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The Rockers Red Glare

Oh, say, can you see (from left): Aaron Betcher, Chad Peterson, Dan McDermott and Chad Wells of O'er the Ramparts.
S. Matyjevich

The rampart sprung from the defeated, shattered shopping mall, where not enough people spent enough of their money. Concrete debris and misshapen metal amassed into a hundred-foot peak, much less natural and stately than the ones to the west, but somehow more personal -- especially because the viewpoint was a hundred yards away, almost in the backyard of local rockers O'er the Ramparts.

This cement mountain, a temporary monument to the demolition of Cinderella City in Englewood, was the inspiration for the local punk band's moniker. At the time the quartet was searching for a name, guitarist/vocalist Dan "Shaggy" McDermott's job involved driving a truck. While out on the road, he says, he saw signs left and right: "Broadway Ramparts apartment building, Ramparts Distribution Center, Ramparts Pet and Feed in Castle Rock...ramparts everywhere." The ultimate, of course, was the giant, hulking obstruction peeking over drummer Chad Peterson's fence.

"We were standing on my porch one day looking at it -- that, combined with all the rampart stuff all over town," says Peterson. "Most people don't associate it with 'The Star-Spangled Banner.'"

There's something all too appropriate about a band like O'er the Ramparts taking a name that sounds patriotic and environmentally correct but is actually derived from an impermanent, manmade eyesore. The band embraces organic, from-the-gut rock while acknowledging its artificial, disposable and recyclable aspects. Not that this phenomenon is unique: Punk rock is all about unrefined emotion and energy, with the associated safety-pin jewelry and distorted electric guitar serving as reminders that what was once innate and natural is now hopelessly impregnated with technology.

Like any good post-punk band should, O'er the Ramparts walks the fine line between lizard-brained and intellectual, a tightrope where natural, artificial, calculated and primal somehow overlap. The Ramparts aren't too smart or too dumb; rather, they're just right.

O'er the Ramparts materialized from the remnants of several local punk bands in April 1999. Bookend guitarist/vocalists McDermott and Aaron Betcher have played together in bands off and on since 1995, beginning with a high-energy outfit called Sticky Five Pin. "We were the first band ever to play at the 15th Street Tavern," says McDermott. "I've played there pretty much every month since they opened."

The 29-year-old Betcher started playing the guitar when he was a fifteen-year-old in Michigan. "My mom worked at a music store," he recalls. "I went in to visit her one day, and she was standing there with the guy who gave guitar lessons -- his name was Frog. He looked at my hands and said, 'Your son has meat hooks for hands. You've got to play the guitar.'"

Soon thereafter, Betcher was banging out Black Flag covers with his pals in a Lansing garage, but his tastes are not limited to loud and fast. "I can honestly say that there's not any music I don't like," he says. "There's good stuff everywhere you look."

After moving to Colorado in 1994, Betcher connected with McDermott in Sticky Five Pin. McDermott was spurred toward rock as a Wisconsin high-schooler, where he was friends with Kindercore Records' Dan Geller. Since relocating to Denver (also in 1994), he has played in several diverse bands, including a stint as the bassist in Denver's now-defunct BlastOff Heads. While O'er the Ramparts is a priority, he says, "I want to just keep playing with everybody I know and explore a hundred million different styles. Music is my journey."

However, McDermott's role as an O'er the Ramparts guitarist is something of a new style in itself. "I've always been the bass player," he says. "I'm weaning off the bass."

He's doing so in order to accommodate the impressive skills of Chad Wells, a onetime rabid fan of the BlastOff Heads who catalyzed the formation of O'er the Ramparts. After an enticing job offer lured him east to Indianapolis, Wells returned to Denver "100 percent to play music." (He sums up the rock scene in the Hoosier State with one word: "zero.")

In 1999, Wells called Peterson (whose father, Gordon, played bass for Denver's Magic Mice, a '60s-era psychedelic band), told him he was thinking about coming back, and asked whether he'd be interested in drumming in a band. Peterson jumped on the offer, Wells returned, and the pair soon recruited Betcher and McDermott.

Peterson and Wells are quick to label themselves relative novices and they're appreciative of the experience that the other two players have on guitar. "It's nice to be around some super-mature musicians to show us the way a little bit," Peterson says.

Bandmembers cite the Who and Guided by Voices as musical common ground, though each of the three songwriters -- Betcher, McDermott and Wells -- has his own stylistic inclinations. From progressive to anthem rock to fierce punk, O'er the Ramparts manages to put a different spin on nearly every song the bandmembers conceive. "We've never drawn any limitations on our sound, and we probably never will," McDermott observes. "I just want to go for full-on diversity."

 

Each of the players' musical leanings differ, says Peterson, "but it always seems to jell together eventually."

