It hits you deep: Otik's emotional bass-heavy music is inspired by lived experiences
The Bristol-born, London-based DJ and producer talks spirituality, Burial and music that makes you transcend
Otik is an artist of dualities. Meandering between ethereal, delicate sounds and impactful, bangin’ bass, he’s earned a steady reputation for narrative-rich sets overflowing with high-energy techno, luscious percussion and the odd cheeky reference point to get audiences going — all informed by a deep appreciation of the London underground, past and present.
Otik, real name Ashley Thomas, was born and raised in Bristol surrounded by a cacophony of early drum ‘n’ bass, reggae and breakbeat. His earliest dance music memories are of his stepdad playing '90s classics such as ‘Cafe del Mar’ and Faithless during long car journeys towards family holidays in Devon: “I think even back then there was something super inspiring about atmospheric soundscapes behind big beats, especially when looking out at the endless countryside.” Earning his raving stripes at dubstep nights while still in his teens, Otik first began making music around the same time, by chance finding himself on a music course due to insufficient grades: “One of the main reasons I even tried to pursue music properly was because I didn’t get the grades I wanted.” He told Beatport last year. “I ended up having to kind of force myself to do a music course because I had the experience to be able to do it.”
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His curiosity for production intensified upon moving to London to study music in 2011, a game-changing experience for the budding musician: “When I got to London I realised how diverse the UK is, and the eclecticism of the scene here definitely helped me explore different ideas to couple with the heavy-set sound I’d brought with me from Bristol.” After a few years in the city, he got an internship at NTS Radio, and not long after released his debut EP ‘'Persist' on Prism Tracks. From there he’s put out an steady flow of knockout records: including a feature on Dusky’s ‘Floor to Floor’ compilation and EPs on Midland’s InterGraded, Gobstopper, Club Qu, Keysound, Shall Not Fade, Infinite Machine, DEXT and many more.
On the flip side as a DJ, he’s become renowned for his impeccable, off-the-cuff mixes — whether through his residency at Rinse France or offerings for the likes of Worldwide FM, NTS and Dekmantel. His bookings have been picking up pace post-lockdown with appearances at Glastonbury, Queens Yard Summer Party, FOLD and Corsica — alongside upcoming shows at Ion festival and Field Day. Recently he’s taken the leap to launch his own imprint Solar Body, with the first release ‘Psyops’ landing back in June, as well as providing remixes for Flume and Metronomy’s respective summer releases.
We caught up with Otik to talk about being a new label boss, loving bangers and consuming an unhealthy amount of SoundCloud rap.
You've just launched your own label, Solar Body — what is your mission statement? What can people expect from the label?
First and foremost I set the label up so I could increase the number of records I was releasing. I find it frustrating having to wait so long to release music with other labels. It isn't their fault; delays with distribution, pressing plants, label release schedules etc mean it can take 6-12 months before you get a record out there. I've found by that point I've already grown a bit tired of the music, or I feel I can deliver something better. So having my own digital imprint, I can make a track I love and I'm already able to release it within a few months when I still have a connection with it. In terms of the label's sonic output, I wanted to display the full spectrum of my influences. I want it to explore all sides of the hardcore continuum whilst staying hand-in-hand with ambient and ethereal atmospheres — that's the Otik sound I've been trying to solidify for the past few years. I'm only planning to release my own music on Solar Body as it stands, but I'm open to ideas further down the line.
You've had a number of releases on the likes of Keysound, Intergraded, Shall Not Fade, Club Qu... what is your process in the studio? how do you think your sound has changed in recent years?
My process in the studio has remained relatively the same for the past 10 years, but I think my goals have changed. I always start with the drums first, I try not to make the rhythm too generic and a bit more off-road, and as much as the melody needs to be catchy, so does the drum pattern. Once I'm happy with that I spend either a few minutes (or hours) playing melodies on top or finding the perfect sample or pad from a film score or VST and then I build around that. Five or so years back, my aim was to make something as catchy and bassy as possible — but since then I've started exploring my spirituality and learning to take from my inspirations without copying them. Now I channel my own life experiences into the sound and the pieces fit together more snugly and it's evolved into something deeper. The way I know something is working in the studio is if I get lost in a trance while the track is looping, or even well up. Sometimes I start thinking about something that happened or is happening in my life. I don't meditate as often as I should, but these days producing is the closest thing to that feeling that I can describe.
Your recent release 'Psyops' married together breaks/jungle and more woozy atmospheric ambient sounds, do you think this is a common thing for you to balance between? is it a reflection of two sides of your persona?
My favourite music is the stuff that hits you deep and makes you feel strong emotions like nostalgia, sadness, or faith. Music that can make you transcend or feel enlightened for even a moment. But I also love bangers! I love heavy drums and hard-hitting bass. I suppose the ambience does reflect one side of me as I am a bit of a dreamer and consider myself relatively spiritual. I meditate when I can, I’m really interested in esoteric philosophies and the mysteries of God and the universe. But mostly I’m a pretty light-hearted and basic individual, I’m not this deep, recluse-type character. I’m quite a private person I suppose; I don’t really share my day-to-day life on social media, but if you know me well and I’m not in the studio or at the gym, then I chat a lot of shit and crack a bunch of stupid jokes, party quite often, I care too much about my appearance and listen to an unhealthy amount of SoundCloud rap. Which I guess some might say are pretty material and distant qualities from spirituality or enlightenment; two of the sort of energies I’m trying to inject into the music nowadays. But since deciding to balance each side of myself in the creation of my music, it seems to make a lot more sense to me than it ever did. When I hear my earlier back catalogue now it sounds like there was just something missing from it all. It’s only in the last few years that the music feels complete.
