In 1958, when guitarist Link Wray poked pencil holes in his amplifier to record the song “Rumble,” he was only trying to muddy his guitar tone. Link’s impromptu modification ended up creating a distortion-heavy brand of rock and roll that not only paved the way for punk rock, heavy metal, the Who, you name it, but also lifted the lowly rock instrumental, or “instro,” into the popular consciousness, fueling a style that thrives to this day. What Coltrane is to jazz and Howlin’ Wolf is to blues, Link is to rock in general, and so-called surf instrumentals in particular.
Bob Dylan knew this when he called “Rumble” “the greatest instrumental ever.” John Lennon went further and said, “Gene Vincent and Link Wray are the two great unknowns of rock and roll.” The irony? “The only reason I was doing instrumentals,” Link once said, “was because I couldn’t sing.” He’d lost a lung to tuberculosis contracted during the Korean War, which made it hard to catch his breath.
In early 1993, Scott Miller, Micah Kennedy, and Pete Husing, three friends in Sacramento, CA, went to see the Phantom Surfers play Old Ironsides, a small down- town club that was also the center of what little garage scene then existed in California’s capital. Pete, a guitar player, had suggested the show. Even though Scott and Micah were longtime music obsessives whose broad tastes included everything from pop to the Kinks, John Fahey to Blue Cheer, Pete was the sole surf music fan of the group. For Scott, a drummer, the show proved revolutionary.
“To me at the time,” Scott said, “the Phantom Surfers were so novel. Not that it wasn’t cool, but I hadn’t thought of surf music as something that could be played in almost a punk way. I remember seeing the band and thinking, ‘Oh my god. That’s so sarcastic, and funny, and irreverent, but also good musically.’” The Phantom Surfers’ carefree, comic approach so impressed those three that, immediately after the show, they started talking about forming a surf band. “We were like, ‘We should try and do something like that,’” Scott said. “We kind of looked to Pete as, ‘Well, you’re the guy who knows about this stuff, so you’ll be the lead guitar player. Micah will be the rhythm guitar player, I’ll play drums, and we’ll figure out a bass player.’”
A couple of days later, the guys got together in Scott’s basement and practiced. Pete played some generic surf riffs while Scott played a generic surf beat and Micah strummed rhythm. Micah was a skilled guitarist, the kind of person who lived with his instrument in hand and practiced every day, but he wasn’t used to playing fast songs. He’d taught himself — largely slow, moody music of a folky, Neil Young variety. But when he started speeding up his playing and soaked it in reverb, they all realized how good Micah was at Duane Eddy- and Davie Allen- style guitar. “We were just like, ‘Shit, you’re the lead guitarist,’” Scot said. “‘You’re the leader.’”
Over the next three years, the band ended up writing some of the greatest instrumental rock songs of not only the ’90s, but of any time period, ever. The songs “Tiki Torcher,” “Black Cat”, and “Cattle Prod,” on the band’s first two 45s, are high-water marks in the instrumental form, compositions as good as anything Dick Dale or the Chantays ever penned.
Their songs are dark. They’re primal. Straightfor- ward. And they’re catchy enough to embed themselves in your subconscious and echo there for days. Although the reverb-laden guitar tone and occasional staccato picking do technically sound “surfy,” unlike many of the tunes produced during the ’90s instro revival, these three don’t easily fit within the narrow strictures of the surf genre, a mold where refurbished Ventures and Shadows licks frequently provide the basis of many so-called “originals.” Had the Tiki Men only recorded these three songs and never touched their instruments again, their first two 45s, Sneak-A-Drink With The Tiki Men and Cattle Prod, would still have earned their place alongside such celebrated surf and drag records as the Venture’s Walk Don’t Run, Man Or Astro-Man?’s Destroy All Astro-Men!, the Bomboras’ Swingin’ Singles and the Impacts’ Wipe Out. Fortunately, Micah and the band kept writing, penning keepers like the frantic garage grinder “That’s The Way It Goes” (on their 1995 The Good Life EP), and the languid, woozy, summer crush soundtrack “Island Honey” (on their 1995 Twelve Dusty Diamonds LP). And they only started playing instrumentals because Pete dragged his friends to a show.
Back in ’93 when the Tiki Men formed, raw, primitive, ’60s-style garage rock had regained popularity in the music underworld, a charge led most visibly by Detroit’s Gories. But now, for some reason, the garage flame burned with a particular fury in the Bay Area, where legendary bands such as the Mummies, the Trashwomen, and Supercharger turned this vintage sound into something completely unique: more punk than Monks, and far more inventive than simple retro posturing. Concurrently, surf music had come into vogue in the Bay, and this localized resurgence was growing into a full-fledged global phenomenon, with surf bands popping up everywhere from Arizona to Japan to France.
When I say “surf music,” I don’t mean Jan & Dean, or the Beach Boys’ “Fun, Fun, Fun,” or Ronny and the Day- tonas’ “G. T. O.” And I don’t mean modern summer-vibes drowsy pop bands like Beach Fossils or Family Trees. I mean a certain breed of instrumental rock and roll — music without vocals — whose trebly, metallic guitars are loaded with reverb, vibrato, tremolo, and twang, and often staccato double-picking, and whose drummers lean heavily on the classic one-two, one-two beat (like in the Ventures’ “Walk Don’t Run,” or that song “Bullwinkle Pt. II” in Pulp Fiction, which plays while John Travolta is driving high on heroin). While almost any musical style can incorpo- rate surf guitar and beats, true surf music has no vocals. The instro sound might best be summarized as “Reverb 10,000”— which is also the title of a Man or Astro-Man? song that came out in 1994, the same year the Pulp Fiction soundtrack reintroduced surf music to popular culture.
Amid the meathead hedonism of 1980s hair bands and the manufactured seriousness of ’90s mopey grunge copycats, the flush of lighthearted, unpretentious, twink- ling guitar music was refreshing. Inevitably, the trend spawned a writhing maggot heap of bandwagon bands who relied on hula skirt/Hawaiian shirt/Mexican wrestling mask gimmickry instead of good songwriting, and whose formulaic creations helped even diehard surf fans tire of the style. (After a while, each Boss Martians record started to sound like the previous Boss Martians record, which had sounded like tens of other records on Dionysus.) But before the revival dissolved into a puddle of coconut-scented sunscreen, it birthed tons of lasting music. Any accurate list of the best ’90s surf bands would include the Trashwomen, the Bomboras, Man Or Astro- Man?, the Phantom Surfers, the Surf Trio, the Mermen, Teisco Del Rey, and Jackie and the Cedrics. North Caro- lina’s blistering roots-rockers Flat Duo Jets played unbelievable instrumentals — including a haunting surf version of Duke Ellington’s “Harlem Nocturne”— that are better than 80% of all surf revival songs combined. The same must be said of the original instros written by the hill- billy party band Southern Culture on the Skids. Even the Mummies — the bandage-wrapped band who mostly sang and covered old tunes by the likes of the Teddy Boys and the Rockin’ Ramrods — wrote searing instrumentals such as “Whitecaps,”“Test Drive,” and “The Frisco Freeze.” But when Micah and his friends started practicing in Scott’s basement, they weren’t thinking about budding trends in San Francisco. They were just experimenting with a new sound that excited them. And they didn’t even have a bassist.
