“You keep telling me that the world keeps turning, it’s bound to you prat, it’s on an axis, you see” – Mark Astronaut, ‘Be Back Soon’
An unlikely bunch are the Otters. Three remarkably talented kids from Welwyn Garden City, barely out of their teens and headed-up by the fried vision of quintagenarian singer, Mark, who sang in cult Peel legends the Astronauts.
As the Otters they play shambolic mismatched art-punk that defies most of the current Brit-rock crop, changing time signatures faster than you can say ‘being a rabbit’.
Live they are a powerhouse, Mark careering round the stage while the boys join in on cat-calls about rabbits, emo-culture and the wilful isolation of man.
RogueMag caught up with three Otters – Mark Astronaut, Dom Perez-Silva (guitar) and Joe Davin (bass) – to tell us about the history of the band and their new single ‘Be Back Soon’ which is out now on Cupboard Music.
How did you all meet?
Joe: We met Mark ages ago. He tried to sell me a Barkmarket CD outside City Sounds in Welwyn. Then he told me to come and see the Astronauts. So I did. And I thought it was quite possibly one of the best things I’d ever seen in my life. It terrified me.
Dom: I wanted to be in a band, and we went to see the Astronauts and I just thought “fucking cool”. Then I got invited to play guitar on an Astronauts track and Mark and I started doing some acoustic stuff as a duo.
Joe: Our old drummer Lee and I were playing in a band called the Sellouts at the time and Dom wanted me to play bass in the Otters but I kept saying no. We went through a number of drummers before Lee. Dennis has been our drummer now for about two years.
Dom: The first two gigs had me playing really distorted out of tune guitar when I was about fifteen. I snapped a guitar string almost every time I strummed it. I saw a video of us playing around that time. I had really long red hair.
Joe: I was tiny, playing my shitty Ibanez bass. It was quite intense. I’d never played anything that fast before, so it was therapy for me I guess.
Mark: We just came together. We were all in different bands and the Otters were a side project for most of us. I became more interested in what we were doing as the Otters and gradually the Astronauts weren’t really moving along as fast as they could be due to various commitments. The Astronauts never officially split up so I guess I could get a gig or a release at any time and put it under that name because we’d been doing it since 1977.
Joe: Back then people started calling us The Astronauts because they recognised Mark and he’d been on the scene for nigh on 25 years. But the Otters’ line-up now is very solid and with regards to songwriting it’s very equal.
How different is the Otters’ sound compared with that of the Astronauts?
Mark: The Astronauts were fairly eclectic, so there were points when we did sound vaguely Otter-ish. That said a lot of the Astronauts’ sound was based on the violin, so there was an underlying folk tradition in there. We were tagged with the “folk-punk” thing which was totally based on two tracks from the second album that people liked and appeared on a lot of compilations over the years. But really the Astronauts were all over the place really.
Joe: The Otters get tagged as ‘psychedelic punk’.
Mark: Stylistically – and I know a lot of bands say this but – we’re quite difficult to pigeon-hole. When you ask bands how they sound, nearly everyone says that they’re like nothing you’ve ever heard before. But I do think we’re doing something quite different.
Joe: Our musical backgrounds are so varied. Even in attitude. Our drummer Dennis is very much rooted in dance music and techno…
Mark: Whereas I’ve been through the whole Merseybeat and flower-power and punk scenes over the years, so it’s quite different.
You often play as a trio or even as a two-piece – was this the intention to start with?
Mark: You sometimes get asked to do an acoustic or a paired-down set, and some of our songs lend themselves better to that environment. I’ve got a backlog of old acoustic songs that I have for those occasions.
What does being an Otter mean to you?
Mark: It’s like ‘being a rabbit’
[Groans all round]
Joe: It’s about being very unprepared and not knowing what the hell’s going to happen –
Dom: – but in a positive way.
Mark: It’s always uncertain what’s going to happen on any particular night. There’s not an ‘Otters set’. We don’t play the same songs every time, and I won’t always dance on stage, which I know disappoints a lot of people. It’s all down to the mood.
