Three the Hard Way

Two-thirds of Undertoe has been playing surf music since its heyday.
Kevin Scanlon

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.

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.

After the demise of the Miles End, Fresener eventually found his way into another band with Gregg, the Legendary Thunder Chicken, which played country tunes around the Valley in the early '80s. After they retired from that group, the pair didn't play for more than 12 years. When Gallagher suggested that the two longtime friends form a trio with him for a charity gig on New Year's Eve 1996, Fresener and Gregg finally played together again.

Gallagher had found his way to surf music through the unlikely path of pre-MTV metal bands like Judas Priest and the Scorpions. Tracing the influences of those groups back to the instrumental music of Jeff Beck, Gallagher eventually discovered Dick Dale. "I was knocked for a loop by that music, long after it'd fallen out of fashion," he says.

Although Gallagher wasn't looking to start a full-time band, the New Year's show went so well that the three decided to unite as Undertoe. They shared a passion for eliciting exactly the right sounds from their instruments. "The thing we all have in common is we're all working for good tone," says Gallagher. "When I see bands locally, I don't see a lot of guys spending time on their tone. It's not a scientific process; it's just a matter of just sitting down and playing 'til you get the right sound."

The guys in Undertoe have time to devote to such pursuits because, unlike many younger bands, they aren't playing gigs to subsidize their musical ventures. Fresener and Gallagher both make good money at their day jobs, and Gregg is an early retiree from the Transportation Department. "The nice thing about being older is, man, can we afford good equipment," Fresener says. "I just bought a five-stringed bass. When I was a kid, every dollar I made flipping burgers...[went] to pay for a Fender Showman [bass]."

Fresener, Gregg and Gallagher agree that, although they enjoy their freedom from commercial pressures, they still strive to take Undertoe to the proverbial next level — in their case, just playing a few gigs now and then.

Fresener says, "The reason Joe and I never got any further than we did was that we never hooked up with guys that were serious about taking it somewhere else. I went to school with Vince Furnier [aka Alice Cooper] and you could see [he] had a direction. That's what it took for him to get out of Phoenix. I could never get guys who could think beyond getting drunk or getting laid. Sure, you can have that, but you've got to be serious about making it, too."

"But now," he laughs, "we've done the drugs, we've done the women. We've fallen down drunk enough times. We just wanna play."

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