THE INSECT SURFERS
Tripping the Infra Green Surftastic
A chat with leader/founder David Arnson
by Michael Layne Heath
On the decidedly minuscule and microscopic early Washington D.C. punk scene of the late 1970's, you could not miss young David Arnson. A diminutive, wiry, blonde Afro-headed, enthused prankster bundle of energy that could very well have jumped off the cover of Sally Can't Dance. Arnson danced a good game as well, always down the front at gigs by local D.C. proto-punk mobs like the Slickee Boys and any number of out of town musical terrorists.
But, as it turned out, hey: he could also play guitar. Arnson has done so for the last thirty-plus years with his band The Insect Surfers. Among many guitar-based instrumental bands in the thrall of the great instrumental, twangy wangbar guitar rooted (it's OK, you can call it 'Modern Surf Music') combos of time from the '60's to now, Arnson has held a flaming tiki torch for a vision of such music that other bands have also honored over the years. Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet. The Romans. Pell Mell. The Raybeats. Pollo Del Mar. The Mermen. The Reigning Monarchs. The Fucking Champs.
Yet the Insect Surfers stand individual for their distillation of everything from the immortal Shadows and Link Wray and Quicksilver, through bands like Wire and Television, Buzzcocks and the Soft Boys. The Insect Surfers were Surf. They were Psych. They were Punk/New Wave. All that collective out-bloody-rageous tonality blazes through and out to those receptive to their music.
Moving from D.C. to Los Angeles in 1985, Arnson has kept the pipeline light blazing LAMF, with albums like Reverb Sun, and their latest and first in over ten years, Infra Green: another intensely awesome collection of vibrantly imaginative instro tunes.
The astonishing centerpiece of Infra Green is "Radar Road," which ropes in a series of individual, passionate guitar breaks. And not only from the band themselves, but also guitar godheads like Jim Thomas and Ferenc Dobronyi from the aforementioned Mermen and Pollo Del Mar. Even the "Blue's Theme"/Wild Angels man his-bad-self, Mr. Davie Allan, turns up.
Arnson also has the occasional privilege to reenact a certain Mr. Osterberg in an L.A. tribute band, The Raw Power Rangers, which has even earned a thumbs-up from Sony's loss and rock geezers' gain, James Williamson.
I had the pleasure to chat by e-mail with David, on his way to a master class at Jorma Kaukonen's Fur Peace Ranch in Ohio, to gain some insight about his life and musical career.
DA: My parents were fairly hip music-wise, and went on to buy most of the Beatles LPs after my babysitters first brought them over. We also had The Beach Boys' Surfin' USA LP. Now, out of all their albums, 5 of the 12 songs on Surfin' USA are instrumentals! So that was my first exposure to the surf guitar sound, I heard the Beach Boys' (very credible!) version of "Miserlou" years before I heard Dick Dale's.
Since my dad was also into motorcycles, we had "Black Boots and Bikes" by The Kickstands, a studio group that Gary Usher and Roger Christian produced that was basically Beach Boy tunes with motorcycle lyrics. As a six year old, I of course thought that The Kickstands were as big as The Beatles or the Beach Boys. Plus on the liner notes it read, " You'll be hearing a lot more from these guys!" Alas, decades later, I'm still waiting...
As a teen, I listened to the Rolling Stones (had to discover them on my own, my parents didn't buy 'em because my mom said 'they look like Cro-Magnons!'), Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Jeff Beck, Hot Tuna, Mott the Hoople, Bowie, Alice Cooper...
My first rock concert, age 13, was T.Rex at the Alexandria Roller Rink in Virginia. Second was Alice Cooper on the Killer tour. That same summer I saw the Stones' Exile On Main Street tour. Seeing Mick Jagger jump around helped me learn how to dance, which was helpful for an awkward teen who didn't know how to otherwise.
I had a subscription to Creem magazine in high school, which helped hip me to a lot of relatively edgy rock. Georgetown University in Washington D.C. had a great station, WGTB, through about 1980 or so, with a DJ named Steve Lorber. His weekly 'Mystic Eyes' show played the original garage punk stuff, and the newest punk stuff like The Ramones. I'd bought Patti Smith's Horses the year before.
AND THEN...THE INSECT SURFERS RAISE THEIR BOARDS
DA: When The Ramones and Runaways came out, it was a real sensibility shift for me. Television, Talking Heads, Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Cramps, Devo, B-52s, etc.: wow, it was a brave new world! Part of the 'message' of punk, if there was one, was DIY (Do It Yourself), and so I really wanted to start a band that had the energy of Ramones and B-52s with the cerebral intricacies of Wire and Television (ahem, cough, cough, I'm not necessarily saying that we entirely succeeded!).