Pete and Scott were also playing in other bands, so no one really took the surf band too seriously. They didn’t even have a name. They were just messing around in the basement, getting a kick out of experimenting with the surf sound. One day Pete, Micah and Scott were biking around downtown Sacramento and stopped to get coffee at the Weatherstone. In an alley by the coffee shop they spotted a flyer for the Garage Sale-A-Go-Go, a show in Midtown. The throwback, ’60s-looking graphics grabbed their attention. The show was going on at that moment, so they rode their bikes on over. A garage/frat rock combo called the Trainspotters was playing, and their bassist, Tim White, seemed to be enjoying himself. Even though Sac- ramento was a small enough town that most young, active musicians knew each other, none of them recognized the bassist. “But he was a good bass player,” said Scott, “and he seemed like a cool guy. So I thought, ‘I’m gonna bring up to Micah and Pete that I want to ask him to try out for bass.’ I walked up the alley to take a piss, and when I came back, Micah was like, ‘Hey, I hope you don’t mind, but I asked that guy if he wanted to play bass.’ I was like, ‘I was going to ask him!’”
There was no formal audition. The four of them simply played in Scott’s basement for a few months, honing their skills at instrumentals, until at one point Tim asked, “So, am I the bass player or what?” “Oh yeah, yeah,” they told him. “Definitely.” They hadn’t really thought about formally asking him. They were just having fun.
Tim turned out to be the perfect addition. “From the first practice,” Scott said, “it was like I’d known him forever. He was into surf stuff but not hung up on it. None of us were real purists about it. I think that’s what made the band so fun. Whatever we played was sort of okay with us. It wasn’t like, ‘That doesn’t sound like 1962 or whatever,’ which you kinda got a lot of times in that scene where there’d be those people who were really, really rigorous about their sound and the songs they were doing.” Scott played a cheap, beat-up Ludwig drum kit. Micah had a basic Fender amp and a maroon, hollow-body Guild Starfire from 1960 that a friend had sold him for three hundred dollars — a steal. Pete had a nice guitar, too.
“They knew how to fix gear,” Scott said, “and would nerd out about it, but they weren’t hung up on it. If some- one offered to let them play their amp at a show, as long as it had some reverb on it, they’d be like, ‘Okay.’ We just didn’t care.” The fact that the Tiki Men didn’t fixate on recreating the precise characteristics of original ’60s instro music freed them to write songs that appealed to their own sensibilities. They figured, why rehash the creative accomplishments of the past? A world of covers was far less interesting than a world of originality. Also, the mentality of Sacramento’s musical underground was one of low career ambition: play for fun; don’t try so hard to “make it” that music loses its appeal.
“Sac’s a slow movin’ place,” Scott said. “It’s a city, but it’s a town. It’s kind of how everybody thinks.” No one would have described the capital’s music scene as profes- sional or ambitious. Scott taught himself to play drums and guitar because band practice was another way to hang out with friends, but he never wanted music as a career. Pete and Micah didn’t either. Too much of a laid-back attitude can keep good bands from becoming great bands and local favorites from garnering wider appreciation. But playing strictly for fun can also allow artists to make art that doesn’t pander to listeners’ or marketers’ expectations, and in turn, to create something pure and lasting and free of corrosive self-awareness. “In Sacramento, that attitude is a curse and a blessing,” Scott said. “But that’s Sacramento. Sacramento’s easy.”
After a few months in Scott’s basement, Micah landed a loft apartment inside the old Sing Hing Bean Sprout Factory. Located outside downtown on Franklin Boulevard, south of Broadway, the building’s original sec- ond-floor offices had been converted into three separate apartments. The large rooms where the bean sprouts once grew were downstairs, all crisscrossed with channels cut to drain the sprouts’ irrigation. Micah had a little photo developing station in one of the spaces. Another func- tioned as a garage where tenants worked on their cars. One of the bigger areas in back became the Tiki Men’s practice space. “We were able to have parties back there,” Scott said, “store our musical equipment. Of course it was decked out in a bunch of thrift store crap — sort of our practice pad, where we’d kind of be hanging out anyway.” Micah and two other guys lived at the Bean Sprout. Everyone shared the upstairs kitchen and bathroom, split the rent. One of Micah’s roommates threw raves. Another built a stage in one of the downstairs rooms, and when bands couldn’t get booked at Old Ironsides or The Loft, a local punk club, the Bean Sprout occasionally hosted them. Tiger Trap played a show there. Bratmobile played there, and Witchypoo, and so did Scott’s other band, the Bananas.
The Bean Sprout was one of those places where tenants were grandfathered in, so when someone moved out, they passed their room on to other people. Like that Phantom Surfers show and accidentally finding Tim, scoring a room at the Bean Sprout was another fortuitous development for the Tiki Men and, in turn, the history of surf music. The place was close to where each band member worked or lived. They could store all their equipment there and practice for free. It stood on a crowded street, though it wasn’t near any houses, so even if a little sound escaped the thick walls, there weren’t any neighbors to complain. Most important of all were the acoustics.
The band room was cavernous and built entirely of cement. Sound bounced off the floors, walls and ceiling, which not only lent everything a natural reverberation but also amplified the reverb from the band’s equipment. The effect added textures and character that were, in places like Scott’s basement, otherwise absent. “Even my crappy drum set would sound cool in there,” Scott said.
“We could turn up. And we didn’t have to worry about vocals, so we didn’t have to worry about competing with some shitty PA. It was just one of those things where the room gave whatever you played a bit of extra enthusiasm, because everything kind of immediately sounded good.” Scott has a four-track recording of the full band’s first or second practice in his basement, and based solely on fidelity, it doesn’t even sound like the same band. They went from slight to thunderous. “The Bean Sprout was just another crucial factor that worked in our favor to develop our own sound.”
When the band decided that it was time to record some songs to release, naturally, they recorded at Micah’s. The session that produced their debut, Sneak-A-Drink With The Tiki Men, a seven-inch, was as laid back as Tim’s recruitment. “It was just like, ‘These are the songs we have. These are the ones that people seem to like the most,’” Scott said. “At that time, if you were a band, you made a 45. It’s kind of like you weren’t a band or something if you didn’t, so you find yourself thinking, ‘Well, I guess we should record this stuff.’” At this time in 1993, the band had four original songs, maybe six. But it was their song “Tiki Torcher,” that helped them see that they were developing a feel for surf music in general, and songwriting in particular. They’d written it and “Black Cat” as a group during their first few practices. Micah added a defining lead part to both, but the songs essentially evolved out of a jam session. “‘Tiki Torcher’ was the one that made us realize we were getting it together as a band,” Scott said. “We could see when we would play it that people liked that one, so we knew that should lead the record.” So one day at practice, Micah set Scott’s cheapo, Yamaha four- track cassette recorder on a table beside him, so he could reach over and push pause when he stopped playing, and he hit record.
