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There is a long, proud tradition in surf music of not actually being a surfer—worked for the Trashmen, worked for the Astronauts and worked for everyone in the Beach Boys except Dennis, who used something discovered during those clarifying moments at sea to make his single beautiful solo record. Plenty of surf rockers somehow managed to capture the essentials of the experience—the rush, the sense of balance, the crescendo and the come-down—with no contact with natural water besides rain. The MuerTones are those kind of surf rockers. Well, except for drummer Rob Alcala. “I snowboard,” he says. “That’s some kind of H2O, right?”
So they’ve got both history and science on their side, and you can hear that in the reversals and switchbacks and start-stop-in-a-second songs on their brand-new EP on Spin Out, which twists together twin inspirations from Link Wray and the Dead Kennedys’ East Bay Ray and roars by at supersonic speed. (Surf, hot-rod, 101 Strings’ Astro Sounds From Beyond the Year 2000—what they all had in common was an appreciation for velocity.)
Alcala, bassist Fred Montez and guitarist Jose “Chato” Cortez play their own brand of surf now, but they came up with various varieties of punk and rock & roll bands, and they found the permission for what they wanted to do on albums such as the Ventures’ live-in-Japan series.
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“It’s so fast—it sounds like punk rock,” says Cortez. “I draw a lot of inspiration from that.”
“I listen to that and think, ‘So I AM allowed to play fast!’” adds Alcala. “Fuck, yeah—it’s ACCEPTABLE!”
“That’s what we’re looking for,” says Montez. “We play with surf bands, and we’re side-by-side with them, but we’re not a purist band. We play instrumentals like a surf band, but we also like blues and hard rock & roll. We’ll do a real fast song, then pull the rug out from under you with a real slow one. The surf beat is so universal—I can hear it in everything.”
They started as a side band from Montez’s Los Creepers, with whom he played for more than a decade. They even had a singer at one point. But the MuerTones soon discovered they didn’t need anything more than bass, guitar and drums, which is exactly what you’ll hear on that self-titled EP, released just weeks ago. With just the three of them, says Cortez, they found things came easily—verse-chorus-verse punk-isms washed away, and instead, they could explore song-long experiments in Dick Dale-ian dynamic.
They’re not a sleepy surf band, Montez declares, and he’s right. Instead, this is the revved-up instro-rock of the early Wailers and the Ventures in genre-smash mode. (As heard on albums such as Swamp Rock, Wild Things! and Guitar Freak-Out.) Live, there’s no mercy. “They never give me a chance to grab a second breath,” Alcala says.
And things move fast for them in other ways, too. Last Halloween, they set up an entire multimedia show involving scripted, storyboarded prerecorded skits. This Halloween, there’s no time—they’ll have spent the month with the HorrorPops in the biggest halls the MuerTones have ever seen. And although they’re looking forward to falling out of the van in Pomona on the 31st, it’s not just because they’re hoping for a few vampiresses in the front row. Instead, it’s because Halloween marks the first chance they’ll have to step back and see if the MuerTones are really coming to life.
The MuerTones first met the HorrorPops one fateful night when the latter outfit parked their hearse outside Mr. T’s Bowl in Highland Park. (“I’m stupid,” says Cortez. “I was like, ‘Who’s that?’”) The HorrorPops returned for another MuerTones show with Deadbolt, and after that, they extended a skeletal hand in friendship; in a frenzy, the MuerTones smashed out their EP and readied themselves for a wave they hope they’ll be able to ride for a nice, long while.
“It’s been such a short period of time since we started the band and we got this opportunity,” says Montez. “We’ve been together, like, a year and a half? I’ve been playing for, like, 20 years. I know it’s ridiculous for a band to move this fast!”
Naturally, they’ve been training for weeks—with another form of liquid. “Why do you think we’ve been sitting around, drinking all this beer?” asks Montez.
“I’ve been drinking beer on the stationary bike,” says Alcala. “It simulates playing the drums and drinking!”
MuerTones perform with HorrorPops, Rezurex and Fangs On Fur at the Glass House, 200 W. Second St., Pomona, (909) 865-3802; www.theglasshouse.us. Sun., 7 p.m. $20-$22. All ages.
This article appeared in print as "Sounds Dead On: The MuerTones are bringing life back to surf rock."