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Making Waves

Neo-Surf's Up: The crest-riding Mermen liken their hot riffs to crashing waves.

Photo by Jay Blakesberg

San Francisco's three Mermen know that we'll hear neo-surf music again

By Greg Cahill

'I DON'T REALLY understand what I'm doing, so the credit goes to somebody else, somewhere beyond me," says Jim Thomas of the sonic tsunami that drives the exuberant songs of the Mermen, the San Francisco­based neo-surf power trio. "I try to compare it to surfing, not on a small day but on a big day when you aren't really in control." In a flourishing subcult that includes such innovative acts as the flamenco-flavored Aqua Velvets and the edgy Finnish band Laika and the Cosmonauts, the Mermen actually appear to be on course, reeling in fans who reportedly include Morphine, Les Claypool of Primus and David Byrne. Named for the classic 1968 Jimi Hendrix track "1983 ... A Merman I Will Be," from the Electric Ladyland album, the band mines the same rich musical terrain tapped by such adventurous instrumental indie-rockers as Pell Mell and Shadowy Men from a Shadowy Planet.

Fortunately, the Mermen didn't take to heart Hendrix's incantation that "we'll never hear surf music again" from "Third Stone From the Sun." Instead, they chose to plunder the rock treasure chest to blend Hendrix's searing psychedelia with a hefty dose of '70s punk angst, '80s hard-core emotionalism, '90s grunge and, yes, even a few sanctified '60s surf licks. In the process, the Mermen have sculpted a vicious, visceral hybrid that rides the edge of the alternative-rock movement. Think of Dick Dale meets Sonic Youth, though their approach is wholly original. "Not only do they set themselves apart by attacking the style with an almost academic will and precision," noted critic Cheryl Botchick in a review of 1996's Songs of the Cows (Mesa/Bluemoon), "they raise it to new, previously unseen places."

The Mermen started out seven years ago as a garage band, playing their own versions of little-known songs previously recorded by obscure surf bands. "Eventually, we just outgrew that retro sound in a substantial way and moved ahead to something we could put our own initials on," explains Thomas. The result was Food for Other Fish, a 1994 self-produced marvel that pushed the envelope of instrumental guitar-driven rock and helped define the then-fledgling neo-surf subgenre. But it was A Glorious Lethal Euphoria (Mesa/Bluemoon)--awash with trebly turbulence and rumbling drumbeats--that brought the Mermen national attention. As for Thomas, he's still trying to figure out how the band handles the sheer force of its own sonic fury. "You have to develop certain skills to deal with it," he muses, "but all you can do is kind of influence what happens."

The Mermen plays Thursday (July 10) at 9pm at the Edge, 260 California Ave., Palo Alto. Tickets are $6. (415/324-EDGE)

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From the July 10-16, 1997 issue of Metro.

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