“We knew we were recording when we were recording,” Scott said, “but the attitude was more: ‘we’re recording at practice.’ It wasn’t like, ‘Okay. We’re going to record now.’ We got some really searing takes because we had it all set up already.” They recorded most of the songs in one or two takes — all live, no overdubs, all very quickly.
(Which is probably the best way to approach it: don’t think, just play. Treat it like a live show. Granted, there are many exceptions, but that carefree, low-stakes mindset is often one reason why so many bands’ initial releases prove to be their best. Early in a band’s life, not only are the songs still fresh while recording, but the players’ enthusiasm for music in general remains high. Elvis’ Sun Studio recordings come to mind, as well as Jane’s Addiction’s first two records, the Stray Cats’ first one, Tav Falco’s early stuff, and T-Model Ford’s, Supercharger’s, the Ventures’, Vivian Girls’, X’s and, of course, the Cramps’.) “When you’re doing your first record,” Scott said, “you don’t even think about it. Your band doesn’t really exist outside your town. It’s funny, because we were never that self-conscious about recording, because we were lucky about it. But you tend, in general, to get more self-conscious as people have expectations of you.” So for the Tiki Men, this recording session felt no different than practice.
Once the session ended and everyone went home, Micah stayed up late mixing the tape. “Micah could pretty much make any four-track sound awesome,” Scott said. “He knew how to turn things up just enough to distort the hell out of them without making them lo-fi unlistenable.” Judging from his quick turnaround time and the way he meticulously scribbled notes such as “third generation, first mix” on all the cassettes, Micah clearly obsessed over the process, going over and over it, late into the night while his roommates slept, until he got it right. Then the next day, he handed the band the mix and said, “Here’s the tape.” He ended up doing the same thing with each of their subsequent recordings.
Listening back to Micah’s mix for the first time, the band heard what became their sound for the first time, too. “That first single is the most full-bore ahead thing we did,” Scott said. “You can hear us still kind of falling in love with the crazy, booming sound of the room. If you listen to the beginning of ‘Incoming,’ that sounds pretty fuckin’ crazy. I mean it’s just like complete chaos. Listening back to it, we were laughing, going, ‘No way! We’ve gotta leave that like that.’ We just thought it was funny.” The mix is loud, overdriven, and loaded with reverb.
Micah’s brilliance lay in his ability to preserve the sonic fingerprint of the Bean Sprout and maximize the reverb without anything becoming distorted. The result is warm, thick and rich, yet there’s range there too, the kind of full, high-end depth that’s best displayed on vinyl rather than digital files. If Micah’s guitar tone falls short of the shimmering clarity of Link Wray’s on his 1960 Epic Records version of “Golden Strings,” it is at least on par with Link’s 1965 Swan Records recording of “The Fuzz,” and the cosmic grit of his 1963 version of “Fatback.” It’s that particular fidelity, in addition to the songwriting, that not only sets those first two Tiki Men records apart from other ’90s surf records, but makes them timeless as well.
“Honestly, aside from maybe ‘Tiki Torcher,’ those songs minus that wild recording sound wouldn’t be all that interesting,” Scott said. “Structurally, they’re pretty simple.” He imagines that Micah was working with placement during the mix process, in order to make all the instruments sound unified while still highlighting the guitar playing and the melodies of the songs. “The four- track mixed with that room just kind of made everything one big sound,” Scott said. “There’s not a lot of space in those songs.”
If you listen closely to, say, “Tiki Torcher,” you can hear it: how everything hangs on the cusp of blowing the speakers, is almost overblown. Yet as rough and jagged as it is, the mix remains clear, maintaining all its granular textures and colors without crossing over into the sludgy side of the spectrum. “Micah was definitely the genius behind that band,” Scott said. “We pretty much had one hundred percent faith in whatever he wanted to do.”
This was the age of the single. Before the advent of MP3 blogs and file-sharing sites, many bands could still sell a sizeable amount of 45s at shows and brick and mortar stores, and through the mail. Scott put out a number of Sacramento bands on his indie record label, Secret Cen- ter, so instead of sending the Tiki Men recording to other labels to release, he sent it to a pressing plant he’d worked with before, then put out the record himself. In the same way that the four-track recorder had liberated musicians from relying entirely on record labels or expensive studios to record their music, so too could bands make their own 45s. All you needed to do was to pool enough money to pay for mastering and pressing. You could do the cover art yourself. Anyone with some scissors and a copy machine could make the sleeves.
But the Tiki Men had even more resources than that. Scott and Micah worked in the magazine warehouse at the Tower Records headquarters in West Sacramento. A sprawling complex in an industrial area, this was the company’s main shipping facility, where nearly everything from records to promotional materials went before getting disseminated to a global network of retail stores. All Tower stores had large magazine sections which, in the age of paper publishing, generated a substantial amount of money. And one man, Doug Biggert, was the com- pany’s magazine purchaser. Tower carried the usual glossies such has Rolling Stone and Spin, as well as trade and offbeat music mags such as Goldmine and Maximumrocknroll. But thanks to Doug’s intense interest in zines, stores also boasted one of the world’s widest selections of handmade gems. Tower carried everything from obscure local creations such as Teen Meat and Jerk! to well-known titles such as Conflict and Absolutely Zippo, as well as Jay Hinman’s punk and garage classic Superdope, the legendary Cometbus, and even Mike McGonigal’s pre-Yeti zine, Chemical Imbalance.
Scott’s job was to read music and other zines and decide whether stores should carry them. “I got there my first day and here are these influential fanzines, on their first issue, sitting in this box for me.” If Scott found a zine promising, he’d tell Doug, and Doug would have him order a few hundred copies — even if it was a weird one about eight-tracks from Chicago. “It was an unbelievable thing to be doing all day,” Scott said. He got Micah a job there soon after. A bunch of other twenty-somethings got hired too. Soon the staff consisted of around thirty really good friends, 90% of whom were in bands. “Everybody was able to take vacation time to tour,” Scott said, “to call out sick when shows went late.” Eventually though, things fell apart. “Nobody was doing anything. Everyone was cheating on their time card and getting wasted at work, and finally there was a big crackdown. But for a good four or five years, it was just amazing.”
