Three the Hard Way

Instrumental trio Undertoe surfs for acceptance, but will club owners let these veterans gig?

Let's pretend you're a club owner — we'll wait while you yank the necessary hairs out of your skull to make this a more credible performance. And to sweeten this role, let's say you book the bands at your venue. One day, in walks a representative of Undertoe, a Valley band with three strikes against it:

Strike one: They're old. Let's not quibble about that. Bassist Steve Fresener will be the first to tell you, "We're so old, we're pre-Beatles." Drummer Joe Gregg was Fresener's contemporary in a succession of Valley bands that began playing nearly 40 years ago, when Barry Goldwater was still presidential timber and Undertoe's guitarist Dan Gallagher was literally taking his first baby steps.

Strike two: Undertoe plays nothing but instrumentals.

Two-thirds of Undertoe has been playing surf music since its heyday.
Kevin Scanlon
Two-thirds of Undertoe has been playing surf music since its heyday.
Undertoe: (left to right) Steve Fresener, Joe Gregg and Dan Gallagher just want a place to gig.
Kevin Scanlon
Undertoe: (left to right) Steve Fresener, Joe Gregg and Dan Gallagher just want a place to gig.

Strike three: The name. Apparently there was a blatantly heavy metal band called Undertow that still strikes terror in the hearts of Phoenix nightclubbers. Or perhaps "undertow" reminds people of Tool's jarring debut album of the same name, which opened with a song called "Tolerance" before subjecting the listener to "Prison Sex."

So what do you do? If you're like most Valley club owners, you offer a polite but firm "We'll call you," followed by weeks of roaring phone silence. By sticking to its guns and playing only instrumental music, Undertoe gets the short shrift. As Gallagher puts it, "We're being treated like the red-headed stepchild of the town. It's tough to get gigs. The question always is, 'Do you sing?'"

Gregg shares Gallagher's frustration. "You're treated like you're not a real band. One guy asked me 'Do you have 10 songs?' Like there can't be that many instrumentals in the world."

Defiantly, the band has laid down two CDs with titles that could make a karaoke host weep in despair — the machismo Real Men Don't Sing and the cautionary Friends Don't Let Friends Sing. And the guys return to the time-tested testosterone theme with a third CD, Men for Sale, due out in August.

Undertoe hasn't been completely blacklisted locally. The band currently enjoys solid local radio exposure through KDKB, albeit in the background. "[DJ] Doc Ellis plays our music on-air behind concert announcements and sports," Gallagher says. An instrumental-only band has the advantage of being able to license its material for wide commercial use, since the music doesn't interfere with voice-overs and station IDs. "We can license a minute here and there to TV spots or news programs," Gallagher adds, "and hopefully whole songs to soundtracks."

Undertoe's songs even get played in the foreground occasionally — San Francisco's DJ Phil Dirt spins the group's material on his legendary all-instrumental "Surf's Up!" show. But folks without an ocean don't seem to have much use for surf music — Undertoe, in fact, hasn't played a Valley club for nearly nine months (although it's scheduled to make its return at the Emerald Lounge this Friday). "We made an offer to one club to play for free on a Wednesday night," Fresener says, "[but] the owner just said he doesn't like instrumental music."

But what, Fresener wanted to ask , is there not to like about instrumental music? It doesn't tell you how your life sucks or how your best girl is cheating on you. And as Gallagher explains it, the band's only agenda has been to "put the Strat through the twin reverb, fire up the bass through the Peavey [amp], get behind that old Rogers [drum] kit and try to write material that's not 40 years dated."

That's not always easy to do, considering the fact that surf music did originate more than 40 years ago, and most people think of it as a holdover from a bygone era. But Undertoe's three members cite surf guitar master Dick Dale as an example of an artist who's been able to push the music in new directions. Taking Dale's innovative playing as a compass point, Undertoe strives to make surf music relevant to today.

Gregg and Fresener have been at it since the early '60s, when they were playing in competing bands in the Scottsdale and Tempe teen club scene. Back then, most local bands played instrumentals, and there was a new record from surf pioneers the Ventures seemingly every other month.

"You sat down and you schooled on a Ventures album," remembers Fresener. "That's how everyone learned how to play. A new Ventures album was like someone handing you a plate of gold. [Because] Joe [Gregg] and I were in rival bands, we wouldn't tell each other when a new Ventures album came out, because we wanted to get one up on the other."

Fresener started out as a guitarist but says he was so horrible that he switched to bass. "God, I was in some just dog shit bands!" he laughs. "We would change our names every week. Joe was in the best band throughout high school, the Noblemen, which I was in for about a minute. They were the best until the Miles End, which I played bass in, came along."

The Miles End, the subject of a recent reissue on the Sundazed label with liner notes by local rock historian Johnny Dixon, was indeed one of the top Phoenix bands of the '60s. The group shared stages with the Doors and Van Morrison before transforming into the Superfine Dandelion, which recorded one album for the Mainstream imprint before breaking up.

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