Interview with Surfer Spud, bandleader of Drifting Sand, new album Summer Splash
by Harvey Kubernik
Q: Why did you choose Drifting Sand as a band name?
A: I was driving down Highway 1 (aka the Pacific Coast Highway) one day with my buddy Surfer John, we had just written our first two songs together and decided to form a band but didn’t have a name yet. Then we passed an actual drifting sand sign on the way to Santa Cruz and I thought that’s a great name for a band. We immediately adopted it and now I like to ask people if they’ve seen our billboard campaign up and down the coast!
Q: It’s no secret about your fascination with all things beach and surf. Monumental surf music and beach cinema. Water themes and regional surf spots underscore your songs. What has always drawn you to the beach and surf culture in general? What has always attracted you to beach-driven and pop bands like Jan & Dean?
A: I’ve just always felt drawn to the beach, the sand, the surf, the sun, water and surfing…and California girls. But hearing my brother and sister play their Beach Boys and Rip Chords records when I was a kid definitely had an impact, it’s like those songs got into my system and have never left. I think it was just the amazing harmonies and timeless melodies that struck a chord and they became the soundtrack to all things beach and surf, as you say. But as much as I love the pop stuff like Jan & Dean, I also dig the distorted and single-note staccato tones of Dick Dale and the fuzzed-out sounds of Davie Allan & The Arrows. And “Telstar” by The Ventures was one of the first songs that I remember hearing as a kid that made me think, “Wow, that’s a way-cool sounding song!”
Q: You and the band have been active in beach support like ecological awareness and benefit appearances for Surfrider Foundation. While your music is a celebration of water and sun, you do have concerns about the climate and water/surf issues. You’re not a protest singer but this must be very important to you since you and your band members actually are surfers.
A: Well, I would think everyone who surfs would be concerned about the quality of the water they’re actually in. And it was from surfing and hangin’ out on the beach and seeing way too much trash that inspired me to become involved with my local chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. I just wanted to do my contribution and when I found out that the San Mateo Chapter didn’t have a beach cleanup program, I started it and organized local beach cleanups. I also got LIVE 105, the radio station that I worked for at the time and was doing surf reports for, to get involved and I became the voice for their public service announcements and their beach cleanup coordinator for ten years. The other guys in the band have also been regularly involved in beach cleanups and charity events. We played an Earth Day benefit for the Pacifica Beach Coalition a couple of years ago and I MC’d the same event last year. I’ve always liked the slogan “Think Global, Act Local” so we do what we can to keep our beaches clean.
Q: Tell me about surfing. Is it a meditation? An escape? A connection to nature that fuels you?
A: Yes, yes and yes! First, when you’re sitting on your board waiting for that next wave, it’s a great time to reflect and just relax your mind. Then when you’re catching the wave, it’s an escape because you’re basically just thinking about that wave. And finally, being in the ocean and seeing sea life around you (er, sea lions, not sharks) and just feeling the water on your skin really makes you feel connected to nature and the world around us. I’d have to say that my favorite feeling is watching the sun set while sitting on my board on a warm summer night…although once you start seeing stars, you know it’s seriously time to catch that one last ride!
Q: Tell me about the pre-production process that led up to the actual recording? How did your co-producer Rick Escobar enter your life with Drifting Sand and producing Summer Splash?
A: I started coming up with song titles and lyrical ideas around the mid-2000s. I’d get an idea for a verse or chorus and just write it down and slowly but surely, the songs started to piece themselves together. The first song I actually wrote was Blue Water while sitting on the beach in Magen’s Bay in the Virgin Islands, it just came very naturally from hours spent staring at the beautiful blue water and thinking about a girl. I’ve known Rick since his days in a local surf band called The Woodies and had always admired his surf guitar style and playing. Drifting Sand didn’t have a full-time guitarist at the time so one day I tracked down Rick and asked him if he was interested in helping me create our new album. He was just finishing up another project with our pals The Aquamarines and I was still working on the songs but finally in January 2011, we started recording our cover version of the Nancy Sinatra / Lee Hazlewood song “Sand.” I didn’t intend to include it on Summer Splash, it was just a song I always wanted to cover and I thought it would be a fun song to work on with Rick to see if we get along in the production studio. We did and I was very happy with the result, especially when I realized that Rick was kinda like a one-man Wrecking Crew…he plays every instrument and has an amazing ear for music orchestration, production and engineering. And being as into Tiki collecting as I am was the lucky pineapple that sealed the deal, especially when he turned his entire studio into a Polynesian Tiki tavern in the middle of our project!