Dom: That’s what I love about it. We’ve never had a setlist, ever.
Joe: It gets a bit boring when you see the same band playing the same songs and pulling the same moves every time you see them. I guess there are expectations for famous bands who have to play certain songs as much as possible to satisfy their audience.
Mark: The other week we did a set of only two songs – ‘Melissa’s Party’ and ‘Kidnapped by Spacemen’ which is twenty minutes long. Then the next gig we played nothing but three-minute punk songs for half an hour. It’s all down to the sound and the atmosphere.
Joe: I guess the reason it works is we can get very edgy with each other and it can get very intense, but that all contributes to the sound.
Are there a lot of inter-band arguments?
Dom: We’ve had a few.
Joe: We’ve had fall-outs and we get annoyed with each other.
Mark: On the whole I’d say we don’t have a lot of arguments over the actual music.
Dom: No, I can’t remember the last ti- no wait, Joe and I do all the time.
Do you ever get people misunderstanding the band?
Dom: All the time. If your singer’s in his fifties it looks really uncool.
Joe: People find it so strange that we’re in a band with someone who’s a lot older. But then these are the kind of people who aren’t going to get things like this. What they know of music is what they read about and you just don’t read about bands with a dramatic age gap. If you close your eyes and stop obsessing about the image then it doesn’t matter.
Mark: We’re not just passing out entertainment. There’s got to be some sort of interaction between us and the audience.
Dom: On the positive side it means we get to play to different kinds of audiences. We get to play all-ages punk gigs at the same time as folk festivals.
Mark: We played in Greece, which wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for my past contacts.
Dom: Casually dropping the fact we played in Greece there, Mark.
Joe: Oh yeah we played in Greece. Yeah Greece. So fuck y’all.
Are you punks or hippies?
Mark: We’re pippies.
Joe: We’re hunks. I’ve grown up with a very punk background. My mum would play the Clash and my dad’s very into the Birthday Party and Throbbing Gristle.
Dom: I was influenced by Mark’s hippiness.
Joe: I’ve never seen Mark as a hippie.
Mark: I’ve always been on the punkier side of hippie. I had the long hair and everything in the seventies, but the music I liked back then was generally considered okay to like after the fact – John Cale, Van Der Graaf Generator, Patti Smith, Kevin Ayres. When punk came along I got into it. I wouldn’t have had the confidence to form a band without it. There was an era in England when everything got very prissy and musical in the worst sort of way. Bands would try and fit in a classical interlude just to prove they could play their instruments. I quite like the way it went back because I started off listening to the Beatles and early Merseybeat.
Joe: Punk’s very provocative. I hate it when audiences aren’t listening or don’t care. Even if it means trying to get a bad reaction out of them then so be it. It’s better than no reaction at all.
Mark: When punk split some of it went the way of bands like Crass so I guess there was a link between hippies and punks. I was never a punk per se but I did used to go down to Vortex and a lot of early punk clubs. John Lydon used to have long hair and hang around the Roundhouse. When I saw him in his first incarnation of punk I thought I recognised him and then the Sex Pistols got really well known.
Joe: Didn’t you put them on at the college in Welwyn?
Mark: Yeah I was going to mention that but I thought it might turn into another one of those “we’ve been to Greece” moments. Yes I did, before they were well known and I met them all and he called me a hippie, so maybe I was one.
Are the Otters a political band?
Mark: Not party political, but political in a social context.
Joe: I’m not very political. I have my beliefs, but those are my personal politics. It doesn’t come into why I’m in a band.
Mark: My lyrics aren’t always to be taken at face value. A lot of the time they’re surreal or they’re there to evoke an atmosphere rather than to make a statement. When I am making a statement it’s generally left wing. I tend to listen to lyrics a lot in music.
Joe: A lot of music I listen to doesn’t really feature many great lyrics, but some stuff like Dead Kennedys and a lot of punk stuff has some pretty fascinating subject matter.
