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Groupies are a sore subject in the Phantom Surfers' camp.
"The only people who want to meet us are overweight record collectors looking for matrix numbers," says bassist Michael Lucas, sighing. "The women who attend our shows have a few drinks and leave. In that respect, surf shows are a great place to meet people, 'cause nobody will be hitting on the band. It's not like taking your girlfriend to a Bon Jovi concert."
In theory, the Surfers should be a virtual magnet for mermaid types with cocoa-butter tans and sunbleached locks, dewy with ocean spray. After all, we're talking about one of the most formidable, reverb-soaked instro combos to herald surf's second coming. And those outfits. How can they miss?
Clad in black-leather masks, white or plaid dinner jackets, dark trousers and Maltese-cross pendants, these Zorros of neo-beach culture are no strangers to style. The Surfers have even been known to arrive at hometown gigs in San Francisco on the back of a pachyderm, and their stage show is augmented by a go-go dancer named Danielle. "She's the world's greatest go-go dancer," claims double-neck guitarist Johnny Bartlett (drummer Maz Kattuah and guitarist Mel Bergman round out the foursome). "Danielle just shakes it 'til everybody's broken."
Buff beach bums the Phantom Surfers are not. In fact, the band's first drummer died in an amateur surfing mishap. "It's a great help not to be able to surf when you're in a surf band," remarks Lucas, who says he can play his instrument over his head and chug a beer at the same time, but fails miserably on a breaker. "To be a really good surfer requires dedication and a lot of time. So those who can surf, do. And those who can't, play surf music."
Even Danielle won't dip apolished toenail in the ocean. "I do my hair, put my lipstick and my eyeliner on, and my best bikini--you think I'm gonna get in the water after all that?" Well ... guess not.
No matter. The hallmark of a great surf band, as Bartlett points out, is lessits collective skill with a stick than its classic Fender equipment. "The reverb unit is 95 percent of your sound," he explains.
Dick Dale already had that concept down in the early '60s when he recorded "Misirlou." What the Phantom Surfers lack in originality, they make up for in authenticity. Lucas describes his band's sound like he's narrating an IMAX film on spelunking. "It's big and wet. It's cavernous, like when the waves crash into a big cave. And it's definitely dripping."
The best Phantom LP to date, The Phantom Surfers Play the Music From the Big Screen Spectaculars (1994, Estrus Records), showcases the Surfers at the band's vintage best. The record features a flimsy drum sound, trebly guitar lines double-picked at shoot-the-curl velocity, almost no bass to speak of and four-track fidelity so low it sounds like someone's pet lizard is manning the board.
"Hey, if you want to be politically correct, you can say we're 'differently abled' in the fidelity department," says Lucas. "A lot of bands jump on the lo-fi bandwagon. They get a crappy microphone and whatever comes out, comes out. We tend to run a lot of experiments and end up tossing most of them."
Purists to the core, the Surfers issued a vinyl LP on Crown Records two years ago titled Phantom Surfers With Dick Dale on which they intentionally left out the record's paper sleeve to emulate the low-budget surf albums of the '60s. "There are a lot of people out there who will get the joke," says Lucas.
Though classic surf reissues are coming out primarily on compact disc, the indie/vinyl movement has played an integral role in keeping the genre's modern artists above water. Before last year's digital release of the Phantom Surfers' album The Exciting Sounds of Model Road Racing, theband's discography waswax only, including BigScreen Spectaculars, 18Deadly Ones (Norton Records) and a host of singles.
"It was kind of a protest," admits Bartlett, who operates his own vinyl-based label, Hillsdale Records. "It seemed people were trying to phase out vinyl but, atsome point, it became obvious that vinyl was not going to go away."
Lucas takes a tougher stance on the issue. "CDs are a scam. They cost about the same or less than records to make, but sell for twice the price. My main problem with them is they sound like sunbleached turds."
But even if vinyl eventually wipes out, surf will always have B-movies to keep it alive. For three decades, surf bands have crafted the aural background to flicks from SouthPacific to The Wide World of Batwoman. "It wasa handle producers could use to get people towatch the stuff," explainsLucas.
In keeping with their own love of trash cinema, the Surfers featured the Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte theme and a tune from Blood Orgy of the Leather Girls on Big Screen Spectaculars. For the record, Lucas says his favorite flicks are Monster From the Ocean Floor and The Horror of Party Beach, both of which feature behemoths rising from the sea to terrorize the teen population of a beach town.