In Conversation: Oceantor’s Elise Okusami Talks College Athletics, Starting a Label, and Her Excellent Debut Album

Elise Okusami has always been ambitious. I mean, she started her first band in the fourth grade. Elise played around town with her brother and their mutual friend in that band throughout her childhood, eventually releasing two records together in high school. In college she was a two-sport athlete, starting on both Vassar’s basketball and rugby teams. She was also a double major, finding time for both history and music in between the basketball games and rugby matches. When Elise graduated college she moved to New York, started a band, and joined another, and another, and three more after that, till she was in six bands while still holding down a full-time job. She left most of them to focus on her own band, Oceanator, and put out two excellent EP’s that helped her generate considerable buzz in the NYC DIY scene.  When her old label crumbled Elise decided she’d start her own. Elise founded the label Plastic Miracles, where she helped put out Sonny Falls’ solid new record earlier this year. Last week Plastic Miracles dropped their second record which is now available on vinyl, none other than Oceanator’s debut album Things I Never Said.

Things I Never Said is as multi-faceted as its creator. Elise covers a wide variety of styles on the album, seamlessly flowing between grunge to synth pop to punk rock tracks, each punctuated by her detailed and personal lyrics. It is a stunning debut that builds on the successes of her previous EPs. Elise feels that while both Lows and the Oceanator EP are good snapshots of where she was at the time of recording, Things I Never Said is the most fully formed version of her artistic vision to date. I had the opportunity to chat with Elise a week before the album came out about starting a label, why Metal Gear Solid III changed how she played video games forever, how she became a Sam Rockwell super-fan, and her fantastic debut album, Things I Never Said.

Thanks to Alex Joseph for all the photos

GSC: Elise! I have a whole list of questions for you, but starting at the top, what is your name and now do you identify?

OCEANATOR: Elise Okusami, she/her.

GSC: I love your name Elise. I used to coach diving and coached a girl named Elise, I think she’s the only other one I know.

OCEANATOR: It’s not a terribly popular name so anytime anyone else has it I’m like… its mine.

GSC: That’s funny. I was listening to some old interviews you did. You grew up in Maryland with an immigrant father, your parents were a psychologist and a psychiatrist. What was it like growing up?

OCEANATOR: We were right about halfway between DC and Baltimore and I went to high school in DC. I drove there, well took the Metro first and then drove every day. I spent a lot of time there, that’s where I played my first shows and got into the local music scene. Before that I went to a fairly small school and I played music. I started playing guitar when I was nine and my brother started playing the bass then. We started a band with some fourth-grade classmates, we’d have band practice every weekend. I think we had two songs at the beginning that were probably terrible. We’d go to my house or my friend Matt or David’s house, which is where we usually ended up because that’s where the drum kits were. My brother started playing drums when he was three or something.

GSC: So, you were in fourth grade putting your own songs together that’s wild. What’s that fourth grade writing process? Is it just “I hate my parents, teachers just don’t understand me?”

OCEANATOR: No, of the ones in fourth grade I remember two songs. Actually one might have been sixth grade but whatever, close enough. One of them had no words at all, it was just like your typical D minor seventh chord, I could probably play it. It was just an instrumental thing that went on forever. The other was this song where my brother would play the drums and yell “H. A. OUT OF THE PERFORMANCE.” I asked him what it meant, and he was just like “I don’t know” but he’d yell it so we wrote this stupid punk song around that. It was very simple.

GSC: That’s so cool though, ambitious from a young age.

OCEANATOR: Yea we had a lot of fun. That band started off with five of us and then three of us, me my brother and our friend David, we were in that band thru high school and put out two records that we recorded ourselves. We didn’t do a lot of shows but we played a lot and it was a lot of fun.

GSC: My next question was what your earliest musical memories are. Do you have anything earlier than the fourth-grade band?

OCEANATOR: In general, always listening to music.

GSC: What were your parents playing around the house?

