Interview with Thunderthief

It’s impossible to describe a Thunderthief show with just one word. Passionate, diverse and inviting are three that popped into mind as soon as Casey Ottmann and his live band took the stage at The Marquis Theater to an enthusiastic crowd on a Friday night. With nine different artists rotating on and off the small stage throughout the night, it was apparent that Thunderthief is not your run of the mill electronic music. Influenced by the metal and pop-punk bands that he grew up listening to, Ottmann creates an incredible combination of the strong aspects of multiple genres, and the result is a live performance that must be seen in order to fully understand.

Unlike most electronic artists, Thunderthief’s live shows consist of a live drummer, guitarist and Ottmann playing bass alongside running the computer on stage, all while vocalists trade places for different songs. The live experience lies somewhere in between watching a pop-punk band and listening to a DJ while dancing with your friends.

With a new studio finished, plenty of songs completed and many more in the works, 2016 promises to be an incredible year for Thunderthief. We had the chance to catch up with the brains behind the operation, Casey Ottmann before his show at the Marquis on January 8th, and talked not only about his start in music, but where he hopes Thunderthief will take him. Listen to his track, “Invisible” and read the entire interview below.

Interview by Shannon Shumaker

How did you first get your start in the music scene?

Well I started out in a band called Ruin Sisera. That was my first band in like, 2005. I started out playing bass for them, played bass for this band called Left In The Fire and played bass for this band called Esprit De Corps and then was a session guy with this group called 3 a.m., And then I played in The Battleship Agenda [laughs]. And then I was a session guy for Death Hickey Blues. I did a couple of show for them before. And basically, at the end of The Battleship Agenda, I sold all of my gear and learned how to produce music on my computer, and started Thunderthief in 2012. I started playing with a full band in Los Angeles, but my first show was here in 2014.
 

So what made you want to make the transition from playing in a band to producing your own music? It’s a big jump.

It’s a huge jump. It took me forever to learn. Basically, I wanted to not be stifled by schedules and people’s interests or availability or anything like that, so if I could do everything myself and make good enough music for me to be happy with it, then that was my main goal. I spend the last couple of years just learning everything about what I could.

Now, I’ll be playing with a live band tonight. I think I have nine people total playing with me tonight. They’re not all at the same time - I have a drummer and a guitar player, and I play bass and run the computer while we’re playing, and I’ll have five different vocalists that circle in and out of the songs.

I have the songs all written, and they’re all really awesome, and I’ve produced and co-wrote songs with people in Scotland, and the UK and Australia and Sweden and I’m playing all of those songs tonight. I can just play whatever I want and get whoever I want to play with me, and I’m not really held back by that.
 

So having a live band, and having multiple live vocalists sets you apart quite a bit from other electronic artists. Was it the live band thing that you started out with that you wanted to keep with Thunderthief, or was that something that came with time?

When I started producing music, I didn’t play live or anything. All I was doing was writing songs. So hadn’t started to figure out how I wanted to actually perform until early 2014, and I DJed a couple of shows and did not like it, because I was just sitting there, pushing some buttons and not really doing anything. I’ve been playing bass since I was seventeen, so I need an instrument in front of me to feel like I’m doing something. It’s totally awkward. So, I got the live band together pretty much so I could do stuff.

I like that it sets me apart. The songs, when you listen to the recorded versions, they’re very electronic - I play live guitar and live bass on some songs, or there’s a couple of live drum samples, but it’s not full blown. So when you see it live, I intentionally like to have that live experience, because it sets it apart from just hearing a recorded track.

I think the difference between a live music performance and a DJ type of situation is it’s not really about the DJ at those shows, it’s more about the environment. Those shows tend to have a lot of production and a lot of outside stuff besides the dude playing. Someone pointed out to me like, yeah, look at how small that person is on stage. They don’t really matter that much. It’s all about the music, and everything else. So with a live band, you’re watching them, and that’s kind of the main focus. I like to have the marriage of the two, to make it about the people in the room, not the people on stage, but also be really happy playing music and creating live music.
 

When you first started playing music and playing bass in other bands versus now, how do you feel your goals have changed or how has the way you see the music scene changed?

When I started, I was in the pop-punk/metal scene, and I knew everybody there and the world was kind of small. My goals have changed now, because I get to work with people all over the world. Just by that sheer workflow, now I’m not aiming to do a tour and go around the central United States and the country, I’m aiming to go across the whole world, because I can. I have that ability if I just work hard enough, to just go and play in the UK and Australia and Sweden. If I just develop myself enough, I can get there.

So my perception of me playing bass is, I have way less gear now! [laughs] I used to have this huge bass amp, and it took two people to load stuff, and now, because I have so much production playing on top, my bass doesn’t need to have a bunch of effects on it. I have a bass combo amp that is the best sounding bass tone I’ve ever had, actually. And I can fit everything in my car, it’s super simple and just much lighter. I can do a lot more with a lot less now.

I think it makes it easier to travel and sell yourself and make connections when it’s just you, too. It makes it easier to do a song together with somebody across the world rather than trying to get someone in a studio with a band. And I have this vocal collective called Sidekicks, and basically what we do is write top line to other producers instrumentals. About half of the songs I’m playing tonight are those songs too.

There’s this group in Sweden, we just had a song with them featuring Brandon of My Body Sings Electric, and Janaya from Nautical Mile, it’s a duet and we were number three on iTunes in December. It’s the coolest thing. I never thought I’d be able to do that, and it happened this year.