Since I had recently become interested in instrumental surf music again, this seemed to provide the best vehicle to express my warped musical ideas. I'd recently come across Davie Allan and the Arrows' Cycle-Delic LP in the bargain bin. Here was a guy making motorcycle noises on his fuzz guitar, playing biker-themed tunes (hey, like The Kickstands!), and I fell in love with his instrumental psychedelic sound. I'd gotten my high school buddy Dave Petersen to appreciate surf music, and we woodshedded for several months, playing unamplified electric guitars in his room, trying to combine various riffs into surfoid songs, both vocal and instrumental.
We met keyboard player Mike Duke in line to see the premiere of the movie Alien; he had both a Farfisa and an ARP synthesizer. So now having a synthesizer. we called it 'Techno-Surf'! We rounded out the band with bassist Robert Fass (also from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, like me and Dave P.) and drummer Dan Buccino.
Our very first gig was in support of Mike's buddy Dan Collins, who had a public speaking class at BCC. We included him on drums on one song and played his Wire-wannabe song... it wasn't purely Insect Surfers so at our high school debut (June 1979). We called ourselves 'Rinse-n-Vac'! Subsequent gigs were at Yippie brownstone commune Madam's Organ, with Bad Brains, and at Ft. Reno Park with D.C.'s first punk band The Slickee Boys.
It's not so well known that D.C. had a very vibrant punk/new wave scene years before the local harD.C.ore scene, with terrific bands like Razz, Urban Verbs, Nurses, Tru Fax and the Insaniacs, The Beex, Tiny Desk Unit, and so many more. We started touring pretty quickly- we were the first punk band in D.C. to do so, really, from 1980 through 1985 with a few personnel changes in-between.
I felt I'd done as much as I could in D.C., and in April 1985, I moved to Los Angeles. By June '86, I had a new lineup, concentrating this time on mostly instrumentals. We debuted at KXLU-FM's 'Surf Day' (basically a massive Redondo Beach house party), opening for popular local surf band The Halibuts.
THERE ARE NO WORDS
DA: I've always loved instrumentals; having no words means that you are not pushed into the confines of a specific lyrical meaning. Link Wray was quite the master at raunchy, catchy instros, and he was a big influence on another of my fave guitarists, Quicksilver's John Cipollina, who did some awesome instrumentals and instrumental passages himself (with fellow guitarist Gary Duncan). Loved his fellow San Fran guitarists Jorma Kaukonen and Barry Melton as well. I also love dual guitar teams like Allman/Betts,Verlaine/Lloyd, and Moore/Ranaldo.
Another thing about the composition of instrumentals is that there is a definite art to conveying a lyric without words. I like to think that we have some memorable hooks, there are a lot of instrumental bands out there who may have great guitar sounds or textures or technique in general, but still can't come up with a melody line that you'll remember a few minutes later.
PSF: Would it be safe to say, once you made to move to Southern California, that you found that environment was more receptive to the Insect Surfers' music?
DA: It's true. I think that Insect Surfers were possibly more appreciated in California than the East Coast just because instrumentals were part of the radio and of people's general awareness out here. Oldies stations here will still play "Pipeline" or "Wipe Out," but not East Coast stations.
HEROES AND VILLAINS ( mostly the former)
PSF: Over the thirty-plus years the Insect Surfers have been going, you've had the chance to meet a lot of your guitar heroes. Any specific anecdotes come to mind?
DA: Well, yeah, I'm a fanboy who's learned not to embarrass myself too badly.
Link Wray: totally nice guy, no pretensions at all.
Thurston Moore: another swell fella. Poison Ivy of the Cramps seemed totally nice, too!
Ron Asheton was very down to earth, and told me, "Ya gotta have a plan!"
John Cipollina: I did a 45-minute interview with him in 1978 or so (for local D.C. fanzine The Infiltrator). He was totally a gentleman and so patient with my questions. He was sniffling the whole time; must have been some good white powder?
Tom Verlaine: On his Words From the Front tour, I went backstage to get him to autograph his first solo LP. As he signed, I asked "by the way, what's the first couple lines of your song 'Red Leaves'? I can't quite make them out." He drippily said, "Ahhh, I don't want to go spoutin' off lyrics like I'm some kinda poetry book!'' Although he was nicer the next time I met him.
But a couple of years ago, when he was doing his accompanying of silent art films with Jimmy Rip, I brought my 1961 Gibson SG to see if he'd sign it. I've got Link Wray, Dick Dale, Jorma Kaukonen, John Blair, Mike Palm, Thurston Moore and Wayne Kramer (who wrote, 'this is a love machine') on it already.