Mark: People don’t have to listen to the lyrics if they don’t want to. They just add an extra dimension. ‘For The Scene’ is socio-political. It’s concerned with certain cliques in youth culture.
Dom: Scenesters. People who dress up to go to gigs to be cool and pose rather than enjoying the music.
Mark: We’ve got a new reggae track called ‘Heresy’ that’s probably the most left-wing song we’ve ever done.
Tell us more about how you write the songs.
Joe: Mark is musically disabled.
Mark: You should see me with a guitar. I play like a pelican.
Joe: He’ll come in with something he’s been bandying in his head and go “da-da-da-da-dah”. Then we’ll all go away and work out the chords and come back to him.
Mark: The music gets written before the lyrics.
Joe: It’s never a matter of someone saying “hey I’ve got a really cool riff,” and someone else saying “and I’ve got this wicked drum beat – let’s jam!” which I’m glad about.
Dom: It’s more about adding layers and working out what goes where. Compositional I guess. I wouldn’t even attempt to write lyrics though, not like Mark does.
Tell us about ‘Being A Rabbit’.
Mark: You want to know what it’s about?
Dom: People love that song. They think it’s this really happy, cute song but it’s really not.
Mark: It’s about people’s tendencies to be voyeuristic. One verse is about a rape. There’s a recurring line that reads “have to catch the moment”, meaning to get it all on film. Another verse is about Iraq and catching the moment when somebody’s dying. ‘Being A Rabbit’ is about people who like looking at gruesome material, but if it actually happened in front of them they’d ‘become rabbits’ It’s an analogy really.
Joe: It’s funny watching kids bouncing around to this at gigs and not knowing what it’s about.
Dom: I like that though. We fuck up the end of that song on a regular basis because it’s a false ending. But generally we can get the timing right if we’re not too pissed. We’ve got some weird time signatures. There’s an instrumental called ‘The Riff’.
Mark: I backed out of that one. Too complicated.
Joe: The ending of ‘For the Scene’ has a keyboard demo of ‘La Marseillaise’ but that keyboard’s dead now. I was getting into circuit-bending and I blew its brains out. You just get a bunch of toys and a screwdriver and it all goes ‘bleubleubleubleubleu’ which is music to my ears. We also used a delayed theremin and a radio tuned to Punjab FM and a bit of ‘The Entertainer’ for that bit, but live we just make a racket with our instruments.
Dom: We played that at a conservative club for a birthday party – the most unrock’n’roll place in the world – and Joe had had two bottles of wine and a pint of Speckled Hen.
Joe: We finished with ‘For The Scene’ and no one was really listening so I got annoyed and chucked my bass at the ground and it broke.
Dom: I didn’t even mean to break my guitar, but I just dropped it and it broke too. That put us out of action for about three months.
Tell us about the new single.
Joe: It’s called ‘Be Back Soon’ and it’s our catchiest number so far. It’s actually a very very old Astronauts track. Mark and Dom played it to me in Athens and I thought it would make a good pop song. I always end up accidentally playing the Knack’s ‘My Sharona’ bass line when we do it.
Mark: It’s a song about not being able to write a song.
Joe: The b-side’s ‘Man In A Box’ which we’ve been playing live for a very very long time.
Mark: That’s one people always remember along with ‘Being A Rabbit’.
Joe: That and ‘Melissa’s Party’, but that’s probably down to the set we did at Rhythms Of The World festival 2006 which we did with a big band. We had Simon Hinksman, who produced the single, on drums; Gavin McCann from Redmaxx on guitar; Dave Roche from Envoy and Tom Stallard from the Righteous Ones Of The Blazing Rockets on a second bass. It was loud.
Aside from the Astronauts, what other bands have you played in?
Joe: I want to start making some electronic music. I’ve watched Dennis doing it and while I’m not really very clued up on that, it looks very different to playing bass.
