Jan. 30 --Photo by Copyright: Don Perry Photographer Clay Otis marks the release of his third album, Citizen Clay, with a performance at the Hi-Tone this weekend. With its titular nod to Orson Welles' masterpiece "Citizen Kane" and its Saul Bass -inspired artwork, Memphis musician Clay Otis' third album, Citizen Clay, offers strong hints as to his cinematic background. Born Clay Hardee , the 32-year-old grew up in Panama City Beach, Fla. , "where it's spring break forever," says Otis, whose stage moniker isn't a reference to former Hi Records soul singer Otis Clay , but a childhood nickname that stuck. Though he loved music growing up, his ambition was always to be a filmmaker. He attended film school at the University of Central Florida before getting kicked out. He came to Memphis in 2007, originally to make a documentary on local indie-rock band Snowglobe. That project fell apart, but Otis began writing a script and hustling money for another film. In the process, he soon fell in with the Vest brothers (Toby and Jake), the musical siblings behind bands such as Augustine, Bulletproof Vests and Tiger High and owners of the Crosstown recording studio High/Low. "Just for fun, I wrote a song and ran it by Jake," says Otis. That was in 2011. Since then, Otis has recorded and released three albums (all done at High/Low) and is halfway finished with his fourth. "Songwriting and making records was addictive. To me, it was the same thing I'd been wanting to do with movies, but in a much more controllable environment, much more immediate, and cheaper, too," says Otis. "But it's the same thing: It's collaborative storytelling, creating with other people. I try to make it fun for everyone involved." Each record has come with a slightly different moniker, collective of players and concept. The first album, Clay Otis and the Showbiz Lights, was a party-pop album; the follow-up, The Overachiever, was a more cutting rock record. Otis' songs are obsessed, as he is, with telling tales of love, obsession and death in a darkly comic manner. "As a songwriter, I'm blunt and direct. I like to think I'm like a Chuck D for white people," chuckles Clay, citing the stentorian frontman for rap group Public Enemy. "There are these things going on in the world that are discussed in the news, but only in an abstract way. We don't get any sincere stories about that stuff. "They talk about Adderall use, but you don't see these kids who can't hold a conversation at 25, because they're so spaced out from being on speed since they were 8 years old." Addiction is a favorite topic for Otis, who asserts that "85 percent of all the prescribed drugs that are abused in the United States come from Florida . There's a lot of trickle-down effect going on there." Citizen Clay is another conceptual project, one that plays out the musical conflict between the bloated rock of the '70s and the sharp response of punk. "Just as a music lover and listener, I tried to incorporate those two ideas into one thing," he says. "Half the record is real searching and grandiose, and half the record is a real punch in the face to bring you down to earth." Built on improvisational jams -- which the Vests edited down into tighter songs -- it evinces a hypnotic krautrock feel in spots, and features the talents of Clay's backing band the Dream Team and the rising garage-rock combo the Sheiks (hence the album's "Dream Sheiks" billing). Though Citizen Clay isn't even out yet, Otis has already moved on to his fourth record, which he says has a " Big Star quality to it, but with digital samples, modern touches." A few months ago, Otis got a job working for a wine brokerage in Napa, Calif. "I got the job through music, really," he says. "A friend of mine, he's a commodities manager for this wine (company). He saw the self-promotion I did on the first two records, and he thought I could do sales. Basically, I just have to be affable." Otis still keeps a place in Memphis -- he lives on the wine brokerage's ranch while in California -- and has found that being from the Bluff City is a highly effective calling card. "People really like Memphis outside of Memphis . I went to one dinner in San Francisco with eight people and mentioned I wanted to make a small micro-budget film in Memphis , and everybody coughed up money right then." Otis plans on shooting the film, called "The Debtor," in March in and around town. Based loosely on the novel "The Stranger" by Albert Camus , Otis says the film is about a character "in Midtown who lives really vibrant nights in order to run from the darkness of his days. He spends a lot of money in the bars, dances all night, then come daytime he's very solemn. He's someone who's emotionally unaffected, but who has colorful people coming into his life trying to jolt him." Otis, who will star in the lead role, says the film will "use all local music, all local actors." In the meantime, Otis will unveil Citizen Clay with a live performance at the Hi-Tone. The album will be available as a free download with the purchase of any merch item. Otis has a fairly remarkable line of cinematically themed items -- movie one-sheet posters, shirts, beer koozys -- designed by Josh Bredeen . A vinyl version of the album will be available next month. Otis admits he's a reluctant stage performer. "I don't play out much; I've got that Harry Nilsson thing going," he says. "I don't like to play live. Maybe two shows a year tops. That's maybe as many as I'd like to play. "But," he adds, "the next time I play, I'll probably have a new record done." -- -- - Clay Otis & the Dream Sheiks, Chinamen, The Perfect Prescription Saturday, 9 p.m. at the Hi-Tone, 412-414 N. Cleveland . Cover is $5 . For more information call 901-278-8663 or visit hitonememphis.com . ___ (c)2014 The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.) Visit The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.) at www.commercialappeal.com Distributed by MCT Information Services
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