All Katy Otto wants to do is to bang the drum all day
By Ivy Gray-Klein
Katy Otto’s blonde hair flies around her face as she sways to music in a cramped room near Spring Garden St. But unlike the crowd, she isn’t dancing. She’s drumming.
Between performing with her band, Trophy Wife, and running Exotic Fever Records, Otto has become a mainstay of Philadelphia’s independent music scene.
Originally from the Washington D.C. area, Otto left two years ago after noticing a decline in the creative community.
“A lot of people had moved to New York or to the West Coast and I wanted to be in a place that felt like it had a lot going on artistically,” she said. “Everything that I experience with Philly is the perfect blend.”
Otto’s involvement with music began as an adolescent. At 17 she picked up her first set of drumsticks after seeing legendary grunge band Hole at Lollapalooza in 1995.
“It changed my life,” said Otto. “I saw [Patty Schemel] play drums and I was convinced it was the most powerful and beautiful thing I had ever seen a woman do in my life. I’d seen other bands, but something about her was just magic to me.”
As a young woman learning an instrument dominated by men, Otto found encouragement from her teacher. He introduced her to world-renowned female percussionists, like Evelyn Glennie and Susie Ibarra.
While still in high school, Otto formed her first band, Bald Rapunzel.
“It was kind of a band name that you’d give when you’re a teenager [laughs],” said Otto. “I don’t think I’d quite name a band that now.”
Otto and Bonnie Schlegel, her Bald Rapunzel bandmate, started Exotic Fever Records in 2000. Both inexperienced in music distribution, Otto and Schlegel taught themselves as they went along. Exotic Fever has released over 40 records in 12 years.
“It’s a different landscape now because of digital distribution of music. It makes it a little tricky to know how to put out stuff,” said Otto. “I still put out records when I think a band will support it. You just can’t really afford to put money into someone else’s project and then they break up. I end up sitting there with tons of extra records that just don’t go anywhere.”
While the immediacy of digital music has its benefits, Otto still laments the disappearing mail order culture.
“This morning a person from Portland ordered a record. It’s always exciting to me, but I used to get several of those emails a week,” said Otto. “I know it’s because we do digital distrubtion that people buy the record that way, too. But I miss pouring through a catalog. It’s changed a lot since I started doing stuff.”
Aside from her record label, Otto is also focused on her current band, Trophy Wife. A two-piece act with her roommate, Diane Foglizzo, the group has toured throughout the United States and beyond.
“Last year we went to Europe for five weeks, which was amazing,” said Otto. “I had never done that in my life. In January we’re going to the West Coast. We’ve been to the Midwest, the South, and all up and down the East Coast.”
Since her move to Philadelphia, Otto has become more conscious of the arts on a grander scale.
“I think being in Philly has taught me a lot about dance and visual art and theatre,” said Otto. “I live in Fishtown and there’s lots of art spaces and studios.”
Otto has also found the City of Brotherly Love to be receptive to women in the arts.
“I live around the corner from Sarah Everton who plays in Bleeding Rainbow and other women like Cheshire [Agusta] in Stinking Lizaveta,” said Otto. “I think there are a lot of neat women doing neat stuff in this town.”
But being neat doesn’t always mean fair treatment. Otto, now in her mid-thirties, still cringes when Trophy Wife is categorized as a “girl band.”
“I definitely think I’ve been treated differently as a musician who is female both in positive ways and in negative ways,” said Otto.
But Otto remains optimistic that the arts can serve as a catalyst for female empowerment.
“The thing to me that’s really amazing a musical instrument is that it only gives back what you give it. It’s kind of like the great neutralizer,” said Otto. “To me, good music is good music.”