By Madeleine Campbell for Tom Tom Magazine
It’s been a busy four years for Philadelphia-based drummer Katy Otto, who first appeared in Tom Tom in July 2010. In addition to running an independent record label that will turn 14 this year and a consulting and development firm, she continues to drum as one half of Trophy Wife, whose third album will drop this summer. I sat down with Katy in February to discuss personal growth as a drummer, a band mate, a business owner and a critical thinker.
You’ve been drumming since you were 17. Do you still take lessons?
I haven’t taken regular lessons in a while but about two years ago, I took a few masterclasses with Susie Ibarra. We did a really cool barter. I have experience in grant writing and she was applying for some fellowships so we traded a few lessons for some grant work. She asked that when you go to take a lesson with her, you take a two hour time block. She’s also a composer so she taught me a lot about using your fingers and hands as a metronome, really as a conductor would. There was one exercise she taught me that was especially good. Basically, you hit your kick drum and your ride cymbal with alternating heaviness, as in you hit your kick drum softly and your ride cymbal heavily at the same time, and vice versa. I’d do it for a really long time. It felt a lot like meditation. I still work on it. I’d love to take more lessons with her. I also teach lessons. My student is 15 and she’s excellent. I feel like I have to stay in shape to keep up with her. It’s really rewarding.
Do you feel like you’re learning and improving your technique and growing as a drummer?
Yes, I do. I find that people who play guitar often have a lot of ideas for drums but its sometimes hard to hear what they want you to do in a language that you understand. I’m trying to listen for that. When someone I’m playing with gives me a suggestion of what the beat should be like, it might not be instinctually what is easiest for me or what plays to me strengths, but I’m really trying to force myself to give things a shot and not shut down. Especially when you reach a certain level of proficiency, going outside your comfort zone can feel a little bit threatening at times. I’m really trying to understand what others are saying, even if its not in a language I understand.
Congratulations on your band Trophy Wife landing on the cover of the Philadelphia City Paper in February! How did Trophy Wife form?
It was funny. Apparently Diane and I knew a little bit of one another. I’m five years older than her so she knew me from other bands I’d been in. We started working on a newsprint magazine together. One day I watched her play. She just picked up an acoustic guitar and I thought she was so inventive. The time signatures and key signatures she was using were so interesting. I invited her to jam and we kind of took it from there and started writing songs together. We toyed around with the idea of adding a third member, a bassist, but it didn’t sound empty as just the two of us. It sounded full already so we decided to keep it that way.
I love two pieces. There’s something really exciting to me about the dynamic between just a drummer and a guitarist.
I think part of if is that people often think of drums only as a rhythmic instrument and not a melodic instrument. I do think of drums as a melodic instrument. There are times when I am purposely playing a cymbal pattern in such a way that it accentuates something Diane is doing melodically. When I go to buy a new cymbal, I take my other cymbals with me because I want a certain relationship between the sound of them.
Congratulations on Trophy Wife’s third album in the works. How do you think this album compares to previous recordings? Do you think your sound has stayed fairly consistent or do you see it traveling in a certain direction?
Well, we’ve definitely always had the collaborative aspect to our music. We write every single song together. I think this record is more of a developed voice. We’ve been trying to get a little more comfortable with space. Early on, we had so much to say musically and lyrically but now I think we realize you can also say a lot in the pauses and in the silence of a song. Diane’s my best friend and we’re entering our sixth year as a band. I think Trophy Wife is really a living document of our friendship and how we interpret the world. With the first record we wanted to show that we could be muscular and loud and aggressive. The second record came at a time when we were both going through a lot and experiencing a lot of loss so there was more of a sadness to it. With this record, it feels like we’ve already been able to exorcize the sense of heaviness and loss, so we’re getting to dream and imagine a little bit more, taking on themes like memory and history and time travel, from a place of a little more peace.
Do you find that after six years, the name Trophy Wife has any new meaning to you?
At first I just thought it was a hilarious, snarky band name for two socialized female people to have. I didn’t realize how many people, especially dudes, also had that band name, too. We were thinking recently about how many bands, made up of men in particular, use names that are…really intense. There’s a band called Black Girls, a band called Young Widows, for example. I got invited to a show recently for an all male band called Whores. It makes it a little bit funny. In my gut, I find it pretty disturbing. I don’t really know what its supposed to mean. Usually it makes me lose interest pretty fast. But anyways, when we explained our band to a Girls Rock! camp in New York I talked with the younger girls about how I think its pretty silly to want your life partner to be seen as an object and not a person. More recently, I’ve been thinking about how we all do objectify people in our lives. It’s kind of interesting and challenging to think about what role objectification has in interaction, how our relationships feel on the inside and how we feel in the world. So I think Trophy Wife as a band name is meant to be snarky but as time goes on, we’ve thought about it in different ways. A lot of our band is about having conversations. This has definitely been a big conversation.
In addition to drumming, you run Exotic Fever Records. Tell us about how that came about and what’s going on these days.
When I was a teen, I was in a band called Bald Rapunzel with my friend Bonnie. She started the label and I joined her. We worked together for about five years and then I took over when I was 21 or 22 so it will be 14 this year. Bonnie started it because she heard a friend’s band that was a drums and keyboard duo that she thought was really cool but didn’t think anyone would release since they didn’t play out a lot. She said “I’m gonna start a record label! Wanna help me?” Really what it meant at the time was that we replicated 100 CDs, made covers and took them to shows saying “This is our record label!” It seems a bit bold now in hindsight, but when Bonnie did something she was really passionate about it. After we sold all of those CDs, the momentum kind of built on its own. We had one friend who had a books to prisons project and put together a compilation that we released which was really cool. I was fortunate to grow up in the DC area where there were so many great mentors. She taught he how to press vinyl and make good album art and time the promotion of a record. We kept having the good fortune of putting out bands that are doing well. I think a big part of it was that they were all great people doing awesome things. It has changed a lot over the years because of digital music though. Currently, I have three active bands that are all fantastic and hard working. War on Women is from Baltimore, The Shondes are from New York, and The Dropout Patrol is from Berlin. I got to a point where I realized I can’t put out bands that aren’t hardworking. I really love and admire all of the bands I release. It’s been great.
What advice would you give to a female looking to start drumming?
I think to really allow yourself space is important. Play around with your drums. Set them up in different ways to see what is best for you. I definitely don’t think its necessary for every single drummer to take lessons but it was really useful for me. It helped boost my confidence so when I started playing with other people I wasn’t as intimidated. I don’t think that’s the case for everyone but it was really good for me. Finding your voice as a drummer is so important. For me, it required carving out some space in your life to play everyday.