this interview conducted by Ivy Gray-Klein '14 was originally published in the December 11, 2012 issue of the college news.
Loyal college news readers may recall an article I wrote two years ago
about a paneled discussion at Kelly Writers House featuring Kathleen
Hanna, Sara Marcus, Katty Otto, and Beth Warshaw-Duncan. While fawning
over Hanna, I was also introduced to Katy Otto, a pillar of
Philadelphia’s independent music scene and my local shero. A recent
assignment for my journalism class served as the perfect opportunity for
me to interview Otto. We met up at West Philly’s Satellite Café where
we discussed trans-inclusive spaces, listening to Tori Amos in our
teenage bedrooms, and what it means to be 35 and still in a “girl band.”
Ivy Gray-Klein: You’re originally from DC, correct?
Katy Otto: Yes, just outside in Prince George’s County in Maryland. I studied journalism at University of Maryland.
IGK: What inspired you to move to Philly?
I moved here 2-and-a-half years ago because I felt the creative
community in DC had dwindled. 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—not just music, but other kinds of artistic
practice, too. Everything that I experience with Philly is the perfect
blend. For a while I had been sort of interested in maybe going to New
York, but it’s so expensive and it seemed like there was just as much
happening here with the advantage of being close to New York, close to
my family in Maryland. It was kind of perfect.
in Philly has taught me a lot about dance, visual art and theatre. I
live in Fishtown and there are lots of art spaces and studios. We live
near metalworkers and there’s a glassblower that I met. I also live
around the corner from Sarah [Everton] who plays in Bleeding Rainbow and
other neat women, like Cheshire [Agusta] in Stinking Lizaveta. I
remember being a teenager and seeing them play. I think there are a lot
of neat women doing neat stuff in this town.
In the panel at Kelly Writers House you participated in with Kathleen
Hanna you spoke about finding your voice as a woman through music.
Could you elaborate on that?
KO: I was kind of like a teenager who locked herself in her room and listed to Tori Amos [laughs].
Then when I was 17 I went with some friends to Lollapalooza in West
Virginia and I saw Hole and it changed my life. The woman, Patty
Schemel, who plays drums, is the reason I decided to play drums. I saw
her play drums and I was convinced that 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.
came home and told my parents I was going to start playing drums and my
mom was like, “You took piano lessons and you quit. I think you’ll
probably quit and that’s a lot of money for an instrument.” I said, “I
will never quit.” I was very grave [laughs].
got a used drum kit and I started taking lessons from this old hermit
guy in his basement. But he was really awesome because he hadn’t had
many young women as students before and when I first started taking
lessons from him he made these awesome photocopies of world-renowned
percussionists, like Evelyn Glennie and Susie Ibarra. So in his own
weird way he really encouraged me.
I saw this woman walking outside a coffee shop with a guitar asking,
“Will anyone play with me? I wanna start a band,” and I chased her up
the street and said, “I play drums?” I was totally terrified. That’s how
I started my first band-- chasing this woman up the street [laughs]. It’s kind of embarrassing.
IGK: So that was in high school when you started your first band?
KO: Yes. It was called Bald Repunzel. [laughs] It was kind of a band name that you’d give when you’re a teenager. I don’t think I’d quite name a band that now.
IGK: But you’re in a band now.
Yes, Trophy Wife, for about four and a half years now. It’s a duo with
my dear friend Diane [Foglizzo], who is also my roommate. We met in DC,
but we moved here. But she grew up here, near Bryn Mawr, actually.
IGK: What do you see as some areas of improvement within Philadelphia’s scene in terms of sexism?
I appreciate, even though it’s not perfect, spaces that are
trans-inclusive. I think there’s still a lot of work that needs to be
done in that. My friend, Greg Dean of the band HIRS, she identifies as a
woman and was interviewed by one of the weekly papers. I think for
someone who is trans there can be issues in the media. Instead of
referring to someone as she or her, they say, “Greg Dean, who identifies
as a trans woman.” So that’s a space that could handle some
improvement…But I think sexism is something that will always be alive
There’s been a lot of recent discussion about rape culture. As someone
involved in nonprofits for women, what’s your take on the situation?
