Susan SurfTone’s new album is a “Shore” thing
Perhaps the only woman to ever play lead guitar in an instrumental surf rock outfit, Susan SurfTone started playing guitar nearly 40 years ago. She gravitated toward surf music in the early ’90s, capitalizing on the renewed interest in the genre thanks to the popularity of the Pulp Fiction soundtrack. SurfTone, who has just released Shore, a terrific collection of surf rock tunes that — believe it or not – don’t all sound the same, recently phoned in from her Portland, Oregon home to talk about her new disc, the first album she’s released simply under her name (previous efforts had her billed as Susan and the SurfTones).
What’s your background like? Did you start playing music at an early age?
I started playing when I was nine years old. I’m going to date myself. I picked up a guitar in 1964. I got interested in it when I was about 7. My mother was into rock ’n’ roll. She was born in 1927, which was the Frank Sinatra era, but she liked rock ’n’ roll. She played it a lot in the house and took me to see Elvis movies when I was about three years old and I just gravitated toward it.
I listened to a lot of early Elvis when I was about 7 and became a big Elvis fan. I used to play Elvis on a tennis racket and imitate him. Then, when the Beatles came over, it was the big thing. I had to have the lessons and the guitar so my parents took me out and got me a little $30 acoustic guitar. They got me lessons with the guy who taught at the music store in Hudson, New York where I grew up. He played for a living and was in wedding bands in Hudson, and I got along with him really well. He really taught me. You didn’t see many girls in 1964 who wanted to play guitar, but he took me seriously. He really taught me. I was always appreciative of that.
So at what point did you start playing surf music?
I heard surf music on the AM radio from a station in Troy, New York. They played “Pipeline” and “Wipeout” and all those songs. I liked the clean sounds on the guitar and it was something I could play. My teacher taught me to play “Walk, Don’t Run” by the Ventures. I didn’t have an interest in singing and I don’t do it well. I sound like Johnny Cash. He’s not a bad singer, but that’s just not good for a girl. There’s certainly nothing wrong with Johnny Cash. I like his music. I wasn’t interested in singing. I wanted to play lead guitar and George Harrison was my hero. I just liked that guitar-dominated music where there was a melody line that made sense and it carried the song. That’s what attracted me to surf.
Was Susan and the Surftones your first band?
I had bands prior to that but they never played surf music. The bands had a garage feel. Where I could work the surf leads in, I did sunburn. The first surf song I wrote was Sunburn and when I play live, I always play it. Susan and the Surftones were the first all-instrumental step into the surf world. I think it was around 1993 that I actually got the band together.
How did that go over in Rochester? That doesn’t seem like a hotbed of surf music.
They liked it. We got bookings right away and people kind of gravitated to it. What happened was that Pulp Fiction came out around that time and people were tuned into it more than usual.
The band split up, right?
Yes, it morphed into other things. People left one at a time if I remember correctly. I had just put out Without a Word, which was my first album. A German label put it out and wanted me to come over and do a show. I played as a trio and we just did one show in Hamburg. People have called it a revolving cast of characters, and I kind of have to agree with them.
At some point you worked for the FBI, right?
I went to law school straight out of Smith College. I went to Boston University Law School. After law school, I went into the bureau for about three years. I was an agent. I worked in Boston and then New York City. At that point, I really wanted to play music. I was getting older, and the Ramones and Blondie had come out and I looked at them and thought I really wanted to do this. I started rehearsing with some people and we got to the point where we were ready to play. I had to ask at the bureau if it was okay and they said no, so I formulated my plan for an exit from the bureau. They were afraid you were going to get caught in some situation. They would frown upon it, let’s put it that way. I wanted to do it and so I left so that I could do it. I never regretted that. I did enjoy working for them.
Your new album has a great energy to it. How’d you get that vibe in the studio?
I started out working with demos at home using the Audacity software. I had taught myself to play bass and so I did that and I listened to Beatles music to learn how to play bass because McCartney’s bass lines are great. I started recording Beatles songs and then blues and then Elvis and then I was ready to work on original music. I was pulling influences from different places that I had always liked but had never played before. I wanted to get a different feel to my playing because if it’s too redundant, it’s not fun for me and it’s not fun for other people. I thought I had to grow somehow, so I grew my style by working backwards. I wanted to do a good recording, and I wanted to test myself and got in touch with Ilka Pardinas at Fly PR because I had worked with her in 2002 when the band did a short tour down to California and she did some work on the original recordings for me. She hooked me up with Steve Kravak. I met with him in L.A. and we discussed it. He made suggestions that were really, really good. Id did some work in Portland with the Audacity demos and tailored and the songs using Steve’s suggestions and he flew up from L.A. and we went to work at Jackpot. He played drums and I played everything else. We just put the record together. It just all came together in that week.
Do you think of yourself as a pioneer?
Not really, but I just wish more girls would play this kind of music. I know a lot of women play bass. I always get heartened when I hear of another woman playing lead guitar because there’s no reason we can’t do it. If some girls start playing because I did, that would be great. It was never in my mind that I would be a pioneer. I just wanted to play.