During that time “there was a turntable out in the warehouse,” Scott said. “There were piles of shitty thrift store records. We do a cover of ‘Surfin’ Señorita’ by Herb Alpert on Cattle Prod. That was a warehouse hit. That song was funny to us, so we ended up learning it.” Same with “Taste of Honey,” a 1960 instrumental taken from a Broadway play, which Tiki Men played live but never recorded. And the Ventures’ “The Swingin’ Creeper,” which the band put on Sneak-A-Drink. “We were really into listening to oldies like that and oldies radio, and going to thrift stores and just buying records. Instead of listening to them at home, which is kind of fun, there was something really funny about listening to them at work and everybody groaning about some terrible song, or get- ting into some random Herb Alpert record. That job influenced what the band was doing with our covers and music too, like stuff that we learned for a laugh but didn’t put on record. Like, ‘Oh, we gotta learn ‘A Summer Place,’ or something stupid like that.”
Surrounded by magazines, Micah and Scott were also able to read record reviews, find out exactly where to send their singles for review, and keep up on new music. And they could do this all on the clock. “We were basically able to sit there and talk about what we wanted to do with the band,” Scott said, “about things like making a record cover graphic, designing show flyers or a t-shirt design.” Doug, an artist himself, was extremely lenient, so Scott could make all his Secret Center record covers at work, Xerox all the inserts, and design and print all the ads. He even did his regular Secret Center mailings from the warehouse, often using uncancelled stamps that came in the box shipments of zines. “The boss actually knew I was doing it and thought it was cool.”
Of course the band was always scouting for material outside of work, too. Micah found the Sneak-A-Drink cover image in a phonebook ad for The Coral Reef, a local tiki-themed restaurant. The Reef ’s interior was eclectic Polynesiana: tiki heads, tiki torches, wooden masks, wood paneling, bamboo inlay, plants with large fronds. In one dining room, a canoe even hung from the ceiling. The restaurant was far from downtown, and they only ate there occasionally, but the band liked the ad’s simple motifs: a black and white tiki head, a palm tree silhouette.
The phrase “sneak-a-drink” came from a magazine that Scott and Micah found at work. “It had some ’50s or ’60s poster or something with that phrase on it,” Scott said. “We just thought that was a really funny phrase for some reason. I know what it means, but it’s kind of random: ‘Hey, let’s go sneak a drink.’ So we put that on there.”
With the title and artwork selected, Micah and Scott ordered two reams of fancy blue paper for the record sleeve from Tower. “We could go to the company print shop,” Scott said, “tell them we worked at the magazine warehouse and say, ‘Hey, we need two reams of colored paper.’” Because the magazine warehouse and its laissezfaire manager were legendary within the company, instead of asking why Scott and Micah needed the paper, the print shop employees just assumed it was for some band project and didn’t ask any questions. They simply said, “Here, take it.” “We were so lucky.”
Pete worked at a silkscreen shop, screening shirts. With the paper stock secured, Pete decided to screen the graphic in two colors — black and a vibrant gold — and borrowed a silkscreen wheel from work. “So we sat around the Bean Sprout with that thing,” Scott said, “and screened the covers and were really excited how it came out. Seeing the gold was like, ‘Wow, that looks so cool.’ Gold was the perfect color for that blue paper.” Borrowed silkscreen wheels, screening borrowed images with stolen ink on free paper — “it was a lot of work,” Scott said, “but a score.” They pressed three hundred copies of Sneak-A- Drink, slipped in a hand-cut, Xeroxed band photo insert printed on red Tower Records paper, and sold the albums for three bucks apiece.
Having run Secret Center and played in bands for years, Scott knew it was easy to put an ad in Maxiumrockandroll, or fanzines like Superdope or Eric Oblivion’s Wipeout, and sell one hundred fifty or two hundred copies of a record. But he wondered whether a surf record would behave the same way as pop or punk releases did, especially the Tiki Men’s. “Because that first single,” he said, “it’s surfy enough, but it’s pretty rough, pretty raw- sounding. I wasn’t sure how it would be received. But literally within two weeks of putting it out, I got a postcard from one of the guys in the Phantom Surfers saying, ‘Hey, I love your record. You should come and play with us.’ We got a call from Dave Crider at Estrus asking to put a 45 out.” A couple days after Sneak-A-Drink came out, Scott ran into Scott Soriano, a longtime Sacramento guy who helped run The Loft and also had his own label. “Soriano said, ‘That fucking single is so great!’ and I was like, ‘Oh wow, people are listening to this record and have an opin- ion about it.’” Half of those three hundred copies sold right away.
The band’s attitude toward the record seemed to have helped as much as the music did. “I don’t want to say we were a punk band, but our attitude definitely was, and Sacramento’s just got that way about it,” Scott said. “There are plenty of bands that don’t go anywhere because of that, unfortunately, because I think there are a lot of really good bands, but we just kind of lucked out having that sort of laid back attitude meets a scene that was just ready for bands.”
When Crider at Estrus called about releasing a record, he also booked the Tiki Men to play Garage Shock, his label’s infamous music festival in Bellingham, WA. But he was a bit pushy about the record’s specifics, which left the band thinking that things might be moving a little fast for their taste.
Surf is a funny genre. Modern surfers don’t really listen to it, feeling as much affinity for “Misirlou” as Manhattan execs likely feel for an Arapaho chant: it’s not part of their cultural purview. But “surf ” is the name that stuck.
The definitive surf form originated in the early 1960s in southern California. Expanding on the repertoire of late ’50s rockabilly and rhythm and blues, many musicians were writing instrumental tunes for people to dance to. Jukeboxes were still popular, and 45rpm singles were a booming, sometimes lucrative market. Between 1956 and 1960, countless instrumental rock 45s came out, most of them forgettable because they sounded derivative and formulaic. Stylistically, the songs were grounded in rockabilly, garage, or country. Some featured common, Elvis-at-Sun-Records-style guitar riffs and canned comps copped straight from the blues. Their titles had the words “hop” and “rebel” in them, rather than “beach” and “cove.” These songs lacked reverb and largely followed the compositional structure of the day, with saxophones leading rather than electric guitars. As California surf music DJ Phil Dirt once said of ’50s rock tunes: “a basic song was a two-to-three minute AABA number, with a saxophone carrying the B part.” But that was changing.