OCEANATOR: I remember my brother and I used to loooove dancing around the living room to Doo Wa Dittie or whatever that’s called.

GSC: “🎶There she comes just a-walkin down the street singin 🎵”

OCEANATOR: Yep, used to rock to that. A lot of oldies stuff on, and my Dad used to listen to and still listens to like a lot of soul and jazz and funk and all that kinda good stuff so that was all around a lot.

GSC: You mentioned that your brother is also musically gifted and runs a studio down in Maryland. What was your relationship like growing up and how has that informed your collaborative relationship?

OCEANATOR: I guess we just always played music together.

GSC: What’s your age difference?

OCEANATOR: I am twenty months older. He just like ridiculous and can play anything. We’d jam a lot, I’d play the guitar and he’d play the drums. As I started to learn to play the drums we’d switch and do whatever. Yea, it’s cool because he intuitively knows what I am going for when I am recording something. Like I know if he thinks something is good or not without him saying much. It makes recording easier too, especially if I am doing vocal takes. I don’t like doing vocal takes in front of people and I finally got comfortable doing them with him. I’ll know if something is off because he’ll just be like “Let’s do that again,” but if he gives this short nod then I know everything is good.

GSC: Did you record the whole album in that studio?

OCEANATOR: I did it in two places. I did some of it in that studio and then five of the songs were done in Wonderpark Studios in Brooklyn run by Eva Lowitts and Chris Krasnow. Eva plays bass on those five songs as well. So that’s “Goodbye Goodnight”, “A Crack in the World”, “Hide Away”, “Heartbeat”, and “Walk with You”. Those were all recorded there because I wanted all those to get recorded live. The guitar, drums, and bass were all recorded at the same time, the drummer for four of those is Andrew Whitehurst and one is Andrew Silversteen, and yea we just played them like it was a performance, just did a couple takes and stuff. And I went back and recorded the lead guitar and vocals and synths and stuff back down in Maryland too. And my brother mixed it all.

GSC: So, he got the final cut in the end, that’s fun.

OCEANATOR: Yea, I usually record with him because the recording process itself is really great and also like it’s cheaper.

GSC: *Both laugh* Yea keeping it in the family is the way to go absolutely, he better not be charging you something ridiculous. That is so much fun, I have four brothers and any time I get to do anything with them it’s amazing, I couldn’t even imagine the experience of recording an album together. It must be so fulfilling.

OCEANATOR: Yea its really cool, and I am really excited for it to come out. He played some stuff too, he played drums on one song.

GSC: How did you come up with the name Oceanator? It just rolls off the tongue so nice.

OCEANATOR: It’s like a weirdly boring story. I was on my bed talking a bunch of nonsense and then started talking about what the name of the super hero or villain would be who would turn the whole world into the ocean, what that would be and I was like oh, that would be the Oceanator and then I was like oh wow that’s a cool name! I don’t even think it’s a word. Immediately went on twitter saw it wasn’t a thing and snatched it up.

GSC: You gotta commit before someone else gets there. That’s like Team Aqua from Pokémon Sapphire.

OCEANATOR: …sure

GSC: They tried to drown the world in the game.

OCEANATOR: Oh, yea I feel like it has happened in fiction before. I was thinking of that “This is the story of a girl” song. Maybe she’s the Oceanator.

Thanks to Alex Joseph for all the photos

GSC: Pulling a little bit back, you did not have a lot of time to get into the local scene in college because you were a two-sport athlete, playing both basketball and rugby. I was a diver in college and tried to play rugby in the off season until my diving coach found out and put the kibosh on that. So how did you pull off playing both, what were your positions in each, and do you still get to play much of either?