I was actually going to ask you about Sidekicks - how did that all come about?

That came about when I started doing Thunderthief stuff and released a couple of songs. What people noticed about it the most were the vocals, and how well produced and creative they were. I grew up listening to Glassjaw and Coheed And Cambria and Saves The Day, and all of these bands where the vocals are just so important. So people would come to me and be like, “Hey man, who did you get to sing on that track?” And I sort of became this intermediary between the vocalist and producer. So I basically developed Sidekicks because I know all of these vocalists, and we love writing together, so we’re going to write together on your song.

I have Brandon as a Sidekick. Janaya, from Nautical Mile, she’s playing tonight, Kyle Coy, who used to be in The Forgotten Secret, he’ll be playing tonight. I have a girl in Seattle named Danni, we met in Los Angeles. And another girl in Los Angeles named Dani, and this girl named Erin, who currently lives in Amsterdam.

So basically, producers send us songs, and I am the dude who goes, “I think this person’s voice would sound really good on this.” And then we get together and write the song, I engineer and make everything awesome and recorded and then send them the vocals and they complete the mix. And that’s sidekicks.

It’s awesome. We got to write for Universal Australia this year. They didn’t take any of the songs, but yeah. One of the songs we’re playing tonight, a DJ called Tigerlily just fell in love with. She’s this really big artist from Australia, and she just played it all over the world, and then she reached out to us to write some songs for her album. We were just one of several people who were writing songs, so none of them got chosen, but it was awesome.
 

So you were talking about how the vocals in your music were influenced by the pop-punk and metal that you grew up listening to. How do you go about meshing the two genres?

I’m still working through it. I’m trying to be really diverse as far as the palate of genres that I’m able to make. The record that I’m working on that I want to release in 2016 will showcase that kind of stuff. But I watch a lot of movies when I’m writing music, because I can just have my computer and my headphones on and have a movie on and just start working on stuff. So a lot of the songs that I write are influenced by movies that I’m watching. I’ll start writing stuff based on that, and then when I send the song over to a vocalist, I’ll be like, “I was watching this movie, and I was thinking about this, and this is kind of what the song means to me, so let's write around that. But don’t just go around what I was feeling, feel it on your own and let's find that center.”

Every vocalist is going to be different and every process is going to be different, so I don’t want to stifle people's’ creativity, so I kind of just give them the song and tell them what I was thinking, but they want to go somewhere else, then let’s go there.
 

If you could change anything about the music scene, what would you change and why?

I guess I’d change people’s reluctance for things they don’t understand. When I lived in Los Angeles, people were so excited to hear all different genres of music, and no show had the same two sounding bands on it. It was three or four way different sounding people on a show. Everyone who was there was taking it all in. But here, everyone kind of puts themselves into these niches where they don’t really want to go outside and play shows with someone like me if they’re a rock band. I would like people to open up their minds a little bit more about the kinds of music that can be performed in a night. It makes for a much more diverse evening for everybody.
 

Then you get people who come out who may not normally listen to a certain band but end up really digging it.

Exactly!
 

I think your music is cool in that aspect because it’s the bridging of the electronic and the pop-punk and those two genres, and there’s a little bit of something for everyone.

Thank you! That’s what I was trying to do, because I love that. I rip off Rufio’s guitar riffs every single day and Coheed And Cambria’s bass playing is one of my biggest influences. The electronic production is its own thing, I have a list of influences like The Chemical Brothers and BT and Crystal Method. Those guys are where I get a lot of my sound ideas from, but Saves The Day, Coheed And Cambria, Glassjaw, those are my bands.
 

A lot of people tend to get reluctant when it comes to electronic music too, because they have this idea in their head of what electronic music means, like raves and drug use and things like that. I used to think that way too, but electronic shows are some of the most inviting places I’ve ever been.

When you’re immersed in those shows - even if there is a lot of drugs, people are drinking at rock shows, so it’s the same thing. If you go to one of those shows, everyone is just stoked to be there, because that’s the whole focus of the show, to make everybody happy. The DJs play songs based on what the crowd is feeling. They’re looking out to the crowd to just provide for the night. It’s very symbiotic. It’s something that I think a lot of people could learn, because in other music scenes, it seems like there’s a lot of selfishness. Like, “I’m on stage, these are my songs.” It’s not about, “Are these people vibing on this?” That’s hard with different genres because you have a live band, but if you see that maybe the crowd isn’t digging this song, but they like the next one, you move in that direction. It can go however you want it go.

You said you want to work on some new music this year, so what else do you have planned?

I just got done building my studio. It’s actually right near the Gothic Theatre, it’s called The Boom Boom Room. Me, and Kevin from Kaji and a couple of other guys are partners in it. We just built this creative space that you can make as much music of any kind. We have a video editing computer there and full capabilities to make whatever kind of music you want, however you want. That’s the goal for this year.

I went to South By Southwest last year for the first time, and I’m really hoping to play that again this year as well as play some festivals in the summertime. Between that and just completing my record, that’s my 2016 plan. I have a plethora of different sounding songs for the record, too.

When are you thinking of releasing it?

I stopped putting a time limit on something, because that seems way more stressful than just taking your time to create something awesome and then just putting it out when it’s ready. It’s an easier and less stressful way to go about things, if you can afford to do it. It’s something that’s nice for me, is I don’t have to play shows for my living. I can just write music when I want and when it’s ready, it’s ready.

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