Interview with Akiko Sampson of dark post-punk band Ötzi

Kevin Brown

The music of dark post-punk band Ötzi juxtaposes haunting melodic and aggressive musical elements, often within the same song. Their highly rhythmic sound twists in unexpected directions, with strongly focused songwriting keeping things together. It’s easy to pick out influences in Ötzi’s music, yet the resulting style is unlike anything else. Hailing from Oakland, CA, the group consists of singer/bassist Akiko Sampson, singer/drummer Gina Marie, guitarist K. Dylan Edrich and multi-instrumentalist Winter Zora. Though their planned spring tour is cancelled due to COVID-19, Ötzi will be releasing a new album, “Storm,” on May 22, 2020. In an email interview, Akiko discussed the new album and other topics.

Storm will be your first release on Artoffact Records; what led you to sign with them?

Akiko: Both Gina and I have our own labels; mine is Psychic Eye and hers is Near Dark. We’ve released Ötzi as well as other artists we love, like Pawns and Rubella Ballet on Near Dark or Moira Scar and Bedroom Witch for Psychic Eye. So we knew we could do it on our own, but we wanted to see if we could release this album on a larger scale than our DIY labels had the capacity for. The discussions we had with Artoffact felt sincere and honest, and we thought if anyone could handle the release, they could. We also like a lot of the bands on the label, like Spectres and Kaelan Mikla, so we thought it was also appropriate culturally and aesthetically.

Was the album complete at that point, or if not, did it have any influence on the making of it?

Akiko: The album was about half written at that point. I don’t think the idea of being on Artoffact or any label that wasn’t our own really influenced the music, except that we were given the chance to reach a larger audience than what we’ve built alone. Given that, we wanted to represent ourselves as well as we could from a wider perspective. First we thought about all the records and bands and sounds we loved, and crafted songs that challenged us and felt substantive to us as musicians. Then, we decided to forget about all that and got really deep into our emotions, almost painfully so. We shared a lot with each other about hopes and fears and our individual struggles on a more spiritual level. Finally we got tired of trying so hard and wrote some songs that were just instinctive, and some of the more punk and anarcho punk songs like “Contagious” and “Outer Bounds” came out of that. In the end, we hoped overall to create something that would stand the test of time. I said at one point that it doesn’t matter what other people think about it, but it matters that we can listen to it 10 or 20 years from now and still be proud of it. It has to be something we can stand by. If we’d self-released we might not have gone through all of that self-reflection, but I think a lot of the melodic interplay and nuanced textures sprang from that work.

All the members of Ötzi seem to have other projects as well. To what extent might these influence what you create together?

Akiko: I don’t think the other projects influence Ötzi much, except that we’re all fans of each other’s projects as well. For myself, my work in Yama Uba allows me to get darker and become more personal than I think I do in Ötzi, but that’s because as a solo artist I only have to represent myself. Yama Uba allows me an outlet to consider my singing the primary aspect of the song, whereas in Ötzi we are always balancing any element that rises to the top, whether it be the beat or strings or vocals. In Adrenochrome, Gina is the front person rather than being behind the drums. In Warp, Dylan is the drummer instead of the guitarist and in Mystic Priestess, Winter is a main songwriter whereas here, she’s so far supplemented the overall sound. Ötzi has always been primarily about gelling our interests and playing styles in a way that’s more than the sum of its parts. and has taken a lot of conscious thought and some compromises over the years. The end result is that Ötzi creates music that I think is not just unlike others in our genre, but is unlike what we’d create as individuals. And in that way, it’s always exciting to me.

You were initially a trio but are now a four-piece. Had you been looking to expand the line-up, or did it just come out of wanting to work with Winter?

Akiko: On our previous recordings we alternated between guitar-driven songs and synth-driven songs. But on this album, we wanted to include both on the same tracks for a fuller sound. I wrote and played all the synth lines, but that’s not something I can do live while playing bass.

Winter wrote a saxophone part for one song so she came up to Portland to record with us, and we enjoyed her presence. She just fits well balancing the rest of our personalities. I’ve always wanted to play with Winter myself and have invited her to join other projects in the past, but it makes sense now to include her on keys and lately, second guitar as well. I think she’s one of the most talented musicians in the Bay Area, so I felt pretty lucky to be able to bring her in.

Ultimately though, we’ve had a lot of challenges as a band and in some ways, they were baggage from the idea of a band itself. We’ve played as a trio and as a four-piece with various other members, but Gina and I started Ötzi and have always had this vision. When Dylan joined, it was a real blessing, as Winter has been. But lately, I like to think of it as less of a punk band format and more like The Cure’s format, where they expand and contract based on the sound they want to create and in that way, create a longevity that can’t be attained when everything is based on three or four people agreeing on everything forever.

What does the creative process within the group tend to be like?

Akiko: It’s changed over time, as we got more comfortable with working together. It used to be very labored but now we’re all quick to state our opinions and that makes it a lot faster. Usually, we jam a bit and now when we find something we like, we all know it instantly and get really pumped! After the song has parts written, we all talk about what the music feels like, topics or emotions it evokes. And then I come up with lyrics and vocal melodies.

