40 Days and 40 Nights on Drums with Elise Okusami of Oceantor

By Shelly Simon
Header Photo by Shelly Simon

The great curls that sprout from the top of Okusami’s head are merely metaphors for all the musical seeds this talent has planted over the years.

This is Elise Okusami – and I had the pleasure of getting “a pizza her mind”. The metaphor makes sense: when Okusami isn’t touring, putting heartfelt efforts into her project Oceanator or biking to the local beaches: she’s a full-time working wonder. An event coordinator and executive badass at local restaurant – we got to spend some time outside the office enjoying (of course pizza) at a rustic wood-burning bakery in Brooklyn. I got the scoop in between slices – taking the time to get a “piece” of her mind.

Photo by Kelly Sullivan

1) Describe your musical upbringing – especially about having musical influences/endeavors happening pre-college like with your brother, friends, etc:

I started playing guitar at 9.  I grew up on a lot of Green Day, Rancid, Nofx, etc. We had a kit in the house ‘cause my brother played so, sometimes I would go down and mess around on that. He would give me a few simple pointers like “hit the kick drum and the crash at the same time.”  First song I learned on the drums was “All the Small Things!” In fourth grade, four of us started a band – some people along the way dropped out, but me, my brother, and our friend David played in this band through high school and recorded two albums.  Don’t try to find them.

I really started playing drums more in high school.  I would play drums and sometimes bass for a thrash punk band – the songs were loud and fast and a bit angry.  That’s probably why I hit so hard now.

I drummed for a couple other friend’s bands as well, filling in the gaps. I even played a bit in jazz band during my junior and senior year.  I didn’t have a kit in college so I could only tap on surfaces until I’d go home for the summer/visits. Fast forward a few years later: I moved to New York and I was managing a restaurant when a friend working there told me her friends were looking for a drummer for ‘their punk band.’ It didn’t turn out to be punk at all. The band turned out to be psych-rock with some pop elements here and there. Yet I feel that’s where I really started to grow as a drummer – since we were writing all the songs together and I was writing all my drum parts. I got to explore a bit more.  It was pretty fun getting to influence the direction of a song based on what I was playing on drums. I hadn’t really written from a drum kit before, usually that came after, and I feel like it really helped to expand my writing and playing skills. “Yeah that time I was in 6 bands – I don’t recommend it”

Okusami drumming for Vagabon, Brooklyn Baazar, May 2017 (photo by Shelly Simon)

2) Fast forward another year or so: How did you get involved with Vagabon?

I met Laetitia at a show at Glasslands back in…2013 I think? I was playing with that psych rock band, and she came up to talk to me afterwards and we became friends. Several months later she was looking for a drummer to play with her; we met up and talked about it, and then I started playing with her.  It was cool because her songs were very different from what I’d been playing in the other band, so I got to broaden my drumming horizons.  She already had the EP out and I got to take some of those parts, change others and then make them a bit more of my own when we played live. We did a few sessions for this new record too which was a blast.  

We did a small tour two summers ago, which was my first tour that lasted more than just a few days.  It was super fun; it was summer.  We went with Bethlehem Steel, who were all very lovely.  We got to do some sessions for the record up in New Paltz. The last tour [Spring 2017] was incredible; I’d never been to most of the cities we went to and had a great time just looking out the window at the different terrain and landscapes.  We got to do a few fun stops! We went to White Sands, which was beautiful. The drive through the mountains to get from the desert to California was pretty amazing, too.  I hadn’t really seen anything like that before.  A small favorite moment of tour was when after spending over a week in Texas, Arizona, etc, we crossed over the mountains for the San Diego show and drove straight to the ocean. I left my shoes in the car and just stood in the sand; I stared out and felt very calm and in my own body for a little bit.

One of the less glamorous parts: When we had to drive from Seattle to Chicago, (which is about 30 hours) we decided to do two very long days in the car at the beginning so we wouldn’t get into Chicago too late on the third day.  It was surprisingly not as bad as I was expecting, I guess since we’d been preparing for it for the whole tour.

One of the more glamorous parts: It was really fun to play to some bigger crowds and bigger stages. The energy in a lot of the rooms was really amazing, and it’s just so much fun to be able to feel that energy while you’re playing.  You get more excited because of the way the crowd is reacting so you go a little harder, then they get more excited seeing how excited you are, and it’s just an endless loop of excitement.  

Our tour mates in Allison Crutchfield and the Fizz were also some of the sweetest people I’ve met.  They made it a lot easier to be away from home for awhile.

I think even though I was having a really good time, there were days where I woke up and was just like “I really wish I could just be still today.”  That was something I was really looking forward to towards the end of tour, just waking up and not having to be anywhere.

3) So it really was forty days and forty nights of touring! I’m sure you’ve got a stellar survival guide: can you share your secrets with Tom Tom?!

Not sure I’m the best person to give tips; but some things I learned this go around:

  • Definitely bring an air mattress, sleeping bag/sheets/blanket/pillow. You’ll be way happier.
  • Water bottle is crucial, a thermos for hot stuff is nice, too.
  • Podcasts are a good way to make a long drive seem way shorter.  2 Dope Queens was a go-to for us on this tour.
  • It’s okay to do nothing on a day off even though you’re in a new place with new people and want to do everything.
  • Call and text your friends at home as often as you can.
  • Definitely leave some room in your suitcase for new stuff you might pick up along the way

4) Podcasts are a sure-fire way to maintain a group’s sanity. What music did you personally listen to – whether to stay sane, excited or generally happy?

This playlist is a bunch of songs that I kept going back to on tour, whenever I was starting to feel sad, lonely or a little scattered and not in my head (or sometimes too much in my head). It started off way longer but I had to make some cuts because nobody wants a 3 hour long playlist.

Playlist Graphic by Shelly Simon, Photo by Jeremy Stoddard Carroll

5) Post tour plans? Formulation of future sounds? Advancing onto other ambitions?

Now that we’re back I’m trying to focus more on my own project, Oceanator. I released an EP in February 2017. I record everything at my brother’s studio in Maryland. Most of the time I play all the instruments, but he plays now and again. It’s pretty cool to hear something you’ve built piece by piece coming together at the end and feel like: “wow, I did all of that.”  I’m aiming to release another one this year! I’m very excited about the songs on that one especially because we did it a bit differently. We [myself + a few friends] recorded everything live and then I went back in to put some lead guitar parts over it and do the vocals. Once it’s released, there will be NYC shows and a tour happening – so keep an eye/ear out!

A drawing by Shelly Simon of an experience Okusami disclosed: “In Chicago, we ended up staying at this really big, beautiful place. Everyone got their own room! The feeling of being able to close a door and be in your own space, while on tour, is nothing to be taken for granted. I had brought probably a year’s worth of The New Yorker to read during downtime. That night I caught up on a couple of copies of TNY and felt so at peace”.

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