we perform. Having our new manager [Stacey Henderson] on board has been a fantastic help for us as well, and having that one tech who actually helped us out on our whole North Island tour… thanks to Tim Bell. He did it for the love of it, he went above and beyond every single time.”
Otium has done the hard grind, starting out as an indie group with a thirst to make music. Grabbing the attention of Auckland development agency/label Stone Cold Records was a major step, allowing the group to expand their team without signing away their creativity according to Austyn.
“One of my personal goals – whether it was naive or just ambitious – I didn’t want to sign anything for the first five years. I really wanted to do the grind, see what it was like, and make sure that whatever I was going to be signing knew what we wanted to get into. We discussed it with Stacey [Henderson], and Stone Cold did such a fantastic job. Not just from the managing side but also with their artist nurturing… they’re like a trampoline, something we can bounce off!
“To give a bit of context on how we started working with them, we’d done a few gigs with Strangely Arousing, who Stone Cold look after as well. They basically reached out to one of those boys asking about planning a gig in Auckland, looking at venues and stuff like that. They came straight back with a proposal to put on a gig for us, to see how that went down, and give us the option to decide if we wanted to keep working with them afterwards.
“So we did that in April last year. It happened really naturally and we worked with everyone really well. It happened organically, so it doesn’t even feel that we’ve gone from unsigned to signed per se, it made our team a bit bigger and [helped us] to start pushing it a bit harder.
“The number one thing as a band is to stick to your values. We didn’t want to compromise anything and wanted to stay true to what we do. Signing to Stone Cold wasn’t a compromise at all.”
A good group dynamic and united musical vision provide the foundation for great on-stage energy and an electric performance, something Otium regularly deliver.
“We’re very lucky. It’s one of the reasons why everything seems to be happening easily and flowing in the right direction. Everyone likes each other and we’re all good mates first and foremost. We’re crazy lucky in that sense, it’s unreal to have stumbled across a group of people who not only share a common vision musically. We didn’t have to do much aligning of what we thought was important, because we all had a clear idea and it was very, very similar. The talent kind of pushed off each other and [expanded] our boundaries creatively.”
With their melting pot of diverse sounds, it’s no surprise that the five-piece draws on a multitude of influences to form their collective genre-bending approach. Alongside Kora, D’Angelo, FFD and Vulfpeck the band members also note Sticky Fingers, Jamiroquai and Ocean Alley as key musical inspirations. With such genre amalgamation comes a certain hesitancy to use ‘labels’, music can too often be categorised into boxes for the sake of audience identification. But when an act doesn’t identify purely with one genre, how does one summarise their sound?
“Good!” the band members all laugh with Austyn’s response.
“I’ve always described it to my family as just hard-hitting funk. We’ve got other influences that come through in sections and in little details, like articulating vocals in a more soulful way. We’ve got a few grooves that are clearly reggae influenced… but on the surface of it, if someone walked into a gig of ours and heard two minutes of it, they’d likely hear hard-hitting funk.”
With media throwing around ‘punk, rock, reggae, funk and dub’ in a bid to hit the nail on the head, it’s apparent that through their broad spectrum of musical interests Otium have wide-ranging appeal.
“I was listening to Yoko-Zuna‘s album on the way home from Auckland yesterday and there’s no way you can categorise that either,” continues Austyn. “Like all the artists you listen to these days reflect a huge discography and they’re in no way limited to a genre, as such. They’re more defined by a sound, which I think is much more important. Like, your favourite author might write an array of books in a huge style of genres – but at the end of the day, they’ve got a signature stamp on how they go about that. I think music is shaping up to be more a sound than a genre… with music these days [you can’t just be] a genre band.
“A lot of it’s been done already like it would be hard to just be a ‘rock band’ in the traditional sense. That’s another reason why people are starting to blend and blur the lines between genres, just trying to make something different.”