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Interview with Brook Hoover of The Surf Zombies

Brook Hoover plays guitar in The Surf Zombies, an Iowa based surf/instrumental/garage band. The interview was conducted by David Lilly.

David Lilly: What was it that led you to playing guitar? Do you play other instruments?

Brook Hoover: I received an acoustic guitar for Christmas when I was 14 and took lessons from a local guitar teacher. Sight-reading was going pretty slow, but I found I could match pitch from records, tapes and tv shows and that led to jamming with my friends in the basement and a life-long love of music. I play drums and bass in order to produce demos and song ideas. I also like to sing.

David: Keith Richards strongly encourages starting with acoustic. I understand what you’re saying about sight reading. Once I learned a song on clarinet, I didn’t need sheet music. I’ve rented electric guitar, electric bass and tried harmonica over the years. I’ve never stayed with anything though. I suspect that’s due to not having anyone to jam with. Do you enjoy playing by yourself just for the sake of playing and it being fun for you?

Brook: I live to explore and practice the most basic fundamental aspects of guitar playing. The hardware is pretty interesting too. I am especially fond of Fender amps. Just locating the notes on the fretboard and understanding the patterns is pretty therapeutic for me. I really think it is healing to listen to music as well as play notes. I study more complex excerpts of songs but can't remember much. I live to improvise and write.

David: What kinds of music do you like to play the most? Also, what or who do you like to listen to?

Brook: I love to dig in and play blues chords and try to fashion melodies, riffs and chords to fit chord progressions. Also studying basic jazz chords and progressions. Improvising and creating new music is probably my favorite thing to do. I also enjoy designing lessons for beginning-level students.

I listen to Iowa Public Radio ( ) for a variety of new and classic music that is under-represented by commercial radio. Also I have many old favorites that are the usual suspects of rock and blues pioneers. Anything from the 20's-current is something I'd listen to. I am fascinated by Jeff Beck. I spent the last few years obsessing over Los Straitjackets and The Damned. A lot of British stuff. Hard rock, Bowie, Iggy Pop and always The Ramones. Obscure local releases by my friends and colleagues in Iowa takes up a good amount of listening time. And then I have to review a lot of my own mixes and demos to try to remember them to finish them or perform them live is probably the bulk of what I listen to. Also IPR.

David: I can relate to your fascination with Jeff Beck. Did you get to see him live?

Brook: I did not get to see Jeff play live. I would have really liked that. His music really touches me. He seemed like a hard-working musician that really cared about the sound and being creative. Not so much the silly parts of show biz though he had to play the game. I relate to him in the way he had to deal with tinnitus as we all do in this business. I don't know how he could have lasted so long. The ears just were not designed for monster Marshall amps and giant sound systems.

David: How did you come up with the name Surf Zombies?

Brook: Surf Zombies! My 90's rock band started covering songs from the Pulp Fiction soundtrack and we got into other surf-sounding things and released a few experimental surf type songs. We did surf instrumental medleys just to be goofy, and it was fun. People kept suggesting I put together a surf instrumental act and I thought it was a terrible idea. Nobody will ever like that. Eventually drummer Jim Viner from Iowa City said we were gonna do it and he'd bring in Doug Roberson on guitar. Somehow I was toying with the idea and tried out another guitar player before that who was too shreddy but he was really awesome. He's still trying to find himself. But back to the story, I brought in Joel from my rock band to play bass and we were up and running. I was thinking about what was a cool detail of 60's pop culture that I could relate to and thought of the Aurora monster models and the smell of Testors model cement and it just popped into my head "Surf Zombies" and that was about the best thing I could come up with. I have tons of ideas and many of them are terrible. My lyrics are really poor. I can craft lines and make them rhyme but it's very laborious. My vocals are not strong, but I can sing.