Guitarists were starting to experiment with the then-new electric guitar. Inventive players such as Les Paul, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Link Wray, and Chet Atkins explored the instrument’s sonic potential, tinkering with new techniques and devices such as the tremolo arm, vibrato units, and echolettes to gauge effect. Most of Diddley and Berry’s songs are led not by horns but their axes, which replaced the sax in the B part. Despite the interchangeability of most of those 45s, in evolutionary terms, some proved highly influential in the development of surf, functioning as the sonic missing links to surf ’s homo erectus. Songs such as “Moon Dawg!” by the Gamblers, the Northern Lights’ 1960 version of “Typhoid,” and “Underwater” by the Frogmen can be considered proto-surf, and they owe their existence to Diddley, Paul, and Berry’s experimentation. Some people consider “Typhoid” the first recorded surf-style instro, but it and other proto- surf songs only included one or two of the three elements of surf (in this case, “Typhoid” features staccato double- picking but no reverb. Same can be said of the Bel Airs’ 1961 song “Mr. Moto,” another tune that’s often tagged as the first recorded surf instro). The form was truly born in 1961, when Fender released its Fender Reverb unit. The unit was built to enhance singers’ vocals, but when a guitar ran through it, it produced a slippery, so-called “wet” sound that, to some people’s ears, replicated the sound of flowing water or waves — at least, it was a tone that surfers later thought resembled the sounds of surfing. In addition to this slick, reverberating quality, surf guitarists used the vibrato arm — what some call the “whammy bar” or “tremolo bar” — to bend the pitch of notes downward by changing the tension of the strings. These guitarists also used tremolo picking, where a single note is played repeatedly in quick, aggressive succession.
California guitarist Dick Dale, a surfer himself — rare in the surf music world — added a unique, exotic sound to his instrumentals by playing Middle Eastern scales, though he also relied on tremolo, vibrato and heavy gauge strings. In 1961 he christened this new style “surf,” and he, along with acts like the Ventures and Duane Eddy, popularized and perfected it. (Also of note is the way Dale helped Leo Fender test his new and prototype guitars and amps, and how that relationship partially facilitated the birth of heavy metal by creating equipment capable of withstanding shredding at loud volumes.)
At the time, America was obsessed with beach culture, a fad epitomized by Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello’s beach blanket bingo flicks. Soon, guitarists all over America were drenching their guitars in reverb and naming their songs “Pier” this and “Surfer” that. Kids in the Midwest and the South, people who had never touched a surfboard let alone ridden one, started wearing board shorts, sandals, Hang Ten t-shirts, and performing Dale’s new style. Dale’s song “Misirlou” and the Chantays’ “Pipeline” became the standards of the genre, and the models for how to handle reverb. The stuff was so popular that many non-surf bands started recording surf tunes as a potential money-maker: Bo Diddley did the album Surf in’ With Bo Diddley, and bluesman Freddie King did songs like “Low Tide” and “Surf Monkey.” Later on, this same opportunistic, bandwagon mentality caused many surf and hotrod bands to jump ship during the British Invasion, eventually adopting a British lilt or harder English Beat style.
As with the development of most musical styles, there is no straight evolutionary pathway leading from rockabilly and R&B, to Dick Dale, to surf. the Ventures released “Walk Don’t Run” in 1960, one year before Dick Dale released what many people consider the first surf song, “Let’s Go Trippin’.” But three years before Dale’s song came out, Link Wray pioneered a rawer, rougher instrumental rock music. His muscular style was loaded with speaker-shredding distortion and power chords. And while there was definitely some cross-pollination between what Link was playing and what Dale was playing, Link’s sound was intimidating and tough, and it was not surf. His fuzzy, overdriven effects imparted a raucous, some- times dark tone that could sound as ominous as a freight train rumbling, and felt just as exciting.
Unlike the affable, doe-eyed surf bands with their playful catcalls and spastic saxes, Wray’s music wasn’t some soundtrack for fake gringo luaus, nothing to create ambiance at Las Vegas tiki bars. This was brawny rock, wild and raw, yet as the surf craze spread, people inevitably lumped Wray’s instros in with those of Duane Eddy, Dick Dale and the Ventures. This was a grave misrepresentation. Wray’s best tunes might not have had lyrics, but his distorted guitars made surf songs like the Impacts’ “Sea Horse” sound like elevator music.
Due to “Rumble’s” title and menacing sound, the song was banned from many radio stations because critics said it encouraged juvenile delinquency. Imagine: a song without words lauded as dangerous. Despite the resistance, “Rumble” reached #16 on the Billboard charts and eventually sold four million copies. For the rockabillies and greasers of the era, the negative characterization and title might have increased the song’s appeal. Link also wore dark glasses and leather jackets, which certainly resonated with young rebels. But he was a devout Christian, didn’t drink or smoke. As he once said, “You can be wild, but not evil.” That sums up both his life as a musician and his sound. Nervous critics were too misguided to realize what fans knew: that Link was an entirely new breed of rocker.
“Rumble” changed everything. Countless musicians, from Jimi Hendrix to Fred Smith to Jimmy Page, cited Link as an influence. In the unpublished (but frequently cited) liner notes to Link’s 1971 self-titled album, Pete Townshend said that “if it hadn’t been for Link Wray and ‘Rumble,’ I would have never picked up a guitar.” And Neil Young, who once played in an instrumental band modeled after the Shadows, said, “If I could go back in time and see one band live, it would be Link Wray and the Wraymen.” The year 1957 is often cited as a high point in the development of jazz, particularly hard bop. Thanks to “Rumble,” 1958 might mark the official birthdate of instrumental rock and roll.
During the four years following the birth of Dick Dale-ian surf music in 1961, the style underwent a series of subtle transformations that yielded various sonically related subgenres such as hotrod music and skateboard music. A number of songs became local and national radio hits. Classic tunes from the original “first wave” surf bands include the Ventures’ “Perfidia,” the Surfaris’ “Wipe Out,” the Shadows’ “Apache,” the Sentinals’ “Latinia,” the Revels’ “Intoxica,” the Lively Ones’ “Surf Rider,” the Chantays’ “Pipeline,” the Bell Airs’ “Bustin’ Surfboards,” and the Pyramids’ “Penetration.” Back on the East Coast, Link was writing and recording a string of now-infamous instros. The short list: “Jack the Ripper,” “Ace of Spades,” “Slinky,” “Lillian,” “Pancho Villa,” “Comanche,” “Lynx Tail,” “Golden Strings” and “Run Chicken Run.”
The first wave of surf music lasted from the 1950s to about 1964 — exactly thirty years before Sneak-A-Drink came out — and although the style fell out of fashion in the mid ’60s, when it was obscured by the British Invasion, surf guitar has always held niche appeal in the sub- cultural margins, especially among modern garage rock, rockabilly, and indie fans. It influenced the playing of such modern guitar icons as Joey Santiago of the Pixies, Poison Ivy of the Cramps, East Bay Ray of the Dead Kennedys and Edge of U2. You can hear surf guitar in certain songs by the Smiths, the Clean, Blondie, the Go-Go’s, Calexico, Reverend Horton Heat and Beat Happening. And you can hear it in the ranks of modern indie music too, with new, innovative bands such as Crystal Stilts, the Fresh and Onlys, Real Estate, Moonhearts, Spectrals, Beach Fossils and Ganglians using it in some form or another. In his song “Third Stone from the Sun,” Jimi Hendrix famously said, “you will never hear surf music again.” (Great guitar- ist, poor psychic.) Even though instrumental surf music has never reclaimed the popular standing that it held during the beach blanket bingo era, during that brief but flourishing early ’90s revival, it which swept through the international music underground like — what else? — a tidal wave.