OCEANATOR: So I went to college and played basketball and my sophomore year they had budget problems and had to cut people from the away team. The reason I got cut was because we had to run a seven-minute mile before the beginning of the season and I got strep throat like seven days before that. So I couldn’t run, I couldn’t breathe. I have asthma, and the antibiotics made me super dizzy. I told my coach like I am super sick and they were like “well you have to run it anyway.” So I didn’t make it, I hit 7:15 and had like an asthma attack afterward.  He was like “You didn’t make it, sorry,” and I was like yeah, no kidding! I was bummed so I started playing rugby that spring because I had always wanted to play. Then next year that basketball coach got fired and the new coach asked if I wanted to play again and I told them “I am gonna play both” and they were kinda annoyed about it but were ultimately like “Okay fine.” It was funny too because I ended up starting that year.


GSC: Hell yea, that rules.

OCEANATOR: Position wise through high school I was always point guard. In college I played the 2, 3, and sometimes 4 because although I was short I was very strong. When our tall people got in foul trouble I’d get thrown in as the 4.

GSC: Yep, go throw some elbows, go get active in the paint.

OCEANATOR: Yea exactly. For rugby I played flyhalf for two and a half years. It was great, I was pretty good. Our team went to nationals and we were number seven in the country when I was the captain. I even made some Under 23 team.  

GSC: You played on the USA Under 23 team??

OCEANATOR: No, the Northeast team. I had some friends on the USA team though. Rugby was a great sport. I don’t play either anymore unfortunately because I got too many injuries and I got tendonitis everywhere. Someday I’d like to at least shoot a basketball or something again.

GSC: Maybe coach!

OCEANATOR: I did always want to coach, maybe I’ll go back one day and be a high school coach.

GSC: Yea, teach music by day coach basketball by night.

OCEANATOR: Yea maybe teach a history class, that was my other major. I could be exactly like my high school basketball coach, a history teacher and a coach.

GSC: Yea follow in their footsteps. After you graduated college you moved to New York, quickly got into the music scene and found yourself in six bands at once at one point. What was that point in your life like? How was it balancing six bands and a job?

OCEANATOR: It was pretty hectic and very stressful. Most of it was drumming. Yea it was wild, it was too much, but everyone needs a drummer all the time and that’s how that happened. It was cool because they were all in slightly different scenes so I got to play a bunch of different styles, but it was definitely too much and it definitely crossed the line. Too much to handle all that and working full time.

 GSC: Keeping your calendar straight alone I couldn’t even imagine.

OCEANATOR: Yea I had to like actually like put everything in my calendar usually I’m pretty good about remembering stuff. But yea then I just quit all of them almost and was just like “I can’t do it I’m too busy” but I am still friends with all of them.

GSC: So you played the drums for all these bands but you play just about everything for Oceanator. Do you feel most comfortable on drums?

OCEANATOR: When I first started playing drums in bands I definitely felt the least comfortable on drums because I had played guitar mostly on stage, guitar and bass. Now it’s all pretty much the same because I have a lot more practice playing drums in front of some relatively large crowds at this point. When I tense up on the drums I think about Dave who plays the drums for Courtney Barnett because he’s so chill, shoulders down and relaxed, and if I just picture him playing the drums for a second I get calm.

GSC: Love that it’s like your happy place or something. You are such a vivid storyteller with your music, I love the detail of it. How much of that is based on your real life versus how much is fiction or metaphor?

OCEANATOR: I’d say the emotions of it are all based off of real life. Like “Hideaway for example, that’s not a real story that’s based on my life but the feeling of it is. Sometimes fiction tells the truth better than the truth does. A lot of times when I am writing lyrics, I don’t know what I am writing about till its written because it is how I process a lot of thoughts and feelings. I let my brain do whatever it wants and afterwards I am like “Oh, okay.” It starts with that sort of feeling and I try and find a story around it that will tell that feeling in a way that will translate. It’s a combo. It’s based on something real but, with some notable exceptions like “Inhuman”, the actual story is not 100% true.

GSC: The album is also very sonically diverse. You have the grungier tracks, the more stripped back tracks, and even synth pop. Do you have different processes for writing different types of songs?

