Surf and sound: Surfers Rob Muchado, Donavon Frankenreiter, Latch Key Kid and Tim Curran on how music flows from life at the beach
by Ryan McDonald
The North Shore of Oahu, a winter in the mid ‘90s. Five surfers head for Sunset Beach Elementary, a kindergarten through sixth grade school directly across Kamehameha Highway from Pipeline. The surfers are Donovan Frankenreiter, Peter King, Jack Johnson, Rob Machado, and Kelly Slater. They are there to play music.
It’s unlikely that a recording exists. A quick search of YouTube turns up no videos. And perhaps that’s as it should be. This variable Traveling Wilburys of surfing was a spur-of-the-moment creation, Machado said in a recent interview. (Based on the timing, it’s quite possible that a young John John Florence was in the audience.) The five surfers didn’t think of themselves as a band: they were there for the same reason many pros find themselves on the North Shore in winter, drawn by the year’s biggest contests and the planet’s most sought-after surf.
And yet there was also something inevitable about the performance.
“We were sitting around played music, and we said, ‘Let’s figure out three or four songs for some kids,’” Machado said. “That crew of people has gone on to have some real success in the music industry. We were all sitting around, and when we’re not surfing, we’re learning songs and playing music.”
Machado, Frankenreiter and Timmy Curran are among the professional surfers filling out the BeachLife lineup. Surfing musicians are a natural choice for a festival with “Beach” in the title, especially one taking place not far from where, in 1909, George Freeth put on one of the first surfing demonstrations on the west coast. Gavin Heaney, a South Bay native, surfer and frontman for festival performer Latch Key Kid, used some liquid imagery to describe the connection between the two.
“The movement in surfing is so fluid, it just lends itself to music. You wouldn’t want to watch football to music,” Heaney said.
At their best, both surfing and music offer the promise of leaving behind the worries of everyday life for brief moments of blissful transcendence. This, Frankenreiter said, is the approach he takes in music. His soothing croon makes the listener focus more on the sound of his voice and less on the words he’s chosen, and he resists attempts to interpret or analyze his songs. Instead, he encourages listeners to simply enjoy.
“There are amazing political songs, people doing great things, but that’s just not me. I use music to escape, to feel good, to overcome anything I may be feeling. That hour and a half on stage is the best part of the day,” Frankenreiter said.
But do surfers make natural musicians? And what can music tell us about what’s happening on the face of a wave? The concentration of surfing musicians at BeachLife is dense enough to make one wonder if there isn’t something in the water.
The last audible line of Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun,” supposedly an alien’s perspective of a trip to earth, is the cryptic admonition “and you’ll never hear surf music again.” Surf music, Hendrix seems to be saying, is one of the things a visitor to our planet would remember.
One origin story of surf music gives Southern California much of the credit. Before surfing became organized into a league with rules and regulated competitions, the scene was organized around surf clubs; some of the most prominent, such as the Original Haggerty’s Surf Club and the recently revived Bay Cities Surf Club, were located in the South Bay. These groups held frequent dances and social events at which they hired bands to play.
Palos Verdes native Randy Nauert was right in the middle of it. Nauert, who passed away in February, was a surfer and the bass player for a group called the Challengers. The group was mostly playing small gigs and dances, including for the Haggerty’s team. In an interview last year, Nauert recalled that his group and others were hired to play standards, but began dabbling in sounds that resembled the crashing roar of big surf. (Think the drum intro from “Wipeout.”) The surf club members went nuts, and the bands realized they were on to something.
As is related in Experience GPS, a mobile phone-based walking tour that documents the musical history of Hermosa Beach and debuted last year, the Challengers eventually landed a gig at the Biltmore Hotel with a little group from Hawthorne called The Beach Boys. And in January 1963, the month that the Beach Boys released “Surfin’ Safari,” the Challengers dropped their own hit record, the instrumental “Surf Beat,” which sold 200,000 copies in two months.
Over the years, “surf music” became disentangled from its origins. The sound remains fixed — tremolo picking and enough reverb to sound drenched in salt water, the extra snare hit of the drum fills — but all kinds of music started to be associated with wave riding, a development that owes a lot to the rise of the surf movie, which both catalogue and reinforce changes in music and changes in surf styles. The straight-ahead boogie of the early 60s gave way to woozy psychedelia around the time surfers moved on from cheap red wine to psilocybin mushrooms. Alby Falzon’s 1971 “Morning of the Earth,” documented radical new surfing, including the first footage of Bali’s Uluwatu, as well as a countercultural back-to-the-land movement, all set to Grateful Dead-esque folk and acid rock.
Two decades later came “Momentum,” the highly influential 1992 Taylor Steele surf flick that grouped Frankenreiter, Machado, Slater, and other up-and-coming surfers into the newest generation of boundary pushers. As related in “Momentum Generation,” HBO’s recent documentary about the film, “Momentum” had a soundtrack filled with Southern California punk, including Bad Religion, Pennywise and Sprung Monkey. Machado, who was friends with Steele in high school, said that the music reflected the frenetic energy of the crew’s surfers, and was also a document of what many of the surfers were actually listening to.
While on tour in the mid 90s, Machado tapped into this energy with his band Sack Lunch, with whom he will be appearing at BeachLife and which offers the same brand of hard-driving Southern California angst. But fittingly for a surfer known has become known for his diversity of approaches, Machado said that there will never be just one kind of surf music, because even the same surfer’s mood can change from session to session.
“There are days you want to go out, ride a thruster and rip the lip apart. There are days you want to go out and ride longboard and cruise. And there are days in between, when you want to ride a mid-length or a fish,” Machado said.