When I asked, he refused, explaining, 'Ahhh, there was this guy who wanted me to sign all these pick guards, and I said "No, you're just gonna slap 'em on some cheap Fenders and sell them on Ebay!". Well, sheesh, Tom, you can't tell this is my guitar? Ha, oh well. A great player, nevertheless! And really, though, most people are cool about autographs, if you approach them politely
LAST EXIT TO RADAR ROAD
PSF: A lot of people are no doubt going to be talking about "Radar Road" on the new LP. How did you get such an array of guitar legends like Davie Allan to take part? And why was it ten years between Insect Surfers discs?
DA: Davie Allan is an almost painfully nice guy, despite the biker image and scowls on the Blue's Theme LP. And I have had the opportunity to thank him for inspiring my band. I got him to play a fuzz/wah lead on the track 'Volcano Juice', which is on our 1994 release Death Valley Coastline.
So I'd written a song (I like to describe it as my ham-fisted version of the "Peter Gunn Theme") called "Radar Road." I had the idea of getting some of my favorite Surf guitarists to each contribute a one-minute lead to it. So in order, we've got Paul Johnson of the Belairs (who wrote the surf hit 'Mr. Moto');he's another supreme being. He's pretty much the only one of the Old Guard Surf guitarists that still goes out and sees gigs regularly!
Then we've got Ferenc Dobryoni of San Francisco's Pollo Del Mar and Frankie and the Poolboys. Next up is Jim Thomas of The Mermen (also from S.F.!) and then the Insect Surfers' guy, the amazing Michael Abraham. Then I play a fuzz lead, and the very last outro is by good ol' Davie Allan, also crankin' the fuzz.
They all sent in their parts thru the magic of the Internet, except for Paul, who came into the studio. Our ace engineer Steve Refling had kind of a hassle Frankenstein-ing the whole thing together, as the original rhythm track wasn't from his studio. And the track came out great: over nine minutes of surf guitar rockdom!
Putting out Infra Green took us over ten years as there were a few personnel changes in that time, and then money issues, which were solved by Kickstarter. Thank you, Insect Surfers fans! Putting it out helped us in playing Europe for five weeks; we headlined one night at the annual Surfer Joe Festival in Livorno, Italy! Right now, some of the best surf music is being put out by European bands. It was interesting though, that one fan in Berlin thanked us for 'introducing improvisation to surf music.' I guess that that is uncommon to surf music in general. but we are the heathens of surf music anyway. We've been known for years to play Gibson instead of Fender guitars, although we do use Fender amplifiers.
PSF: Now that Infra Green is out, what are the Insect Surfers' immediate future plans?
DA: More recording, and we will probably be getting back to Europe soon!
PSF: Lastly, what do you think has ultimately kept you motivated and creative for all these years?
DA: Sometimes I can't believe that I've been doing the band since 1979, but... I still really like it!
My tagline on our website says 'Planet Earth's Longest-Running Modern Surf Band'. Note the word 'Modern'; we ain't Dick Dale or The Surfaris. AND (cough, cough) I'm not saying 'best,' but uhh... still the longest running! I think that part of what keeps me motivated and creative is that I'm still a big fan of instrumental music, and rock and roll in general.
I still like to listen to what's coming out, and what's new whether it be psychedelic, world music, roots-rock, 'alternative" or electronica. I still like to dance. And I know what we're playing and putting out there doesn't sound like anybody else. It's been a huge affirmation and compliment that we've been asked to play in surf music festivals on both East and West coasts, and in Europe. One of the roughly thirty compilations that we've been on over the years was Rhino Records' Cowabunga! The History of Surf Music, and that was almost twenty years ago, so we're still keeping the lineage going. And basically, I'm still having fun!
INSECT SURFERS DISCOGRAPHY
Wavelength - Wasp Records 1981
Sonar Safari 12" EP - Wasp Records 1983
Reverb Sun - Skyclad Records 1991
Death Valley Coastline - Marlin Records 1994
East West EP - Dionysus Records 1995
Mojave Reef - Marlin Records 2003
Satellite Beach (best-of compilation) - Green Cookie Records (Greece) 2004
Infra Green - Marlin Records 2014
This does not include tracks done by the group for the aforementioned 30+ compilation albums over the years. More detailed info can be had at their official website, www.insectsurfers.com.
There is also a fine fan page run by Southern California music aficionado and longtime Surfers fan, the man known as 'Chrome Oxide': http://www.chromeoxide.com/insects.htm
The current line-up is David Arnson- guitar, Michael Abraham -guitar, Jonpaul Balak-bass, Jeff Utterback -drums
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