It was the summer of ’61 in Newport Beach when, according to local lore, the Rendezvous Ballroom consistently played host to gangs of Hawaiian-shirt-clad surf rats with straggly dirty-blond dos, stomping their flip-flops to the reverb-drenched guitar sounds of an idiosyncratic young musician and surfer. The band was The Del-Tones, the guitarist Dick Dale. And those seminal summer throwdowns would kick off the short-lived but highly influential California Surf Rock craze.
Sadly (for many of us), it’s 2016. And though Mike Huffman infuses his guitar playing with speedy tremolo picking and the obligatory spring reverb effect popularized by Dale and his contemporaries — The Bel-Airs, The Ventures, and The Shadows — crowds coming to hear his instrumental surf trio The Rip Currents aren’t quite what they were in the early ’60s.
“We’ve noticed that a lot of musicians getting really into our sets,” says Huffman. “They’re standing there saying to their other musician friends, ‘We should do that.’ [Laughs.] But we’re still really the only ones doing it around here.”
A longtime beaches resident and local gigging musician, Huffman has always been fond of the rock ’n’ roll drum beats, the walking bass lines, and watery guitar sounds of surf music. “I had someone at a show tell me one time that [surf rock] is like a tall glass of water in the desert,” Huffman says. “It’s a genre of music that can melt faces and also serve as dinner music,” he adds. It wasn’t until the dissolution of his former band, though, that Huffman decided to narrow his focus. He says he and St. Augustine resident Chris Shary (drums) were playing in what Huffman describes as “a pretty typical rock ’n’ roll cover band” when they lost their singer and bassist in somewhat uninteresting circumstances. Huffman and Shary — who worked as a session musician in New York City for a time — had been incorporating a few surf tunes into their sets in those days and it was Shary who suggested they form a new group to play primarily surf music.
“I was a little hesitant, only because to be the guitar player in a three-piece, instrumental band is a lot of pressure. [Laughs.] But we decided to give it a shot and it’s worked out pretty well. We’ve been gigging nonstop since.”
After adding the accomplished Warren Hinrichs on bass, The Rip Currents had a formidable trio. They settled down to lock in a couple dozen instrumental surf covers. Beyond that, Huffman says, the group broadened their horizons to include songs from The Sonics, The Fuzztones, Paul Revere & the Raiders and other classics cast from a similar mold.
That was five years ago. Today, with modern West Coast bands from L.A.’s Chicano Batman to Portland’s Guantanamo Baywatch to Seattle’s Tacocat all borrowing elements from early surf rock and touring extensively, it’s clear that mainstream indie-rock has gone surf-crazy. That hasn’t translated to proliferation of surf bands here in Northeast Florida yet. That’s just fine, as far as Huffman is concerned.
“I am surprised, with the beach community we have, that we don’t see more people playing surf music. But I guess that might mean fewer gigs for us.” [Laughs.]
To be sure, The Rip Currents’ approach — relative this season’s crop of indie rock bands — is fairly tribute band-ish. Regardless, the band has witnessed a general increase in enthusiasm for surf rock, with more people listening attentively and some even cutting a rug to The Rip Currents’ precise and skillfully executed versions of some true California classics.
Prompted by the positive response to the band’s performances of other people’s music, The Rip Currents have begun writing some of their own tunes. As if locked into a high-line glide on a California point break, songs like “Mr. Zogg’s” (a reference to the famous surf wax) neatly adhere to the blueprint created by early ’60s surf bands. Meanwhile, darker tunes like “Downrigger” pay homage to some of the offshoots of the nascent surf rock scene, like surferbilly and psychobilly. “In our own influences, we tend lean more toward the progressive stuff,” says Huffman, who repeatedly implores me to revisit the early works of sci-fi surf punks Man or Astro-man during our conversation. “Those guys really opened up my eyes to what was possible with the surf sound and experimentation,” he says.
And though The Rip Currents are fans of groups that have pushed the boundaries of surf music, they’ve reserved special reverence for The King of Surf Guitar, Dick Dale. Huffman, Hinrichs, and Shary have opened for Dale on several of his sporadic visits to the First Coast. On what The King taught them about their chosen genre: “Surf Rock doesn’t really blossom unless it’s played loud,” says Huffman. “Even at 78 years old, Dick Dale is one of the loudest guitar players you’ll hear.”
The Rip Currents will try to match (possibly exceed) Dale’s volume when they play The Oyster Jam Music Fest in Jacksonville’s Metropolitan Park on April 16 and 17. Beyond that, Huffman and the boys can be found gigging around Northeast Florida, from St. Augustine to Amelia Island, all summer long.