Electronic-punk duo Otzeki delve into new their album Now is a Long Time

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The title of electronic-punk duo Otzeki’s new album couldn’t be more pertinent for these strange times.

Inspired by the Truisms of artist Jenny Holzer, the message "Now is a Long Time" was written on a piece of paper and pinned above Mike Sharp’s bed at his Finsbury Park pad as he, along with cousin Joel Roberts, were writing the follow up to 2018’s debut record Binary Childhood.

The message stuck and became the name for album two, culminating in the band spray painting the words across a billboard in Waterloo for its striking album artwork. The statement remained there for four weeks before being painted over.

Mostly written on a laptop on the move, Now is a Long Time saw Otzeki – who were named in Daily Star's 50 Rising Stars to watch in 2021 – embrace a quicker, more “instantaneous” writing process, resulting in a unique, infectious, and sonically-sprawling electronic effort, including the huge singles Max Wells-Demon and Sweet Sunshine.

Speaking about the album’s initial direction, Joel told Daily Star: “We had been playing the same set for two years on tour, always the same group of songs.

“We wanted to be able to switch up our live set and have lots more material that we could tour. Originally the inspiration was to write upbeat, more focused, dance floor-orientated tracks. As time went on, it morphed and changed.”

“A lot of it was turning off the voice in my head that tells me I can’t do this”, Mike adds when discussing its influences. “It was an attempt to write pop music. I don’t listen to pop music really. That felt interesting.”

Daily Star’s Rory McKeown caught up with Mike and Joel to talk about Now is a Long Time’s creation and influences, how they’ve navigated the pandemic, and their next steps.

Hi guys. How’ve you navigated the past 12 months?

Joel: “We were really lucky in some respects that we managed to have a gig in December at the Jazz Cafe. That made things almost things tangible and normal. We were quite fortunate to have that.

“Other than that it’s been very chilled out at home working on music. Trying to communicate with each other online a lot. It hasn’t necessarily been the worst thing in the world having time to get better at producing.”

Mike: “Distance is an interesting thing because it allows you to adjust at your own pace as an individual. We’ve become more self aware of our personal interests, as opposed to the fusion of our identities.

“It can be a hindrance because it can mean you’re quite disconnected but the positives are, in terms of depth, you can engage with your fields of interest with so much clarity and introspection. I feel I’ve slowed down a lot and been a lot more in tune with aspects of life which are completely outside of music, and aware of how environment forms the music that I make, or how influences affect that.

"So touring and being around certain kinds of music, you squeeze through a compressor. Now there’s all this space, clarity and space it seems.”

Are you surprised the different directions you’ve taken from this lockdown experience at all?

Mike: “Strangely I feel the opposite. It’s not that I’m anti-social – I like being around people. But I get a sense of claustrophobia in that constant touring. I feel strangely liberated.”

When did you start the writing and recording process of Now is a Long Time? Was any of it written in lockdown?

Joel: “I think it started the summer of 2018, right? I guess we moved in to London and lived together from April 2019 to February 2020 and we did half of the tracks in that time.”

Mike: “Most of it was written on the laptop on the move. We were touring and everywhere I’ve lived in London I’ve not been able to make music from home. I’ve always had to do stuff on headphones. If you’re working on headphones you’re trying to imagine the environment it’s going to end up in. When it came round to vocals, it was always the last thing.

“I was reading a lot at the time. I was reading this book called Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed. It was a comedy, LA nonsense kind of writing. It grabbed me. I was reading American Psycho and I was interested in the artist Jenny Holzer, who does these billboard statements. The famous one is ‘Abuse of Power Comes as No Surprise’. Just kind of truisms.

“The vocals were the last thing to come and it ended up having to be in falsetto. We hadn’t thought about the arrangement of the music and the keys because it had all been on headphones. I felt a strange sense of alienation in the writing of it where I was kind of forced into an hysterical register.”

What was the comparison like between this record and Binary Childhood?

Joel: “We had been playing the same set for two years on tour, always the same group of songs. We wanted to be able to switch up our live set and have lots more material that we could tour. Originally the inspiration was to write upbeat, more focused, dance floor-orientated tracks. As time went on, it morphed and changed.”

Mike: “That gets really boring as well. You don’t want to be doing the same thing. I felt really frustrated in that environment. When you’re trying to write stuff for the dance floor, that’s when you end up writing more soulful stuff, and when you do stuff more soulful, that’s when you write stuff for the dance floor, accidentally!”

