L.A. composer/producer and guitarist Eric Otis talks about Gerald Wilson, Shuggie and his spiritual course

"All humans can relate to the emotional states conjured up in music, and the blues especially can be deeply emotional."

Eric Otis: The Mantra of Emotions

Eric Otis is a mostly self-taught composer, producer, guitarist from Los Angeles, CA. He comes from a family of musicians that have all made their own marks in the industry. He specializes in guitar work, track producing as well as composing, orchestrating, and arranging. Eric is a Los Angeles based musician that specializes in his own creative sub-genre of electronic bass music. He's been a session guitarist as well as performed on stage at theaters, festivals, and various other venues in the U.S., and abroad.

"My musical philosophy may be my own unique version, but it is still a product of other musicians. It was their music that I heard at home and in many locales as a young person that gave me the awareness of the jazz and blues culture." (Photo by Curtis Harris)

His music crosses the line from the hard and abrasive to the soft and melancholy and from tech-driven to serenely acoustic. Otis's influences range from straight-ahead jazz to dubstep, and from rock to underground rap/hip-hop, as well as various genres of world music. He's released material independently and continues to work in the Los Angeles area as a freelance solo artist/producer. Eric is grandson of the late Johnny Otis and son of Shuggie Otis & Lillian "Teri" Wilson, daughter of trumpeter, bandleader, Latin-jazz pioneer Gerald Wilson.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How do you describe Eric Otis sound and what characterize your music philosophy?

It’s hard to describe because I'm pretty hard to classify as a person.  I've been told that I was "complex"-maybe that's part of it.  I'm also really melancholy at times, and this comes out in some of the stuff I do. In music I tend to draw from the emotions that are closest to me at the time. 

Stylistically, my first two demo albums were almost straight electronic and would sort of fit into the EDM category, if you had to put them somewhere. Even now, a lot of my rhythms come from a dubstep/drumstep type of place, with the difference being that the latest batch of recordings has much more of a solid identity, and that's primarily because of the fact that I now use the electric guitar on pretty much all of my electronic music; this has given my latest material a much more gritty and rock-tinged feel. I also have an acoustic contemporary jazz album slated for release very soon also. That one is almost like the other side of me that completes the whole; sound-wise, it's almost the opposite of my electro-sound. In that way I'm pretty complicated, but hopefully I can put myself into everything, in the most sincere way possible. That's really what creates music that conjures up those great feelings, whatever that means to us. We really want to feel the person in there somehow.

How started the thought of hits remix?

I started doing remixes for fun and to see what my tracks sounded like with vocals.  Sometimes I end up doing them to hear a version of the song I actually like, as bad as that sounds. I still do them from time to time just to show the more commercially valuable side to my personality in the sense that although I'm very much into music from sometimes largely unknown sources, I can still relate to people on a more universal level also. With certain things I do I realize that maybe if a song had been produced in another way and with another tempo or cadence, that I might like it.  And that's where remixes in general come in; sometimes the original version could have done this or that and so producers tend to take matters into their own hands, not out of ego, but because we love the creative process. However, I admit that technology has a a lot to do with it also. The programs that we use now days allows for editing and sequencing possibilities that take relatively little time once you know your way around, and so a remix can be a fun side-project for electronic musicians.

Which memory from on progress in studio makes you smile?

One of my favorite memories from a session was actually during the rehearsal for the Gerald Wilson Orchestra-'Legacy' recording sessions. This was the first time I heard my first big-band composition/ arrangement September Sky, actually played by a band. I remember feeling totally relieved that it sounded like I thought it would! 

Which is the most interesting period in your life?

When I started practicing Nichiren Buddhism. I began to see my full potential as a musician and all the fear that was holding me back from the things I really deserved and should strive for. My chanting practice gave me a tool to focus my most heartfelt energy on the kind of life I ultimately wanted and still want. After two years of chanting I realized that playing guitar again live wouldn't be the worst thing; I had shied away from the stage for many years; next thing I knew I was on tour with my dad in Australia. That was a lot of fun and the beginning of a new start for me.

