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Official Bio

 

Charlie Otto has been a Chicago favorite for 15 years. The founder of the cult darlings This Must be the Band and DJ noDJ, he’s sold out venues around the United States, and has had the honor of playing alongside many amazingly talented people including some of his musical idols, like Umphrey’s McGee and members of King Crimson and Smashing Pumpkins.

“charlie otto + his gear” is his first solo project, running on the cutting edge of both music and video performance, spontaneously using his guitar solo to generate what you see on the screen, or turning a knob to both modulate a synth and distort the images in the video. The technology to connect the sound and visuals to this degree is only recently being developed, and with the help of video guru DRMBT, Charlie experiments and pushes this tech forward every show.

The songs are not experiments though, they’re fully developed SONGS. The lyrics and chords are gushing with feeling, the drums are throbbing, the synths are huge, it’s very electronic while still achieving rock and roll status – probably because most of it is controlled by Charlie’s multi-guitar. Although the entire show is danceable, don’t be surprised if there are times you’re glued to where you stand and your jaw stays open. Either way, it’s something that you’ll have to talk about later.

Since 2020, Charlie and his gear have been playing shows big and tiny all over the country, from three consecutive years at Summer Camp Music Festival to a brewery tour of SW United States. He’s always thrilled to do what he loves best, and thankful for the music fans that make that possible.

 

photo by “In the Black Photography”

Juicy Personal Details

 here’s a list of my biggest successes and failures in music, the times i heroically leapt off a cliff or, more often, fell. 

i got started pretty late. sometime around age 16, i remember telling my friend that i just didn’t like music. one day senior year of high school out of extreme boredom, i picked up the guitar that was in the back of my parent’s closet, assuring myself i’d never pursue it as a career because “everyone was doing it.”

before i could satisfactorily plunk one Dave Matthews riff, i realized that i could just write a song, and THAT  was what really got me going. however, my early songs got exactly zero other people going, and i had trouble finding anyone to play for or with.

my story since is repetitive, with some notable exceptions: i search for the perfect partner that could do the thing i’m sure i can’t do, the thing that would bring my music to the next level, and then people would finally like it – i need a singer, a lyricist, a sound maker, a drummer, a video maker – but the stars don’t align, at least on my timeline, so i decide to just leap off the cliff and do the job myself.

i went to college for accounting, but spent most of my time smoking weed, power-washing decks, and listening to progressive rock – Peter Gabriel’s Genesis, Yes, Gentle Giant, Adrian Belew’s King Crimson, which led me to Talking Heads. and i wrote songs that were EPIC in a Don Quixote sort of way – no one heard what i could hear in the songs, and everyone agreed it was dumb.

the last semester of college, in the midst of years of nearly unanimous negative feedback about my music, i made my first big cliff-jump, deciding to ignore my degrees and advice from friends and family, and pursue music. my dad said, even good musicians are poor, and you suck. he then said i had to go back to school to learn music, but suggested i work at a music venue.

he was 100% right about at least that last bit, and fatefully i scored a job at Martyrs in Chicago. i was exposed to music from a different part of the world each night, met a lot of the musicians i still play with, and was successfully courted by my wife and partner in art, Kasey Foster

she is probably the first exception to that repetitive cycle i lamented: she’s extremely talented in a bunch of ways i’m not, and we work together on almost everything, which is why, when i play a show these days, she’s on the video screen almost half the time, and someone inevitably asks, “who’s that lady?”

one night standing behind the bar, watching my boss Ray Quinn play a Thin Lizzy song, i got the idea to start a tribute act. and since i loved Adrian Belew’s guitar work but thought a King Crimson tribute would be impossible, i figured i could start a Talking Heads tribute and just find a person to play David Byrne and everything would be great. in classic me style, i never found my David Byrne, so i had to take on his role myself, and in 2007, This Must be the Band was formed. a few years in, when our synth player Jim Dinou couldn’t come on the road anymore, i took on making synth sounds, which opened up a new world for me.

armed with my new synth skills, my drummer Alan Mayne and I spawned a sort of live band tribute to Daft Punk and other DJ acts called DJ noDJ in 2011. i would re-record full DJ songs in order to have the band play them live, and in the process i fell in love with DJ arrangements and with the process of blending electronic and acoustic drums.

these two bands toured the country and made a living for all of us, and all the while i was writing my own tunes under a few band names – Ichiban, Savvy, Grood. Grood had a yearly show called the ACTual show, which always had a theatrical aspect to it, with Kasey’s very needed help. 

all these original bands ended in exhaustion, acquiescence, failure. too hard to keep all the plates spinning, with not enough of that most important input, audience engagement. not enough people cared, an unbroken trend from my college days.

and golden handcuffs are a real thing. money and audiences for the tribute acts were growing, which meant writing and performing MY songs was always on the backburner. the more success we experienced, the further i was from my heart and the reason i dropped everything and pursued music out of college. so after years of equivocating, trying to have my cake and eat it, i finally jumped off the cliff again, and ended This Must be the Band in 2014.

