Otto & The Elevators celebrates 40 years

ottoBy Michael Casper

If you remember Otto & the Elevators, you were hip to the Milwaukee music scene in the mid-70’s, but odds are you never saw the “band” perform.

Gary Tanin “is” Otto & the Elevators. The band is his inspiration. His music points to him being an incurable romantic while simultaneously being a rockin’ blues musician. Think Elvis Costello meeting the Marshall Tucker Band for a gig in Motown.

He was raised in Milwaukee by his Ukrainian immigrant parents.

“It was a common story at the time,” Gary said “in the 50’s. There were a lot of immigrants coming to the United States, and my parents were among those. Their first language was Ukrainian, and they didn’t have a real command of the english language, my dad was working as a draftsman. I went to Catholic grade school where what speech I heard sounded like mumbo jumbo. But from that first initiation of having to learn another language, I had this desire to really communicate. I think I found that outlet when I discovered the piano, and made a magical connection with it. So regardless of the fact of whether or not I had total command of the english language, all of a sudden I was able to transcend that by playing some notes on a keyboard…at least that’s how it felt at the time. It was kind of my inspiration to get into music, this overarching idea that you could communicate regardless of a language barrier.”

Gary’s parents both sang and acted in high school productions in the Ukraine, so Gary grew up knowing music, but his initial experience was an open ended discovery, it wasn’t just being taught music, and learning it.

“I’m not sure exactly how old I was, but I was younger than 10, we visited my grandfather in Philadelphia,” Gary said “he was a reverend in the Ukrainian Catholic church, and they of course could get married. They had a school on the property and I remember going into the little school house where there was a piano, and I just sat down and started playing it. It was my first experience of what it sounded like to hear harmonic tones.”

In first and second grades, Gary did take some piano lessons, but his learning was hampered by the family not having a piano of their own, making it difficult to find time to practice.

“I played by ear, and kind of faked it,” he said “I didn’t quite understand what the teacher was talking about with the notes, but I loved the idea of what I was experiencing.”

His formative years brought along the discovery of the British invasion!

“I was growing up during what was probably the richest musical cultural time there was,” Gary said “the mid-60’s. The Beatles came on the Ed Sullivan Show, and it was, for a lot of people…I’m not the only one, but a totally mesmerizing, completely transformational time. That’s the only way I can explain it. Suddenly, not only did I have this desire to play piano, but now I was watching how music had this amazing capacity to affect people. The writing was on the wall.”

Gary started a band when he was about 14. He was lead singer and songwriter of a fledgling band that morphed into his first real band called “Medius,” who actually cut a single.

“That was my first first experience in a studio,” Gary said “and those records were actually mastered at RCA Chicago, pressed by RCA Indianapolis, and distributed through their network. But the thrill of being in the studio with the equipment was the connection that I kept ongoing beyond the high school setting. I went to work for a recording studio, Artists Releasing Corporation (ARCO) as I was graduating high school in 1970. It was the first studio to have a 4-track solid state studio, and that was a big deal at the time (laugh), ‘Wow, solid state!’ We did a lot of commercial work, utilizing the Milwaukee Symphony players, set up sessions…much like any other major studio had been doing. So I cut my teeth in that domain.”

But all the while Gary continued playing in various bands.

“I had a band that was the precursor to Otto & the Elevators,” he said “playing bar gigs. And while I was working out the new material for the Otto album which was basically a concept record, I pulled some musicians from a couple different bands, Dave Phillips on bass who played with the Milwaukee Symphony, Junior Brantly of ‘Short Stuff,’ and ‘Soup’s’ Doug Yankus. We rehearsed, and the amazing thing to remember from that time and era…and it’s even difficult for me to conceive of it because today we work in an industry with an endless number of recording tracks and the ability to edit at will, and make all the music seamless. Well, back in the day when we recorded Otto & the Elevators, that was 4 strings, 4 horns, full rhythm section…so there would be keyboard overdubs, harmonies, and keeper vocals from start to finish including mix down, mind you…we did that in thirty hours, on a 4-track recorder. Today I have a hard time imaging exactly how we pulled that off. I know we did all the rhythm tracks in one day, and all of them were keepers, it was just a question of which one we wanted to use. But that’s the way it was done. Studio time was very expensive, and you’d better be rehearsed, or going in with professionals, because you couldn’t take a whole day to do one song!”
Otto & the Elevators didn’t gig. They were a “recording band,” having produced an album, but didn’t work the bar circuit of one-nighters.

