Written by: Andrea Renney
While studying abroad in San Diego in the spring, I embraced all things southern California: freeway traffic, “studying” on the beach, and In-N-Out Burger. Already a garage-rock and punk-rock enthusiast, the natural progression for the California version of myself was to get more into surf rock.
Often characterized by an extensive use of reverberation in guitars, lo-fi recording technologies, and an inherent danceability, surf rock became popular in the 1950s and ‘60s, with well-known artists like Dick Dale and the Beach Boys emerging out of southern California.
The influence of this era can still be heard in modern surf-rock music, and southern California continues to churn out quality surf-rock bands. Today’s artists typically incorporate elements of garage rock, punk rock, and doo-wop as well, blurring the lines between genres and avoiding having any one label for their sound.
The following five bands are sure to give you the good vibrations you crave while lying out on the beaches of Kitsilano or catching some waves in Tofino this summer. Let’s go trippin’. . .
Hailing from San Diego, The Frights’ blend of surf and punk, dubbed “dirty doo-wop” by publications such as The Triangle and Emertainment Monthly, is the perfect soundtrack for driving down a sun-soaked, palm tree-lined street on your way to a beer-soaked, DIY house show.
The band’s self-titled debut album, released in 2013, is the epitome of modern, southern California surf rock. Written and released shortly after the members of the band graduated from high school, the album’s tracks are rife with adolescent emotion and angst. While their second album, produced by FIDLAR’s Zac Carper, isn’t as textbook surf as their first, it’s full of catchy songs and worthy of praise in its own right.
Recommended tracks: “C & C,” the opening track for The Frights, sets the tone for the album both with its instrumentals and with lead vocalist Mikey Carnevale’s slowed down, pleading lyrics in the outro. “Of Age,” from 2016’s You Are Going To Hate This, prominently features the ultimate beachy instrument, the ukulele. Listen for the familiar sounds of a skateboard in the background.
One of the more well-known modern surf-rock bands, the Growlers’ sound has remained largely consistent since their inception in 2009, carrying them through six full-length albums and a number of EPs.
The surf-rock sound is observable in the Growlers’ music, but they tend to skew a bit more towards psychedelic rock and synth pop, while sometimes even sounding a bit folky. Regardless, the Growlers are often categorized as a surf-rock band, and their music has been influential in shaping the modern southern California music scene.
Recommended tracks: “Rare Hearts” and “Black Memories,” both from 2014’s Chinese Fountain, are representative of the Growlers’ distinctive sound. Brooks Nielsen’s unique, slightly raspy vocals, mellow tempos, and reverb-drenched, groovy tunes are perfect to sway along to.
Tijuana Panthers are yet another southern California band that blends surf rock with other subgenres of rock to create their own identity within the scene. The Long Beach, California trio have been playing together off and on since junior high, releasing their first single, “Girls Gone Wild,” as Tijuana Panthers in 2009.
Despite their sound, the band didn’t set out to become a surf rock band. They even released a song on their debut album, “Summer Fun,” that’s a satirical take on the beachy, fun-loving lyrics of traditional surf rock songs. Nevertheless, materializing in a surf-centric locale like Long Beach seems to have influenced Tijuana Panthers’ music, whether intentionally or not.
Recommended tracks: “Creature” is one of the best examples of modern surf rock on this list; the instrumentals are immediately recognizable as being heavily influenced by the ‘60s surf sound. “Tijuana Two-Step” is an odd little French ditty that’s heavy on the surf-y reverb. Both tracks are from the band’s self-released debut album, 2010’s Max Baker.
The Buttertones are arguably the most polished-sounding band discussed here, likely due in part to lead vocalist Richard Araiza’s smooth-as-butter crooning. Based in Los Angeles, the Buttertones began in 2012 as a trio, later rounding out their lineup as a five-piece for their second full-length album. Their retro, doo-wop sound transports you back to the ‘50s (or what you imagine the ‘50s would be like). It’s the perfect soundtrack for dancing under the moonlight on a warm summer night.
Recommended tracks: “Orpheus Under the Influence” and “Reminiscing” are both from the Buttertones’ self-titled debut album, released during the band’s short time as a trio. The songs don’t skew as garage rock or punk as other examples in this list, so they’re good options for when you want something a little closer to indie rock.
Not typically considered a surf-rock band, Atlanta’s Black Lips are well-known in the garage rock scene. They’ve maintained their reputation for raucous live shows, despite touring seemingly endlessly for almost 20 years. A self-proclaimed “flower punk” band, Black Lips take influence from classic rock and roll, punk rock, and even country to infuse their garage rock sound. While they don’t necessarily draw inspiration from surf rock artists, the early rock-and-roll sound that the surf rock genre was built on is often cited as an influence for the band.
Recommended track: “O Katrina” from 2007’s Good Bad Not Evil is a good example of the crossover between the garage rock and surf rock genres. The repeated bass line and distortion on the guitars are pretty much textbook surf rock. “Drugs” from 2009’s 200 Million Thousand features surf-y riffs and nostalgic lyrics about driving around town with your friends, making it an endearing addition to your summer playlist.
Check out this Spotify playlist for all of the songs mentioned above, plus some extras from these bands and others!