Brothers Keeper

Here comes trouble: The Otter Popps have mellowed with age, but their music hasn't.
Tony No One

There's a fine line between punk-rock recklessness and downright criminal behavior. It's a line the Otter Popps have crossed on more than one occasion.

"After our shows, we used to go out and light fires," says Myke Martinez, the trio's frontman and guitarist. "We've all been in the clink before."

When Westword first profiled the Denver band nearly seven years ago ("There Otter Be a Law," May 9, 1996), the crew was described as a kind of skate-punk Hanson with a rap sheet. Myke, then 23, was serving eight weeks in a work-release program in Jefferson County at the time the story was published. Before -- and after -- landing in lockup for alcohol violations, he spent his free time gigging, conning pawnshop owners and otherwise raising hell with his sixteen-year-old brother, Ricky Martinez, and seventeen-year-old adopted brother, Matt Bickle (the Popps' drummer and bassist, respectively). Later that year, the band received an award in these pages for being the "Best Local Band to Cover 'Jailhouse Rock' -- and Mean It."

Since then, the trio has seen its fair share of trials, tribulations and probation officers. For better or worse, the Otter Popps are the kind of guys who would steal a generator from a highway construction site, then drive out to the middle of nowhere to play music under a bridge, all for the amusement of grazing cows, passing trains and their own sinister selves. (The band did just that a few years ago in the flatlands east of Denver, but, as Bickle points out, "It can't be called trouble if you don't get caught.") Like Tommy Chongin Up in Smoke, Ricky once passed out on stage -- at the Lion's Lair, when he was sixteen. And as a result of what Myke describes as "a bunch of rumors," they are banned for life from Cricket on the Hill.

"One of those rumors is that we drove a car through the back of the place," says Myke. "We were bad."

Rock-and-roll miscreants to the core, the Otter Popps have never needed any help finding trouble. But they've gone semi-legit in recent years, mellowing ever so slightly with age and no longer running from Johnny Law every time they leave the house.

"We're trying to chill out in the law's eyes," says Myke, now thirty, sounding somewhat repentant for his past transgressions. "We've all kind of grown up, in a sense."

"I can walk out to my truck, and I don't have to look both ways [for the police]," adds Bickle, who's 23.

After seven years spent roughhousing, jamming (sometimes for eight hours at a time) and slacking off, the Popps have gotten it together enough to release their debut album on the Wisconsin-based indie label 7-Inch Records; they've also organized a short cross-country tour that culminates with a date at New York's legendary CBGB. (Not all of the band's current pursuits are so levelheaded: Myke is trying to corral the JelSert Company, which manufactures the sickly sweet freeze-and-suck Otter Pops, for a sponsorship.)

"Right now, the Otter Popps are my main focus," Myke says. Truly, the upcoming tour -- the band's first venture outside of Denver aside from some gigs in Albuquerque and a beer-soaked ramble to Casper, Wyoming -- suggests that the band might be getting serious. Sort of. At the very least, the new CD is proof that the players at least settled down long enough to craft some sophisticated noise.

Titled Transmission, the Popps' debut houses seventeen raw but taut punk ditties that alternately rage against and laugh at the ironies of life. The effort was recorded by Mike Jourgensen of Denver's Noise Tent 6. "He's the only one that has ever caught our sound," says Myke appreciatively.

Not that it's that easy of a sound to catch. Live, Myke is a compelling, dynamic and erratic presence, yowling and wailing like a banshee, occasionally to the verge of unconsciousness. ("I overexert myself on stage a lot," he says. "The screaming takes a lot out of you.") Ricky and Bickle have gotten better with age, musically transcending the early days when they'd wield their instruments with enthusiasm and little else. The rhythmic equation is equal parts ferocity and dexterity, borrowing from the gods of punk, grunge, funk and metal. Today the Otter Popps are a tight rock band with a penchant for eccentric changes, warped humor and lizard-brained intensity.

