[POST-FUNK] A lot of bands like to say they came together on accident. In the case of crooked funk trio Otis Heat, the band was brought together by an accident. In 2008, singer-bassist Sean O'Neill was driving his Alfa Romeo Spider through Northeast Portland when he collided with another car going through an intersection. While recovering in adjacent hospital beds, he and the other driver, guitarist Mike Warner, hit it off, and a few months later—along with drummer Adam Lucas, who was in O'Neill's passenger seat at the time of the accident (he has since been replaced by Scotty Gervais)—the trio formed a group named after the mysterious drifter who helped them out of the wreckage and called an ambulance before disappearing into the streets. At least, they think his name was Otis.
"My memory was not really in action there," says O'Neill, 27, over the phone from a college dorm in southwest Texas, where he's coaching Grant High School's varsity lacrosse team.
Serendipity has continued to play a part in the evolution of Otis Heat. Initially crafting its off-kilter groove rock using two guitars and no bottom end, O'Neill came to visit a friend at the office of the Portland Chinese Times and was literally handed a bass by the owner of the paper. O'Neill had never played the instrument before—he didn't even pick up a guitar until after he graduated from college—and in an effort to learn quickly, he developed the fluid, hard-thumping style at the foundation of the odd amalgamation of sounds found on the group's forthcoming second album, Yoon. Although some might pigeonhole Otis Heat as a jam band (it's a frequent guest at Southeast Portland's epicenter of jam, the Goodfoot), it doesn't indulge in note-crammed noodling, and Warner's guitar edges more toward spiraling psychedelia than white-boy funk. And then there's O'Neill's voice: Although he grew up singing in school vocal groups and stage musicals—"all that corny stuff," as he says—his elastic, nasally tenor could hardly be called "classically trained."
"I really demand authenticity out of myself," O'Neill says. "Once I'm doing something redundant, I get frustrated. The sound comes from that desire to be authentic, and the desire to make something that makes people dance."
Of course, in striving to do something different, there's always the risk of alienation. Indeed, Otis Heat's inability to easily classify itself has made it difficult for the band to find a comfortable niche in the Portland music scene. Although it has played the usual venues in town, and for broad audiences—from high-schoolers to middle-agers—O'Neill admits Otis Heat has had trouble breaking through to more "hip" clubs such as Holocene. His band won't pander to that crowd by throwing in synths or electronic beats, but O'Neill thinks the band can win them over. It just needs the chance.
"We shoot to be in that world, because we want to be in all worlds," O'Neill says. "The experience people have with our music is pretty enjoyable. It doesn't really dictate one kind of crowd or another. It's fairly uninhibited music."
SEE IT: Otis Heat plays Ted's at Berbati's Pan on Friday, July 8, with the Resolectrics and the Villains. 8:30 pm. $5. 21+.