OCnotes is Otis Calvin III, a Seattle-based DJ/diviner, beatmaker, and bard. His albums and live sets run psychedelic hiphop and jazz through convex progressions of dub, soul, and house. At any given moment, OC will pick up a guitar or bass, play keys, or sing with a handsome voice you're surprised yet not surprised to hear coming out of him. In Seattle's endlessly sprouting landscape of bland shit boxes, OCnotes is that ancient bungalow on the corner with Corinthian columns, stone gargoyles, and cracked marble trim—a castle the developers can't touch. In total, OC has released 35 albums and EPs, and two books. This spring, Sitka, Alaska's HomeSkillet Records will be releasing his next full-length, Color Wheel, mixed and engineered by Erik Blood. OC had just flown in from LA when we spoke.
Part of your music has an animation to it. A cartoon quality. Where does that come from? Are you into cartoons?
I'm very into cartoons. I think about that shit a lot. The other day, I was chopping up old Bewitched episodes for hours. She's got that little doinky noise when she does spells with her nose, "Tiddy tidder dit." Yeah, I love cartoon noises and accents. On "Hum Drum Killers," the eerie organ sounds are getting at that. The ambience of that whole cartoon music world is way underrated. I was very into Looney Tunes—Marvin the Martian, Speedy Gonzales, Bugs Bunny. I've been listening to a lot of this composer Sven Libaek. He composed for The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Top Cat, Yogi Bear, Scooby-Doo, Huckleberry Hound, and he did some soundtrack stuff for The Life Aquatic. His soundtracks are nuts.
Where did you learn to play keys?
I'm obsessed with gospel music, and gospel chord progressions, and the sound of old church organs. It's so beautiful and moving, with these crazy minor chords and resolutions. Churches are beautiful, but they creep me out because they have secret rooms. I feel like all R&B is basically church music. I love Darrius Willrich. He's bananas. He's got that church shit down. He's on Color Wheel. I'm super excited to have him on the album.
Where did you go to school for audio engineering?
The Conservatory of Recording Arts & Sciences in Arizona. I went there and learned I didn't really like recording people that much [laughs]. But I learned tons about the processes of recording.
Your music has layers. It has a subconscious.
Background sounds are huge for me. I listen to lots of Marvin Gaye. This dude has got a zillion background vocals. He's got his main verse, but he's all over the track with a whole choir of Marvins. You got regular-voice Marvin, falsetto Marvin, you got screamin' Marvin. Layers can be different moods you add to a piece. The listener might not hear it exactly, but they'll feel it. The dope thing about Erik Blood's production is that he's able to place everything so well.
How does Erik actualize that subliminal level?
Reverb. And he'll remove the bass. Blood is a frequency master. He adds width and depth. He gets everything sitting in its right place. This entire album was recorded at his spot. We've worked on multiple things now, so I think it's gotten easier to work with him. He has a really good idea where I'm coming from musically. I have a shitty way of communicating sometimes. But he'll just decipher it exactly. He's a reverb specialist. His knowledge of sound is vast. He can also translate and re-create my computer instruments really well, because I use a lot of patches and computer tones. On "Hum Drum Killers," I really like what he did with the vocals. He has the tools and gear. He gave the organ sound this spooky ghost feel, ghosts flying around a boat out in a cloudy ocean. All Blood right there.
How did the video for "Hum Drum Killers" and "Wish" come about? Who are the "Hum Drum Killers"?
It's basically about the power structure of our society, and the police. "Police chasing in the night." They're the Hum Drum Killers. Hum drum meaning that's some sad shit. They're the down-in-the-dumps killers. "Thieves come racing in the night, pillaging their village till they're orphans, and burning up their organs with a pipe." It's about broke people breaking their backs, with police being the actual bad guys. And politicians just setting the whole thing up while the people work for beans and rice. They make it so that we're out here working for nothing, until we're so frustrated, we're fighting ourselves. In the video, I'm running from the police, and we end up face-to-face at this pool. It's like a face-off. Stephan Gray is such a great director of film and video. We pull out weapons and have an underwater gun battle. We're fighting underwater, and we start choking and can't get back to the surface.
You're firing guns underwater. How did Stephan film the underwater shots?
It was high-quality shit. We had a gun specialist there. That water was so cold. We shot it in Ravenna. It was crazy. I'm in there shooting weapons underwater. We were shooting hollow points underwater.
With Color Wheel, your footprint seems more defined. It's a rough and luxurious snow-globe world of 808 funk and jazz.
It's all original—there are no samples. I've always wanted to make an album with no samples. I think it speaks for what people as a whole are going through right now, in a poetic way without saying too much. I wanted to write songs that people could listen to in 100 years if shit goes down with the government and the police like it is now, and have it still apply. Like the way Gil Scott-Heron's music still applies. Something with meaning and depth.
You're not rapping on this album. You're only singing. Why is that?
I feel like rap has been devalued. There are too many wack rappers out there. It's become this thing where it's not even about the rap. It's more about style and how much you can sell. When I was rapping, it was a gauntlet you had to go through. You weren't just saying you were a rapper and coming out with CDs, you were at Westlake freestyling and honing your moves. Listen to Specs. Anything hiphop related, Specs is the God. Stas and Gabby are up there. And Ish is just murderous.
I hear Ish and Tendai from Shabazz Palaces on "Unfinished Business," and Stas from THEESatisfaction too? What's that song about?
Yeah. Tendai is playing mbira on it. To me, that song is about cats who don't want to leave the negative lifestyle. People who are wrapped up some 100 percent negative shit. They know it, and they just don't want to leave it. Then there are positive people who are on the other side of that. Ish is spitting from the perspective of the one who doesn't want to leave their ways, and Stas is going from the perspective of the person who's over it. I gave them a super basic idea, and they wrote their parts separately. When I started working on the track, I just heard them on it. It's a song for spitters. I instantly wanted to get Ish on it. I played it for him and he just— boom—knocked out the verse and recorded it one session. I recorded Stas's part up at Cat's house in Mount Baker, and then lost the file 'cause I saved it in some random file on my computer [laughs]. Tendai came in later and banged it out. I love what they did.
You toured Europe not too long ago with Shabazz. How's Europe? Did you rave?
I love Germany. Europe is next level on certain things. Lucerne, Switzerland, is the place. They loved the music so much. They smoke so many cigarettes, you wouldn't believe it. And they have dope, rave-ass, government-funded warehouses for shows. We played in Zurich, and had met this guy the day before who wanted to come to the show. It took us two hours to get there by train. This guy shows up at the show and had ridden his bike to get there. It was like 80 miles. When I saw him, I told him he was the shit. I respect that. I made sure he was taken care of the whole night.
What drives you to make music?
I guess I have a belief in something bigger than myself. A belief in spirit and soul. A belief in something bigger than this earth and this body. I think we're part of something bigger. I believe everyone has gifts. I feel like music is my purpose. What else am I going to do? Wake up and go work for someone else? I don't think my gift is to go work for someone else.