This lack of conformity is part of what attracted Curran to music as well. Curran was born living by the beach, but for several years of his childhood moved inland to Temecula. They made the lengthy trip to the coast every weekend, and although Curran enjoyed competitive success in the water from a young age, he said he did not grow up in a stage-parent atmosphere: the ocean itself drew him in. Similarly, when Curran was 11 his parents bought him a guitar for Christmas. His father revered songwriters like Neil Young and James Taylor, but never pushed his son in a musical direction. Since he started focusing on songwriting, Curran’s output has swerved from confessional acoustic guitar work to his latest album Alexander Road, which finds him in a more experimental mindset, embracing atmospheric and electronic elements.
“What’s cool with both surfing and music is that they were never forced on me,” Curran said. “There were always guitars around the house, and always days at the beach.”
Each of the musicians interviewed for this story began surfing before launching his music career. Childhoods spent playing in the waves led them to pick up a board before picking up a guitar, but the progression from one to the other felt natural. Frankenreiter said he got the same feeling he did when he strummed a chord on the guitar for the first time as he did when he first stood up on a surfboard.
“I didn’t care where I was going, but I knew I was addicted,” he said.
There’s a belief among many surfers that it is impossible to get good at surfing if you don’t learn how to do it as a kid. This is less a reflection of the additional practice that comes with those extra years than a sense that surfing is different from other kinds of skills. It’s not like, say, cooking or tax accounting, which can and usually are picked up later in life. A similar bias against late learners exists in music.
Each of the performers interviewed for this story rejected this idea.
“I think no matter what age you’re at, if it becomes your passion, if you love it more than anything else in the world … you could take up painting at the age of 50. If somebody falls in love with something, great things will come of it,” Frankenreiter said.
Heaney said that the mystic vibe that surrounds both surfing and music reflect the deep connection each activity produces. But just because an activity is difficult to explain doesn’t mean it is unavailable to whole segments of the population. Along with writing, producing and performing, Heaney gives music lessons throughout the South Bay, and he said sharing the joy of music leaves him with feelings of pure good.
What people may mistake for impossible is really just skill at hiding years of practice and effort.
“Both take a real dedication of time. You might hear a song that’s three minutes long, and not realize that it took a year to write, practice and record it,” Heaney said. “And if the waves are pumping, you might get a 30-second ride, but it could take eight hours of travelling and paddling to get it.”
For the Main Street cinephile in Wichita, where Bruce Brown took “The Endless Summer” to prove the film’s viability to Hollywood studios, or the visiting Michigander peering over the railing of the Manhattan Beach Pier, what is unfolding looks like magic. By this, I mean that surfing looks both impossibly fun and impossibly difficult. Music has the same effect. Music strikes at something that is both difficult to explain and cannot be reproduced through mere application of effort. Yet ignorance of chord theory won’t stop you from being moved by a melody; the untrained voice still yearns to sing along. It is a mystery, not a problem, one that the great mass of us are content to leave unsolved because it brings us so much joy.
As is to prove the point, Frankenreiter was speaking from Des Moines, Iowa. Although he plays near a coast more often than not, he finds that people all over are able to connect with his music. When it comes to songwriting, he avoids being formulaic by avoiding any sort of formula.
“A lot songs are positive, about living in the moment, about love, but really it’s whatever feels right. There is no process. It is what it is. It just happens,” Frankenreiter said.
The untouched canvas of songwriting can be hard for a competitive athlete to adjust to: the goal is more amorphous, success less defined. (While championship tour surfers may complain about the judging, they’ve got nothing on musicians’ battles against critics.) Curran said that he first picked up at the guitar at 11, and had plenty of downtime while on tour to practice. But he said, “I didn’t write a song that was even halfway okay until I was 28.” He endured a lot of failure until, “one day it just kind of clicked.”
“I always tell people when I’m playing shows, ‘Don’t ever stop doing what you love, even if you’re horrible at it,’” Curran said.
Weird surfers make weird music; aggressive surfers make aggressive music. That’s the rap, at least: taking someone from one of the vainest subcultures on the planet and telling them to perform for swooning fans will produce a not-so-foolish consistency. The truth, though, is harder to pin down.
Consider the polarizing case of free surfer Alex Knost. He’s made a career out of shunning competition and exclusively riding “alternative” boards, an increasingly meaningless descriptor that includes mid-lengths and nose riders. He’s also a musician, playing guitar for Tomorrows Tulips, which is signed to hipster favorite Burger Records; his latest project is Glitterbust, a noise band with former Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon. Consulting the comment boards of surf websites like Stab and BeachGrit, which for better or worse is where a lot of surfing opinion shaping happens these days, Knost is either a free-thinking style master, or a kook and a charlatan. The way one feels about Knost’s surfing is a pretty good indicator of how one is likely to feel about his music.
Surfing and music, in other words, suffer from the same push and pull between popularity and innovation, the struggle over how to be different and new without being inaccessible or pretentious. And when either becomes a career, there’s the battle to maintain the magic that brought you there in the first place.
“That’s kind of the dance, when your passion becomes your livelihood. But as my mentor Rand Anderson says, ‘It beats digging a ditch,’” Heaney said. Anderson, who will be performing with Heaney at BeachLife, has also worked with another surfer-musician, Tom Curren. Curren, a three-time world champion, retired some 25 years ago, but he retains an effortless mystique, ad his name carries as much currency just about any other in the sport. He dominated in contests, but achieved perhaps even more fame for breaking rules and defying his sponsors.
Surfers and musicians share a creative drive, the need to do something in which no one is telling you what to do. Both can be life-long obsessions, the sticky stuff that is first in mind on waking, and last to leave before sleep: the kind of thing that is constantly prompting you to ask yourself, “Okay: now what?”
“Some guys get … not in a rut, but there are certain ways that people perceive you, and you start to think, ‘Oh I have to do this,’” Muchado said. “I find it really cool when people find a way out of that.”