I thought that going all instrumental would be a nice change of pace. I started writing songs and soon had an album and we learned the tunes and Doug booked us at Gabe's in Iowa City opening for Dick Dale. To me the songs seemed pretty complex and strange but that is probably because I have trouble concentrating and following through with projects. I'm very easily distracted. It was kind of rough to get through our set but we did ok and went on to play a few other gigs with that line up and we did get the debut album recorded which is out of print on CD, but we are currently re-mixing for a release on vinyl. That will be nice because the album art is pretty cool.

David: Dick Dale was a living legend who went pretty much unrecognized outside the Surf genre over the years. What was he like offstage? Was there much interaction between SZ and Dale?

Brook: The first time we opened for him I did not want to pester him and gave him a lot of space but 2nd time we opened for him we were in the alley behind Gabe's and watched him pull up in the Mercedes van. He got out and strapped on his guitar wearing a leather jacket and got his wireless working and he started shredding and went in the back door to the stage and commenced to rocking. I talked to him a bunch after the show. He liked our album cover featuring my '67 Ford Mustang and told me he had the first Mustang in CA, a 1964 and 1/2. He told me about playing guitar with his son and some other things. His wife gave me a pick he used on stage that night. He was pretty normal and cool, just an old rock n roll survivor. I was up close watching his set. He had a very distinct playing style and a lot of it was sort of noisey and not overly detailed playing. Just a big wall of sound. But he had some really cool riffs on certain songs. He also broke out a coronet and played that on a couple of songs and sang. He was quite an entertainer. I don't know a ton about him but have a general knowledge of his story. He seemed like a leader who inspired others to follow him and seemed like he set a good example. Like a mentor.

David: I think Dale was about as good on trumpet as he was on guitar. During ‘I’m Coming Home”, he used drum sticks to play Sam Bolle’s bass like a marimba. Dale was just overflowing with musical talent.. Did you meet his bandmates?

Brook: I did not really meet his bandmates but had a good close look at his amps onstage.

David: A lot of SZ music came through my ears before I knew which band member you are. Listening to live shows, I pictured you as tall (my goof) and blond, and you seem childlike and eccentric, which I consider very likeable traits. Would you describe yourself with those two words?

Brook: I like to figure out my own methods that work for me. That has earned me plenty of rebukes and embarrassment. I had to figure out unconventional solutions that are not in the rule book. I like it that way. Somehow, I've been reasonably successful, but it probably took much longer than needed. My development as an artist and a human was self-guided. I observed what other people were doing that worked, and if I could adapt to it, that was not totally repulsive. I've joined successful bands and played full time and could keep my mouth shut and show up on time and follow orders just to see if I could do it. I could for a while but always went back to writing my own tunes or playing less obvious material. I enjoyed working my way to a point where I have many songs released to the public as well as students and gigs to play. It's all small-time work and that suits me. When things get too complex with committees and managers, I kind of back away. Over-all I am reasonably satisfied with my work.

This sounds kind of weird, but when I was age 16-17 I had lead guitar kind of figured out and could play in any key in a primitive sort of way. I don't want to lose touch with that instinct even if it costs me work or money. To me, that is my most valuable asset. Tube amps, classic guitars, a hot lick or two. What am I missing? If I want to draw monsters, read horror comics, collect monster models, ride my bike, play in the dirt, observe insects and speak in tongues, who is to say that is not kinda working for me? Being silly keeps me light-hearted. I resist some of the trappings of adulthood but have probably conformed to aging and becoming a curmudgeon in many ways.

I don't perceive myself as short but photographic evidence confirms I am but a wee man. Ha ha!

David: I know you like the Ramones. How did you get introduced to their music? What do you dig about them? (dumb question as it turns out)

Brook: When I was a little teen boy I saw ads for them and it sounded pretty revolutionary. Finally I fell in with some guys who were into them and had some records. I found their sound a nice break from the bands I was trying to copy (Boston, Foreigner, Journey, Molly Hatchet and so forth). I was not a great singer, so all of those bands were impossible to cover but we could sing Ramones so that was cool. I found the stripped-down power chord or barre chord work fun and exciting. I liked the look of the band and the sheer power. Ramones “It's Alive” was a huge record to me. A few years back I was recruited to join a Ramones tribute act and really got into it for like 6 months, but they became very militaristic with the rehearsals and preparations. It was like I was in a cult. We parted ways. They were really good and I liked them a lot though. So we got insanely detailed learning about them. I love their story too. They were pretty lousy when they started but eventually made themselves presentable. I still love everything about them. Dig the wall of Marshall amps. But my ears are so beat I could not go near anything like that. The songs are very funny too. They play up a certain primitive silly nature that I strive to retain.

