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Riding the Next Wave?

Mermen add a spacey guitar psychedelia and an aggressive, punkish tone to venerable surf music.

May 02, 1996|JOHN ROOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When people think of surf music, it's usually the happy pop songs of the Beach Boys or the vintage sound of the Ventures that come to mind.

Yet there is more to surf-rock than just good vibrations.

One up-and-coming San Francisco band called the Mermen is breaking new ground with an edgier, more expansive style that lies closer in spirit to Neil Young and Sonic Youth than say, Dick Dale. The group's "alternative surf-rock" sound mixes spacey guitar psychedelia with an aggressive, punkish tone.

Formed in 1989, the instrumental trio--featuring songwriter-guitarist Jim Thomas, bassist Allen Whitman and drummer Martyn Jones--has just released a sparkling, 35-minute EP, "Songs of the Cows" (Mesa Records).

Among the band's admirers are such respected artists as guitar-whiz Joe Satriani, avant-garde musician Henry Kaiser and the lovingly weird David Lindley. The Mermen conclude a 14-date tour with performances tonight at the Dragonfly in Los Angeles and Friday at the Coach House.

Although Thomas, a 42-year-old longtime surfer now living in an apartment in Northern California's Ocean Beach, cites such disparate influences as Dick Dale, Gram Parsons and the Dead Kennedys, it was really a cross-country trek about eight years ago from New Jersey to California that changed his life.

After years of selling Toyotas in the city of Seaside Heights, he grew depressed and quit his job. He had been living out of his car for nearly two months when a friend persuaded him to come to California.

Once here, Thomas got a job at Spitzer Music in San Francisco, where he worked his way up from salesman to store manager. While working there, he also began writing music and tinkering with equipment and instruments, including guitars.

After some introspection and a big fight with his boss, he left the workaday world to pursue a new creative life. So by the time he formed the Mermen, which was his first band, Thomas was already in his mid-30s.

Why did his musical calling come so late?

"I never really had any ambition to be a guitar player or composer because I never had a lot of choices of things to do with my life," Thomas said during a recent phone interview. "I'm the kind of person who comes from a background of never having the resources to do a whole lot. I had jobs as a TV repairman, telephone lineman, pizza maker, waiter . . . you name it.

"But when I worked at Spitzer's, they let me experiment with all of the equipment and I just sort of found a natural fit for me, I guess. And then one day [bassist] Allen [Whitman] heard me play and liked one of my songs. It wasn't long after that I was in my first band."

Drummer Jones joined the fold and several years later, the Mermen--a moniker derived from the Hendrix song "A Merman I Shall Turn to Be"--released its first album, 1994's "Food for Other Fish."

With the push of college radio airplay and numerous local gigs, it became a hit in the Bay Area. The follow-up, 1995's "A Glorious Lethal Euphoria," offers nearly 74 striking minutes of heavy reverb and tremolo, some Santana-like spirituality and punchy-but-clean guitar excursions.

Though Thomas' songwriting clearly showcases a blossoming style and craft, his self-confidence remained slow in coming. Yet over time, the lingering self-doubt turned to self-satisfaction.

"It took me many, many years until things got more solidified, and to a point where the music actually said 'hello' and 'goodbye' and the songs had a beginning, middle and end," Thomas said. "But when you write what you consider a really good tune, you get caught up in it and it keeps you going. It makes it all worthwhile. This is my destiny. . . . I feel that way now."

The band is now signed to the Atlantic-affiliated Mesa Records--which subsequently rereleased "Euphoria" before "Songs of the Cows."

*

Regarding what lies ahead, Thomas said: "I'd really like to release a double album next, and maybe not on our following record but at some point, I've thought about maybe adding vocals.

"I do sing and have written a bunch of songs with words. When I listen to somebody like Willie Nelson or Dylan, they say so much to me. They're so good at it that it intimidates the hell out of me. I'd have to sit with the idea a long time first. . . . I just don't want to put anything out there.

"Commercially, I won't make any changes in the approach to what I do. You know why? I don't think I could. I really don't control what I do. I'm not that kind of an artist. When something filters out through me, it comes in certain shapes that just kind of naturally unfold."

As one who has lived on the fringes of society and knows firsthand the sweaty grip of desperation, Thomas now embraces life, whether he's sharing his excitement over the new Lush album, entering bluegrass flat-picking contests or reeling off his favorite spots to surf--which, by the way, range from Costa Rica and the Virgin Islands to Indonesia and the Caribbean.

But along with the adventurous good times come more musical challenges for the self-taught Thomas.

"Despite this being my destiny, I'm not necessarily doing what I love," he said. "Now Allen--he loves to play. And so does Martyn. For me, a lot of times it's extremely difficult to do this, and I can feel overwhelmed by it all. But I have to do it. It's mysterious and unpredictable. I just ride the wave, and I have no idea where it's going."

* Who: The Mermen. With Four Star Daydream and Spoon Fed.

* When: Friday at 8 p.m.

* Where: Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano.

* Whereabouts: Take Interstate 5 to the Camino Capistrano exit and turn left onto Camino Capistrano. The Coach House is in the Esplanade Plaza, on the right.

* Wherewithal: $10-$12.

* Where to call: (714) 496-8930.

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