Rare and infectious
In a recent issue of LEO, Evan Patterson of the band Young Widows reflected on the idea of music as religion, where going to band practice or listening to records is as transcendental of an experience for him as attending church can be for others. Many musicians can surely relate to this sentiment. There have been many nights where I dragged myself into band practice feeling groggy and defeated, only to emerge renewed.
It is easy to become cynical about music’s ability to transform or heal. Even those who pride themselves on operating outside of the over-commercialized world of the music industry can sometimes find themselves getting tangled up in a nasty web of greed, ego and disenchantment. It can be tricky to keep in mind the more important picture of why music making matters.
This is why it’s refreshing to talk to folks like Katy Otto, of the Philadelphia-based band Trophy Wife (not to be confused with Louisville’s own mighty Trophy Wives.) Otto is also co-operator/owner of the label Exotic Fever Records, which has more than 50 releases in their catalog. I caught up with her to discuss her love of creating and experiencing music.
LEO: When did you first get into punk and DIY culture?
Katy Otto: I grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. — Prince George’s County, Md., to be precise. In high school, I was in love with hip-hop, go-go (which I didn’t at the time know was indigenous to D.C.) and rock/grunge. I loved music, and it helped get me through high school. When I was 16, I went to my first Fugazi concert on the Mall. It was a free event, a rally. My mind was blown by that incredible band. It brought me into a world of independently made music and events.
LEO: What made you decide you wanted to start your own record label?
KO: I actually did not technically start the label — my dear friend and first bandmate Bonnie Schlegel did. She knew of a group called The Halo Project she was interested in releasing, and basically just did it. She asked if I would be interested in helping, and our friend Sara Klemm was putting together a benefit compilation for the D.C. area’s Books to Prisons project. We decided it would be great to team up, and that release became an Exotic Fever release, too. We worked together for a few years, and when they moved on to other projects, I continued running the label on my own.
LEO: Do you have a particular audience you hope to reach with the work you do?
KO: Anyone to whom the music speaks, but I am adamant about creating a space for the voices of women/girls/queer folks/trans folks. My label has never been about any one demographic or sound. It has been about artists and music that, to me, seem to be in pursuit of a better world.
LEO: What are the qualities that you are drawn to in the music you care about and the music you put out on your label?
KO: Music that feels daring, new, heartfelt, brave. It’s a real intangible quality, but I know it when I hear it.
LEO: How would you describe the power of music/art in your own life?
KO: It’s the thing that has kept me alive and going. I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression in my life, fueled by things I have experienced personally and things I see in the world and the culture. Music for me is a way to transcend that — even if you are communicating about heartbreak or pain or loss, you can do so in a way that reaches out and connects with others.
LEO: What is your day job? Does your work impact other facets of your life, creative or otherwise?
KO: I do communications work around reproductive rights and health. Sometimes, particularly in the political climate in which we live, this can feel especially challenging. Music is a good way to feel restored when the work gets difficult.
LEO: Lastly, what inspired the name Exotic Fever?
KO: Bonnie said it meant rare and infectious. I always liked that.