OCEANATOR: It all depends on what instrument I started on. The rockier ones in general are written with guitar first so that’s kinda how they come out rock songs. “I Would Find You” started as a synth song and like my idea for that song was for it to be steady like that. Like I wrote the bassline. Yea it mostly depends on the instrument.

GSC: Did you ever have a track where you were like “this is the synth pop one” and then you put it down and were like what was I thinking get me my fuzzy guitar?

OCEANATOR: No, I have had songs where I was playing on the guitar where I was like this would be cooler not on the guitar. But if I go to the piano it comes out piano-y. I was playing the piano as a kid and then didn’t play it for a long time and then had to play it again in college for these musicianship classes we had to take. So I feel like my brain works in a different way from when I am playing piano than from when I am playing the guitar.

GSC: Oh, in what way?

OCEANATOR: I think more about chords when I am playing the piano, like the names of the chords and theory stuff is more in my head when I am playing the piano even if I am not thinking. Its more present because I was doing these classes and picking it back up when I was learning the theory. And guitar I learned really young and was impatient, so I didn’t really learn like that.

GSC: Your previous label collapsed I guess you could call it, which led you to self-release this record through your own label Plastic Miracles. What was that process like and how does it feel to be on the precipice of its release?

OCEANATOR: Well the last part it feels really wild, and kinda unbelievable but very exciting. It feels so close but also like it’s never actually gonna happen. The 18th [of August] was the two-year anniversary of recording at Wonder Park.

GSC: Oh wow so you’ve had these tracks for a while then, I didn’t even think about that.

OCEANATOR: Yeah, it just kept getting pushed back for a bunch of different reasons, like every step something happened. And yea, self-releasing has been cool, I have a great team that’s been super helpful because I don’t have to do everything by myself. It would have been doable but I don’t think I would have enjoyed the process nearly as much, like I am already super stressed out so I’d be really losing it. Especially because I am trying to run this label and had the Sunny Falls record come out earlier this month. I have four things planned for the fall and just got our first release of 2021 lined up.

GSC: Talk about making lemonade outta lemons! I saw a tweet from Bartees Strange where he named you among the new young vanguard of POC DIY musicians blazing a new trail, and he talked about how excited he was to see this new scene of DIY musicians of color. How does it feel to be part of that movement and who are some of the DIY artists of color inspiring you?

OCEANATOR: Bartees for sure, Nandi and Devon and Kylie from Petal and all the Camp Cope folks. A ton of people really. The thing that’s really cool and what Bartees was talking about is there’s so many of us now. When I’d go to punk shows as a kid the first thing I did was look for another Black person to make sure I didn’t accidentally go to the skinhead show. And we’d see each other from across the room, because they were I assume doing the same thing, and we’d make eye contact and give a little nod, and then the show would be fun. For a very long time I was the only person of color on a lot of the bills. And unfortunately, I got almost used to it at a certain point, I was just like “I guess this is the way it is” and a lot of these folks were thinking the same thing.

GSC: There was just never the network.

OCEANATOR: Yea, and that’s really cool and feels so great to see so many Black faces rocking it right now, that’s so rad.

GSC: I was talking to Miles from Morninglight about how he was at a Mint Green and Manika show in January where –

OCEANATOR: OH! I was playing bass at that show.

GSC: Oh hell yea, really?

OCEANATOR: Yea I was playing bass for Maneka.

GSC: That’s wild, yea he was saying it was the first show he had been to where every act had multiple Black performers. He talked about how diverse the crowd was and how good it all felt.

OCEANATOR: That was a fun one, Mint Green is so great too. I love them all and couldn’t agree more.

Thanks to Alex Joseph for all the photos

GSC: In quarantine what have you been reading, streaming, gaming, what’s been keeping your mind at ease?