Q: Was there any sort of concept in mind when you were preparing to record or master?
A: The original concept for Summer Splash was to make a fun beach party album, kinda like our first album Surfpop. We veered a little off into psychedelic territory on our second album and I wanted to return to our roots of fun beach music. I also wanted a mix of vocal songs and surf instrumentals because I always liked how The Beach Boys had both on their early albums. So that was the original concept but then in the middle of the making of the album, I lost my only brother to cancer. I was still working on some of the songwriting at the time and it just pulled me in a more introspective and emotional direction which lead to songs like “Brian Speaks For Dennis” and “Endless Sea,” which I dedicated to my brother Tom. I also wanted a Hawaiian lullaby in there to soothe the soul and make you drift away to the enchanted islands. It’s called “Alohawaii” and my friend Rob plays ukulele on that one. So the album evolved into a journey and water played a key role with every song on the second half segueing in and out of the sea. The album was mastered by a guy named Rainer in Half Moon Bay, who mastered our first two albums and has always done a phenomenal job with our songs. His company is called Sienna Digital and he deserved that plug!
Q: What about the cover?
A: I had about five different cover ideas with the first one being a cartoony surf scene straight out of the early 60’s. But as the album took shape and basically took the listener on a surfin’ safari from an innocent beach party to a deep and endless sea, I realized that original cover didn’t quite reflect the mood of the entire album. Then I saw the picture of the four people in the ocean and loved how it felt like it could be the endless summer of the 60’s but also had a modern vibe to it. I hired a guy named Johnny Bartlett, who plays in two of my favorite local bands, The Phantom Surfers and The Ogres, and is a professional graphic designer whose style I really dig, to put the cover, artwork and typography together. We basically worked on it as a team to get the final result and I’m very happy with it, especially the beach ball CD in a pool of water for the inside cover.
Q: Did you play some of these tunes on stage over the last few years and then decide to record them?
A: Not at all, we usually take the opposite approach, kinda like Brian Wilson and Jan Berry did in the early days. We make the album first, basically creating it in the studio, and then have to literally learn our own songs to play them live. Some of the new songs are pretty complex so it’ll definitely be a challenge to reproduce them live. Or we’ll just do the Drifting Sand Unplugged Tour and play acoustic!
Q: How do you work with band members in the studio? Do you demo ideas and show them direction?
A: It seems to have been different with each album. With Summer Splash, I came up with most of the original song ideas and lyrics. Then I recorded acoustic demos with two former band members and took these demos into the studio and Rick and I would work from that. Our drummer Wookie played all the drum parts and our last bassist Driftwood played most of the bass parts. I added lead vocals, keyboards and tambourine and Rick played surf guitar, acoustic guitar, bass guitar, steel pedal, ukulele and a mean harmonica. He’s also a master at reading my mind and bringing my melodies to life, in addition to making his own musical suggestions. We had a lot of guests on the album too, who added backup vocals, saxophone, trumpet and and the DJ intro at the start of the album is DJ Dave “Duke” Sholin of KFRC fame. And one song, “Big Wave,” features some famous musicians and big wave surfers doing shoutouts but you’ll have to figure out who’s who! Also, Wookie had a great idea for a song that was originally just him playing drums and that eventually became the song “Surf, Surf, Surf.” Finally, Allison, a girl I’ve never met before except on facebook through The Beach Boys fan page, did the duet with me on “Sand.” She recorded her vocals in a studio in Corpus Christi, Texas (where she lived at the time) and then emailed them to me. That’s where modern technology is really amazing!
Q: Why did you choose the title?
