The Mermen bring their unique post-surf sound to Big Sur.
Thursday, October 30, 2003
Photo: Beach Bums: San Francisco''s Mermen.
The best bands are the ones that are able to transcend the limits of their genre. On 2001''s The Amazing California Health and Happiness Road Show, San Francisco''s The Mermen prove that they are more than just a surf band. The sprawling 14-song album somehow manages to evoke Sonic Youth, new age music and Dick Dale.
The album begins with "Unto the Resplendent," a song that eschews the typical surf music arrangement of guitar, bass and drums by adding a pedal steel guitar. On "White Trash Raga," guest musician Randy Clark plays a sarod, an instrument that sounds like a sitar, over music with a distinctly Middle Eastern feel.
During a phone interview with Jim Thomas from his new studio in Santa Cruz, the Mermen''s guitarist and songwriter tells me why his band does not sound like any other surf music group.
"The kind of music we do varies," he says. "My musical vocabulary goes all over the place."
For surf music purists, going to a Mermen show can be a bit unsettling. Thomas tells me that after a few songs, most guys wearing Hawaiian shirts will head for the door. "We don''t usually attract the crowd that Los Straightjackets attracts," he says, referring to the Mexican-wrestling-mask- wearing Nashville surf band.
The Mermen started in 1989, while Thomas was working at a San Francisco music store. Though Thomas had not even heard legendary surf guitarist Dick Dale, he cut a demo tape full of reverb-soaked instrumental surf music. Looking back on the tape, Thomas believes that the soundtrack to the legendary 1966 surf movie Endless Summer influenced him.
After drummer Martyn Jones joined the band by responding to an ad looking for a guy who played surf bongos, the Mermen released Krill Slippin''. In the mid ''90s, the band strayed from a traditional surf music sound to explore more psychedelic realms, with 1994''s Food for Other Fish and 1995''s A Glorious Lethal Euphoria, a release that made a spot on Rolling Stone''s list of best albums of the year.
One of the reasons that the Mermen have a unique sound is that Thomas likes to experiment with his guitars. One of his instruments is a Rickenbacker guitar that he cut and combined with half of a Fender. Another guitar has been gutted--"I pulled all the electronics out of it," he says.
Another reason is that a lot of the Mermen''s music comes straight from Thomas'' head. "I will have dreams of music," he says. Thomas says that he used pieces of his dreams to help create the surreal sound of The Amazing California Health and Happiness Road Show.
Thegroup, which has performed at San Francisco venues like The Fillmore and The Warfield, will be performing at Fernwood, Big Sur''s roadhouse in the redwoods, on Friday and Saturday nights. Thomas says the band found Fernwood a couple of years ago when they stopped to get a beer while touring down the coast.
"I just like the fact that it''s in Big Sur," he says.
The Mermen play Fernwood, 25 miles south of Carmel on Highway 1, on Friday and Saturday at 9pm. Friday''s show with The Infrareds is $10, while Saturday''s show with the Sub-Mersians is $5. Call 667-2422.