Interview with Oceanator

Oceanator by Alex Joseph

We got on zoom with multi-instrumentalist Elise Okusami, better known as the melodic and emotion-filled project Oceanator. We talked about the importance of Vitamin D, grunge music, and the healing and catharsis that music can bring.

What is your go-to gas station order?

Elise: I usually just get a seltzer, or if I’m in the middle of the country somewhere I’ll get a Squirt. Like the grapefruit soda. And then almonds. I love to drink Seltzer at all times, pretty much.

Your bio notes that you are a multi-instrumentalist and first started with guitar! What all do you play, and what inspired you to expand your horizons beyond guitar?

Elise: I play guitar, bass, drums, and piano. Bass just kind of came because it’s another stringed instrument, so I started playing bass for someone in high school or something. Drums was kind of similar. My brother started playing drums when he was really little, so there was a drum kit in the house already. I would kind of fool around on it, then my friends needed a drummer for their punk band, and I thought it would be fun.

Piano was technically my first instrument, but I took lessons when I was a kid and then I didn’t play again until high school, and I had to play in college for class. With piano, I play mostly chords and stuff, I’m not like a fancy pianist. But I’ll watch someone playing the piano and be like, “How are you doing that with your little spider hands!”.

Your debut LP often references imagery involving the sun and sky, such as the lyric “If the sun never came up tomorrow / do you think we would even notice?”, and the closing track “Sunshine”. Was this intentional, and what does this metaphor mean to you?

Elise: I wasn’t thinking specifically to make it intentional to be about the sun and the sky, but the sun especially is, I’ve noticed even more recently, if it’s not sunny out or I don’t get enough sun I’m in a terrible mood. So like seasonal affective disorder, all of that stuff. Just kind of, it wasn’t intentional but that’s what I would see when I was trying to describe these moods or thoughts.

The sun was a good way to express what I was trying to say, that other people could know what I was saying and maybe relate to it. The sun and sky and stars and moon, I talk about them a lot, but I don’t do it on purpose. I don’t notice that I’ve done it until like, after. We all have our little attachments to it.

You are often described as grunge influenced. What are some of your favorite grunge bands?

Elise: I guess I’m gonna say Heatmiser is my favorite grunge band. It’s a lot of, I grew up mostly listening to punk and stuff, but kind of grunge-influenced rock was on the radio a lot. So all of those bands, I would hear them all the time and I would learn those songs on my guitar because that’s when I was learning guitar. That stuff was in there, just because. I listen to more grungy bands than I think, because I wasn’t really thinking about if they were grunge or not. But Heatmiser is my favorite one.

Oceanator by Alex Joseph

Several of the songs on the LP talk about the feeling of comfort from the presence of someone else, like in “Heartbeat,” but the record ends with a sort of affirmation in feeling comfort in yourself on your own. How do you navigate between personal and external connection?

Elise: I am someone who spends a lot of time by myself, even before the pandemic. I just need a lot of time to recharge, basically, like social interactions kind of really are draining. So I’m alone a lot, but then sometimes you get in a mood where it goes from being alone to being lonely, which is very different. And it’s weird because sometimes I’m feeling really lonely, but I don’t want to be around any people at the same time. Which is sort of what I was thinking about with sunshine, where it’s fine and I need to be able to rely on myself to bring myself back up and to feel okay being by myself instead of relying on getting that from somebody else, basically. It’s really hard, and I’m very much still working on it.

What does your songwriting process usually look like?

Elise: Usually I will be just holding my guitar and farting around, and then I’ll play something that I like the sound of, and then depending on what mood I’m in I’ll record a little voice memo of a ten-second riff or whatever. Or I’ll just sit there and let the whole song come out. Usually the guitar all comes first, and occasionally when I’m doing that some words will come to my mind that fit with it.

Usually what happens is I’ll write the whole guitar part, or at least most of it, like I’ll write the rhythm part of it, and the song will kind of tell me what other instruments it needs, and I’ll start putting those in. Lyrics usually come once everything is done, structure-wise. Sometimes I’ll have a melody that I’m singing but the words usually come last for me.

As apocalyptic as “Things I Never Said” sounds, it was recorded pre-pandemic. Do you see these themes as sort of a premonition to what was going to happen, or its inevitability?

Elise: I think, you know, people have been writing apocalyptic things forever, and there’s always some sort of big crisis thing coming. And when there’s something bad, even before the pandemic in terms of other crisis stuff, I think that stuff kind of builds so it’s already out there in the atmosphere.

When I was writing that record, I was thinking all of these things, even if it was subconsciously. And I just tend towards writing big apocalyptic-y stuff because I like that sort of stuff, and I like the entertainment that I watch and read and listen to. That’s just a theme that I like, and it’s fun to explore small problems through huge problems like that.

What do you find most cathartic and/or healing about making music?

Elise: For healing, I think a lot of my thoughts in general are sort of processed through writing songs. Musically and lyrically, a lot of lyrics I’ll write the whole song out and then I’ll play it a couple times and even record it and later be like, “Oh, this is what I was trying to work through.” That’s how I work through stuff. Also it’s cathartic, it’s really fun to play music and it’s really fun to do and it’s really satisfying when you learn a new riff or write a new riff or whatever. It feels good, it feels organic.

Your most popular song is a love song called, “I Would Find You.” What’s your favorite way to express love?

Elise: I think it’s actions. I like to do favors for people, I guess. I don’t even want to call them favors. I like to help, I like helping. I like to do nice things. I’m very bad at talking about it. I’m really terrible at talking about feelings, but I like to like, get you some food, mail you packages, whatever. Stuff like that.

Watching the “I Would Find You” video, it felt like a “coming of age” / “coming home” moment, was this sort of intent present when you put the video together?

Elise: I think the idea for the video was kind of like, for the song I kind of think of it as not to one specific person but to a bunch of different people. It wasn’t on purpose to be a coming-of-age thing, it was like everyone was gone and trying to find all these people that are important to me. Because they did such a cool, great job it looks like an actual movie. When I watched it again, I could see that for sure. But that wasn’t the plan going into it.

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