- Surf Music
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© 2011, Village Voice/Phoenix New Times
By Serene Dominic Thursday, Sep 1 2011
Photo: James J. Barnett
When Jimi Hendrix reinvented the guitar instrumental as we know it with "Third Stone from the Sun," he took time out to make a PSA warning that stated: "You'll never hear surf music again." In 1967, the sounds of 1961 and, even, 1964 seemed a century removed.
But if surf music died in '67, no one's informed the men of The Surfside IV, Phoenix's premier surf combo, about the genre's extinction. The Surfside IV are modern surf practitioners, aware that surf music, by nature of its breakneck force and its wordless splendor, is sonic propulsion that no one with a pulse could dislike.
When Trey "T-Minus" Rhodes started The Surfside IV in 2006, they were the lone purveyors of surf music in the Valley. With singularity came great responsibility. The band and their manager, Rhodes' wife, Christine, had to build a scene around surf sounds and Polynesian drinks where one didn't exist. Hence the group's annual Tiki Lounge Party.
The fifth edition of this extravaganza rolls into The Rhythm Room on Labor Day weekend, complete with hot rods, chainsaw-wielding tiki carvers, Hawaiian hula dancers, exotic drinks, low-brow art vendors and, most importantly, incoming surf and exotica musical acts.
But the Fez Four organization doesn't merely book the talent and commission Valley graphic design firm Steam Crow to make the posters. What they do amounts to an extreme "nightclub makeover," which Rhodes likens to those pop-up restaurants that take control of an empty location for two weeks, then disappear like a mirage.
"We go in the day of or day before and totally redecorate the place. We change light bulbs, bring in big tiki carvings, take all their usual décor down," Rhodes says. "We have a lot of volunteers. With five or six people, it might take five hours.
"And it's all our stuff. At first, we went to The Party Store and saw a lot of Hawaiian luau stuff that was just a lot of cheap plastic, so we said, 'Let's try to make our own.' We went to a wholesaler and made all sorts of customized stuff. The year before, I made a tiki that was seven feet high and three feet around. It's a little obnoxious. All the stuff is in my house, unfortunately. I've got to get a storage locker."
Much of the tiki's charm draws from its symbolic powers, both wide-reaching and varied. In some legends, it signifies the first human created by Tàne, the god of forests and birds. In other legends, the tiki is Tàne's penis. Another infamous tiki tale reinvents the Adam and Eve saga, in which lonely the tiki's reflection in the water becomes the blueprint for the first woman. And seeing her get all worked up over an eel gets the tiki all hot and tempted until, lo and behold, shagging is born.
Rhodes interprets the tiki's odd appeal thusly: "It's a kitsch-camp thing. It's Polynesian swank, but it's not authentic on purpose. Sort of a Disneyland representation. It's a little degenerate, but not naughty. And it's the only time you'll ever see grown men drinking drinks with tiny umbrellas sticking out."
As for the Surfside IV's fez-festooned and heavily shaded look, neither Rhodes nor the other three-fourths of the band (bassist Nick "Nilla" White, drummer Scott "Scotty Bravo" Kowitt, and guitarist Nate "Cap'n Tubesock" Marshall) seem to mind the anonymity, a holdover of their admiration for Los Straitjackets and that band's mystique-building wrestling masks.
"As headwear goes, the fez is pretty swank but it doesn't hide enough of our faces," Kowitt says. "We need to do the full Mushmouth kind of thing. Still, it does enough of a good job hiding our identities."
"People say the fez reminds them of Will Ferrell's character in Austin Powers," Marshall says. "We get that a lot."
"Or [they] remember that Me First and the Gimme Gimmes album and expect us to be punk," White adds.
"I like the anonymity. And if we have trouble with a bass player, we can just get a new one and no one notices," Rhodes says, laughing.
"Right, 'cause people will come up to me and say, 'I saw you in 2007,' and I say, 'No, I was in Michigan,'" adds White, who, in the same way Dennis Wilson was the only Beach Boy who surfed, is the only Surfsider who actually lived a good chunk of his life near a large body of water.
The Surfside IV have strict ideas about what constitutes true surf music: If there are vocals, it's not surf — it's beach music, like The Beach Boys or Jan and Dean. "Yeah, we don't play beach music," Rhodes says. "Although we used to do a Beach Boy instrumental called 'Stoked.'"
"And we'd yell out the word "stoked" in beautiful four-part harmony," Marshall deadpans. "We're also very good about counting in songs."
The big attraction to wanting to play surf music is as much a no-brainer as why people enjoy it.
"It's so much fun. My uncle gave me a bunch of surf 45s when I was a kid," Rhodes says. "When Pulp Fiction came out, that rekindled my interest. So I went on Craigslist to try and find guys who wanted to play in a surf band.”
The group formed quickly and started gigging almost immediately. "At that time, I remember thinking this is really cool. We're the only surf band in town. The only one in a city of 31/2 million people . . . you can't beat that, and we did really well 'cause there was no competition. I think there are another two surf bands in town. We dig The Blue Moons."
Because of the paucity of local surf talent, the Tiki Lounge Parties necessitate importing like-minded acts, like Tucson's Bata Ire, an old lounge singer, complete with a vibes player. "He's in his 70s and he does the same act and same jokes he did in the '60s," Rhodes says.
Surfside IV just finished a fourth album, tentatively titled Twang-Fu! Produced by James Miles (The Wormwood Brothers, Thee Jaguar Sharks), it works in some eclectic sub-genres, incorporating heavy metal, some Middle Eastern sounds, and even a cover of Henry Mancini's Pink Panther theme from A Shot in the Dark.
The record certainly will please surf connoisseurs, but what of a full-blown surf music revival?
"If we're grading [the scale of a revival] from 1 to 10, with 10 being full on, the answer is 2," Rhodes says, laughing. "I sit at home and wonder, are there more surf bands or polka bands? We're in the same boat with polka and tejano bands. It's definitely a musical backwater. It's never gonna die or change much. It's always going to sell beer. We're great sellers of beer."
Not to mention fruity punch drinks with tiny umbrellas poking out of them.
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