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You're originally from Bristol, and now based in London. How do you think the two cities compare? What impact have they both had on your output?
I’ve been living in London for almost 11 years now, and I only go back to Bristol a couple of times a year at most to see family — so it’s hard to say that Bristol had as much of an effect on my music as London has, but I’d definitely say my bassy, drum-heavy side is influenced by my home city. Most of the Jamaican side of my family lives there, and I grew up around a lot of reggae. The Bristol bass scene is also its own entity, and a lot of my favourite labels — such as Livity Sound and Timedance —originate from there. The dubstep scene in the early 2010s was really vibrant in Bristol when I was in my late teens too, and I fully immersed myself in it, so that definitely had an impact on my music.
What are some of your early musical influences? Do you remember the first time you got into electronic music?
I get asked this question a lot and I always answer with Burial, which I think some might find is a bit of a cop-out because who in this scene isn’t inspired by him? But to be honest, he isn’t my only inspiration, he’s just the biggest I suppose. I discovered him in 2011 but before that, I was really into James Blake, Radiohead, Kendrick, early The Weeknd (I stopped listening after The Trilogy), Clams Casino, Jamie xx and The Streets. After Burial I started to get heavily inspired by artists like Mount Kimbie, XXYYXX, Floating Points, Sully, Caribou, Altrice and Djrum. I also remember being told that both my stepdad and my Mum were loosely friends with some members of Massive Attack and Portishead before they got big, I’m not sure how close they actually were or how true those statements were even, but it always stuck in my mind and I loved their music from a very young age.
Who are some of your mentors in the scene? Or some of your heroes?
I don’t really have any mentors in music, I’m a bit of a loner in that respect. My management team at 285 Group have definitely helped steer me and my career in the right direction since we started working together during lockdown, and I’m super grateful for them — but I don’t really have any artists in the scene guiding me or anything like that. I’ve also tried collaborations in the past and I’ve come to realise that I find producing mostly a bit of a solo journey. It’s my time to reflect and try and look inward, and I guess when I have someone next to me the music doesn’t quite come out the way I want it to. Not always though, and I’ve had a few successful collaborations in the studio, especially remote ones because I can be alone that way. I definitely look up to a lot of artists and have been heavily inspired by them and hope to follow in their footsteps. Artists like Joy O, Actress, Overmono, and Burial are big, big inspirations in the scene for me right now, and have been for most of my career.
How do you get ready for big DJ sets? do you have a process? how do you approach it musically?
I usually spend a couple of days getting about 50 tunes together that I feel will go down well at that particular night I’m playing, and then pick from those on the night. I used to meticulously plan the set so it sounded sonically and melodically perfect. But I gradually learned that it’s impossible to read a room in advance like that, and you’re more often than not gonna have a mixed reaction from the crowd. But I do want the set or mix to be mostly harmonious in terms of transitions between tracks. I always thought that the art of DJing was being able to blend two songs together and make them sound like one, but I feel like I hear it less and less in mixes and sets these days. I suppose that’s because DJing is more about selection than perfectly harmonious transitions, but it’s so pleasing to the ears when you get it right, and the more you do it the better the set will be in my opinion. If you can get your selection on point as well as melodic transitions you’re onto something golden I think. I’ll always test the tunes at home before the set to see which songs could go nicely together, and if I can make most of the mix harmonious at home after one quick run then I’m happy with my selections. I always keep a few staples and a bunch of curveballs on my memory stick in case the crowd gets really hyped though.
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We've just come out of COVID, beforehand your star was really on the rise — how has it been to come out the other side and get back into the club/festival circuit?
It definitely feels like a victory being able to go back to clubs. A lot of people were doubting (and rightly so) the future of clubs and live music, but I had a lot of faith that things would eventually come back. It just didn’t feel right leaving everything at that stage. My heart goes out to the clubs and venues that didn’t make it to the other side, but I’m really happy to see nightlife return in the UK. It did feel typical to me at first because I sometimes lose faith in my own music and for things to close up just as I was starting to reach people was a bit of a blow, and made me doubt my career choice for a moment. But I took the opportunity to hone in on my sound further and immerse myself in my solitude. There was definitely a turning point during lockdown when things just started to click even more in the studio. I also learned to take breaks too. Before lockdown, I was working more or less full-time hours and trying to make music whenever I had free time and mostly succeeding because I looked forward to it. When COVID hit I had all the time in the world, but couldn’t work out why it was harder to make music. But I realised during that time that the inspiration to make music doesn’t come from you. You have to wait for it to call you, and then you answer. At least that’s how it works for me anyway. Whenever I try to force it just falls flat, and post-COVID me is way more prolific now than I was before because I know when the right time to make stuff actually is.
What is coming up for you next? have you got anything exciting to share?
I’m playing my first overseas festival for Ion and opening a stage at Field Day this year which I’m really really stoked about. I also have four more records to release before the end of this year. Three of which are on my own label and the other one is with !K7 and I’m very excited to share that. The second release on Solar Body is probably the record I’m most keen to release. It just feels like an EP that might connect with a wider range of people than some of my other stuff. We’ll see anyway, but the music gives me a good feeling.
Can you tell us about this mix?
This was probably my favourite ever mix to record. I really wanted it to sound like a summer peak-time mix but also a journey that you could get lost in with headphones, and of course, wanted it to flow as smoothly as possible. I included music mostly from artists I’m really excited about or inspired by, a bunch of forthcoming stuff on my label and a handful of new discoveries, but I’m very happy with how the mix flows and I hope it connects with some people. Thanks so much for having me!
Megan Townsend is Mixmag's Deputy Digital Editor, follow her on Twitter
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