with Cursive, the New Lows
9 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 5
One of Pulp Fiction's finest assets remains its opening theme. In the first scene of Quentin Tarantino's much-imitated 1994 flick, two lovey-dovey robbers inconspicuously plot their next job inside a diner. After a little conversation, they decide to hold up the very place they're sitting in — right there, right then. By the bit's end, the soft-eyed "Honey Bunny" is wielding her revolver in plain sight and shrieking to the restaurant, "Any of you fucking pricks move and I'll execute every motherfucking last one of you!" Cut to the credits and title, and "Misirlou" by Dick Dale and the Del-Tones barrels in. As a Mediterranean folk song transformed into a shimmering tantrum of surf rock, the kitschy-cum-ultra-hip track immediately sets the film's tone: There's no need to be frightened by these impulsive criminals and that intimidating blast of profanity. Instead, "Misirlou" nonchalantly nudges you to identify with them and soak up the scene's adrenaline.
While it reached its greatest prominence in the wake of Pulp, Dale's take on "Misirlou" initially appeared on 1962's Surfers' Choice at the outset of a decade during which music frequently celebrated the palpable California cool of waves, sun, and sand. Breaking out of dance music, surf rock was a rakish complement to the bouncy, easygoing pop produced by the Beach Boys. Along with Dale, groups like the Ventures, the Surfaris, and the Trashmen made the virile, instrumental- heavy style a Billboard hit. However, as surf mutated into edgier forms of garage and punk, it gradually dipped into obscurity. In the '90s, it experienced a boost with the popularity of the Pulp Fiction soundtrack, yet that, too, receded. The genre persists today in fragmented form. Why was surf's mainstream reign so temporary? Where is it now?
One current young group working with surf is Omaha's Capgun Coup, who stir it with indie and garage to concoct a '60s-worshiping lo-fi cocktail. As Capgun guitarist-vocalist Sam Martin relates, surf's impact on that decade and the musicians that followed is tremendous.
"Everything in the '60s had this surf guitar tone," says Martin, who describes the tone as "tremolos and reverb — not distorted but treble-y." Paired with the blues, surf played an enormous role in shaping the work of groups like the Kinks and the Velvet Underground. However, Martin appreciates surf so deeply because, unlike blues, it hasn't prospered past that initial burst of influence.
"Blues guitar turns me off," says Martin, "because I hear it more than surf guitar in music I don't like."
Maudlin, Capgun's latest album, manipulates surf to create curious contradictions. The group teams vigorous surf-bred material with downer lyrics about relationship woes and bad musicians. It's not meant to be ironic — or at least Martin swears it's not — but the juxtaposition is an intriguing angle. The frontman's affection for surf's nostalgic flavor also allows him the ability to distort it for other unusual results.
"Our `sound` has a vintage quality, but the lyrics don't," he says. "I couldn't imagine ‘Wish I Was a Fag' coming out in the '60s."
Contrasting the exploratory Capgun is the carefree kitsch of Los Straitjackets, a long- running Nashville act that dons colorful lucha libre masks onstage and turns out new compositions leaning toward traditional surf (plus killer covers of "My Heart Will Go On" and "Deck the Halls"). Surf rock's indulgence of teenage frivolity is what attracted guitarist Eddie Angel to the style.
"I was never a fan of rock that was overly serious. I always thought it should have an element of absurdity," says Angel. "That's what rock & roll should be: music done by kids in their garage."
Like the Straitjackets, Minneapolis quartet Lusurfer's take on surf is old-school. They have a schtick, too, although one considerably more overt: Lusurfer members have names like Moloch the Manipulator and Dagon the Blasphemer, and they perform in Hawaiian shirts and corpse makeup, claiming they were sent by Satan to "deliver `his` word through satanic surf rock."
"It's approachable music with a basic beat that can appeal to the masses and lure them into following `Satan`," notes guitarist Moloch of surf's primal potency. "It has the steady 4/4 beat, so you don't have to think too much about the feel. It could reel you into a trance."
Aside from playing a variation on surf, the three aforementioned bands share one significant trait: All hail from landlocked locations. None of the subjects actually surf (except for the men of Lusurfer riding "the molten lava waves of Hell").
"Sometimes, if you're landlocked, you're more into it because you don't have it," says Angel. "Someone once told me that Jimmy Buffett had his biggest following in places like Cincinnati. When you think about it, it sort of makes sense."
In the case of Capgun's Martin, the dearth of any legitimate surf culture enhances the appeal of the music. "I don't see any surf-heads walking around," he says. "There are blues fans, punk rockers, indie rockers, metalheads `and` garage rockers but I don't think there are dudes hanging out at their parents' house listening to surf all night. I've never met them."
Perhaps that points to why surf receives so little recognition: Without a nationally prominent subculture to anchor itself to, how can it mature? None of the genres Martin mentions contain frequent thematic allusions to geographical traits like beaches or massive bodies of water, meaning that surf's intrinsic traits limit its potential. Additionally, the instrumental tendencies of most surf-rock bands rule out lyrics to aid in developing an audience.
Seeing as surf hasn't been mainstream for about 40 years, the chances of a listener just stumbling upon the style are slim. In the same spirit as Capgun Coup, pop-punk band the Riptides and rockabilly outfit Reverend Horton Heat incorporate elements of surf into their structures, but don't focus on the style.
Perhaps surf was a fad whose time rightfully passed. Still, some, like Eddie Angel, remain optimistic that it will explode again.
"We tour Mexico sometimes, and it's way more popular over there. Kids are into it — high-school-age kids. It's their punk," says Angel, discussing the Straitjackets playing at a festival in a Mexican football stadium with a capacity of 50,000. "If high-school kids in Mexico can get into it, I don't see why it couldn't happen in America. That's what it would take: teenagers. Otherwise, it's a subculture." He considers the possibility of Pulp Fiction's lightning striking twice — maybe another mainstream film might inject the genre with enough momentum to take it somewhere new. "O Brother, Where Art Thou? was the biggest-selling soundtrack `of 2001` and that was bluegrass," says Angel. "Anything can happen, man."firstname.lastname@example.org