Rarely, it’s the opposite where the topic or lyrics are first. One of our upcoming singles, “Hold Still”, was written that way. We were at a party and Gina, out of nowhere, demanded a real love song – I was shocked! I have no idea how to write positively as it’s not my nature, but I tried to rise to the challenge. In the end, we all really fell in love with the song as we wrote it.

Do you feel the evolution of the band has affected how the older material now comes across live?

Akiko: We’ve definitely dropped some songs! We keep what still feels relevant, and for longer sets like we include a few of the very early ones. But sometimes I think of returning to old ones since people still ask about it. I heard an old song, “Drought”, on my friend’s stereo today and I thought, “Hey! That’s not bad. No wonder people like it.” But we played it for a long time, and we’re ready to move forward with the newer songs now.

Ötzi is the name of a glacier mummy; what made you use the name for the band?

Akiko: We just couldn’t think of a band name for like 6 months. No one liked anything anyone else suggested. Finally, our keyboardist at the time, Lindsay, said she’d been obsessed with this ice mummy since she was in high school in Germany. And since no one had any objections, we decided to name ourselves after him – a cold, cold man.

I feel your music transcends genres and would appeal to a variety of different audiences. To what degree do you consciously think about who your audience is/might be?

Akiko: I think the new album, ‘Storm’, takes off right where ‘Ghosts’ left off, but moves the sound in new directions. I would say we do think about who our audience might be, and we got caught up a bit in deciding if songs were “right” or not as we were completing the album. Eventually though, we decided we were tired of thinking so hard about it, and if we didn’t fit in completely with the current trends in post-punk music that was okay. If we never get invited to some of the big festivals because of that, that’s okay. We’re never going to be a synth-heavy band, we’re never going to be a bunch of white dudes with slicked back hair, we’re never going to be apolitical. We are always essentially a punk band, so as we finished the last few songs we decided to just be true to ourselves over everything else, and I think some of the best songs came from that approach. The audiences will come if they like it.

In a lot of ways it would be easier to sound more like the other bands in the post-punk genre, but that’s just not what the music is about. I guess in terms of marketing, all we can really say is, “Here’s who we are, and here’s our music, listen to it if you want!” What I do make an effort to get across in our marketing is the idea that we value trans people and women and queer people and people of color and disabled people, and we want our shows to always be safe and fun places for all types of people to come.

How did the making of Storm compare to that of Ghosts?

Akiko: In a lot of ways it was similar in the studio. We recorded with the same person, Stan Wright at Buzz or Howl Studios in Portland. But we found that although we scheduled the same amount of dates for Storm that we did for Ghosts, we couldn’t finish it in that amount of time, because the songs were just harder and fuller and had more instruments on them. So while the tracks were laid, Gina and I had to go back a second time to remix, re-record, and finish production of the album. We realized with Storm that we couldn’t go back to considering ourselves a punk band and saying it was good enough. We demand more of ourselves at this point, whether it’s a healthy thing to do or not.

Was it obvious that you wanted to produce it yourselves?

Akiko: We’ve had other people from much more famous bands offer to produce for us, but after getting those offers it seemed really weird. Like why would we let someone else produce our music? How would they know how our music is supposed to sound, and how could it possibly be better than what we would do? It kind of seemed like male egotism, like a musical version of mansplaining. We thought about how men are encouraged and socialized to think of themselves as producers, and women and non-binary peope just are not. But we had been envisioning this album for two years, and there was no way anyone should be producing it but us.

Also, we realized that the very punk, consensus-based method of recording that we’re used to was in some ways hindering us. Everyone on the record is an exceptionally talented musician and songwriter, but we’re all hearing the songs differently from the perspective of our own instruments and backgrounds. And eventually, there can be just too many cooks in the kitchen. We already have a varied musical style in the record, from punk to deathrock to goth, so making it feel like a consistent larger work was our biggest challenge.

We all felt strongly that an album should have an emotional, melodic and rhythmic arc, and I think no matter what you have to have a clear message or concept to make a record work. So Gina and I went back to the studio by ourselves to redo some takes and to remix, and we cut extraneous parts ruthlessly. I think we felt a little guilty after that, because if you’re assigned female at birth you’re socialized to be “nice” above all else.

Finally I said, “Fuck it. We’re the producers. We don’t have to apologize for making the record we wanted. We can’t make every single person happy about every single thing, it’s more important that the record is enjoyable from beginning to end.” That takes a singular vision, so we just went for it. And as a band we were all happy with the record in the end.

Is there anything else coming up that you’d like to mention?

Akiko: We have two videos coming out to support the album that I directed and am pretty proud of. One is for “Moths,” where we embrace nature and show a softer, more natural side of us. In “Hold Still,” it’s more about excitement and fun and love, and we got to go to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk where the Lost Boys was filmed. There, we just ride the rides and eat cotton candy and goof off! Gina’s daughter Tallulah got to come, because we didn’t specify what kind of love we were celebrating, and the song is dedicated to her. It was the most fun day for us as a band!

We were looking forward to touring a lot this year, with dates for Spain and Greece already planned and a UK tour coming together. We also expected to go to Mexico again and Costa Rica for the first time. But now during the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ll have to wait and see what is safest for world travel this year. We’re wishing the best for our fans right now and will find a way to reach them, through more videos or live streams, if need be!

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