By Tom S. Hunterson
The Spirit of Summer
We were someplace near LaCrosse, Kansas, about the middle of nowhere, when the Red Bull began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded, maybe you should drive…” And suddenly I realized the gravity of my situation, I was being shaken like a can of unmixed paint in a dangerously overloaded Ford pickup truck towing a borrowed equipment trailer with a bent axle, which pulled heavily to the left, while unsuccessfully trying to get a usable interview from the elusive Midwest surf band known as Sundog. Suddenly the sky was full of what looked like huge June bugs, all swooping and diving around the truck, the air conditioner was on the fritz, all the windows were down and a voice was screaming: “Sweet Mother of Pearl! Speed up. The ride will smooth out when you get ‘er up to a hundred.”
I’d been out with bands before – Metallica, Grand Funk Railroad, The Osmonds – so I was familiar with the boredom-bred self-destruction that takes hold on the long roads that make up an American tour. But hurtling down I-70 with 3 guys wearing tiki-masks was new. Our trip was different. It was an affirmation of something. A possibly pointless and futile affirmation of the spirit of summer wrapped in a wet beach blanket huddled on a deserted stretch of sand in a steady drizzle.
Spreading The Gospel
“We’re here to spread the surf gospel to the land-locked Midwest,” proclaimed Sundog guitarist, Rick Bernauer to an empty parking lot when we stopped at a small Italian restaurant in Hays. “And to avoid being readily identified,” mumbled drummer Butch Herrman - we’d all noticed how his mood had brightened the farther we drove beyond Leavenworth. “I hope they have Club Crackers here,” Steve said as the bass player led the four of us into the restaurant. After explaining to the manager that it wasn’t a robbery, we were seated in the back room away from women, children and other decent folk.
As we arranged ourselves at a table so Butch could watch the door, I decided to try to start the interview where we’d left off back in Kansas City. “So, what made you guys decide to play only instrumental surf, even though there isn’t a beach within two-thousand miles?”
“No vocals,” said Butch. “The authorities can use software to identify your voice from just a 10 second audio clip.”
Rick leaned closer to the table, “Actually, it was an artistic decision. We call it surf noir - a combination of surf, spy, sci-fi, and spooky movie sound track music.” Butch excused himself from the table to look for back exits to the building while Steve picked packets of Club Crackers from the basket in the middle of the table. “We don’t play surf music like Jan & Dean or The Beach Boys – but I really like some of Pet Sounds. We’re more into third wave and psychedelic and cinematic surf: SlackTone, The Mermen, and Big Lazy.”
“What about Los Straitjackets?” I asked.
“Who?” said Rick. “Hey, Steve, do they have any of those rye crackers in there. I love those things.”
I decided to shift my focus to the bass player since they’re often the band member with the best grip on reality.
“Steve Svancara. What kind of name is Svancara?”
“That’s my last name.”
He was staring straight at me, but with the mask I couldn’t tell if he was smiling or smirking. I took a different approach – “So you guys have been playing together for well over 10 years. You must be really close.”
“Rick and Butch are like my brothers. Actually, that’s not right. My brothers are much more fun than Rick – all he does is practice and talk about obscure surf songs from the 60’s. And Butch is more like a distant cousin that your parents mention occasionally but don’t want you to spend too much time with at family reunions.”
Back on the road, I decided to question Butch while Rick and Steve discussed which female voice option on the GPS unit sounded sexier. I started with an easy opener - “So, Butch… Is that your real name?”
“Why, is this a background check or something?”
“No, just asking.”
“How do you spell that?”
“With a ‘Y’ as in why are you asking so many questions?”
“I just asked one simple question.”
“Actually that was two questions. Interview’s over. You’re digging too deep.”
I realized it was going to be a longer trip than I'd anticipated.