The outfit's spurts of crash-and-burn combustion shine through on Transmission. A few of the album's songs are holdovers from the early years-- for example, "Blind People," in which Myke sings, "Blind people watching TV/It's so sad/Deaf people playing records/They can't hear anything anyway" amid a musical backdrop that shifts from tongue-in-cheek mellow to frenzied and furious. "Crazy Mutha Fucka," a slugfest of thorny licks propelled by a lockstep pulse, contains these sensitive sentiments: "Deaf, dumb, I'm a stupid motherfucker/Watch out, I'm coming for your children!" You don't necessarily believe him, but the song carries a sense of impending, albeit droll, doom nonetheless. Beyond the homages to sightless tube devotees and other wacko oxymorons, references to drugs both real and not so real (turpentine, helium) pop up all over the record. The reason? "We've done a lot of 'em," says Ricky.  

The Popps' other material covers the customary rock-and-roll themes -- alienation, girls, fast cars -- drawing on personal experience when the subject matter is automotive. Bickle is a technician at Rocky Mountain National Speedway, where Ricky and Myke regularly pilot the Otter Popps Racing Team's stock car around the dirt track.

"Our whole family races," says Myke. "We've been around racing our whole lives."

Figuratively, Myke has been around the local punk racetrack countless times.

"I think I was twelve years old when I played my first punk-rock party," says Myke, whose past experience includes stints with local punk bands, including King Rat and the defunct Half Burned Match. "Then I heard punk rock for the first time, and that totally changed my perspective. It made me realize, as an okay guitar player, I could start a band."

Ricky says he was "the only kid in elementary school" with a band practicing at home -- and his brother's most devoted fan. As adolescents, he and Bickle were able to watch Myke at work (and, later, play alongside him) because bouncers and bartenders were willing to ignore their underage status.

"They were little tiny kids, and they came to my shows," Myke remembers. "They were like, 'I want to make music, too.'"

"Seeing somebody you know up there when you're real young like that, it makes a difference," says Bickle.

Myke's playing made enough of a difference to persuade best friends Ricky and Bickle (who met at a Northglenn church in the mid-'80s) to start their own band. The pair pieced together the necessary ramshackle equipment -- cheapie and secondhand amps, guitars and drums -- and started to jam in late 1995. Myke eventually jumped in to flesh out a power trio built more on zeal than skill.

Within weeks, Myke and Ricky swapped spots to take advantage of the older brother's prowess on guitar. Within a month, the Otter Popps were playing their first gig at the Raven (now the Climax Lounge, site of the band's CD-release party this week). Bickle and Ricky have since grown up under cover of Myke's somewhat twisted musical wing.

"Without Myke, we wouldn't be here," says Ricky. "Every band he's played in, I've always loved his music and his guitar playing. We grew off of Myke's style."

Now it works both ways: The elder Popp grows off of his brothers' styles.

"We've welded ourselves together," says Myke. "I'll play a riff, and these two, I won't even have to think twice. They're already playing what I pictured."

The collaboration almost always involves the release of scads of pent-up emotional unrest.

"We've tried to write quiet, nice, melodic songs," says Ricky. "It never works."

"There's just too much energy riled up inside of us," Bickle adds.

The Otter Popps have channeled that energy into a balance of volatility and cynicism that works more often than not. Over time, Myke's approach has become more and more improvisational; he often wings it on stage with lyrics and riffs that match his shifting moods. "I ad-lib a lot," he explains. "I've basically learned to play what I feel instead of what I know."

As the bandmates' techniques and styles have evolved, they've managed to attain a rarely seen attribute, at least in local circles: longevity. "We're coming from the front lines of a war, dragging our severed bodies past the corpses of other bands that have died throughout the years," Myke jokes.

As the band's checkered past suggests, co-dependent cravings for hell-raising and loud rock and roll are a big part of this durability. But the brotherly bond is what has ultimately held the Otter Popps together and -- aside from a few false stops and short stints in the can -- propelled them forward.

"Having come from many, many, many, many bands before [the Otter Popps], these two were like a godsend," Myke explains. "I put so much effort and time and work into being a musician and trying to find other musicians that want to put the same effort into it. With these two, from the first practice, I knew we'd always be together, always be a band."

With parents who played in rock bands through the '60s and '70s, making music "is sort of in our blood," he adds, quickly explaining that the soul of the Martinez family is well outside the realm of tradition. "Our family, we get along really well with each other. We're more all friends than just a family."  

Long ago lured into the Martinez fold by stellar chimichangas and burritos, Bickle also sees the Otter Popps as a musical extension of family. "I don't really do anything without thinking where these guys are and what they're doing," he says. "I think our lives revolve around each other."

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