Us and the Otters: Making some “Damn Sense” of progressive songwriting
IAMUR Goes for a Swim in a Sea Stocked with Lyricism, Musicianship, and Originality
Michael Ahart, or more widely known as ‘Us and the Otters’ to most, hails from the northern neck of Virginia in Chesapeake Bay with his wife and three kitties, and swims in many creative waterways; a skilled producer; accomplished recording artist; multi-instrumentalist; talented vocalist and lyricist; toy piano aficionado and a songwriter’s songwriter. He’s a compassionate humanitarian, community advocate and a friend… oh and he’s a cat enthusiast (IAMUR loves animals!).
He’s held more titles than even he can remember and over the years he’s been a busboy, a maintenance crew member, a mower of lawns, a writer and news editor, a database developer, a graphic artist, a photographer, an entrepreneur, a business executive, an environmental activist, and a caregiver. The constant however, has been his love for music, which he credits to his parents and eldest brother, David. These early influences gave way to many years of playing in a number of bands, and he notes;
“My longest, most profound experience was with Slug Patrol from 1986-1992, a local Washington DC original progressive rock band whose members were all songwriters. We toured regionally and produced 2 demo tapes, but the members couldn’t make the commitment to “take it to the next level” due mostly to career opportunities.”
When his brother David was seven, he’d been treated to piano lessons by his parents and, at only four years old, Michael did his best to emulate him – so he too was given lessons, and performed at his kindergarten graduation ceremony. Wind forward a few years; as a young teen, he was done with lessons but still tickled the ivories to songs by Elton John, Simon & Garfunkel, Neil Young, CSN, Steely Dan, The Who, Billy Joel, Beatles, Elvis Costello, Pretenders, Joe Jackson, Squeeze, Blondie and Patti Smith.
“If I have a gift, it’s the ability to compose, conduct and produce, even though I consider myself a ‘pretty good amateur’ at that!”– Michael Ahart (Us And The Otters)
During his time at college, he taught himself guitar and bass – drums, horns and other instruments came later, so too did learning the art of sound engineering at Omega Studios, Rockville MD and NVCC in VA which was born out of a necessity to understand how to make a great idea into something people would want to hear – both recorded and live. In more recent years, with the advancement of technology and plethora of virtual equipment available to musicians, he began using GarageBand and Logic Pro to make the music that earlier would’ve required thousands of dollars worth of studio time to produce. This example of one of Michael’s more recent works, No Damn Sense – an acoustic, “cowpunk” folk track which showcases the skills and experience he’s gained over the years as both a musician and producer;
“My wife and I were jamming and drinking on our screen porch with a friend who, during a conversation, said ‘Don’t bet on a dead horse.’ I think he meant to say ‘Don’t beat on a dead horse’ but I really got a kick out of the idea. I replied that it made ‘no damn sense’ even though it really does. I noodled a groove on my uke and the story about a bonehead and his barnyard friends came quickly. I decided to use rustic instruments, including playing a jug for the first time in a song. I strummed my mandolin as a placeholder for a picked solo, but liked it so much I ended up keeping it. It took only a couple days from start to finish – very rare for me.”
I have had the pleasure of many lengthy conversations with Michael during my one – year-long presence on the virtual music scene, and a persistent question of mine (and other listeners as well) has always been;
How did you arrive at this quirky name, ‘Us and the Otters’ ?
“When I started to publish my songs last year, I decided to choose a band name since I’m pretty much a one-man band and I felt the branding options would be better than if I published under my name. My wife and I live in a rather remote area on a tidal creek of the Chesapeake Bay, and I have often joked ‘It’s just us and the otters around here!’ I have discovered, since, that listeners find the name memorable, everyone adores otters, and ‘otters’ lends itself to a seemingly endless number of puns. For example, I named my basement studio ‘Otter Space’.”
Otters was one of the first artists I met during my foray into online music making and promotion, last July. We had joined the ‘social music’ platform BandLab at around the same time and discussed, from a distance, the nuances of the platform, learning more together each day.
Upon my first attempt to collaborate with him on a piece of his original music (a whimsical carnival of sound and imaginative narrative titled Traffic Jam), I sat back impressed to say the least, and delighted by the concept, composition, creativity, professionally produced sound, and overall freshness of Otters’s track. I’d not heard anyone doing what Otters was doing and frankly, a year later I’ve yet to hear anything comparable. Traffic Jam was refreshingly and unexpectedly innovative; almost zany in its ability to transport the listener to a fanciful, alternate space in time. This is only one of the trademarks of Otters’ style of songwriting (songwriting at its truest, and finest, I might add).
Tell us a little about this track Michael.
I’ve always loved jazz and was noodling with walking bass-lines when the inspiration hit. I had the intersection road sign ‘Prevent gridlock–don’t block the box’ in my head for some reason, and loved the scat-like meter of it. Even though I think the sign is probably from the UK, Paris seemed like the perfect nexis of bad traffic and great jazz (even though I’ve never been there or the UK). The lyrical story was fun to create, and the idea for the horns to mimic car horns seemed to fit the song perfectly.
