Sunday, July 27, 2008

Otem Rellik puts on a show

During her opening act at a small gathering in a middle-of-nowhere house in Fort Collins, singer-songwriter Danielle Ate a Sandwich interrupts her own show.

Without stopping her sandy ukulele solo, her voice acquires pronounced perk: “Hey, its Otem Rellik!”

Her listeners follow her gaze to peer over their shoulders at the rapper, one Toby Hendricks, a husky 25-year-old who sports an unkempt chinstrap beard that dribbles out of his trucker hat with redneck finesse. Faced with a room of eyes, he shoots a smile and a wave before taking a seat near the back of the room. Attention then returns to Danielle, whose performance continues as if nothing’s happened.

But something has happened; Otem Rellik, the white guy whose experimental brand of electronic hip-hop has put him among Colorado’s “best kept secrets”, has just walked into the building. He’s the biggest name playing tonight. This is the guy whose gone on tour in Europe when the other acts still dream of booking a bar gig in Denver.

Despite this, the expected Kanye-bravado is absent; Hendricks looks like he’d rather go unnoticed, at least until he is safely behind a mic.

“He’s a quiet kid,” says Braden Smith, who signed Hendricks to his label, Denver-based Ponowai Flora Records, in 2006. “I wanted to get (his music) out there more than himself.”

“Toby is probably the most harmless guy I know,” adds friend Jonathan Alonzo. “He’s one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met, and I think it was kind of surprising, because it was like ‘Oh, he’s the hip-hop guy, he’s probably got an ego.’”

True to the quiet nature that his friends and associates speak of him, the soft-spoken Hendricks has few comments to offer about his upbringings, unless music is somehow involved.

He says he has enjoyed growing up in Fort Collins, the city where his love for music was cultivated.

“Back in the day, it was mostly Public Enemy and N.W.A.,” Hendricks says. “I grew up listening to whatever my brother and my older brother listened to.”

A decade later — after a “ska and punk phase” in middle and high school — Hendricks said a friend introduced him to the synth-stocked sounds of Anticon, a San Francisco hip-hop label.

“It was so much different than the hip-hop I was currently listening to,” Hendricks said. “It turned me on to a lot more experimental stuff, not just in hip-hop but in indie rock and electronica and everything.”

Hendricks lists the entire Anticon lineup as his influences, specifically citing Doseone and Sole as artists who sparked his interest in using cold, crunching electronics as a backdrop to fast-paced rhymes. Discovering Anticon “opened the doors” for Hendricks.

“The more I listened to it, the more I wanted to make something,” Hendricks says, adding that he was eventually compelled to purchase a Casio keyboard and a TASCAM four-track recorder one afternoon in 2003. “I just tried laying out songs the best way I knew how. I was just like ‘What can I do with this?’ with no expectations whatsoever.”

Where he might have relied on expectations to drive him into furthering his art, Hendricks had his experimentations.

A particularly rousing session on the World Wide Web introduced Hendricks to circuit bending, a practice in which musicians rewire electronic devices to generate new sounds. Inspired, Hendricks began to explore the innards of his Casio, toying with wires and rerouting circuit points. The result: a weird lo-fi piano machine with every key purring displaced pitch. Hendricks says he isn’t entirely satisfied with his first creation.

“It’s kind of hard to work it into music… you’re trying to have a chord progression or something and you have a really weird, out-of-tune Casio,” he says.

Regardless, Hendricks has made a hobby of circuit bending, a pastime that has powered him through three EPs and five albums; he’s manipulated everything from Speak & Spells to talking-string dolls to achieve his musical mischief.

Smith admits that Hendricks’ brouhaha was a little off-putting in his first listen. Smith, who performs under the moniker Ancient Mith, first met Hendricks after a performance at the Larimer Lounge in late 2006. Knowing of Smith’s label, Hendricks handed him Petrified Human Project, his then-latest recording.

“I got like six or seven CDs that night, and seriously, that was the only one that was worth a shit,” Smith says. “I didn’t even like it at first… then I gave it another listen and was like ‘Yeah, I need to get a hold of this kid.’”

Hendricks signed onto Ponowai Flora Records later that year, working closely with Smith to improve his melodies and musical connectedness to produce his most recent album, Chain Reaction Robot, which dropped in March 2008. When asked what appealed to him about the music, Smith points to the lyrics, which Hendricks barely brings above a mumble as he softly pours his words into the mic.

“I don’t think Toby’s music is for everybody, I really don’t,” Smith says. “But I think there’s a realness and a emotional connection. I’ve even learned from watching him in that sense of taking just absolute personal issues and just airing them, whether they be the stupidest smallest thing, or just the biggest thing.”

The critics haven’t entirely agreed.

In his semi-approving review of Chain Reaction Robot, Rocky Mountain Chronicle music critic Elliot Johnson dug at the rhymes of Otem Rellik: “…his subject matter is obsessively confessional (i.e. anyone who uses the word “emo” as derogatory, which is most everyone who uses the term, will run from this album after Track One.)”

Hendricks remains entirely vague about the experiences and situations that inspire his lyrics, even with the curious journalist. His simple answer: “Most of the stuff I write about is generally about bad things.” But he takes offense at being labeled as “emo”, even when it’s directed at him offhandedly.

“There’s so much associated with that word, and a lot of it is negative to a lot of people,” Hendricks said. “Tupac made emo music according to what emo music is. His lyrics are emotional, but he’s making gangster rap, so why would you call that emo?”

It’s about 1:22 a.m. back at the house, and Otem Rellik is making preparations.

Most of the crowd has petered out, but the few who’ve stuck behind watch as Hendricks arranges his magical table of wire-crossed gizmos: two circuit-bent Casios, an iPod, a drum machine, a row of pedals set to distort and echo with the turn of a knob, a Speak & Spell and one disembodied doll head at the bottom of the mic stand.

“I’m not one for hip-hop, but Toby really makes me like it,” says friend and fellow musician Marty Albertz. “It’s his style. He’s not at all musically trained, so everything he’s doing is different.”

As Hendricks introduces himself to the crowd, his fingers hover above the various gadgets, which gleam like fluorescent fairies in the darkened basement of the house. And even now, behind that safe and warm mic, his bashfulness is showing; his eyes keep to his table, directing his fingers with clockwork precision, stabbing and twisting and dialing and flipping as he sings along with the melancholic fuzz he’s creating.

Here, among friends and dedicated friends, including a fawning girlfriend, one has to wonder why Hendricks has such a hard time with eye contact. This is, after all, his place to be.

“At a (concert) venue, you don’t know the people and they don’t know who you are. Half the time it’s just people going there to drink, which generally is a crowd of people who aren’t even into what I’m doing anyway,” Hendricks said. “House shows are definitely more appealing to me: more relatable people there, and they’re more fun, generally a lot more fun than playing at a venue.”

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