What do you get when you mix Hasil Adkins-style psychobilly, Nuggets-era psych rock, Dick Dale-style surf instrumentals, and the trashy, campy sensibilities of John Waters? Pretty much only one band in North America: Portland trio Guantanamo Baywatch. Yet Jason Powell, Chevy Wiseman and Chris Scott’s frenetic live show and growing discography transcend mere novelty, marking a sui generis blend of maniacal punk energy, slippery-slide guitar and filthy, hell-raising lyrical content.
In an email interview, frontman Powell makes it clear that the band’s roots are a tangled mess. He cites traditional instrumental rock ‘n’ roll, honky tonk, soul and oldies as primary influences, yet distances Guantanamo Baywatch from the current garage-rock craze into which they’re often lumped.
“A lot of new garage rock has so much reverb, and I looked back at our last album [2012’s Chest Crawl] and thought, ‘We gotta get rid of all this reverb,'” Powell says. “And the quiet, lo-fi vocals … It sounds like people are scared of hearing their own voices. I recorded Chest Crawl with a shitty mic, but it was also a crutch for my shitty voice. If Ricky Nelson or The Everly Brothers didn’t use shitty mics or slather on reverb, I probably shouldn’t either. [All of] that made me realize what I don’t want to do on [our] new album.”
The band will track that new record, its third overall and first with the backing of Seattle-based Suicide Squeeze Records, in Atlanta in June and July. Only one show, the Duval Luau at Underbelly on July 5, will break up the two-week session. “We’re going to have the songs done before we get out there,” Powell says, “but there will be room to work stuff out in the studio. By the time the Jacksonville show comes around, we will have recorded for a few days straight, so I get the feeling we will be in a pretty strung-out, rowdy mood — which can only mean good things for how the album and the show will turn out.”
Powell says he’s OK with the band retaining its trademark sloppy, slightly deranged edge. “We still don’t know what the fuck we’re doing. [Bassist] Chevy [Wiseman] still doesn’t own a tuner; I still look at my hand when I play guitar and wreck my voice by singing out of tune and look like stiff turd on stage. There’s so much more we can do to get better, but it’s awesome to feel like you haven’t written your best songs or played your best shows yet.”
With hundreds of tour dates under its belt, Guantanamo Baywatch is still a band best savored live. Asked to explain where the band’s rowdy presence comes from, Powell attributes it to “50 percent getting to play music you like, 50 percent Malibu and pineapple juice, and 50 percent fear” before getting surprisingly introspective: “It’s rowdy because it’s rock ‘n’ roll and it’s really fun to play, but it’s also stressful to write songs, get up in front of people, and be like, ‘Here’s something I made that I’m putting my name on — you should listen to it.’ Someone can be like, ‘This sucks, and you made it, so you suck.’ That kind of pressure gets to you.”
It also pays off, as evidenced by the hardcore fans rocking Guantanamo Baywatch tattoos. So is this humble little Oregon band finally achieving elevated success? “I sure fucking hope so,” Powell says. “We’ve probably gotten less popular in [Portland] as we’ve grown because Portland is all about the new obscure band that’s a solo project of an equally obscure band that’s been on ‘hiatus’ for five years and has only played two shows. We go on tour and people are like, ‘I thought you moved?'”