David: A Ramones tribute band became militaristic? I’d walk away too. There are interesting song titles on SZ albums. We’ll go one at a time. Can you say how you arrived at “289 to Ape City”?

Brook: I was going to call it 289 because I had a crappy Mustang with a 289 in it. Our other original guitar player, Doug Roberson, added the "To Ape City" handle. I just went with it. I was inspired by hot-rod culture, and it seemed to tie in with garage rock and surf music in my mind.

David: I like that. Good things come from collaboration. I associate surf and rockabilly with hot rod culture. The title “289 to Ape City” conjures up all sorts of B-Movie visuals. And I love me some B-Movies. Why name a song “Tophat”?

Brook: Tophat is a bar in Fort Dodge where I grew up. The Tophat Lounge. We took some of the young SZ guys in there one time. There were ladies who were professional strippers who worked there, and they sort of mauled the drummer. It was really funny. My high school girlfriend’s mom used to work there in the 70's, and we'd stop buy and get beer to go in a paper sack from her. So I was going in there as a teen. Pretty notorious place. I never had any trouble there, but it's probably not safe these days. Always very sketchy.

David: I thought maybe it had something to do with a hi-hat. Moving along, what about ‘Don’t Let the Admiral Out.”

Brook: That song was written by Kyle Oyloe who played lead and baritone guitar. He was a great guy. Very weird and funny and could play like crazy. He had plenty of issues and ultimately passed away a few years back. Maybe 9 years younger than me. He had an acquaintance named The Admiral and they had a falling out. The Admiral was locked up. Kyle thought it was a good place for him, as The Admiral was kind of abusive to a lady who is close friends with us. They all partied like crazy together, but things got weird. It was not my scene, but I knew enough to stay away from them. I like to rock and have a good time, then go home to bed. Those folks stayed up all night or longer. Anyhow, we like the song and still play it. It has a very silly and repetitive melody that is satisfying to execute. Rest in Peace Kyle! I always think of him. I think he wrote really good songs and always gave rocking his best effort, but he also drove us nuts with drama and getting too messed up. We had plenty of difficulties with our friendship but mostly we worked through things. We did get into a physical altercation.

David: Sorry to hear that. Is there a story behind “Blue Velvet Flashback”?

Brook: Kyle liked the movie “Blue Velvet” a lot so we kind of borrowed that vibe. He liked the creepiness of it.

David: I’m glad I asked. I’ve been meaning to see that. The clips I’ve seen look bizarre. I like bizarre. I have a concert recording where you explained “Roger in the Wind” to the audience. I think it’s a good story and worth repeating. Care to talk about that?

Brook: A kid we went to high school with was really good at repairing electronics and was a really fun guy. He loved Surf Zombies. He ended up with cancer and died. He had taken up the hobby of flying real small ultra-light gliders with tiny engines, and he went aloft a lot. I made up a myth that he flew into the clouds and disappeared. It was sad.

David: Sad indeed. Last song title. Is “Deep Eddy” a nod to the independent record label?

Brook: Yes, Ted runs that in Austin, TX. He distributes surf instrumental music CDs when he can. He was really helpful for us with our early releases. It was wonderful to have someone buy our CDs in bulk and get them out to stores and other distributors. I need to check in with him.

David: In a concert recording, you almost apologize to the audience for jumping around and general exuberance during the performance of a song. Why would you feel the need to apologize for that?

Brook: We get pretty excited and ham it up. Being silly. I say a lot of weird stuff on the mic. It's better if I don't, but some people like it. I'd rather just play but with it being instrumental, we try to explain some of the stories behind the songs. We can get very silly and act goofy, drinking a bunch of beers and showing off. It could be stage fright, nervousness or boredom. A deadly concoction.

