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Southern California's brand of sun-soaked Americana evokes a playful, hedonistic teen utopia of endless summers, surfboards and the ocean's heartbeat, for starters. Without thinking too hard, you'll likely recall Annette Funicello's bare little midriff, Gidget's wiggle, and Malibu Barbie's tan, polyvinyl-chloride skin.
But for Colorado's Maraca Five-O, the instrumental surf rock from that bygone era conjures few -- if any -- of its mass-marketed pop motifs. Ignoring beach bimbos for the freedom of tumbleweeds and dust devils, this landlocked foursome prefers to summon sounds in the spirit of Easy Rider, opting for wanderlust, speed and the wide open road.
Headin' South at 110 Per, the Five-Os' impressive debut on Andrew Murphy's Smooch Records, finds guitarists Steve Gray and Matt Stemwedel, bassist Theron Melchior and drummer Mike Behrenhausen roaring through uncharted territory and engaging in something the bandmembers unanimously dub "road surfing." And having earned airplay on over a hundred college stations nationally (and even more exposure in the United Kingdom, thanks to John Peel), last year's release not only splits the difference between Peter Fonda and the Pyramids, it also indicates that Maraca Five-O has discovered new and compelling ways to present old, formula-based music.
"In the early '60s, there was this tone that everybody got excited about," says Gray, a transplant from La Meda, California. "People discovered the outboard reverb unit. It had power and muscle, and it sounded like a Harley-Davidson. Or a very bad-ass muscle car. I think it was a mistake to call it a fad, because jazz music kind of started in the same way -- people getting enthralled by the sound of their instruments, the sound of brass in particular. Then, probably because of the British Invasion, this surf tone got forgotten. Now if you want to return to it -- because you love the tone, the energy or the punk aspect of it -- you're labeled a surf band because it didn't grow naturally. It had a stunted growth."
After inheriting his grandfather's Gretsch in 1996 -- the same brand of six-string guitar made famous by twangster Duane Eddy -- Gray accidentally ventured into instro-rock's abbreviated past. The instrument brought back vague memories; when Gray played it, he heard strains of Jorgen Ingmann's 1961 hit "Apache," a tune he knew only as "the Indian song" as a child. "When I started playing that guitar, sounds I'd never heard before started coming out," he says. "The reverb could produce crazy, exaggerated tones rather than a warm afterglow. And when the coils shake, it actually makes the instrument sound bigger. Toast [Behrenhausen] told me it was surf music, but I didn't know what he was talking about. I assumed it was the Beach Boys, and I didn't want anything to do with it."
"My dad got his roof tiles stolen by the Beach Boys in Big Sur," says Melchior, the other bandmember who hails from SoCal. "They made a surfboard with them, these really nice Spanish roof tiles. That's the only thing I ever knew about them."
"If I ever see 'em in person, I'll roll 'em," Stemwedel adds with all the subtlety of a rockabilly brawler.
Disregarding the beach candy of Brian Wilson and Jan and Dean, Gray soon discovered the much gutsier sounds of the Ventures and Link Wray -- the man whose 1958 hit "Rumble" was banned from radio for fear that it would incite fisticuffs nationwide. Urged by Behrenhausen to check out the music of His Surfer's Highness Dick Dale, Gray soon became inspired enough to replace his drum machine with a flesh-and-blood timekeeper and start an instrumental duo.
"I'm the actual surf junkie in the band," says Behrenhausen, who at age thirteen learned to pound out his very first song: the 1963 Surfaris prom staple "Wipe Out." A far cry from the hardcore efforts of Juhl, Foul Tasting Fairies and Disco Valente -- three bands he'd been in with Melchior -- Behrenhausen's ability to keep immaculate surf time manifests itself with other styles for more imaginative drumming overall (the kind that doesn't rely on the mm-BA-DA!--mm--BA! formula ad nauseam). Stemwedel brings a Mexican-sounding spy-rock element to the mix. And Melchior (briefly a drummer for DeVotchKa) replaced low-ender Pete Lyman as the final rumbling component of the rhythm section.
"When we started, we were a lot less conscious about how far it could be taken," Behrenhausen says. "We're not playing this music because it's kitsch or because we saw Pulp Fiction. It's because the tone and power and roots inspired us unanimously for one reason or another.
"There's typically more balls than brains in rock music," he adds. "Somewhere between the balls and the heart -- that's where I hope it hits you."
Without many common influences other than Calexico, the Pixies and Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet (collective guilty pleasures include Iron Maiden, Journey, Jesus Jones and the Christian folk of Roger McGuinn!), the Maracas maintain an eclectic approach to their music. But rather than merely evoking some of surf's mechanisms for ironic or tokenistic purposes, they produce thrashy, often exotic melodies with carefully articulated notes, abrupt tempo changes and earsplitting riffs.