A: I just wanted something fun that made people instantly think of summer and water.
Q: Tell me about your songwriting process. Not what each song is about but your approach to songwriting. Melody in your head? Lyrics? Do you employ a computer or hand write ideas and then they evolve into lyrics?
A: I just randomly get lyrical ideas and melodies in my head, usually when I’m walking, bikeriding, driving down the coast or sitting on my board waiting for the next wave. I’ll either write down the words or sing the lyrics or melody into my iPhone recorder. I end up with a lot of fragments but eventually they all seem to connect like a magical puzzle. I had the vocal intro for “Every Day Is Summer” stuck in my head for ten years before I thought of the rest of that song. I think that’s the beauty of songwriting, it’s like dreaming. Everything that you see, hear and experience somehow ends up in a song, sooner or later. Sometimes it starts with just a title too. I once heard KROQ DJ Rodney Bingenheimer say that “Brian speaks for Dennis,” meaning Dennis was the surfer in The Beach Boys and Brian wrote the songs about going surfing. I loved that title so I worked on the lyrics and then wrote the melody with another ex-band member Steven LeBeau. So I’d say there’s no consistent formula, every song is different.
Q: Look. This is actual contemporary surf music, but not saddled exclusively to the classic sixties-influenced instrumental sound, although instrumentals are part of the equation. Have you made consciousness efforts to veer away from any form whatsoever to novelty or an oldies tag that is often associated with surf and beach music, with the exception of Jimmy Buffett.
A: Well, first, thank you for calling us contemporary surf music. We called our first album Surfpop because we thought it would be good to label ourselves right off the bat so people would know what to call our music. The initial idea was to marry two of my favorite musical genres, 60’s surf and 80’s new wave pop. Beach Boys meets B-52’s, Dick Dale meets DEVO, Jan meets Dean on the set of Baywatch. I’d say we proudly wear our influences on our sleeves but also give it a new twist and style. We just like to make the music that we want to hear more of on the radio and at the beach and will hopefully get a new generation of kids into surf music.
Q: You’ve always like Tiki and surf music.
A: Well, I’ve always loved the music of The Beach Boys but I was actually a latecomer when it came to Tiki and surf music. Surfer John, who started the band with me, got me into surf music by introducing me to cool bands like The Lively Ones and The Challengers. We both started surfing around the same time too and would watch Bruce Brown’s The Endless Summer on repeat. As for Tiki, my buddy Web had a lot of bamboo and rattan furniture in his pad and I just dug the island vibe. I slowly started collecting Tiki mugs and rattan furniture too and before I knew it, my whole place was full of Tiki. It just makes you feel like you’re permanently on vacation in Hawaii or the South Pacific. And I’ve always loved the Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland and pineapples too so it all makes sense!
Q: Just how inspirational is the beach and surf on your songwriting? For example, would you be surfing in Santa Cruz, and then write a song, like you did called “Santa Cruz’n?” Or is it way deeper than that? I know surfing is fun and your album conveys that. But underneath the tunes is there another layer or message?
A: The beach and surfing are VERY inspirational on my songwriting and I think The Beach Boys hit the nail on the head with the very first verse in their very first release “Surfin’” when they sang, “Surfin’ is the only life, the only way for me, now surf, surf with me.” I just feel at home when I’m in the water or on the beach and surf music and beach pop is the soundtrack to that life for me. Is there another message? I’d say only to enjoy life, do good for others and the environment and stay positive. With so much negativity and bad news in the world, I’d rather start a positive chain reaction through music and surfing. We just want to make people happy and dance, no matter what age they are.
Q: As a live attraction, a band that does gigs, tell me about your show and repertoire? Is it primarily the recent album and do you cover any one on stage?
A: It’s a very entertaining show, or so we’ve been told. We try to mix it up between originals from all three of our albums, covers of beach party favorites, vocal tunes and surf instrumentals. Sometimes I change the lyrics of known songs so “Surfin’ USA” becomes “Surfin’ Half Moon Bay” and I name all the local surf spots. Or “I Fought The Law” becomes “I Fought The Wave”…and the wave won, LOL! We try to get the crowd involved too and occasionally the Summer Splash girls show up to dance and toss beach balls out. So yeah, make no mistake, you’ll have a lot of fun at a Drifting Sand show!