David: Do you get Continental Magazine? I’ve been a subscriber for a long time.

Brook: We usually get included on those and we get a bunch of CDs to sell. It's a good investment. But CDs are moving slow, so we sat that one out. It's gotten our name out there pretty good.

David: I still buy CDs., I prefer digipaks. Let’s return to the Ramones, have you ever run into them, or anyone other musicians?

Brook: I met Johnny and Joey Ramone in Des Moines in 1983 for a couple of minutes. They were super nice! Later in the 90's I hung out with Sleepy LaBeef when we opened for him. He was awesome! Talked to Paul Westerberg when he was on a solo tour in Chicago. He was really nice too. Very tiny wee man like me.

David: Tell me more about Mr. LaBeef.

Brook: Sleepy played in Cedar Falls, IA where I went to college and I saw him at Steb's, which was a really great music venue. He just got up there and played a giant couple of sets. He was open to having my buddy hop up and play a few songs, but we never got around to it. That was probably 1986 or 1987. In the mid 90's he played Iowa City. My band opened for him, and he thought I was a good lead player and had me jump in and play a few songs. Our drummer was too soft hitting, so his drummer came from behind and wacked the snare over his shoulder because that is what Sleepy needed to keep rockin, I assume. We hung out in the green room with him and the band, and he was a good old guy. Very kind and chatty. He was proud of being on Sun Records in the era of Elvis. He said he lent Elvis a guitar and when he got it back it was pretty dinged up. I was impressed with his polyester leisure suit. He was smoking little cigars. No drinking in his band. I like the way he would get up on the stage and boogie! Straight up no nonsense. I gotta remember that. He signed my '64 strat and told me it would fade away, but he'd sign it again next time. There was no next time of course.

David: Can you tell me more about Johnny and Joey Ramone?

Brook: When I saw The Ramones, I was a little drunky wunky. I went up front to catch the show and as soon as they started playing I was annihilated by flying elbows striking my head and body. I tried to hold my place, but when I stopped fighting the crowd, I was shoved out into the sidelines. It was hard to see.

After the show I was at the elevator when it opened and out stepped Joey and Johnny. They signed my ticket stub. I asked Johnny if he enjoyed his gig and he said "ya sure". I asked Joey where they were playing next, and he said, "Rock rock rock rock rock Rockford". Cool. I've not met many rock stars and really don't care to. But meeting those guys was perfect.

David: When I was a music journalist, I took notes for a review at a Reverend Horton Heat show and approached Heath afterward for an autograph. We shook hands, and he went on his way. My loudest voice was barely audible in that moment and bar environment. Is any one of you a dominant personality or “leader” in SZ? From watching YouTube interviews, I take it that would be you or Trevor if anyone.

Brook: I used to be a leadership man but have learned to tame it way down. When hiking, I was always first. Same with neighborhood activities with my lil pals. I tend to be driven because I'm afraid if I don't make an effort, nothing will happen and that's boring. But I've learned to relax, let things happen, keep my mouth shut and not react. It is a very peaceful feeling.

Trevor does a lot of leadership in Surf Zombies, and he does it well. I showed him the ropes when we were in a cover band for a couple of years. He saw how I did things and picked up on a lot of my cues. Now he does it all much better than I ever did. He is very organized, while I am pretty messy. The other guys enjoy being less prominent, but their opinions matter, and they show a lot of wisdom. It's pretty cool to have such a great team. We really have fun together, and nobody feels too walked-on I hope. I used to have to push my bands really hard to play more gigs, learn songs and rehearse, but my old pals were very amazing and wonderful people too. We knew each other's darkest secrets and the very worse things about each other, yet we still loved each other. It is quite an experience to be in a band with your friends. We tend to get pretty attached to each other.

David: I heard Trevor’s Falling in Love album on Bandcamp. It’s Great! He doesn’t sound like Dressy Bessy, but the whimsical songs remind me of them. Trevor is a fantastic writer, assuming he wrote all that material.

