"When you dress up, you look like a group, something that should be together," Martini says, both arms covered in tattoos, tawny hair buzzed close. "You just put a little more in than everybody else is trying to do."
The Alter Boys' core trio -- Martini, his brother Mike, and ex-Mushroomhead frontman Jason Popson (formerly J. Mann) -- have just destroyed some Italian food at Mary Coyle's, a historic Akron ice-cream parlor/restaurant with a candy counter, vintage-style Coca-Cola tins, and straw-resistant milkshakes. After years in Cleveland's southern suburbs, Martini (pictured far left) and frontman Popson (second from right) recently moved to Highland Square, Akron's coolest melting pot, home to the city's frugal, wealthy, broke, and hip. For over a decade, Popson covered Cleveland in bruises via hardcore and metal bands. When he left Mushroomhead late last summer, after years of taking the stage in face paint and camo gear, he was ready for a change of scenery and sound. He quickly convened the Alter Boys, an eight-man combo that he describes as "a cross of Frank Zappa and P-Funk."
"We pulled every trick out we could to make it an interesting album, because we had such limited resources," Popson says.
Interesting it is. Filled with squawking funk and screaming ballads, the Boys' debut sounds like Earth, Wind, & Fire dipped in angel dust. Many of Mann's longtime fans approach the group hungry for rap-metal like Mushroomhead's "Bwomp," but leave shows humming horn parts.
Popson's latest group is, technically, his first. The Alter Boys evolved from the funk-rock fusion band Unified Culture, which featured Popson and the Martinis from 1991 to 1995. The band practiced across a hallway from Mushroomhead, which eventually recruited Popson. The players remained friends and continued collaborating, recording songs that didn't fit in with their other projects.
After years of touring the country with Mushroomhead, Popson eventually joined the fraternity of People Who Know People. Through BMX pro Nate Wessel, he met Ryann Dunn of the Jackass/Viva la Bam/CKY collective. Dunn, a former Medina resident, is a charter member of the group of skateboarders who have turned getting hit in the crotch into an MTV-sponsored media phenomenon. At a Fourth of July party last year, Popson played Dunn some Alter Boys demos, and Dunn insisted that Popson finish them. Last fall, recording with producer Bill Korecky (Integrity, Keelhaul), the Alter Boys made three years of tracks sound like one inspired session. Dunn stepped in for vocals on the spacey "Famine Ghost" and arranged most of the segues.
Jammed with pointedly juvenile skits, the album includes cameos from David Koechner of Saturday Night Live and the Naked Trucker band (it's like a country Tenacious D). Dunn also enlisted fellow Jackasses Johnny Knoxville, Bam Margera, and Brandon Dicamillo. A few inebriated calls led to bits from Bloodhound Gang frontman Jimmy Pop and Lacuna Coil singer Andrea Ferro.
But even in the company of a crew of world-famous goof-offs, Popson's hometown recruits hold their own. Guitarist Mike Martini is known to Mushroomhead's rabid fans as the caller in the "Black Metal" skit at the end of the M3 album, in which he responds to an ad seeking players for a metal band in an overblown Kingfish accent. The infamous bit has led to an upcoming Jerky Boys-style prank-call album tentatively titled Original Pranksta. Quick to quote Chevy Chase and imitate Beavis and Butthead, Craig and Mike Martini are the kind of brothers who enjoy each other's company. They've spent the last three decades amusing each other.
The Alter Boys' humor isn't always sophisticated, but their music is surprisingly elaborate. In addition to former Spudmonsters/Pro-Pain drummer Eric Matthews, the other half of the group's principals are from the ferociously eclectic Maryland rock band Dog Fashion Disco, former Mushroomhead tourmates. Guitarist Todd Smith and keyboardist Jeff Siegel invited along woodwind-wunderkind Matt Rippetoe, who has two music degrees and hand-charts his parts.
"I think it opens up a whole other dimension," says Craig. "It opens up harmony notes that you'd never have thought to play -- flute, clarinet, alto sax, tenor."
Until they can mount a tour, the Alter Boys are staging shows when their schedules fall into sync. Day to day, Craig keeps busy playing in heavy-metal tribute band Sunset Strip and the Shagadelics, a disco-funk party-cover group. The former hardcore kid says that playing oldies allows him to concentrate on music when he doesn't feel like writing. And more important, the funk riffs are fun to play. Even more retro are the Alter Boys' ballads. "Where Have You Gone" and "Surrounded by Porcelain Flies" are in the '60s style of "Color My World." "Little White Lies" is the soundtrack to a slow dance -- until Popson's trademark dog-on-a-tight-leash screams shake up the mood. The slow songs are both serious and irreverent.
"That's what's great about the slow songs, the ambiguity," says Popson, stirring a leftover mass of fudge and peanut butter. "You don't know whether we're serious or not, whether to laugh or cry."
Mike Martini traces the Alter Boys' bipolar approach to the manic mind that casts a large show over modern rock, Fantômas/ex-Faith No More singer Mike Patton, whom the band credits with injecting this era with a healthy dose of absurdity.
"Patton showed that you could be open-minded and do things from an offbeat angle," says Mike. "You can tell that he listened to so many different kinds of music, and that he really loved them all. And when he plays, they all come out, and it's not contrived. It boils down to two types of music: good and bad."