It’s easy to dismiss the notion of combining early 60s surf rock with borderline goth 80s alternative. The tone and tenor of their arrangements and lyrics lie on opposite ends of the spectrum, with the bouncy careless fun of surf music in direct opposition to the nihilist ruminations of alternative rock.
There’s also an inequity in regards to the respect given to the two respectively. Surf rock often gets dismissed because of its name, which invokes what people outside the lifestyle view as a trivial past-time. Timing is also a factor, as the genre seemed to crest (har har) right as the double whammy of the British invasion and the emergence of the drug culture knocked the American music scene on its ass.
However, its influence is undeniable. The Beach Boys, not surfers themselves, none the less used the genre to create some of the best American music of the 20th Century and push the genre to its limits. Surf can also be heard in everything from the Johnny Mar arrangements on Smiths records to heavy metal guitar solos.
It doesn’t make it a natural fit, but it does make it feasible.
Richard Mark Nolan has somehow managed to make this concept work with his new project, The Grave Surfers. Spurred by the RPM Challenge (which encourages musicians to write and record a 10 track or 35 minute LP during the month of February), the result was “Necromomicon Phenomenon,” a tongue in cheek exploration of the aforementioned concept that’s both engaging and delightfully disruptive.
There’s a concession in its execution that the idea might not work, but the charm of it lies not in that, but in the fact that despite its own self-deprecation…well, it actually does work. It works really, really well. Tracks like “Sid and Necromancy” bounce with a fun, catchy chorus, extolling the virtues of both surfing and nihilism. Intentionally ridiculous, a bit funny, but also philosophically interesting: “We don’t want nothing, the end is coming soon, when there’s nothing, all I want’s to surf with you.” Because if nothing matters to the nihilist, why not just say “screw it” and surf?
Listen and/or purchase the album at http://thegravesurfers.bandcamp.com/.
You can also see Rich perform with Beware! the Other Head of Science TONIGHT (Friday, March 25th) at the Troy Bike Rescue on 3rd Street in Troy with Sleeping in the Aviary and Bear Grass. The show kicks off at 8:00pm; suggested donation is $5.
I got the chance to talk to Rich about the project to discuss his motivation, ideas, and thoughts on not only the new project but on his musical influences in general and work with Beware! the Other Head of Science.
How would you describe the concept?
Richard Mark Nolan: “My goal was to create a new sound using two familiar elements. It was my hope that the mash-up would not only be coherent but also intriguing. I really enjoy surf ballads from the 50s and I haven’t met anyone who doesn’t. I wanted to take the ballads and give them an edge and a story. I aimed pair it with 80s alternative punk. I felt the vocals from that era were heavy and pretty enough to be placed in any 50s ballad. Once I had the sound the story manifested itself as a result of the tone.”
Who are The Grave Surfers?
RMN: “The Grave Surfers are the founding fathers of the Necronomicon Phenomenon. Their brand of selective nihilism became wildly popular pushing them to heavily contested cult status. Little is known about the exact origin of the craze and within its ranks it is frowned to question it. The nameless leader of the band was affected by a traumatic experience causing a social revolution. Once his idea of death and surfing spread the band was formed and took credit for the movement.”
What inspired this?
RMN: “I have a large un-mastered cassette collection of the 50s and 60s. The tapes have been part of my life since I lived with my parents. There has been a resurgence of surf rock lately and I couldn’t get it out of my head. The voice I use on the album was piloted on some past recordings I made, this is the first full length using that timbre. I’ve been compared to the Cure and Beirut in the past and I wanted to take that and give it a stronger sound, aiming for the Smiths or Nick Cave. With combing the two genres I wanted to tug at your heart strings, make you dance, make you laugh and occasional catch a loaded phrase.”
The vocals seem equal parts the artists you mentioned, but also a bit Vincent Price and Micah P. Hinson. Which I mean as a compliment. Is that the intent, or is that your natural singing voice?