"Music comes about as close to anything ever has to giving me this. Sometimes I tell myself that someday I'll understand what it means to be happy." (Eric and Shuggie Otis on stage, Photo by Nelson Onofre - Electric Eyes Photography)

Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

The best moment of my career was actually not on stage, but in the off hours before a gig in Montreux. I was with my dad Shuggie's band which at that time included me, my uncle Nick (drums), my uncle Jon (percussion), and my brother Lucky (bass). I just remember feeling a great sense of appreciation for having such a life as to be with my family in a fascinating new environment, being paid to stay in a great place and do what I love.

The worst moment was when I was out of tune at the Playboy Jazz Fest playing with Gerald Wilson when I was pretty young (no excuse), but yeah, and the thing is that had no tuner and couldn't hear myself onstage and so I didn't know until I saw a family-shot bootleg videotape later on..lol 

Why did you think that the Jazz and Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

It seems to me that jazz and blues has relatively limited exposure in the U.S. I think this might be why the following that we have for these kinds of music is so devoted to making sure that this music's true history as it relates to the African-American contribution to modern music, is preserved. This element is so important to remember. This is the folk music of the people that suffered and then rose to a greater life-condition; now this music is here for all to appreciate and participate in. All humans can relate to the emotional states conjured up in music, and the blues especially can be deeply emotional.

What do you learn about yourself from the jazz and blues culture?

The easiest way for me to answer this is by saying that because of the musicians in my family that did music first, I now do music. My musical philosophy may be my own unique version, but it is still a product of other musicians. It was their music that I heard at home and in many locales as a young person that gave me the awareness of the jazz and blues culture. This awareness alone is important, especially in the U.S., where the contributions of blacks are overlooked or simply credited to some other source out of fear that people may be more prone to buy into a style if a white artist does it. In this way, my thinking about matters of culture and musical styles, though I don't limit myself, has been influenced by this conversation; my attitude about things comes out in the way I groove when I make a song. This is how I can always find that link to my past, as it relates to my music. We're all a product of our experiences, and many of mine were born out the musical culture in my family, which is all races. In this way I can also see how different I am than many jazz and blues musicians. I love all music, but I know that ultimately I can't be easily classified, which is good!

What does the jazz & blues mean to you?

To me, it brings to mind my family more than anything else. As it relates to culture, as I said in the last question, popular American music today of all genres comes from the blues as it was the basis for what became rock and roll, which then gave us the popular backbeat that gave us funk, modern r&b, hip/hop, and has now ultimately transformed into the modern electronic "bass" music scene which for the most part as it relates to today, is a post hip/hop sound. Although many electronic music producers come from all walks of life, what we think of as bass music started with the rap beat and the idea of having an abundance of bass in the mix to ensure that you could play it loud in your car and make an impression! (It sounds tough!), and at one time you only saw/heard this kind of stereo-bumping going on in the so-called ghettos of certain American cities; now that low-bottom (funk based) beat is an element in almost all popular forms where the dance scene is being targeted. My point is that the basis for all these forms is ultimately the blues style that came originally, from the southern blacks of the U.S. (My lecture for the day!)

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you?

At this stage the most notable meetings in my life would be mostly meeting musicians I've looked up to. I've met a lot of interesting musicians like Cedar Walton, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Bob Dylan, and a lot of people that I can't remember right now! However, I feel like to answer this kind of question the right way I may need a few more years to see what life brings! I guess I'm still figuring out the first part of the question, what's really important to me?

"When I started practicing Nichiren Buddhism. I began to see my full potential as a musician and all the fear that was holding me back from the things I really deserved and should strive for."

What is the best advice ever given you?

The best advice I ever got was from my aunt Nancy when she suggested that I try chanting, as in Nichiren Buddhism. This spiritual course began a transformation inside me that I now see was a vital component to who I am and who I'm becoming. We belong to an organization called the SGI, which is also an organization dedicated to world peace. Before I started practicing and studying Buddhism I couldn't see through my troubles most of the time and was unhappy a lot. I would suggest this practice to anyone regardless of their upbringing; I had been baptized Catholic.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past?

