Chris Otepka’s eyes lit up when he was asked about the vehicle he and his band The Heligoats have used on their recent tour. It has replaced Otepka’s previous tour transportation of choice, a 1991 Dodge Caravan lovingly dubbed “Tim.”
Otepka eagerly grabbed a Sharpie and a notepad and went to work.
The picture he attempted to draw of the band’s giant Dodge Sprinter — on loan from the kind folks at Bison Bookbinding, Otepka’s day-job employer in his current home in Bellingham, Wash. — looks something like a muskrat with wheels. But the sketch gets the job done, and he seems proud while admiring it inside Perks Cafe on the campus of Ohio University hours before a Sunday show.
Otepka , 30, had lost count of where the visit to Athens, Ohio fit numbers-wise on the 38-gig tour. Twenty-something was a rough estimate. But something that Otepka never loses track of is his ability to tell stories.
The Heligoats’ most recent album, Goodness Gracious, has garnered plenty of attention, including from the likes of NPR’s Song of The Day series. While his newest batch of well-constructed indie-rock jams might be his best yet, that doesn’t mean it will be his best ever.
“I certainly feel very very lucky that (NPR) would select me out of everything they probably receive and hear,” Otepka said. “Having not put out everything that I hope to put out and having not recorded what I feel are my best songs, I’m excited about people being interested at this point.”
“I’m kind of fortunate to have people who want to play strange songs with me.”
Asked to describe what the first single from Goodness Gracious, titled “Fish Sticks,” is all about, Otepka launches into a narrative about a burnt-out office worker who turns activist to ensure the survival of a nearby swampland. But, as is often the case when Otepka spins a yarn, things go sour at a certain point and the main character is faced with a choice to do good or evil.
It’s clear by watching his band mates reactions during the show in Athens on Sunday that they’ve heard most of what their lead singer is saying before. They nod and grin and exchange glances as Otepka rambles, and can’t help but laugh loudly when he throws in a quip or an off-the-dome remark that perhaps is unique to this particular night.
“It’s fun to create little worlds to slip into temporarily for the sake of a song,” he said. “It’s not necessarily escapism, but seeing what’s able to be dug up.”
“It comes together kind of stream of consciousness. But there are also songs that have taken a year or three to finish. There’s the abstract, brainstorm, notebook filling and then sort of finding the path of the song through all that.”
The passion and glee are evident when he tells the story of “Fish Sticks” at the band’s show later that night for a sparse but mostly attentive bar crowd.
It is his childlike, imaginative spirit that makes Otepka and his music so endearing. The songs, like the guy, are imbued with a playful tone that doesn’t lose the seriousness of wanting someone to listen to a story.
Otepka has the gifts to keep the listener at attention, and his band this time around — known as Ulysses S. Grant in their home-base in the Chicago suburbs – is stellar enough to make the music’s power match the lead singer’s expertly shaped fairy tales.
One does get the distinct impression, sometimes from Otepka’s own admittance, that the lyrics he spews are merely embellishments on actual events from his life. During a show, Otepka provides background stories for his strange tales, complete with hand motions and changes of voice for the different characters in his narratives.
That might be why Otepka has found no shortage of musicians willing to form a band around his active imagination. He cannot help but be his genuine self, and that self is rather talented. His first group, Troubled Hubble, came into existence in much the same way in 2000. That ensemble lasted until 2006, when after he and his band mates went their separate ways amicably, Otepka felt the urge to rekindle some of his earlier solo material.
“When Troubled Hubble was done I still had more songs to do,” Otepka said. “I just kept playing and writing, and I had all these Heligoats tapes and CDs laying around so I just kept being Heligoats.”
The name Heligoats, comes from — of course –another carefully constructed fantasy world. The Heligoats were flying animal janitors in a sort of zoo/movie theater that Otepka and some Chicago friends created as an outlet for their overactive imagination that they hoped to turn into a comic book.
Lucky for listeners, that comic never came to fruition, and the rest is Heligoats history.
The most-recent incarnation with Ulysses S. Grant includes Mike Mergenthaler, David James and Steven Mitchell. The trio seem to be the low-key but playful complement to Otepka’s rambling but charming personality.
Otepka received a phone call “out of the blue,” he says, from Clem Snide frontman Eef Barzelay in the spring of 2009. Barzelay wanted Otepka as his opening act on an upcoming tour. Otepka accepted, and played solo for much of the trip. But when he recruited tourmates and old friends to join him during sets, Otepka realized what his Heligoats demos could sound like if fleshed out with an entire band.
Nearly all of Goodness Gracious was recorded just before Otepka made the move from Chicago to Bellingham following the Clem Snide tour.
“It was a good feeling to bring some songs in for landings,” he said. “When I tour solo I have maybe a hundred songs to pick from. To kind of focus on 10 or 12 of them and then bring them in for a landing and give them a home on a record, that feels really good.”
The Heligoats will tour with Clem Snide again in May and June. They hope to use a short break this spring to begin recording yet another album.
But for now, the bandmates are enjoying the ride through venues large and small nationwide.
“Every night has been totally different,” Otepka said. “We’ve played lots of bars and lots of art spaces. It’s really cool to go out into all these sound environments and hear each other.”
Barzelay sent Otepka an advance copy of the most recent Clem Snide record, The Meat of Life, while Otepka was touring with The Heligoats. Barzelay, who has been a mainstay on the indie rock scene for nearly two decades, left a note with the recording that has stuck with Otepka.
“The note said ‘This is the best batch of songs I feel I’m capable of at this point,'” Otepka said. “I feel like I’m working to catch up to that point. It was kind of inspiring to hear him say that. While Goodness Gracious feels good as a whole, as a project, there’s still a lot of unfinished music that I want to pursue.”
“Fish Sticks” By The Heligoats (From Goodness Gracious, out now on Greyday)
“Heat Vents” By The Heligoats (From Goodness Gracious, out now on Greyday)
Grab Goodness Gracious at Amazon.com