Tiki Men’s first show was a backyard barbecue in Sacramento. “We weren’t that good at the time,” Scott said, “but Johnny Bartlett from the Phantom Surfers came to see us, and it kind of created this little bit of buzz.” Since he’d played in bands for so many years, Pete knew a lot of the garage and surf musicians in San Francisco, including Johnny Bartlett. And before Tiki Men had even performed publicly, Scott told Johnny that he was in an instrumental band. Johnny, being a fiend for the style, and always on the lookout for bands to release on his label, Hillsdale, made it clear that if Pete’s band was any good, Hillsdale might be interested in putting out a single. When the guys brainstormed a number of possible band names, it was Johnny who insisted that Tiki Men was the best of the bunch. Micah thought the name was kind of goofy — which Scott agreed, it was — but having someone like Bartlett get excited about their band before he’d even heard any songs heard it made the guys heed his advice. Johnny liked what they played at their first show and told them he wanted to do a record. “I heard the B-side,” he said. “I haven’t heard your A-side yet.” He came to all their shows until he heard it.
They were playing at The Purple Onion, a legendary ’50s comedy club in San Francisco which the new manager, Tom Guido, had transformed into the center of the West Coast’s garage and surf scene. Micah had written an instrumental song, “Cattle Prod,” and recorded it alone at home on four-track. It had an acoustic rhythm guitar part keeping time in place of drums, and a heavily reverbed lead playing the melody. He brought it to practice, and the band worked out the instrumentation. The night they played it at The Purple Onion was only the first or second time they’d performed it live, but when Johnny heard it, he knew he’d found their A-side.
“Johnny was like, ‘That’s the one I want,’” Scott said. “Which I thought was cool, because that’s not a surf song. The drums never even come in. The drums build the entire time. I was like, ‘That’s a total A-side,’ in a way, because it has its own personality. Those kinds of things help a band a lot when someone else is paying attention and urging you, ‘Hey, do this.’ I mean, we did really push ourselves. We were all really into it. We practiced a lot. It just happened super quickly, which in some cases isn’t a good scenario, but for us, since we had so many ideas, the momentum was super exciting.”
They recorded another batch of songs at the Bean Sprout. Micah mixed them. Johnny released two of those tracks — “Cattle Prod” and “Surfin’ Señorita” — on their second single, also titled Cattle Prod, and Crider eventually released four others on their Estrus EP, The Good Life. When Crider first called Scott about doing a 45, Scott told him the band had a few songs left over from their last session, but wanted to wait and send him the new, better songs they were going to be recording in a few weeks. Crider was insistent: no, no, they had to do it now. He already had the cover design, possibly the record title. It all made Scott nervous. “Now I would be much more firm,” Scott said. “At that time I thought, ‘Cool, Estrus wants to do a single,’ so I was like, ‘Whatever this guy says.’”
When the EP came out in 1995, the band didn’t like the mastering. Unlike everything else they’d released, which was recorded loud and got cut loud, this third sin- gle was mastered in a way that flattened the range and muffled the volume, draining much of the richness and depth that defined the previous singles. “It’s really quiet,” Scott said, “really thin to me. And the songs aren’t that good — I mean, they’re okay. But I was just like, ‘Man, that’s a missed opportunity.’ You know, Johnny Bartlett printed these liner notes on Cattle Prod about how we play this ‘frantic music,’ and to me the EP just sounds totally tame, and the most boring thing that we did. Of course it’s Estrus, so it was the thing that was everywhere and most readily available.”
Mastering can be a crapshoot. Bands send the tapes off to a pressing plant to get cut and on a good day, they could get an engineer who takes a lot of care with the EP. On a bad day they could get a guy who just rushes the tape through so he can get to the next few hundred in his queue. The more common problem is getting someone who doesn’t intuitively sense what sound the band is going for. The engineer then messes with the levels in an attempt to, in his or her mind, “improve” the sound: she turns the overall volume down or alters the mix of individual instruments — boosting the bass drum, for instance, to give it the booming kick popular during that era, and so on. “It’s a gamble,” Scott said. Compared to Cattle Prod, The Good Life’s mastering was so tame that, when other labels started asking the band about doing a full-length, they said “No thanks, we’re sticking with Johnny at Hillsdale.” They’d already recorded a slew of new songs by then anyway.
Since this band’s formation, Scott and Tim had kept playing in other bands too, but by the time Sneak-A-Drink came out, Tiki Men were playing a lot: at least two or three shows a month. Mainly they’d perform at The Purple Onion and other Bay Area clubs, often alongside bands such as the Hentchmen and the Bomboras. One time Tiki Men even spent the night in The Purple Onion, after the Hentchmen found their tour van locked in a San Fran garage at 2am. Tom Guido said, “alright guys, let’s party,” led them back into the bar, opened all the taps, and while Tom tried to sleep in back, the bands sat at the bar drinking free beer.
Back in Sacramento, Tiki Men played Old Ironsides and The Loft as well as countless house parties. “We were the perfect band for parties,” Scott said, “because the one thing people never have is a fucking PA. So it’s like, ‘Find some instrumental band!’” They also played a warehouse party, a couple of weddings, a big dirty punk house in Santa Cruz, a pizza parlor in Stockton, and an impromptu Fourth of July party hosted by Tim’s other band, the Troublemakers. “We never went on tour. Most of the places we played we’d drive to. We’d play in South- ern California. We’d play up north. And we’d turn around and go home.”
Their shows were always a lot of fun. “That kind of music at that time really worked well here,” Scott said. “We would also have shows with a lot of people just standing there, but Sacramento had kind of a garagey mentality, not so much in the number of garage bands, but in its attitude and taste.”
Despite their disappointment with the Estrus single, they loved their Garage Shock show. “I think we got handed three hundred dollars right before we played,” Scott said, “which was just like, ‘Holy shit!’ the most money in the world. That boosts your confidence.” They weren’t stuck headlining, so they had the luxury of nest- ling in the middle, where there was just enough pressure but not too much. “Me being the drummer, I can watch the audience and be like, ‘Wow, cool. They all really like us.’” Pete was a really mellow guy, not exactly a bandleader, so he and Scott were more than happy to play behind someone else. Even for a band with no singer, Micah’s charisma and guitar skills made him the ideal frontman.
When Scott met him in preschool at age four, Micah was just a hyper, goofy blonde kid who lived two blocks down the street. But now, in his early twenties, he was this handsome, magnetic talent who, from the perspective of an audience member, was clearly the center of the band. “Every practice he’d seem to improve. I’d sit there blown away sometimes. I remember playing this one show at The Loft where I was looking over at him, and he was so in the zone. It was summer in Sacramento, super hot. It looked like his head was going to pop off the top of his body. It was amazing watching this friend of mine get so into it and be thinking, ‘Fuck man, you’re really good.’ Afterwards we were all like, ‘Wow, that was a great show. Micah really just ripped it up.’”