I think one of the best ways to address rape culture is to first of all
get people to understand what that means. To me that’s kind of a
lynchpin of all of this is also a great girth of comprehensive sex
education to include conversations about consent. I really love the
reading of Jessica Valenti who wrote “Yes Means Yes.” I’ve seen it most
in my own community and subculture of punk because that’s where I spend
the most time, but I think it extends to all communities. I think that
the cultural work people do to address rape culture is some of the most
important prevention work.
IGK: Do you think events like Slutwalk have positively or negatively impacted the situation?
I definitely think the bulk of the goals and values are ones that I
agree with. I read a pretty interesting letter from a woman of color
that was addressing Slutwalk as a complicated experience particularly
for women of color. I think that some people have an easier time
reclaiming hurtful language than others. I also think in the ways that
Slutwalk could possibly dovetail with negative preconceptions. It’s
definitely complicated, but I think the idea of dismantling rape culture
seems to be at the crux of it and I agree with that. But I also see a
lot of energy behind it and it seems to be the profits of younger
feminists then myself. So who am I to say if that’s [beneficial or not].
I remember being young and going to riot grrl shows and seeing girls
write “slut” on themselves as a kind of “fuck you” to the idea of that
word in general. It is a little loaded because whenever you talk about
reclamation of hurtful language, it’s going to be loaded.
also reminds me of going to Rage Against the Machine shows when I was
younger and seeing a bunch of frat boys going nuts over a song about
Zapatistas and horizontal democracy. But somehow the spirit of the music
meshed with culture. I wonder if when Average Joe college guy looks out
his window and sees Slutwalk go by if there’s a space opened up for
conversation or analysis or if it’s just “This rules!” [laughs].
As you said before, it is ironic for people to think of Trophy Wife as a
“girl” band. Do you identify as a feminist band or having a feminist
label or are those just labels people associate with your projects?
I think we’re very inspired by a number of feminists. We have a song
“Sister Outsider” that’s inspired by an essay by Audrey Lourde. I think
that anytime you see a woman doing something loud you think “That’s a
feminist! She’s screaming! She must be a feminist!”[laughs]
I mean, I don’t get mad if people think we’re feminist but I think it
can sort of box you into what songs you might write or might make.
a label it’s strange because there’s been kind of a mix—I’ve put out
some records by queer folks and women, but I’ve also put out records
that were just by screamo dudes. But it’s all stuff that I’ve loved and
thought was interesting.
was funny because I still have this experience today of male friends
who records bands coming up to me saying, “Oh I just recorded this band
and there are girls and you should maybe you wanna put it out!” and it’s
like, “Oh great.” But one time it was an over the top metal band that
was totally different than anything I’ve ever recorded and another time
it was a sugary pop band. But it just because [they were female]. That’s
happened a few times. I’ve put out a lot of music by women but that’s
just kind of happened naturally because those are the people in my
community and the friends I have.
also had this experience in the past year, when guys ask me if I could
help them find girls to join their bands. It’s like well if that’s the
only thing why do you want a girl? “Well they’re easier to work with”
and I’m like really? Because I’ve played with some women who are hard to
work with in bands – god love ‘em, but it’s kind of strange. I think I
would never want to be someone’s bandmate because I was a woman. I want
to be someone’s bandmate because they like how I do that or they like
how I play drums.
IGK: Do you think that’s also true when people book Trophy Wife for shows? Are you often billed with just female bands?
We tend to play a split of shows. We noticed that when we went to New
York we either played with these dudes we knew who played heavy music or
we’d play these very queer and feminist art spaces. Sometimes our
friends from one scene wouldn’t really come to the other and when they
did it was slightly awkward. I’d like to think our band serves as a
bridge because we do strongly identify with queer, women, girl, and
trans-centered artistic communities. But when Diane and I listen to
music together, a lot of the time we’ll listen to music like Led
Zeppelin or Shellac. Sometimes also, in the case of Led Zeppelin, enjoy
music made by men who seem like they were kind of scummy human beings.
You take it for what it’s worth, but they might know how to play a
pretty great song [laughs].