Dom: The Otters is a priority but Dennis and I have started a project called To The Moon with Matt Yetts.
Joe: All the Otters, bar Mark, have played with To The Moon. You know that thing the other week with Eye from the Boredoms and 77 drummers? I’m doing another thing with Glenn Branca, where he wants to get a hundred guitarists and twenty bassists playing at the same time.
Dom: You’re one of the guitarists?
Joe: No one of the bassists.
Worst gig you ever played?
Mark: Manchester. We took ages getting there, didn’t get a soundcheck.
Joe: There’d been a spillage on the motorway – loads of cooking oil all over the place. The organiser is a great guy though, Alex McCann from Designer Magazine, who’s a big fan of the Otters and has helped us out a lot. But the sound was appalling, just a wall of noise.
Mark: It sounded dreadful.
Joe: Then there was that last gig we did locally which was quite funny in a way because we were playing with a load of scenester emo bands who were all shit apart from Old School Reasons who were okay.
Mark: I quite liked Old School Reasons.
Joe: We got loads of shit from the kids and no one was listening, so ‘Being A Rabbit’ became ‘Being an Emo’. Then some guy got really stressy with me for turning the amp up and making loads of noise. It was a shambles.
What are you listening to at the moment?
Joe: MIA. I got Arular in Brighton and I love it. Haven’t heard the new one yet. Who else? I was listening to Ima Robot this morning, Junior Boys, DJ Scotch Egg, Kitty Sellout. I’ve been getting back into Crass cos Mark’s got me excited about seeing them.
Dom: Grizzly Bear, Gogol Bordello, Battles, Guillemots, Chrome Hoof.
Mark: I listen to… I dunno-
Joe: It’s an easy question Mark, what are you listening to?
Mark: I don’t really sit at home listening to music all the time. The last albums I bought are old ones apart from the new one by Kevin Ayres and a compilation called ‘Black Magic Reggae’ which is ska songs about voodoo. Oh, and a Donovan cd.
Dom: Mark’s got a lot of records…
Mark: And a massive TV and a swan and an alligator hanging from the ceiling but all that stuff’s a bit passé these days.
Joe: Partyshank are really good. I even liked them back when they were Party Sausage and I Will Shank You For A Penny. They have a mixtape on their website and it’s got electro, Minor Threat, Devo, Battles, Lightning Bolt and loads of good stuff. They’re brilliant live too.
Mark: I don’t drink. I’ve never been drunk so I don’t have one.
Joe: All day breakfast at the Four-Leaf Clover in Hitchin. Actually I love hangovers because I get really hyper and I laugh so much.
Dom: Coffee and paracetamol. When I’m with Joe I get really giggly.
Joe: We were talking about Tony Palmer [Partyshank’s manager] one morning.
Dom: We were imagining what it would be like if he took off a mask and underneath he was Barbara Windsor.
Joe: Have you seen him in the ‘Fab Cat and the Nu-Rave Detectives’ film? He plays the big boss and he’s bashing people over the head with a big union jack hand. It’s so good. I went to the video shoot and that’s how I heard about them. It was in this warehouse in Tottenham Hale and Partyshank were the band playing. You can see me bobbing around a bit in the dancing scenes.
Dom: That’s the best band we’ve ever booked for our night ‘Dead Cowboy’ in Hitchin. Them and DJ Scotch Egg. And the Otters.
What are you obsessed with right now?
Joe: Guacamole and french bread.
Joe: I’m obsessed with Lady Vengeance, the film by Park Chan Wook. I loved Old Boy, but I crave to see Lady Vengeance again. The soundtrack’s beautiful too.
Mark: I’m obsessed with my new bus timetable.
Joe: That’s scarily true.
Dom: Fuck ringing the train line. Ask Mark, he knows everything.
If you could go anywhere in the world, where would it be?
Mark: Welwyn North
Dom: St Ippolyts.
Visit the Otters:
Words: Charlie Frame
Live photos: Barry Hobbs