For Otto, a series of virtual songwriting sessions provided unexpected creativity and camaraderie.
The Detroit indie-pop quintet of Chesney Walters (vocals), Jonny Walker (guitar), Nate Dornfried (keys), Ryan Freitas (bass) and Austin Howard (drums) instantly gelled while penning new tracks over Zoom for their infectious debut EP, Still Picture You.
“In 2019, I was ready to call it quits with music, and then two weeks later, I just changed my mind. Austin and I decided to start doing our own project, and we started writing with no end-game in mind. And I knew Nate from where we grew up, and I ran into him and asked if he wanted to be a part of it,” said Walker, who previously played with Howard in another project.
“The three of us wrote together for a year and a half and auditioned 10 different singers, but couldn’t find anyone we were happy with. I was ready to call it quits (again) because we just couldn’t find anyone, and then Chesney just came out of nowhere. Austin and I also have known Ryan for a while. He ended up playing bass with us for one show, and now he’s here.”
With the right lineup intact, Otto started compiling a new batch of earnest tracks in 2020. Walters met regularly with Walker to write and refine the ‘80s-inspired, synth-pop songs that would become Still Picture You.
“I was living with my family at the time in the suburbs, and I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere except to Jonny’s house to write music,” Walters said. “We would just write and write for months while there was nothing else to do.”
During their writing sessions, Walters and Walker collaborated remotely with other Otto members until the pandemic subsided. It would be another six months before the entire band would meet in person.
“I hadn’t met them for months once we started, and we would all rotate at Jonny’s house and be there at different times,” Walters said. “But the first time we were all together in the same place was when we went to Nashville in March 2021 to record.”
Still Picture You
That week-long Music City recording session solidified the band’s friendship and produced the five melodic, ardent tracks for Still Picture You.
Throughout their debut release, Otto seamlessly fuses addictive pop sensibilities with scintillating instrumentation and heartfelt stories to capture the timeless essence of a John Hughes filmography for the 2020s.
“I like having the experience of walking around while you’re listening to a song and feeling like you’re in a movie. When we have a song, I’ll just put on my headphones and go longboarding or walk outside,” said Walker, whose four-year-old Chihuahua-Miniature-Pinscher mix inspired the band’s name.
“If I don’t get a good feeling, like ‘Oh, this could be a movie,’ then I generally won’t like the song. That’s why I always need music playing, so I can always feel like I’m in my own movie.”
Inside Otto’s Still Picture You “movie,” the band thoughtfully explores the emotional highs and lows of being in different relationships and searching for the right person. It’s the ideal soundtrack for a witty, ingenious and introspective romantic comedy for today and beyond.
“When we were writing this, Jonny had just gone through a breakup, and I had just gone through a whole situation. We were in the same boat and wondered, ‘What do we do now? How are we supposed to feel?’ For me, this EP and all the songs that I write … are just me making sense of the aftermath of emotions,” Walters said.
“They’re all inspired by different things … these songs. Something I had never done in my songwriting before was to create stories out of both of our experiences and put them together to make this uniform story that draws in very specific elements from two completely different experiences.”
One of those combined romantic experiences includes the delectable, synth-steeped opener, “When I Really Saw You.” Peppy electric guitars, gleaming synths, thumping drums and exuberant bass examine the pain of growing apart and accepting the true character of a past lover.
Walters sings, “You’re gone after another big fight/I’m wrong for tryna keep you/It’s hard to memorize this new side/Cause I thought I really knew you.”
“This one is the perfect example of how Jonny and I write. He had this track, and he had the hook, ‘when I really saw you,’ in a different part of the song. And once I heard it, I was like, ‘Oh, this is a chorus; I know exactly how it’s gonna go,’ and I did all the little ‘ohs’ and all that stuff, and I moved it over,” said Walters, who’s influenced by The 1975.
“That line reminded me of a breakup that I once had and how you’re so in love with this person and you think that they’re great. You’re fighting, but you want to keep them. You’re trying to do everything right, but they’re different now, and you can’t figure out why.”
While “When I Really Saw You” tackles wistful subject matter, it also features buoyant, energetic pop instrumentation that’s filled with hope and renewal.
“If I start stuff, it’s hard for me not to make it upbeat or happy-sounding, yet all the lyrical content is sad,” said Walker, who’s influenced by Phil Collins, Prince and Michael Jackson. “Typically, every song I start writing has that same theme.”
Otto also creates that optimal lyrical and sonic blend on “She’s Like A (Ghost),” a lively, yet cautionary ode about a partner having too much control in a relationship.
Hammering drums, shaky cymbals, confident synths, mysterious bass and brilliant electric guitar haunt lovers as Walters sings, “She’s passing through walls, controlling your thoughts/And you don’t even know until she’s there/The way her body moves is stuck in your head, yeah, oh/Cause she’s like, like a ghost!”
“That song was originally very slow and haunting just like how the lyrics are. It was the big power ballad on the album,” said Dornfried, who’s influenced by Anberlin and Switchfoot.
“When we were going through it, and that synthline came out, the song did a complete 180. Now, in my opinion, it’s the most upbeat song on the album, and it’s the hardest to keep still to when it’s playing.”
The Studio and the Stage
Otto’s “dance-ability” also comes from Still Picture You’s top-notch production team, which includes Nashville-based producer Batavia along with Walker, Howard and Freitas.
“Batavia has such a wide, diverse range of material that influences him and that he draws from,” Dornfried said. “It didn’t matter what was there … he was able to help us if we wanted the guidance because he’s so well-versed in everything.”
Walker echoed Dornfried’s sentiments. “Batavia’s been one of my best friends for 12 years. We were in a band together previously in Nashville. I’ve looked up to him since I’ve been down there … kind like as a music mentor for me. That’s a big reason why we did that.”
He also applauded the artistic prowess of Howard and Freitas and the band’s shift to handling their own production.
“Austin plays a huge role in shaping the songs, too. We’ll start with an idea, and we’ll send it to Austin. He takes whatever we have and makes it that much better,” Walker said.
“Ryan is the same way. Our writing style is starting to change now that Ryan has become more involved. Both Austin and Ryan are insane musicians. We’re trying to rely on them more.”
To celebrate that creative growth and the release of Still Picture You, Otto is hosting the “Sounds Like an EP Release Show” June 18 at Sanctuary Detroit in Hamtramck. They’ll be joined by Au Gres, Kayokee, Soloveichik and Little Visits (stripped set).
“We’re playing all the ones off the EP, and we have two new ones we’re gonna do at the show. I feel like it’s definitely a level up from where we’ve been,” Walters said.
“You can tell that we’ve gelled, and I’m just really excited for how they’re coming out. We’re prepping those and getting those down and throwing in a few covers.”
After their celebratory show, Otto will open for Boys of Fall on June 25 at The Loving Touch in Ferndale and release three new singles. There’s also the possibility of dropping an album or another EP.
“I would like to put out a full-length, but I don’t know if we’ll do that. An EP also would be cool, but we’ll stay with singles until we have enough to do that,” Walker said. “We’re trying to write as much music now as we can and see what we can come up with.”
Otto’s “Sounds Like an EP Release Show” with Au Gres, Kayokee, Soloveichik and Little Visits
Saturday, June 18 | 7 p.m.
Sanctuary Detroit, 2932 Caniff St. in Hamtramck