“We put the band together specifically to record this album,” Gary said “the intension never was that this band would travel to support it. By this point I was pretty well versed in the ‘studio scene,’ having access to some really good studio session players, guys that had already played on many other records. In that sense, we were much like Steely Dan…you know, Donald Fagen puts together all these top notch studio musicians, but they didn’t play together prior to that. They worked on material as session players. So the concept was not such a strange idea, it was actually done a lot.”

The musicians didn’t go on the road in support of the record.

“I basically ‘became’ the record company,” Gary said “and promoted it like a record company would through all aspects of the release. So when it got 4 and 5 time regular rotation in the midwest radio market on a regular basis, if it would have really caught on, and taken off we would have gone out as a band, but it was only me doing it, so I stayed true to it, making sure it was released, that it had the support, that we got air play, the sales. And it did pretty well.”
In the first month, Otto & the Elevators sold 1000 copies.

“That was quite an accomplishment actually,” Gary said “and we continued selling beyond that. The following year, we ended up putting out another single that was not on the record. At that point Art Roberts from WLS radio in Chicago who worked for Aerial America record label, he took notice, got us additional air play and eventually became our manager. We were in the midst of putting the actual band together to go out in support of the album and the new single, but things went south. The typical stories you hear. You get so close to this concept of success, and it’s hard to keep everybody’s focus on the same objective. Because now the feeling of ‘success’ becomes everybody’s interpretation…like, ‘Well I did this, so I don’t necessarily have to do that.’ The drummer, the guitar player…these were all great guys, but the idea was ‘okay we already did this, yeah I feel part of it, but I can just as well go on and do other things.’ So success can have this negative impact as well. It might’ve been easier to keep it together if it didn’t have success, easier to get somebody to do something, and grow with that success instead of having success foisted upon the concept of Otto.”

There’s a new generational interest in vinyl, so Gary has rereleased the original Otto vinyl with an accompanying CD version. It begged the curiosity, what with 40 years of technological advancements, I wondered if Gary hit “record” on his I-Pad, and dropped the needle onto one of his old vinyls…
“Not quite, but we did go back to the original analog master tapes,” he explained “that were used for the creation of the master lacquer for the album, and I digitally transferred that. What most people don’t realize is that if you go back to the original master tape, you’re still not at the point of where the record was, because there’s another process that happens. Back in the day, that record was mastered by the lathe-cutter. There was a guy who physically cut the lacquer master that they used to manufacture the disc, and in that process that e.q.-ing, or the changing of the sound is done at that point. So whatever is on the tape that you take to the lathe-cutter, is not not necessarily what ended up in the groove. My job now was to digitally ‘disc-master’ the album. It was a challenge because I had to listen to the original analog vinyl to get a sense of what was done ‘originally’ on the tape we used, and remain as true and accurate as I could be to the person who would or will be listening to the vinyl. I mean most people don’t have turntables anymore (laugh). I wanted to be true to the aesthetic, and true to the hi-fidelity. The spacing on the accompanying CD is exactly the same as the album, 3-seconds in between each song, and between side one and two, I doubled the spacing to give you the feel of flipping the album over (laugh).”

The Otto & the Elevators – 40th Anniversary Edition is a limited edition Vinyl/CD combo package available via mail order as well as by way of digital download on iTunes, Emusic, Rhapsody, Spotify, and CDBaby.

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