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Surf's Up

7Ball July / August 1998
By Dan MacIntosh

Old meets new as some of Christian Rock's finest come together to celebrate the son

Some are speculating that if ska music can come back for seconds and thirds, so can surf.Think about it. Who culd have imagined The Supertones and Five-Iron Frenzy even five years ago? KMG Records is wagering that surf could be the next wave with Surfonic Water Revival: New Surf Music for the Redeemed Masses. The sixteen acts featured cut across the spectrum of modern Christian music - including hip newcomers like The Insyderz, Smalltown Poets and All Star United, and rock pioneers like Randy Stonehill and Michael Roe - all shaped and styled by the adventurous spirit and wit of producers Terry Taylor and Rick Altizer.

"Musically, it covers the whole era of surf music, from the primitive, garagey stuff to the real orchestrated Pet Sounds kind of thing," Taylor says. "We wanted this record to rage, but also have some serious spiritual depth to the message, so we've made it kind of like a musical with conceptual lyrics."

The material on Surfonic is far ranging, covering everything from beach baptisms at Corona Del Mar ("California Blue"), to the atypical surf song "The Net", which provides Taylor with another opportunity to demonstrate his flair for metaphor: Inside our walls/great wild balls/turning free from touch/replacing love with learning/we go down/ don't know how/everybody's surfing now. "What it's talking about is surfing on the internet. It's kind of a little turnaround."

It's also the kind of thing that raises Surfonic above the level of a novelty record - and makes it all the more likely a catalyst for the return of surf. As KMG Vice-President Kent Songer puts it," Surfonic contains all the elements that make for successful musical genres - honesty, fun, memorable hooks, fun, the ability to do rockin' cuts or ballads and, of course, fun."

Songer had a number of people in mind to handle production chores for the record, but when he learned Taylor had lived most of his life near Doheeny Beach, a location mentioned in the Beach Boys classic "Surfin' USA," he immediately extended the offer. "Essentially, the idea was to create a musical where I'd write the songs, and invite various people to come in and lend their expertise," Taylor says. "We got some different participants, some very familiar with surf music, some not."

He also invited Altizer, another songwriter who easily blends brilliance with a zany disposition. "I'm a very big fan of Terry Taylor and felt very honored to be asked to write for his project," Altizer says. "Terry Taylor is a songwriting machine and, frankly, doesn't need my help in any way." Nevertheless, Altizer put together a trio of numbers, including one each for Rebecca St James and Skillet.

He even wrote and performed one of his own. "It's a tribute to Brian Wilson and his creative perioud-circa 1967. Kind of psychedelic with lots of weird little vocal parts and interesting chord changes. It was a real challenge for me to pull off, but Terry was very encouraging."

Perhaps nobody can better draw a parallel between the current commercial success of ska and the potential success of surf music than The Insyderz. The Detroit outfit took a break from recording its third album - and debut for KMG - to lay down a song called "A Good Sailor Knows."

Guitarist Kyle Wasil is reluctant to speculate on the commercial potential of late '90s surf music. "I don't like to get into all that - about fads and all that jazz."

he's more enthusiastic about the song The Insyderz played on Surfonic. "We knew Terry Taylor, he helped us with some vocals on Skalleluia, so we were pretty good friends with him." Although they generally record in a different genre, The Insyderz know a little about surf. "I'd listened to a lot of authentic surf music," Wasil says, "It's always been emulated by a lot of '80's punk bands that did a lot of that stuff, like Agent Orange."

A resident of Huntington Beach, Calif., Plankeye guitarist Eric Balmer may live closer than the Midwestern-based Insyderz to the surf culture, yet he was only slightly aware of surf music. "I never listened to surf music, and I was hesitant about doing it." Nonetheless, Balmer's giant guitar leads are all over the fast, galloping "Thrill Seeker."

Smalltown Poets added a little Southern flavor to "Wave Perfect." Drummer Byron Goggin says the band chose this song because it helped them break from their routine. "We have a pretty natural knack for writing good, mid-tempo slow songs. Anytime somebody throws a fast song at us like that - for a project like this - it's perfect."

Goggin's remark demonstrates how each artist has very personal reasons for their involvement. KMG is proud to have so many different artistic motivations saturating this one release. "Everyone who has been involved directly with Surfonic has different goals," Songer notes. He points to Scott Thunder, the radio producer who first pitched the Surfonic idea to Songer, and Terry Taylor as having the opportunity to show respect to a genre important to their musical careers.

Then there's Rebecca St James, who's stepped out of her comfort zone because she believes this is a great ministry tool. "She grew up in Brisbane Australia - near Surfer's Paradise - and wants those she knew to have something they can relate to."

Others who found a reason to catch a wave include The Supertones, Plumb, Lost Dogs, Andy Prickett, Daniel Amos, Phil Keaggy, Silage and Chuck Girard. Taylor even recruited surf guitar legend Paul Johnson. "He's basically the guy that started surf music," Taylor says. "Dick Dale is the guy who comes to mind, but Paul started playing at the same time." Johnson's music was mostly instrumentals, fashioned after Duane Eddy. "Surfers started showing up at his concerts saying, That sounds like a guy shooting the curl, and surf music was born."

That Taylor would recruit someone like Johnson to contribute to the record is a testament to his passion for authenticity. "We wanted to stay away from being a novelty record. We wanted to stay away from it being Jesus on a surfboard. Traditional surf music doesn't have any vocals on it, but I thought, instead of doing an instrumental record that would garner little interest, the record should have some sort of subject matter. I wanted to see Christian music do something on the front end of a trend - not following one," he states emphantically. "I also see opportunity for outreach. Some of the songs have powerful imagery. People will have to respond from a spiritual perspective - you can't listen to these songs and sit on the sidelines."

The Insyderz "A Good Sailor Knows"

The detroit outfit first worked with Surfonic ringleader Terry Taylor when he helped them with vocals on their hot ska praise and worship album, The Inzyderz Present Skalleluia. They're already working on their third album and will hit the road in November for SkaMania, with The Supertones and Five Iron Frenzy.

Plumb "Surfer Girl Replies"

Plumb vocalist Tiffany Arbuckle explains her band's Surfonic track, "The lyrics state, I am no saint/I am no martyr/but I will be your surfer girl, It's stating that although I'm not perfect, I am willing to be used in whavever way God chooses." Look for a new record from Plumb later this year.

Smalltown Poets "Wave Perfect"

The Smalltown Poets performance on Surfonic includes the guest guitars of surf music legend Paul Johnson. "He's basically the guy that started surf music," Taylor says. Smalltown Poets, meanwhile, has been heavy on the road with their monster-selling debut - and releaseing the follow-up this fall.

Skillet "Last Day of Summer"

In addition to recording for Surfonic, Skillet has a new album of their own, Hey, You, I Love Your Soul. Their rock 'n' roll drive is charged with electronics -- and melody. "Some of the Prodigy music is boring to me," vocalist John Cooper says. "They might have some cool ideas, but it never has any dynamics."

All Star United "Surfer's Paradise"

The contribution from All Star United includes guest guitar-genius Phil Keaggy. The band is also working on a brand new record of their own, with more of that British pop-meets-surf rock 'n'roll you love so well (with some punk thrown in for flavor). Look for that later this year.