May 8 2012 10:02 PM

The style has changed, but it still captures a fun-loving vibe

Monsters from Mars play at the Che Cafe in 2007.
Photo by Sean Dejecacion

Nothing says Southern California quite like vintage surf music. With the breezy, reverb-splashed guitar licks and easygoing rhythms of artists like Dick Dale and The Surfaris, you can’t help but picture grainy documentary footage of a sun-kissed hunk riding a wave just off the coast of La Jolla. 

“My mom always listened to the oldies station in the car, and I distinctly remember the [1963 Chantays] song ‘Pipeline’ coming on and instantly feeling the connection between surfing and surf music, before I even knew what surf music was,” says Scott Jones, a longtime surfer who plays bass in local surf-rock outfit Monsters from Mars.

But times have changed. While purists like Encinitas quartet Superwave have kept tradition alive with vintage equipment and faithful instrumentals, surf music doesn’t have to be about surfing anymore. Just look at the Kabuki-mask-wearing shredders of Daikaiju, one of the best surf-rock bands around today. They’re from Hunstville, Ala., a good 350 miles from the nearest coastline.

These days, surf music comes in all flavors. There are sci-fi surf-rock bands like Man or Astro-man?—a widely influential Alabama band formed in the early ’90s—and horror-themed surf-rock bands like Zombie Surf Camp, whose fictitious origin story involves a toxic-waste spill near the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. 

Surf music “works well on its own, but it works better when you weld it onto other chassis,” says Moon Zoggy, Zombie Surf Camp’s singer and keyboard / Theremin player, noting that the genre’s originators mixed blues forms with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern elements. 

Instrumental surf music first emerged in the early 1960s, enjoying a glimmer of fame with hits like The Surfaris’ “Wipe Out” and The Tornadoes’ “Bustin’ Surfboards.” It fell out of style with the coming of the British Invasion, but plenty of bands have kept the current strong in the years since. 

“There’s not a whole lot of money to be made, and you’re never going to hear your stuff widely played on the radio or TV or anything like that,” says Ryan Ruiz, guitarist in local band The Secret Samurai. “Other than that, the quality of the music’s really strong right now. There’s some really great bands all over the world.”

In San Diego, surf music seems to crop up where you least expect it. In their song “Bleach Bath,” Shiva Trash deliver beach-tastic hooks caked with mutant-punk grime. The Mattson 2, meanwhile, evoke the mood of the surf with gorgeously atmospheric, guitar-led jazz.

Perhaps the city’s most formidable surf band—one that doesn’t bristle at the label—is The Secret Samurai, whose fierce guitar licks drip with reverb and evoke a brooding, Eastern vibe.

Guitarist Ruiz and bassist Steve Van Wyk are both veteran surf-rockers—from 1993 to the mid-’00s, they played in Surf Report, a popular outfit known for its heavy-metal covers. Now, working with drummer Mark Kelley, they explore more complex song structures and multifarious tempos. 

Citing influences like instrumental rockers Secret Chiefs 3 and Egyptian guitar great Omar Khorshid, Ruiz says the goal is to “stay away from the 1, 4, 5 traditional surf stuff”—the basic 12-bar-blues chord progression—“and follow more darker and kind of mysterious sounds.”

On the other end of the spectrum, there are party-hardy bands like Zombie Surf Camp and Monsters from Mars. Taking a punk approach, they offer the ideal soundtrack to a kitschy beach movie that ends with a Troma-style bloodbath. And then there’s The Creepy Creeps: With their chaotic, organ-driven tunes, they sound like the surf equivalent of synth-punk luminaries The Screamers.

Formed in 1999, the Creeps started because keyboardist Dylan “Dr. Creepenstein” Scharf and guitarist Dave “The Creepture” Warshaw wanted to do something fun in addition to their other band, progressive-metal powerhouse Tarantula Hawk. They’ve been going strong ever since, putting on wild shows featuring backup dancers and a “rebel rouser” who riles up the audience.

They might be a far cry from the likes of Dick Dale, but they capture the same fun-loving vibe. When Warshaw explains why the band’s kept going for so long, he might as well be speaking for surf music as a whole.  

“There’s no reason to not do it,” he says. “Everybody loves it.”

The Secret Samurai will play at a party celebrating this issue of CityBeat, which starts at 6:30 p.m. Friday, May 11, at the Lafayette Hotel in North Park.