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You mentioned you were consuming literature and art for inspiration, did you listen anything too?

Mike: “I was listening to so much stuff from the 80s – like too much.”

Joel: “There was that Russian, post-industrial, cold wave band I remember you listening to in Finsbury Park.”

Mike: “A lot of it was turning off the voice in my head that tells me I can’t do this. I can’t reference this type of music, I can’t use a vocoder. A lot of it was being OK with kitsch sounds. I’m a real snob when it comes to sound dynamic mood. I feel this was addressing that and being OK with it sounding trashy or sounding kitsch, or pop. It was an attempt to write pop music. I don’t listen to pop music really. That felt interesting.”

How would you say you’re evolving as an act?

Mike: “In some ways we’re devolving because we’ve been very precious in the past. We wanted do this quicker.”

Joel: “It was a natural way of writing. It was quick. It wasn’t too laborious. A lot of it was naturally what came out of us and a lot of the writing process was quite quick, despite the production and the rest of it taking a longer time. It was a fair reflection of the compromise between our tastes.”

Mike: “I completely disagree. I found it very difficult but I found the writing very easy. It was only the voice I would switch off that it doesn’t have to be perfect which made it quicker. But to me a lot of the record doesn’t feel like me. It doesn’t feel personal. It feels like embracing an act or acting. That’s why I wanted to turn it into something else.”

Did you have a vision of how the album wanted to be?

Mike: “Yeah I did but that got completely compromised and thrown away. It wasn’t developed. It’s really interesting to listen to it afresh as if that wasn’t the case. That was the string that was tying it together.

“It something happens quickly doesn’t mean it’s natural. It means it’s process-driven, and I would say this album came out of a process.”

Joel: “A lot of it was instantaneous.”

At the beginning of when you set out as a band, did you think this would be an album you’d make?

Joel: “I had no preconceptions about what we would make when we started being in a band together, to be totally honest with you. In our first EP, it was a sound I didn’t really understand or know what it was.

“Listening back to it now, I really like the bits that I didn’t like when we released it. I don’t have any preconceptions about what anything will be, to be honest.”

Mike: “Yeah, we’re pretty neuroplastic. We do change a lot. If there were preconceptions, I remember Joel saying ‘let’s make this work’. For me that was 'let’s try and write an album that works in different contexts', like for being in large live venues, to cater for a lot of different interests.

"It’s interesting to think about writing a song for radio. It’s such a weird concept that you have to compress yourself into something that’s going to be played on the airwaves. You’re playing on superstitions and they’re the ones that don’t get picked because they’re not authentic.

“We try not to have preconceptions but we try to tick a lot of boxes.”

Is there a song you’re particularly proud of on the album?

Joel: “I’m so attached to it at the minute that I find it difficult to see anything objectively. There are definitely moments of songs that move me and that I’m happy with. I think Max Wells-Demon is probably my favourite track.”

I love the artwork too. Where was that taken?

Mike: “Waterloo. It was there for four weeks before someone painted over it.”

It’s a pertinent album title. I know the album was written before lockdown but it does seem like “now is a long time”. It’s also the first line on the album, isn’t it.

Mike: “Another lyric is 'numb as a number', which is just silly, but that sensation of we project the reality we want to live in. Life is what you make it. Lots of this was influenced by Jenny Holzer. I imagined these as statements on billboards.

“Now is a Long Time, I wrote on a piece of paper and I had it on my wall in Finsbury Park, all during the time we were writing the album. It was above my bed.”

What are you hopeful for looking ahead? Are you already looking at your next material? How eager are you to get back out on the road?

Mike: “We are all in the position where we have to accept our reality to some degree. Nature’s highlighted how arrogant we are as a species. I think it’s just not the priority. I’m quite glad to be humbled and I feel fortunate to be in the environment that we are. I feel fortunate we’ve been able to reassess our sense of humanity. I think that’s the priority.”

Are you thinking of how your next album will sound like?

Mike: “I’m thinking in terms of curves not squares at the moment. I’m not sure what that means to electronic music.”

Joel: “At the minute the focus is on this album and taking each day as it comes with this whole situation, and making the most of promoting this as well as we can.”

Mike: “And enjoy it as much as possible!”

Joel: “I will be a very happy man when we can go to Europe and play some shows in Berlin and Paris!”

Otzeki’s Now is a Long Time is out now via Akira Records

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