DJ noDJ also was floundering, too hard to get 6 performers to keep learning new songs without forgetting the old ones. plus the crowd sizes were a major step down from This Must be the Band, which i wasn’t really willing to accept at that time. so, failure. even before 2020, i was basically done playing in bands. covid only solidified that, enforceable by law, or at least by the threat of cancellation.

i had always written songs alone, usually recording all the instruments myself. so when covid hit, i thought “this is fine.” (musically at least – all the dying and economic hardship was not fine.) i made many songs and music videos in my tiny basement studio, feeling inspired as ever. i also started to collaborate through email and dropbox with anyone who had spare time, which was basically everyone i knew in the industry.

another bandmate i had met through my tribute act days was Vince Naples aka DRMBT. we hired him as a keyboardist for a TMBTB/DJ noDJ/Grood tour but he’d be the first to tell you that he barely knew how to play. his curious and undaunted mind was always pursuing new ideas at the intersection of technology and art, and although i started as his boss, over several years, i turned into his student and deep collaborator. Grood’s 2014 ACTual show relied heavily on his video skills and his performance space CANVAS, and we experimented with connecting the music to video elements in a spontaneous way.

after that show, i thought i’d found my video maker, but he told me, it’s not that hard, just get Final Cut for $200 and start doing it. i reluctantly agreed and since then have made dozens of highly detailed music videos for my songs, some taking thousands of hours to finish. i’m very thankful Vince suggested that i try it myself.

back to covid – Vince started showing me a program called Hive he was making inside Touchdesigner, a brave new piece of software that was (and still is) like the wild west of audio and video. together we started to pursue in earnest what i had dabbled with in the 2014 ACTual show, which leads me to the current situation.

i now play electronic progressive rock and dance music, tied spontaneously and meticulously to very colorful visuals, under the name “charlie otto + his gear.” the word “his” refers to Vince, since most of the gear i use is technically his. ever since people stopped caring about covid, i’ve been playing shows all over the country, driving around in a Honda Fit, just me + the gear. it has been very fun, and all the collaborations i’ve done since covid feature prominently in my set, along with videos of all the performers doing their thing.

i guess it’s good i jumped off the cliff all those times, but it sorta feels like i’m still in free fall. i’m currently failing, i don’t have enough interest to earn a living. any day now, i could hit the ground and have to get a real job. but i’ll still make music and videos in every spare moment, same as it has been for more than 20 years. i’m totally obsessed, and the fact that i single-mindedly pursue my passions is my biggest success. love to everyone who read this or listens to my music, love to my collaborators, love to those who helped me get to where i am, falling deeper into a chasm, unlikely to ever emerge.

A list of bands I’ve played or recorded with:

 

This Must be the Band – Talking Heads  tribute

DJ noDJ – Daft Punk/electronic tribute

Savvy – original band with one full length album

Grood – original band with 2 albums

Teen Beat – duo with drummer Nate Urbansky

Nasty Buoy – duo with singer Kasey Foster

Mucca Pazza – a Chicago institution for 20 years, a huge freakish marching band

Dozens – Vince Naples’s band, i played guitar with them for a few shows in 2014

Sock – duo with Kevan Eftekhari

Old Timey – songs from the 40’s with Kasey Foster and members of This Must be the Band

Babelon 5 – female vocal trio featuring Kasey Foster, Kiley Moore, and Tara Smith

Kid A – i sang Thome Yorke in a radiohead tribute

Origin of Animal – i played a couple times with this far out instrumental act

Where’s Charlie – my first real band, down near St. Louis

Baron Von Future – Chicago electronic rock band I write with sometimes

J. Yellin – I produced his 2024 record called Braided River

Starcrumbs – a project with prolific songwriter Nic Nepomiachi. he sent me lyrical melodies, i wrote chords, we made an album.