Genres:Specialty - Soundtrack Alternatives, Rock - Surf
Susan SurfTone learned a lot of things by listening as a kid in upstate New York. Listening to The Beatles, listening to the Ventures, listening to Dick Dale. But she also learned a lot from one thing she never heard – "girls can't do that."
"I got encouragement, subtle encouragement, for everything I wanted to do when I was growing up," she recalls. "Girls didn't play guitar in the early '60s, but my parents never told me that, they told me I could do anything I put my mind to. They bought me a guitar and I started taking lessons when I was nine years old. I was good right off the bat, and my teacher started giving me real songs to practice on, and one of the first ones was "Walk, Don't Run." I realized then that I wanted to be in a band, and I didn't want to be a 'girl singer,' I wanted to be a guitarist."
She's been putting those lessons to good use for the better part of her life, mastering the guitar before she was a teenager, hitting the Big Apple to make her mark on the seminal CBGB/Bowery circuit and working her way up through the ranks of the FBI – yes, the Federal Bureau of Investigation. But most intriguingly of all, she's carved out a niche in the world of surf music – a terrain that can be just about as treacherous as the waves off Oahu.
On her new album, Shore – the first release under her own name after a passel of acclaimed discs as the leader of Susan and the SurfTones – she takes the music into bold new directions, heading to a realm she refers to as "retro-yet-modern." The disc spotlights Susan's swooping, slicing guitar lines as well as her ear for classic pop in all its forms, from the finger-popping "Chance" (which Susan describes as inspired by the early '60s chestnut "No Matter What Shape Your Stomach's In") to the down and dirty "HuDu," on which she slips into semi-slide mode.
"A lot of these songs were written with the bass line first," she says, "and that makes the sound a little different from things I'd done before. I really concentrated on honing my bass playing for these, and over the course of the past year or so, I got to the point where I knew I had enough material to get into a groove and get an album done."
Perhaps the biggest surprise is the album closing version of the Doors' "Riders On The Storm," a take that retains the dark intensity of the original, but retools it, incorporating the central riff of the Chantays' "Pipeline" and adding a bona fide bass line – played by Susan, who perfected her skills on the instrument specifically for this recording.
"I've always loved the Doors, but I tried really hard not to replicate their version of the song," she says. "I used the organ as the inspiration, and I tried to come up with my own interpretation of it."
Susan SurfTone has been carving out new paths to the listener's pleasure center for a good while now, starting with her stint as de facto leader of Black Tights, a Big Apple-based combo that, in her recollection, "sounded a little like early Blondie, with a singer named Mary St. Cyr that looked like David Bowie and sounded like Cyndi Lauper."
To even get to that stage in her musical career, the twenty-something Susan had to dump an unusually powerful significant other – Uncle Sam. After attending Boston University law school, she moved up the ranks in the FBI at a particularly explosive juncture of U.S.-Soviet relations. She recalls "I enjoyed that job a lot, but I had the chance to play CBGB and I asked my supervisor, who said I absolutely couldn't do that. And the death of John Lennon had made me realize that music was really the most important thing for me."
Walking away from the realm of espionage also allowed her to express her sexuality in a more open manner – as gay women (and men) were largely persona non grata in the bureau at the time. She's never hesitated to address her orientation, but hasn't worn it on her sleeve either, noting "I consider myself a musician who happens to be gay, more than as 'a gay musician.' Although I have to admit that one of the motivating factors in getting into a band was to get girls – which I know a lot of other musicians can relate to."
She did briefly take part in a duo that played the same sort of folk-rock circuit as the Indigo Girls, but soon returned to her first love – instrumental music. Forming the three-piece SurfTones in 1993, she racked up acclaim on the surf circuit, touring as far afield as Germany in the wake of such albums as Without A Word and Thunderbeach. Members came and went over the years, but the focus of the band always fell on Susan's lead playing – which Guitar Player magazine describes as "period perfect surf primitivism [that] conjures a San Diego senior prom circa 1962."
She got a little closer to those beaches after the dawn of the 21st century, when she moved to Portland, Oregon, a move initially intended to be temporary – until the ground there turned out to be more fertile for her, stylistically. Susan found plenty of willing compatriots after relocating – and a wider audience than she'd reached during her stint in Manhattan. Yes, she played her share of rock clubs, but she also kicked out the jams at the annual Rockrgrrl conference, toasted revelers on the town's Tiki Trail and even rocked the arena at halftime shows of some Portland Trailblazers games.
Over the past few years, she honed her playing further on a series of covers-focused instrumental albums, two saluting the Fab Four and one taking on the music of The Velvet Underground. She notes that "I started thinking more about the way these songs were constructed and started exploring different things – from The Beatles, I went to the Stones, and from the Stones, to the blues songs that inspired them, things like Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed. I even tackled some Robert Johnson, which is some really tough stuff."
That diversity comes through loud and clear on Shore, from the sensual tease of "HuDu" to the Raybeats-esque spy stylings of "Tide" to the Spanish flavorings of "Checker." Still, throughout the short, sharp 38-minute disc, the spirit of the beach shines through vividly – exuding the sort of aura that prompted Cosmik Debris to say "Susan SurfTone has something that most musicians spend forever and a day seeking: an instantly identifiable sound."
She also has a vision that's just as identifiable – one that conjures up a girl power vibe more powerful than any political text could create, one that's loud, proud and unabashedly in-your-face, all the better to heat up white sands and city pavement alike.
"Some feminist-leaning women look down on the whole surf thing, saying the culture is regressive, that the whole thing is about Gidget," she says. "I love the music, but I'm not putting the culture on a pedestal at all. If it's about Gidget, this time Gidget has the guitar. She's the one in charge."