Susan SurfTone Nets a ’Shore’ Thing

by Winnie McCroy

EDGE Editor

Thursday February 23, 2012

The world of surf music can be just about as treacherous as the waves off Oahu. But lesbian musician Susan SurfTone has found a "Shore" thing with the recent release of her new album, the first release under her own name after a passel of acclaimed discs as leader of Susan and the SurfTones. And its "retro-yet-modern" take on the surf rock of the early '60s is as relaxed as a day at the beach.

"When you're playing surf music, it is tagged to 1962, and that's what people think of," said SurfTone. "But there was a third wave of surf music in the '90s, when it really evolved. Some bands are still doing the old sound, but a lot are doing new things. I am reaching back to the original sound of surf music, but adding a new sound. Surf music is always seen as being repetitious, so the idea is to bring in different influences, to make it interesting to listeners now."

Among these new influences are heavy keyboards, more complicated bass lines, a straying from surf rock's 1-4-5 pattern, and a garage element that gives the music a bit more texture.

Not a singer

SurfTone, who started playing guitar at age 9, unabashedly admits that she is no singer, saying, "Nobody in
the world ever wants to hear me sing. I'm afraid even the dog will bite me."

Perhaps this is what initially kept her from pursuing a career in music. SurfTone said that after she graduated from law school at Boston University, the Federal Bureau of Investigation approached her about becoming an agent. Since she had never been interested in practicing at a law firm, she accepted.

"I took the test, got in, and did my training at Quantico," said SurfTone. "I was assigned to Boston, and then to the New York field office. It wasn't a place I felt I'd stay for the rest of my life, but it was a good experience. The policy as far as being gay was like 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' and I didn't like that aspect. I always felt like the whole thing could rear up and bite me, and I wanted to live my life like I wanted to."

So SurfTone left the FBI to be a musician -- a move about which she said she has "absolutely no regrets." She has been a career musician since 1993, covering a lot of ground in the interim.

Favoring the clean guitar lines of Scotty Moore and George Harrison, she moved to New York and spent her 20s playing in a series of bands. But when the lead singer left, the band would break up, and she would be back to zero.

By the time she reached her 30s, she decided she was sick of the uncertainty, and formed a band with herself at the center. She recorded several album salutes to bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Velvet Underground.

Not part of the Portland music scene

Raised in Hudson, New York, SurfTone lived in New York City for a decade in the '80s, moved to Rochester and Albany, toured Europe, and then relocated to Portland, Oregon, where she has been for 12 years.

After she moved, Susan and the SurfTones split up, due to distance. But she said that two former band members are flying over from Albany to play on her current tour, and will be joined by members from other incarnations of the band.

"I have been doing surf music since '93, and so you end up playing with a lot of different players," said SurfTone. "I am just happy to have Kim13 and Avory Gray on keyboards, Brian Goodman on drums, and Dan Ferguson on bass. There will be two keyboard players on stage, and it will be fun blending these two lineups together."

Although she said she is not part of the Portland music scene, which she described as "trendy" and centered on "the flavor of the month," she has played two halftime shows for the Trail Blazers, the 2005 ROCKRGRL Conference, and Duff's Garage, a Portland rockabilly venue.

Before she recorded her new release, "Shore," she returned to these roots. With the help of her friend Avory Gray, SurfTone spent two years teaching herself how to play the bass, and went on to record herself playing the Beatles, The Stones, old Elvis rockabilly tunes, and Muddy Waters.

"When I was done with that, then I knew that I was finally ready to record my new album," said SurfTone.

Like countless musicians before her, SurfTone sat on the edge of her bed with her guitar, and started working out some riffs. If it sounded good, she would build on it, adding bass and keyboard. If it continued to evolve, and at the end, sounded like something new, she would keep it.

Cove the Doors

As a personal barometer, she would set the song aside for three days. If after that time, she could still play it from memory, she would keep it. If she forgot it, SurfTone figured it wasn't good to begin with.

Her new album presents a dozen retro-rock surf tunes, among them a cover of The Doors "Riders on the Storm."

"I always liked to cover British invasion bands, but for this one, I wanted to cover an L.A. band," said SurfTone. "Immediately, The Doors came to mind. I think they were wonderful musicians, and I always liked Jim Morrison. He was the one true rock 'n' roll rebel."

SurfTone said she started playing around with their material, and things just seemed to gel around "Riders in the Storm." The song is largely instrumental, and SurfTone's cover hews closely to the original, which was also more than seven minutes long. SurfTone plays the bass line, and incorporates the central riff of The Chantays' "Pipeline".

The original cuts on the album incorporate classic 1962 surf rock sounds, but with the addition of keyboards, a jazzed-up bass line, and influences from psychedelic rock and Latin music. On February 27, Susan and her band will begin promoting "Shore" via their West Coast Tour. And although she relishes being on tour again, she has already steeled herself to the inevitable comments she hears as one of the only women lead guitarist fronting an instrumental surf band.

"Being a woman, you constantly have to prove yourself," said SurfTone. "I've been doing this for years, and I don't know how many clubs I've walked into where I'll overhear the comment, 'A girl playing surf guitar; this I've gotta see.' You constantly have to prove yourself, and when you do, all you hear is 'Pretty good for a girl.'"

As far as being lesbian, SurfTone only recently made that public, saying that her mother had a problem with it, so she waited until she passed to go public, out of respect for her.

"We'll see how that plays out," said SurfTone. "There are a lot of fellows in surf music who want it to still be 1962, so with them, this is not a very popular move. But for most people, I don't think it really matters."

Susan SurfTone begins her West Coast tour on Monday, February 27, 2012: ?Duff's Garage?,1635 SE 7th Ave. Portland, OR; Wednesday, February 29, 2012: ?Forbidden Island Tiki Lounge?,1304 Lincoln Ave. Alameda, CA; Friday, March 2, 2012: ?Max Steiner's?, 2500 E. Anaheim St. Long Beach, CA; Saturday, March 3, 2012: ?The Redwood?, 316 W. 2nd St. Los Angeles, CA.

For more on Susan SurfTone, including how to purchase her album, visit her website.

Winnie McCroy is the Women on the EDGE Editor, HIV/Health Editor, and Assistant Entertainment Editor for EDGE Media Network, handling all women's news, HIV health stories and theater reviews throughout the U.S. She has contributed to other publications, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, Chelsea Now and The Advocate, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.