RMN: “I don’t think I have a natural singing voice. If I do this is not it. I think it would be a better compliment if I knew who they were, sans the laughter in a Michael Jackson song. This voice is probably the result of putting at least one Frank Sinatra song on every mix tape I make.”
Were you always a fan of surf rock? I always thought I heard some elements of it in “Beware!”.
RMN: “I tried forming a Surf Rock band with some friends back in the day. Jesse Horton, the bassist in “Beware!”, made it to not only one, but BOTH Surf Band practices. It featured my friends Heather and Jesse B as well… it was great, probably the best band I’ve ever been in. “Beware” is a hodgepodge of everything, it certainly could have sounded like surf. I have always been a fan of Surf Rock. Their guitar riffs are some of the most cheerful and catchy sounds in pop music. Surf Rock is also home to some of the lightest and heaviest handed lyrics. It can be heartfelt or carefree or both.”
One of the things I like about The Grave Surfers is that while it’s a fun concept, it never becomes just a novelty act; there’s some really fascinating and catchy stuff going on. I’d say the same about “Beware!” as well, in the sense that you have a lot of geekstuff (my scientific term for it) but don’t get caught in that trap of becoming a gimmicky novelty act. Is there a conscious effort to find that balance, and if so, how do you find it?
RMN: “I was under the impression we were gimmicky. But, I suppose behind all those lights, synthesizers, guitars, and beards there is a deeper meaning. With “Beware!” it certainly isn’t found in the lyrics. If you try hard enough you can hear it in the music. No idea is ever abandoned. We have been writing music together for a long time and it has been a tug of war. The end result usually does not present us with a clear winner. Each individual exploration is still intact and layered into the final cut. As musicians we all have an idea of how we want the song to sound but as a band there is no consensus. I am grateful for fans that get that and enjoy it. With the Grave Surfers, it is intentionally gimmicky. I am able to balance it out by having a silly story with profound lyrics. The music is coherent enough and could stand on its own. If another artist took the music they would have no problem writing lyrics that didn’t involve nihilism and surfing. They would probably write about girls or drugs or fast cars or cell phones or facebook… or whatever you people like. On the flip side you could get away with using lines from the songs in standard pop music. It is a fun edge to tip toe on and I look forward to pursuing this project and hearing feedback.”
What do we need to know about the Necronomicon phenomenon?
RMN: “These things come in waves.”
What do you want to say to my readers, who I have just decided will now be referred to as Kevin Marshall’s Americans?
RMN: “ATTN: KEVIN MARSHALL’S AMERICANS! First off, thank you for reading this blog. Second off, thanks to Kevin for publishing this blog. Thirdly off, what are you doing? That seems like a fair question, right? You thought you knew, didn’t you? But now you are second guessing yourself. You can’t decide now. Sure, laugh it off. But really, you can’t. If you did, you would have stopped reading by now and gone and done it. Now you have something to prove. You’re going to beat this challenge, you’re almost ready to go do it. Just have to finish a few more things and then, boom, going to get it done. What was it again? Oh right. But you have to go do this other thing first… right? You can’t forget about that one, that one is important. Make sure you do things in order now. Order… order… you were supposed to order something, right? Maybe for a birthday… going away present… can’t remember, can you? Snap out of it. Of course you remember. Head over to hopefulbear.com and pick up the Grave Surfers album! Each copy is numbered and hand crafted by myself and a lovely tattooed lady. Thanks for reading Americans!”
Richard performs with Beware! the Other Head of Science tonight (Friday, March 25th) as part of Troy Night Out at the Troy Bike Rescue on 3rd Street in Troy with Sleeping in the Aviary and Bear Grass.
The Grave Surfers LP can be purchased here.
- Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye…
- Listen to me LIVE as guest co-host of Alternative to Sleeping tonight at 10pm!
- Realtors: “WAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH” George Hearst III: “NONONOO SSSSHHH IT’S OKAY, it’s okay…here. Here’s a pacifier.” Kristi: “#oops.”
- Open Mic web series premiere tonight @ Lark Tavern
- Trust Me, You’re Going to Want to See This