At shows, Scott and the other Tiki Men could always tell which guys in the audience were going to come up to Micah afterward and talk about guitar playing, or ask him about his Guild and his amp: they were the people staring at his hands.
“Just to watch Micah grow so quickly as a guitar player and be surprising himself,” Scott said, “and impressing himself, by what he could do — that was awesome. He’d been honing his chops playing slower stuff, so once he got these little tricks and skills down, he pushed himself to do them faster, doing different picking patterns and challenging stuff like that. Which is eventually why the band kind of stopped.”
By the time their full-length record, Twelve Dusty Diamonds, came out in 1995, the movie Pulp Fiction had pushed surf music into the forefront of popular culture, further clogging the world’s stages and record store bins with all the formulaic instrumental crap that the sound- track helped spawn, so much so that many longtime fans were starting to tire of the sound. But you can’t pin the Tiki Men’s demise on the rise and fall of culture’s perpetually passing fancies. Mostly, it was that Micah’s musical interests changed.
Back in high school, he and Scott had gotten heavily into psychedelic British bands such as the Jesus and Mary Chain and Spacemen 3. But at some point, while Scott’s interest stayed current, Micah began exploring so-called “roots music.” “Things like [jazz guitar pioneer] Charlie Christian, lots of old country. He still followed new stuff, but to him everything modern sounded like something old: ‘Oh, they’re just ripping off Velvet Underground,’ or, ‘That just sounds like Neil Young.’ He became more of a purist in that way.” Eventually, those influences began to overshadow his interest in instrumental music.
“We didn’t have a particularly big breakup,” Scott said, “it was fine — we were all still friends and all that — but the things Micah wanted to do were outside our skill level.” Micah started writing rhythm guitar parts that required complex picking, secondary melodies more complicated than the usual strum. Pete wasn’t as adept as Micah, and when he wasn’t always able to pull off the picking parts, Micah got frustrated.
Micah had started playing with another guitarist named Tristin Tozer, from a local instro band called the Boulevard Park Trio. In 1994, Micah recorded their debut Civic Pride EP at the Bean Sprout, and Scott released it on Secret Center, but Micah and Tristin had forged a deep bond. So, like most musician friends around town, they eventually formed their own band: the Lazy J’s. “Those guys had a lot in common,” Scott said. “They were learning from each other and really enjoyed playing together. With the Lazy J’s, Micah was just going where he wanted to go [musically].” Tristin played lead guitar. Micah played rhythm and sang.
Before that, nobody knew Micah could sing, and before he tried, neither did he. But he started practicing vocals alone at home on his four-track, and when the Lazy J’s began performing around town, Micah stepped to the mic with the skill and confidence of someone who’d been doing it for years. “You’d watch him sing the Lazy J’s version of ‘Runaway,’ and he poured his heart out,” Scott said. “I remember watching from the audience and being a little bit jealous of the Lazy J’s, like, ‘Fuck, these guys are so good.’”
The Tiki Men recorded once more at the Bean Sprout, and as pleased as they were with the fidelity and most tracks, Micah was frustrated with the way his song “First Love, First Tears” turned out. Pete couldn’t get the rhythm guitar right. To Scott, this song marked the beginning of the end. “But hey, Micah carried the band on his shoulders for a long time so I think we all understood his frustration.”
Tiki Men recorded a few other songs during what turned out to be their final session; all of them remain unreleased. This was an unfortunate development, because the band was happy with those other songs. They covered “Highland Guitar,” a 1960 instrumental by Frank Virtue and the Virtues, whose “Guitar Boogie Shuffle” single Micah loved. They covered “Detour.” (Originally a Western swing ballad penned by Paul Westmoreland in 1945, numerous country and pop musicians recorded “Detour,” including Tex Williams, Marty Robbins, Hank Thompson, Patti Page, even Ella Fitzgerald, and it later became a popular tune for instrumental bands to cover, including Duane Eddy.) “But it was one of those songs that Micah was born to play,” Scott said. “It’s got a really good sort of bendy lead. His hollow-body Guild Starfire sounded perfect for that kind of song.” In fact, the band liked “Detour” so much that they paired it with Micah’s original “Scotch Lauderdale” as a single. “Scotch Lauder- dale” was the A-side, “Detour” the B-side. “The single that was one of our favorite things we ever did,” Scott said. Micah mixed it. Tim made the cover art, which they sent with the four-track tapes to a man in San Francisco who’d contacted them about releasing a record. That was the last they ever heard from him.
“He never put it out. Never got back to us. Never returned the tapes or anything. The guy apparently moved back to Germany.” They vaguely tried to locate the guy, and they probably could have tracked him down, since he must have known a lot of the same people that they knew in the Bay Area. But at this point in the Tiki Men’s life, they didn’t feel like doing the necessary detective work. “We didn’t have email,” Scott said. “So it was like, ‘What do I just call this guy? Write him a letter?’ It was kind of this thing where I was like, ‘Ah, whatever.’ It sucks. The cover was cool. We were happy with the songs. If we hadn’t broken up, we probably would have given it to somebody else to put out, but the timing was really close.”
There was no band meeting where they decided they were through. No dramatic moment where someone stormed out of the Bean Sprout. No official last show. The Tiki Men just dissolved. They quit booking shows. Quit accepting offers to play parties. And everyone pur- sued other musical projects. “People say this all the time, but it ran its course,” Scott said. “I mean, how long can you really be in a surf band.
Although nobody outwardly complained, Scott sensed that Pete was the most disappointed. He was still really into surf music and was perfectly happy strumming rhythm behind Micah. “I felt bad for Pete,” Scott said. “I remember he cancelled our last two shows. We figured we’d play these last two shows because they were already booked, and then he cancelled them. I never really asked them about it, because he’s not the kind of guy that’s going to stay mad at anybody. He’s like the nicest guy, just the coolest. But one of the shows was opening for the Donnas in San Francisco when they were still small and getting a big buzz, and we were psyched as shit. And Pete was like, ‘Oh no, I just cancelled it. I figured we weren’t playing anymore.’ I feel like that must have been done a little bit out of spite.”
Scott continued playing with his other bands, the power-pop outfit Nar and his punkier group the Bananas. Tapes from the Tiki Men’s last session gathered both literal and proverbial dust in a box in Micah’s apartment, while he focused his attention on the Lazy J’s. That band’s influ- ences were oldies vocal music such as the Everly Brothers and Dion DiMucci, famous for “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer.” Unlike the Tiki Men, the Lazy J’s out- put was minimal: one track on the 1997 Sacramento: City of Beer seven-inch compilation, and a homemade cassette tape which they sold around town and at shows. They did mostly covers — including Del Shannon’s “Runaway” and Ben E. King’s 1960 hit “Spanish Harlem” –Micah wrote their sole original. It’s called “She’s So Refined,” and it’s a catchy, fast, 1950s sounding burner loaded with feel- ing. It’s the kind of song that makes you wonder what other incredible things Micah might have written, had he focused more seriously on the band.