What I miss in modern music -monumental guitar solos!

What are your hopes and fears for the future of music?

One thing that comes to mind is my desire to see undeniable musical ability celebrated. I won't even put my fears out there; I'm too hopeful that we can make good things happen!

Do you remember anything funny from show time with your father Shuggie Otis?

For me the funniest thing I can think of would be the dancing we had on stage in Tokyo. When I turned around during the encore I saw like 5 young ladies from the audience on stage dancing and I'm thinking, dad?!

What is the usual funny story that you hear from Johnny, Shuggie and Gerald Wilson’s life?

Gerald often speaks of the time he and friend got into the Hollywood Palladium at a time they didn't really allow blacks in as general audience members. He says that the woman at the box-office wouldn't sell them a ticket and then they asked to see the manager. When the manger came out he said it was because they were wearing zootsuits (hope I spelled that right!). They weren't wearing zootsuits and so they challenged this and the manager said he'd have to measure their pants at the leg openings. They needed to be bigger than 19 inches around to not qualify as zootsuit style trousers. They turned out to not be wearing zootsuits and the manager told the woman to sell them the admission tickets.                               (Photo: Gerald Wilson with Eric Otis and Anthony Wilson)

Shuggie (Otis) told me about a time when he was in school and his hair had gotten too long and one of the administrators told him that he needed to cut his hair. And so my dad decided to use a heavy pomade to slick his hair back into a shorter looking style instead! (lol)  I can't remember if he said it worked or not but I think even that much of the story is pretty funny!

I didn't get a chance to really talk to Johnny as much so I didn't get to hear those kinds of anecdotes enough to remember anything if I did hear something funny. When I hung out with Johnny it was always out of the ordinary and so I was never as much in the moment as I was thinking that I was hanging out with my grandpa Johnny. I didn't even really see that discrepancy until I read this question regarding the funny stories that may have heard from each of them. I do remember he had a comedic side to him though!

What’s the best jam you ever played in?

The best jams I ever played in were the ones when I was 15 or 16. Back when I could appreciate the idea of playing music and truly not expecting anything in return. Usually these would just be acoustic guitar hang out sessions that would sometimes become light-weight jam sessions where someone just may get an amazing solo in there and feel pumped! Back then I didn't realize how serious music would end up being in my life; back then I just wanted to show off. Those were the days!

What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

The most memorable gigs for me yet have been the European tour of 2013 with Shug. My family was there and it was definitely an awesome experience all in all. As stressful as certain elements of it can become when you're working on the road, I realized for the first time how much good fortune I had, not only as a person, but as a musician also.

"It seems to me that jazz and blues has relatively limited exposure in the U.S. I think this might be why the following that we have for these kinds of music is so devoted to making sure that this music's true history as it relates to the African-American contribution to modern music, is preserved. " (Photo: Lucky, Shuggie, Eric and Nick Otis, Photo courtesy by George Curtis)

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

I would not time travel; I'm a Buddhist and so this time is all that will ever matter to my life. Things happen the way they do for reason, as much as that hurts sometimes, it's the truth. I wouldn't be who I am today without the pain. This is how I reach for my emotions and try to create something relatable and beautiful out of it. Life hasn't been perfect or easy and I haven't always gotten what I wanted, but I want to get whatever it is I have coming through my own efforts as this person that I am right now. This is how we inspire others that suffer to get through it, so that they can help another. To remain where I am is to be true to my mission, even if I could go back, I'd choose to stay right here in 2014.

What turns you on? Happiness is……

What turns me on the chance to try again today, at whatever it is.  Having a life to live turns me on, even when it doesn't make me happy. This is how we grow as humans. Happiness is something I'm still trying to figure out. Music comes about as close to anything ever has to giving me this. Sometimes I tell myself that someday I'll understand what it means to be happy. I think right now, that's what happiness is for me; it's being able to venture on the quest to get there, wherever that takes me, and to somehow enjoy the trip (even when it's rough).  If I can live out my life out as Eric Otis in this way, I'll have no regrets!

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