Q: You are an active record collector. Tell me about some of your rarities and perhaps your favorite records or singles.
A: I’ve been collecting records, tapes and CDs since I saw American Graffiti, that soundtrack was all I listened to for awhile…so I love doo-wop! The first record I bought was The Beach Boys’ Endless Summer double album because I had just visited California for the first time and I thought owning that album was mandatory. Brownsville Station’s “Smokin’ In The Boys Room” was the first 45 I ever bought but it was hearing “Whip It” on the radio that really got me into collecting, namely everything I could find by DEVO! My all-time favorite album is Days Of Future Passed by The Moody Blues and I have an autographed reel-to-reel version that I really treasure. When I started to really collect anything I could find by The Beach Boys, I also became slightly obsessed with the Smile album and was really stoked when I found my first bootleg copy. If you asked me what my all-time favorite single is now, I’d have to say Good Vibrations. And finally, one of my favorite rarities is a soundtrack called Last of the Ski Bums, which features music by The Sandals. They’re known for doing the theme to Endless Summer but their songs for Last of the Ski Bums, a somewhat obscure 60’s ski movie by Dick Barrymore, are really trippy and psychedelic.
Q: Any good band stories you’d like to share?
A: I once had a girlfriend named Bubbles who broke up with me after I wrote “Surfin’ With Britney.” She was seriously worried that Britney Spears would hear the song and fall in love with me. I told her that I was only interested in going surfing with Britney and nothing else. That’s still true! Also, we once staged a surf battle show but we didn’t tell the club that we were actually both bands. We felt kinda guilty when we showed up and they had prepared two dressing rooms. But it was fun playing two sets and with our two different outfits, some people probably thought we were two different bands anyway!
Q: I saw something on your website (www.driftingsand.com) about Drifting Snow…what is that?
A: Drifting Snow is our alter-ego winter band where we do songs like Avalanche, Drifting Snow and Cold December Morning. I love to snowboard as much as I love to surf so it kinda made sense. We also made a video a few years ago for a Christmas song we recorded called Surfing At Night. When we filmed it, we had the fireplace going for that holiday vibe but something must have gotten stuck in there because the next thing we knew, the whole place was full of smoke. Luckily, we survived!
Q: What are some of your highlights from being in Drifting Sand?
A: I would say the ultimate highlight was opening up for Dick Dale…twice! When I got to the venue (Slim’s in San Francisco) and saw the two dressing room signs with one reading Dick Dale and the other Drifting Sand, I thought I was dreaming! And then I looked in Dick’s dressing room and there lay “The Beast,” Dick’s famous gold-sparkled Fender Stratocaster! We’re also stoked that we got to open for Nancy Sinatra once, who’s seriously one of the nicest people we’ve ever met. Don Randi, who was in the Wrecking Crew, played with Nancy that same night and was super cool to hang out with too. And finally, playing a Radio Disney beach party at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk on the same stage that Jan & Dean performed on for so many years, was another big highlight. That was awesome!
Q: If you weren’t doing Drifting Sand, what would be your career?
A: When I was a kid, I wanted to become an astronomer and my Mom bought me a Celestron 8 telescope. I started making my own star charts and I knew every constellation in the sky. To this day, I still marvel when I look up at the night sky and wonder what’s really out there. I just saw the movie Interstellar and it blew me away. I can talk about this stuff for hours so I think I’d be an astronomer. Hey, maybe our next album will be called Drifting Sand In Space!
Q: Anything you wish I’d asked that I didn’t?
A: Since you asked, yes! If you were wondering who does the line “The sun’s out and the surf’s up, what’re you waiting for?” at the end of our song Beach Tour USA, that’s my Mom and I’d really like to thank her for all her support and encouragement over the years. The line she recites is from the 1965 movie The Girls On The Beach and since the sun is out and the surf is up, I gotta go. Surf’s up dude but watch out for drifting sand!