In what habitat do songwriting, instrumentation, musicality, and originality reside, you ask? Well, for Otters, the answer is, they swim in every nook and cranny of the playful aquarium of life.
Our collaboration on Traffic Jam didn’t get the green light, mainly because I can’t hold a melody line to save my life, and also because Otters had innovative plans for the song, unimaginable to me. However, owing to his innate generosity he subsequently humored me with a number of my own song ideas; composing original instrumentals and abstract concepts, helping me craft original tunes almost spontaneously. This alone speaks volumes about what I’d like to highlight most about Michael; his versatility and absolute songwriting prowess. Michael is a thoroughly professional, and selfless free thinker. He dismisses nothing and to me, that progressiveness, inclusivity and openness to non-normative creation is just one of his many winning characteristics, as both an artist and a human being.
Us and the Otters’ Approach to Music: Otter’s Background and Musical Influences
I asked Michael about what shaped him as an artist, and for him to share a few songs that helped to define his own sound (as though his sound doesn’t resist definition!). His responses were enlightening:
“I’m hesitant to define my sound, since I really enjoy working in many genres and styles, but I always strive to mingle control and chaos, the unique with the familiar. I want to create music that is interesting, even bizarre, but I want it to feel accessible. My audiophile brother, David, exposed me to so much amazing music in my youth, mostly rock, jazz and experimental which opened up my palette for new things. Early in my college years, a friend recognized my tastes and played an album titled Black Sea from the UK band XTC. I had been writing songs for several years at that point, but the album, and especially the song Burning With Optimism’s Flames, opened my mind… I was so attracted to the melodious wordplay and musical balance of chaos and control that I challenged myself to create songs including those elements. My songwriting became more unique and original, although I can detect a bit of homage to XTC in some of my works, for example my song Without Talk
The Musical Process of Otters is Otterworldly
I’m intrigued with investigating the idea of process. It’s fascinating to discover how art comes to be, how it’s built, where it materializes from, what brings it to life. Michael’s songwriting and music-making process is fitting to his overall aesthetic:
“I think songs approach me rather than the other way around, and in different ways. Something grabs me – maybe a phrase I hear or read somewhere, or from a conversation with a friend– and if I imagine music coming along with it, the structure, story and feel can gel quickly. If it doesn’t, it’s just another of the hundreds of song fragments that will likely never be revisited. For example: A beautiful night listening to reggae with a friend of mine, and somewhere in our conversation, he said ‘Love casts shadows on our shadows.’ I wrote the rest of the lyrics of Happy right then and there…the moon was just right!”
Michael explains that his approach to crafting a track almost always starts entirely in his head; the beat, bass line, melody, theme, changes, breaks, and the majority of the lyrics. Extracting those thoughts and ideas is achieved usually by way of guitar, piano or organ and a draft recording followed by “a ridiculous amount of time fleshing it out, trying out lyric ideas, harmonies, different instruments and instrumentations”. Then momentum takes over resulting in some amazing work, such as I’m Getting Straight, which was selected as a contest winning track by BandLab.
Since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, he’d been working on a solo EP with a view to releasing it back in November 2020 however that had been pushed out after discovering Bandlab and the many collaborations that ensued which he described as giving him “the perspective to make my art the best that it could be”. The EP is almost ready for release (4 singles have been released already; two of which have enjoyed some radio time), and with over 20 further projects in the pipeline with only final touches needed, Michael hopes to have an LP ready later this year.
“I’m still learning about production and feel I’m improving with every project… and I still have a lot to learn about how to effectively promote music online, especially with videos and other promos.”– Michael Ahart (Us And The Otters)
Here’s a few, of the tracks that will be featured in his upcoming EP along with a few words from Michael on how they came to be;
BLM (ft. Ron Swansong)
“BLM is a blues anthem built off of one of Ron Swansong’s wonderful guitar pieces”.
“Bitter Pill is a bouncy, ballad-style retro-rocker”.
“Suspect is deeper and creepy with a hard rock feel.”
“Sunny Day is psychedelic and moody.”
Hold Me Tight
“Hold Me Tight is a fun, rockabilly motorcycle love song.
Most of my songs include my “signature” Toy Piano, sometimes right out front, but more often for tonal percussive effect. Everything on this EP was created, performed and produced my me, with the exception of Ron Swansong’s acoustic guitar on “BLM.” I use Logic Pro software on an iMac for recording, mixing and mastering. I use two studio condenser mics, dynamic mics, Focusrite Saffire-40 preamp/interface and ART Tube preamp interface for recording. Instruments include: Roland synths and MIDI keyboards & pads, Rickenbacker 360-6 electric guitar, Martin DM and Framus 6-string acoustic guitars, Yamaha A/E 12-string guitar, Ibenez mandolin, violin, accordion, Schoenhut toy pianos, various melodicas and harmonicas, all sorts of drums and percussive instruments, jugs, kalimbas, and a bunch of other fun noise makers.”
Stay tuned for Michael’s upcoming EP and future work via the social links below… and if we’re to expect anything like the original solo work and numerous collaborations with artists across the globe we’ve heard within the past year, the future looks bright for Otters, and exciting for us as listeners. Thanks for taking us on this zany swim on your tide of talent, and for making it all make some damn sense.