From performing at breweries to playing the mainstage at THON, the last two years for the band OK Otter have been anything but dull.
Lead singer and bassist Mike Doyle said the band truly came together after its first gig in late 2018.
“The actual origins were just booking a gig and having to learn songs for that gig,” Doyle, who from Penn State in 2010 and 2013 with a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering and a master’s in systems engineering. “The band doesn't really come together until you book a gig.”
OK Otter’s roots can be traced back to the band members’ times as students at Penn State — a stepping stone in the band’s formation.
While playing in a different band, Doyle met Eric Weiss — now the lead guitarist for OK Otter — at a show. The relationship between the two would soon become more than just musical.
“[I] actually met my now-wife, who is Mike’s sister, through the band,” said Weiss, a 2013 Penn State graduate with a bachelor’s in architecture. “She used to get up and play. Obviously, being my brother-in-law, we stayed in touch after Penn State.”
OK Otter quickly became a family operation. Caitlin Doyle Weiss plays the guitar for OK Otter alongside her father, Mike Sr., who plays the drums, while her uncle Pat plays percussion and Doyle family friend John McGroary plays the accordion.
Caitlin from Penn State in 2012 with a degree in information sciences and technology.
Compared to some of the other bands he was in, Mike Jr. said playing alongside close family and friends is “very low pressure.”
“I’ve been in a lot of bands and when you're with other guys… you're making sure you're learning your song [and that] you get your parts down,” Mike Jr. said, “and if you mess up, it’s a little more tense, [but with OK Otter], it's very relaxed.”
For McGroary — who from Penn State in 2006 with a master's degree in leadership development — being involved in a close-knit group like OK Otter is a great experience. He said he loves seeing the Doyle family work together.
“[It] is really great to see not only the close relationship, but [also] the different generations [of] the Doyle family getting involved,” McGroary said. “Everybody stands out on their own… Everybody's got a real good expertise in a certain area. And then, when you bring that stuff all together, it’s even better.”
Before joining OK Otter, McGroary was a member of the band Blackthorn, a Celtic rock group dating back to 1990. Blackthorn has a “traditional Irish music influence,” and the band put out five albums while McGroary worked with them.
Despite having “a totally different vibe,” McGroary said segueing from Celtic music to classic rock has helped him improve as a musician.
Because the majority of OK Otter’s covers do not originally feature the accordion, McGroary will replace a string or horn section with his instrument for the band’s version of the song.
“I really enjoy it,” McGroary said. “It's actually helped me a lot as a player listening to these other types of music and picking up these parts.”
As a result, McGroary was able to stay active during OK Otter’s second appearance at THON this year, where the group’s eclectic mix of songs were a virtual crowd favorite.
Compared to the group’s previous THON performance, Mike Jr. said it was unique to hear the Bryce Jordan Center so quiet this year.
“It was interesting when the sound guys were working because my dad was doing the sound check for the snare, [and] it was weird to hear just such an empty room,” Mike Jr. said.
Weiss applauded the work that went into this year’s virtual event, even if he said it felt somewhat different.
“It was great that they still had the level of production and the setup that they had there: the stage, the sound company, all the lighting,” Weiss said. “Obviously, the energy isn't the same as stepping out on stage in front of thousands of people like we did last year, but it still felt like we were giving back to a very important cause.”
Mike Jr. said it is “very meaningful” being able to perform for an event like THON.
“It's always fun to play for people, but to play for an event like this for all these kids, it’s very cool,” Mike Jr. said.
For Weiss, a former cancer survivor, it was “humbling to have had a taste of what [the kids] go through.” He said he feels performing serves as a “meaningful way” to contribute to THON.
“It's nice to have an outlet to give back in a personal way,” Weiss said. “[I am] happy to do whatever I can to help them out.”
McGroary looks at THON from two different angles and loves being able to give back through OK Otter.
“From a family perspective, we just really love getting involved, and from a band perspective, it was just great to be able to get up there and perform and give back,” McGroary said.
For the future of OK Otter, Mike Jr. said he plans on moving back up to State College and wants the band to come up when possible. The group will be sticking with covers, but will also be working on original music.
“With the original stuff, I've been doing a lot of sync licensing,” Mike Jr. said. “Lexus is using one of my songs, [and] the NHL [and] a lot of athletes have been using some of my tunes for YouTube videos.”
McGroary said he is looking forward to being able to perform the band’s original material once businesses begin to open back up, but also noted that he and two members of Blackthorn made songs for “Last Call,” an upcoming movie starring Jeremy Piven.
“It was a really good opportunity for us, and we got in the studio and cut two tracks for [‘Last Call’],” McGroary said. “We’re featured in the trailer of that as well.”
Weiss said he is also eager to get back to in-person venues, but realizes OK Otter is “pretty fortunate to get the kind of gigs that [it does].”
“Hopefully within the next year, we can get back to playing shows a little bit more normally,” Weiss said. “We did some live stream stuff and recording stuff, but it's not the same.
“As you know, the reason we're doing it is to get out in front of people and play. That's where the real fun is, so hopefully, we get back to some semblance of that.”