The most convenient tag for the music of O'er the Ramparts is noise rock, but a label goes only so far with musicians willing to stretch their range. Most of the band's repertoire comes across as tuneful chaos, with tight rhythms underpinning fuzz-and-squeal layers that get more complex with every listen. It's not unusual for Wells to take the lead on bass while the guitarists fill in the blanks with effects-laden experimentalism, walls of power chords or even delicate harmonics. There's a lot more in the way of melody and harmony than one usually finds in a typical punk-rock outfit, but O'er the Ramparts sounds equally at ease flaunting a catchy hook or discordant menace.

Unlike the majority of their punk-influenced brethren, O'er the Ramparts comes off as neither angry nor political. The focus is squarely on the sound. The vocals are usually more about establishing a sonic tone than delivering a message."We don't sing about bad girlfriends or anything like that," Wells notes.

"We still haven't found much lyrical focus," says McDermott. "I think that's one of the weakest parts of our band. Live, you don't hear it -- it's just...," he says with an unintelligible yowl.

Betcher's take: "There's not a pop formula, so you just kind of squeeze [lyrics] in where you can...written without intent or purpose to drive a song in a certain direction, leaving doors for interpretation open."

"And let the music set the mood," McDermott adds.

The lyrical content of O'er the Ramparts' material is out of the ordinary, to say the least. The Betcher-penned "Simian Press" is about "this little French boy that gets his brain taken out because he gets hit by a satellite, and all of a sudden he forgets how to speak French and he can only speak English. So they send him to the government, and the government wants to put a monkey in his brain and reteach him how to speak French." Interestingly, Betcher's inspiration was a story about French farmers revolting against McDonald's.

"Paper Tiger," released on Radio 1190's Local Shakedown compilation, is named after the Denver topless club of the same name, but it's more about chasing dreams than chasing strippers. "It's like how the name of our band came about," says McDermott. "I just see signs around and think, 'That's kind of a poetic kind of line.' And if you put the one line into a bigger idea, it changes."

Initially, O'er the Ramparts' live performances were guided by a "love 'em and leave 'em" ethos, says Peterson, the end result being a half-hour explosion. The sets have gotten longer recently; the goal is to develop a ninety-minute show with continuous intensity.

"You're going to be captivated, you have to sit there, and we're going to torture people," Betcher describes. "That's my philosophy. We're going to be the loudest thing in the room, and you're just going to have to pay attention."

On stage, the lanky Betcher is all grins and flailing limbs. His excitement is contagious, infecting both his bandmates and the crowd. "There was a stint in the mid-'90s when I would go see bands and every one of those bands looked like they hated being on stage," he says, noting that O'er the Ramparts' attitude is the polar opposite. "Playing in front of people is so much fun. I like to jump up and down and swing my guitar around."

As for recording, the bandmembers have found it difficult to capture the raw intensity of a live show in the studio, but this hasn't stopped them from amassing a stockpile of tracks, including the eight on their Vive los Ramparts EP, assembled earlier this year. McDermott wants to eventually go through the heaps of tape and compile the gems. "I kind of envision a double album with an amazing variety on it," he says. "All different studios, all different styles."

"As long as we keep challenging ourselves as musicians, we'll only grow better," Betcher echoes. "Once we fall into type, that's when we're dead."

This penchant for eclecticism is rooted in the Betcher and McDermott open-mindedness. These self-proclaimed "old-school rock geeks," encyclopedic in their musical knowledge, are openly distressed about the state of rock and the genre's tendency to recycle and cannibalize itself. "I wonder if we're void now," muses Betcher. "It seems like we're running out of future and we're just going backwards."

 

So where is rock heading? Is it dying, letting loose one last hand-me-down yelp as it passes? "There's always going to be a place for good rock songs," says McDermott. However, in the era of boy bands and teenage temptresses, he adds, "Punk rock is more rock than ever now that it's out of vogue."

"I hate that punk rock went from being a movement to a label," echoes Betcher.

To help fight this trend, O'er the Ramparts played in front of an audience of forty kids at Boulder's Whittier Elementary School (Betcher's workplace) in late July. The ten-song set included a version of the New Pornographers' "My Slow Descent Into Alcoholism," reworked as "My Slow Descent Into Kindergarten." The mission: turning the next generation on to rock and roll.

"It's gone in waves," says Betcher of his students' musical tastes. "When I first started working there, it was all Spice Girls. The next summer it was, 'Who's better -- Christina Aguilera or Britney Spears?' Then the boy bands started getting big." The key for O'er the Ramparts and their educational mission was just showing up, he adds. "Anything they get exposed to, they like."

Aside from the ages of the ears involved, playing for children was considerably different than preaching to the punk-rock choir at some smoky dive. "The kids were appreciative and inquisitive," says Peterson. "Very polite applause."

"Plus, Aaron's co-worker was making them listen to us," McDermott interjects. "If they tried to run to the monkey bars, it was like, 'Hey! Get back over here!'"

"I was actually more nervous for that show than I've been in a long time," adds Wells. With good reason: If somebody doesn't teach these kids about do-it-yourself punk rock, the record companies will brainwash them for every nickel they can.


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