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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.
"I had music in my head the whole time," he says. "Travel music -- that road-surf aspect -- is a big part of where my inspiration comes from."
After considering starting an import/export business for exotic instruments ("I love buying them, but I'm not a salesman," he says), Gray opted to keep the many curios that now clutter the Five-Os' practice space in Uptown Denver: a guzheng and a pipa from China, plus a dilruba, a tamboura, a sitar and tablas from India. A former music writer for Westword, Gray often displayed tastes that drifted toward the strange and bewitching; the articles he once penned for the very fish wrap you're now holding include critiques on Huun-Huur Tu (the worldly throat singers of Tuva), and San Diego's trance-inducing Bacchanalians, Crash Worship.
Shedding his disreputable past as a rock critic in the summer of 1999, Gray found his time was better spent creating sonic worlds with his fellow Fivers, as well as with studio wizard Bob Ferbrache. It was a good decision, considering Ferbrache's track record with bands like 16 Horsepower and his proficiency for bringing out the best in sinister-sounding, gut-driven projects. Indeed, Heading South taps into a fair number of dark moods and colors: There's pistol-packing menace ("Gidget's Guns"), hypnotic dread ("Mandelbrot Set"), undistilled industrial surf ("Sour Mash") and lethargic Quaalude-meets-pep-pill fury ("Night of the Shadow Midgets"). More compelling, though, are the tablas-accompanied "Tube City, Pakistan" and "Dance, Elaina," a yearning, old-world, Eastern European-sounding surf lullaby featuring violinist Kelly O'Dea (Tarantella, Whitey on the Moon).
"We've definitely gotten more compliments on that song ['Elaina'] than any other," Gray admits. "I guess it has a magical combination of chords that resonate with a lot of people."
As entrancing as that fiddle-ditty gets, the Five are currently setting their sights on more unorthodox experiments. Horn players from DeVotchKa, in addition to waterphonist Ernie Cruz, are planning to make guest appearances on the band's next full-length album. (Paging Big Bad Bob.)
"That thing [waterphone] can produce everything from a humpback whale sound to a chorus of demons singing at the bottom of the ocean," Gray says. "It's crazy."
And while listeners often demand a charismatic vocalist to go along with their beach party -- come hellions or high water -- Maraca Five-0 still offers boatloads of ripsnortin' fun without the benefits of a singer. The only thing passing for "lyrics" on Headin' South is a sample from Dr. Strangelove's bomb jockey Slim Pickens: "Yeeeeeeeeee-hawwwwwwwwww!"
"Our shtick is no shtick," Melchior says. Insists Behrenhausen, "We're not trying to cover up any of our flaws with trickery."
"Pretty much what you hear on the record we can do live. We're not Radiohead making Kid A here -- some piece of studio crap."
Tossing electronic baubles to the dogs (exempting a very sparely used theremin), the band coaxes more than its share of furious racket from stripped-down minor chords and liberal use of the whammy bar.
"Without Steve's restraints, the rest of us might resort to metal," Melchior admits.
"He [Gray] was too mellow at first, but we kind of channeled our angry energy out of him," Behrenhausen says. "I just tend to hit things really hard."
The sledgehammer approach, though, wasn't always the most advisable method for Gray. Once, after an especially lengthy practice, he discovered that his right arm was completely blue from fingertip to shoulder. A trip to the emergency room revealed the problem -- "surf clot" -- and earned him the nickname "the blue-armed blaze." Fortunately, Dick Dale's homespun medicinal recipe of apple cider vinegar arrived in time by e-mail, courtesy of the surf King himself, helping "the blaze" nurse himself back to health. (For trivia buffs, here's a factoid worth mentioning: Leo Fender got so tired of replacing amplifiers under warranty for a string-slamming Dale that he finally built the legendary Fender Showman, a stack stout enough to withstand the Royal One's pummeling.)
Maraca's scheduled pairing with Pulp Fiction's popular soundtrack luminary, a reunion show of sorts from last year's April Fool's Day lineup, isn't its only brush with greatness, however. The Five-O -- which appears in the opening sequence of Leland Rucker and Don Chapman's Sweet Lunacy, a documentary of Boulder's musical history that features the legendary Astronaughts, among others -- is steadily earning a place in the rock annals of local lore. (They're passing the torch," Behrenhausen jokes, "but we're leaving the tracks.") Additionally, on-air kudos from surf authority Phil Dirt, a popular, '60s-era DJ from San Francisco who still has his own Saturday-night show, have helped elevate the band from obscurity outside of its hometown. As members of the Cowabunga Web ring (something Gray, a technical writer by day, designed; see maraca.f2s.com for details), the band networks with surf fans and players globally. Plans to release a split seven-inch with Slim Cessna's Auto Club and the Tarmints (projected Maraca song: "Romeo in Joliet") might give the Five-O reason to ball the jack with both hands on a West Coast sweep next summer.
The call of the road offers more than just opportunities to play in La-La Land. It inspires images worthy of cinema: Think of Wim Wender's Paris, Texas, or David Lynch's Lost Highway. "That would be a great thing for Maraca Five-O to shoot toward -- to write for film," says Behrenhausen. Gray's gift as a photographer -- he produced the mirror image for Headin' South's cover, a portrait of a rusted heap on Gold Hill -- already gives them an advantage in the visual-arts department. But forget about old '70s-era footage of Rabbit Kekai on the Banzai Pipeline. If nature stays true to itself, any musical score that the asphalt surfers dream up would undoubtedly -- make that mandatorily -- accompany an action-packed road flick. Somewhere in America. Going in circles. With abandoned gas stations, delirium and crackpot drifters. Scenery would whiz by like so many blurred highway lines. Jack Lord would rise from the grave to ride shotgun in Herman Munster's muscle hearse. And in the rearview mirror, hot on their heels, would be a wave so high that it blocks out the sun.