Music News

Brothers Keeper

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 Chong in 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.