In the late ’90s, Scott quit his Tower Records gig for a routine office job, and Micah moved to San Francisco to attend SFSU. After graduating, Micah joined the stagehand union and made a living doing carpentry and assorted remodeling work on the Bay Area’s many old houses. “We didn’t lose touch,” Scott said, “but that’s how he kind of lost touch with being responsible in life. He grew up with a pretty tight group of friends here, who would keep each other in check a little bit. He didn’t have that in San Francisco.” Micah played in a country band there called the Original Sinners, though not with the frequency he’d played in Sacramento. “He kept his own hours and was just responsible for himself,” Scott said. “His friends couldn’t look out for him as much as they might have had he been in Sacramento.” When Micah moved back to the Central Valley, he had a drinking problem. He went to rehab a few times but was never able to get sober. After years like that, his guitar-playing skills and singing voice deteriorating, Micah passed away in April 2009, a few months shy of his fortieth birthday. “It’s kind of vague, but he drank himself to death. His body just gave out.”
Scott and Micah’s close friends knew he was bad off. Micah still called Scott occasionally, even intermittently staying at his house during his final years. But no one expected him to pass away at such a young age.
“He was a tortured guy,” Scott said. “He was always in some heartbreak with some girl. Shit was always topsy-turvy. He was drawn to trouble, loved Richard Brautigan and guys who died young like that. I hate to say this, and of course I very much wish he hadn’t died, but he was one of those people where it was really hard to imagine what Micah would be like as an old guy. He lived in the moment. He wanted to have fun.” Which is likely why he was drawn to certain songs such as “Runaway.” “You’d watch him sing ‘Runaway’ in the Lazy J’s and pour his heart out,” Scott said. “Everybody’s memory of the Lazy J’s is watching him singing that song. He had this heart- break in him. He liked music because it spoke to him, and he sang stuff that meant something to him. He’d deliver that performance like he wrote the song. With songs like ‘Runaway,’ he could relate.”
Everyone who knew him seems to agree: Micah was one of those people who you were lucky to have met even once in your life.
“He was just very cool, in the real, definitive way,” Scott said. “Cool as in bigger-than-life. I get this sense that no matter what Micah did, he had to do it in his own way. If he were forced to drive the world’s ugliest car, somehow he would Micah-it-out before he drove it. Everything he did had to be something he would do, if that makes any sense. He was bigger than whatever he was doing, as a rule.” Like the songs “Tiki Torcher” and “Black Cat” — although the band wrote them together, Micah’s leads are the most melodic or definitive parts of the songs, the lines that get stuck in your head.
“For someone who I didn’t do a lot with towards the end,” Scott said, “I think about him a lot. I dream about him a lot, in a way that’s really substantial. Nobody wants to get into life after death, or how someone lives on or talks to you from the grave, but if there’s anyone in my life like that, I would say that it’s Micah. It’s like his playing. He was a strong persona, a strong presence still. You can hear it in the music.”
Micah often said, “I hate when people call us a surf band.” He felt the Tiki Men’s style more akin to Duane Eddy, Davie Allen and the Arrows and ’60s biker sound- tracks such as Hell ’s Angels on Wheels than the Astronauts or the Shadows. It was a frustration he shared with Canada’s Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, who hated being labeled surf so much that they named one number, “We’re Not a Fucking Surf Band.”
By the end of the ’90s, it didn’t matter. In the same way that the British Invasion overtook the first wave of surf in 1964, so too was the second wave superseded by something seductively new and potent. A thrashy breed of garage-punk was re-emerging, with bands such as the Oblivians, Motards and Reatards paving the way for the bands that eventually became the visible, if fleeting, magazine-cover darlings of the 1999–2001 neo-garage epoch: the Strokes, Hives and White Stripes. In a culture enamored by dark, menacing rock and rollers with dour expressions that suggest secret drug habits, it was difficult for listeners to take instrumental bands in spacesuits seriously for too long. By 1997, the surf revival was pretty much over.
But looking back, it’s clear that one of the best things about the revival was that it was comfortable being goofy. Goofy was half the point. I mean, Man Or Astro-Man? wrote driving, inventive music, but they also gave them- selves nicknames such as Coco the Electronic Monkey Wizard, and titled their songs things like “You Can’t Get Good Riblets in Outer Space” or “Philip K. Dick in the Pet Section of a Wal-Mart.” During a few tours, they even rolled an Apple ImageWriter II Dot matrix printer on stage, mic’ed it, and let it play their song “A Simple Text File.”
In one sense, the genre became a celebration of dorkyness, and it was refreshing that its ethos didn’t rest on that typical rock formulation: that a mysterious attitude builds cache. In some indie circles, the more sullen, affected, and dark artists appear, the more “artistic” they are. But here, at least from the perspective of an audience member such as myself, there was far less stuck-up, ultra-serious posturing. Or at least, bands weren’t posing in alleyways during photo shoots, wearing industrially weathered jean jackets and puckering their lips, trying to look like heroin addict geniuses. They were writing songs like the Trashwomen’s “Turd Bath.”
Because really, what’s wrong with fun? Rock and roll can be many things. You can have your sloppy, sleazy music. You can have your messy, morally bankrupt, out-of-control cokeheads who punch journalists and end up on the street before going to rehab. It’s part of the mythos. America wants glamour and mythic self-destruction, but loud guitar music can also be tongue-in-cheek or blatantly comic. Surf song titles “Camel-Toe Stomp,” “Bermuda Triangle Shorts,” and “Bring Me the Head of Gerlado Rivera” offer ample proof of this. Besides the driving beats and danceable rhythms, that’s one of the most endearing qualities of the whole surf thing: it’s fun.
Humility is a healthy quality missing from much modern indie culture. Go ahead and write powerful music. Be brilliant. Be literary. Make art and dress well if you can. But for God’s sake, have a sense of humor. Even Link Wray — decked as he often was in sunglasses and a leather jacket, playing the menacing sounding “Jack the Ripper” and “The Black Widow” — wrote tender monuments to warm feelings such “Patricia,” “Lillian” and “Mary Ann.” Like Link said, “You can be wild, but not evil.” You can also play in a Star Trek-themed surf band called Thee Shatners, use snippets of tricorder sounds and phaser fire on your album, and name your songs “He’s Dead Jim” and “Klingon Boarding Party.” The Tiki Men knew this. It’s why they started playing in the first place. And it’s why, when instrumentals quit being fun for them, they quit playing entirely.
*Note: This piece originally appeared in Yeti magazine.