Brook: Yes, he writes all his own stuff. He is astonishing! We are doing 4 gigs in the next few days. He kicks my ass, If I don't play it right, he forces me to fix things. I love him for that quality. Otherwise I'd just be an old bar scum guitar player.

David: What’s it like watching video of yourself?

Brook: I've learned to accept it. It was weird for a while.

David: I won’t keep you any longer since you’re so busy playing shows. Anything else you want to add?

Brook: Last night we were in Grinnell, which is located between Des Moines and Cedar Rapids. Half the band lives in the DM area and half in the Cedar Rapids area so it is a perfect location. I've been a little short of patience with so many gigs and students. I love to work but my nerves are raw. I was kind of not into it, but we got flooded with tips and merch sales plus they paid us an extra $100. Maybe we can establish a small fan base there and that would be a big help with our transportation headed to and from gigs. Cedar Rapids to Des Moines is about a 2-hour drive and we have to do it constantly. Our tip jar had a bunch of two dollar bills, Susan B Anthony coins and half dollars. It was crazy! I think Trevor managing our set list and arranging our music has made a big impact on our success. It's good to have a guy like that pulling the best out of each player.

David: You must really love what you’re doing. I mean, I’ve heard of worse things than a 4-hour round trip drive, but it sounds like a lot of hassle. It sounds like there’s a wonderful balance between the 4 of you. In the shows I’ve listened to, you have a very engaging voice and manner of speaking to the audience. Since we get what we get with our voices, that’s really a gift. This might seem a strange question on the heels of that, but have you ever given any thought to getting out of music?

Brook: I thought about quitting music once or twice. The first time was 1980. I had played with my best friend, Joel McDowell, through Jr and Senior high school. We worked pretty hard to get our songs tight. We had a singer named Dean who was about age 26. We were probably 6-7 years younger, so that was a big age difference then. Dean was a nice guy and had a large PA system, and he could sing pretty high, which was a must for the material we were doing. We started going to this big bar in town that had touring bands that were very high caliber and blew our minds. Very inspiring and we watched them carefully. We scored a gig there and practiced for months with extra diligence. We were tight! Had a very good setlist with current material and were all polished up.

One factor we did not consider was that Dean suffered from stage fright something fierce. When we got onstage Dean seemed a little out of focus. He blew every cue and tight spot we had planned which caused us to fuck up too. I remember my face burning with red-hot embarrassment. It was absolutely horrible. We vowed to never play with him again and we didn't. We had to go pick up our gear at his house and his whole family was there drunk and threatening to kick our asses. Somehow, we loaded up our stuff and got away.

Dean tried to lure us back but no way. He confessed he did every street drug we had ever heard of before the show. We were so pissed. All of our high school chums were there. It was absolutely horrible. But we decided to become singers ourselves and launched our own band that played across the state of Iowa for 2-3 years until everyone split and moved away. It was a real cool band.

The other time was after being in road bands from 1989-1991. I was so burnt playing the same set night after night of covers I did not really like. I landed in St. Paul and kicked back for about two weeks. I was done with rock n roll! Eventually I jumped in with a country band and was off playing 2-4 nights a week making good cash. Those are the only two times I thought about quitting music.

I would not mind spending more time with my wife and traveling. I think it will come. But for now, we are thrashing it pretty good and it does not take too much out of me. We do a lot of outdoor gigs in the blazing sun, so I have to train myself to withstand that sort of stress by taking long hikes across town 2-4 times a week.

David: Do you or Trevor have any ambitions to do a regional or even national tour opening for the right band? By the “right” band, I mean a band you’d be a good opening act for and who would be willing to give you that kind of exposure.

Brook: No, we'd probably not be too into that. We like going home to our own beds and having a normal day. If the money was really big we'd consider it but we like playing the small time things and getting paid pretty well. We control everything, and there are no rules or regulations other than just do our thing. It would have to pay really well. We are working with an agent who is setting us up with some $$$$$ gigs.

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