OCEANATOR: It’s so funny, I read like twenty books in January and February and then the second lockdown started I stopped reading. I finally got back into it and now I have been reading some Octavia Butler which is funny because its perfect for now but it wasn’t on purpose. I had “The Parable of the Sower” for a while and finally started it and was like “This is scary, this is right now.” And I’ve played I think 600 hours in Stardew Valley.

GSC: Just in quarantine or overall?

OCEANATOR: I had never heard of it pre quarantine. My friend Kevin was like “oh you should download this game” and then it was $8 so I was like I am not gonna get that and then weirdly got an email to my AOL account that was like you know you have $7.50 in iTunes gift cards left right?

GSC: That’s kismet right there, that is God telling you to buy that game.

OCEANATOR: I had two farms, my regular farm where things are nice and I got the husband and kids and then I got the mean farm whose this character whose just a jerk cuz I wanted to see what happened to people if you’re mean to them in the game and it sucks cuz they’ll be like “That wasn’t very nice” but they’ll be nice to you. I played Bioshock and there are different endings and stuff but not so much in Stardew Valley, so mean farm has mostly been abandoned.

GSC: Have you ever played Undertale?

OCEANATOR: No, what’s that?

GSC: It’s an RPG where you have the option of killing or coming to peace with every opponent you face. So you can go through the whole game killing everyone or nobody and it’s like a very different game one way or another. Its creepy but it’s cool.

OCEANATOR: That’s so funny, did you ever play Metal Gear Solid III?

GSC: No, everyone I know has such reverence for MGS but I never played them.

OCEANATOR: Yea I didn’t play them till college when my friend Max had the first one on GameCube. But third one, spoiler alert there’s a boss… can I spoil?

GSC: Spoil away!

OCEANATOR: There is a boss where you’ve previously gone into a creek early in the game, and you’re in this weird dream zone walking back to that creek. The boss level is you can’t move very fast, it’s a slow-mo weird dreamland. Every person you killed in the game is lurching towards you and you have to touch all of them. It’ll take you however long to touch em all depending on how many people you killed. You can go through the game not killing anyone, it’s like a stealth game and you have a tranquilizer gun, but the first time I played it I was like this was too hard I am gonna kill them all and that level like destroyed me. I think about that level all the time, now anytime I play a video game I don’t like to kill people unless I have to. Like I was playing Bioshock for the first time and I was like can I just leave this part of the level or run away? It was so stressful for me cuz of that game, which I guess is like the Undertale.

GSC: That is very much so in sync, Kojima is a legend.

OCEANATOR: I recommend Metal Gear sure, especially the third one. And yea been doing that and watching movies. I have watched I think 21 Sam Rockwell movies, he somehow became my favorite actor.

GSC: How’d that happen?

OCEANATOR: I don’t know what happened I had seen a bunch of them before just without thinking about it and then I watched something in February. I think I had watched Three Billboards and was like “Oh that’s great, let’s see what else he’s in” and kept finding movies on Hulu and Netflix and in my DVD collection, he’s just been in a million movies.

GSC: Do you have a favorite Rockwell?

OCEANATOR: I’d say one I’ve watched the most is Mister Right, which is like a rom com I guess. He plays this hitman who is one of the most gifted hitmen ever but he decides killing is wrong so he kills the people who hired him. And he meets Anna Kendrick who is going through a bad break up and loves paleontology and he’s being chased by assassins and it’s just this silly. And its him, Anna Kendrick, RZA is in it, Eli Roth is in it, it’s just fun. I think the thing that hit me about it is there are no real-life stakes to it because it’s so ridiculous. All these people die but it’s like a video game, like you don’t feel like it’s a real scenario. So that might be my quarantine favorite but like a movie movie maybe JoJo Rabbit. Three Billboards I liked a lot too and Moon, one of those three. Or maybe Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.

GSC: You got too many good options!

OCEANATOR: I know but I’d say those four… and Seven Psychopaths. I remember seeing that in theatres.

You can follow Oceanator on twitter and insta, buy Things I Never Said on vinyl and stream it on Apple Music or Spotify.

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