Riding the ‘cerebral surf’ wave: How Santa Cruz’s epic surf-rock trio The Mermen keep on shredding
THE HERE & NOW: Jim Thomas and his band The Mermen don’t just attract fans, they draw disciples. Think that’s hyperbole? We talked to a sampling of those who live for the complex, acid-splashed, surf-inspired tunes that come from his guitar.
The unabridged Oxford English Dictionary contains 20 volumes and 22,000-plus pages. It weighs in at about 145 pounds and takes up four feet of shelf space. These days, the OED is a rare sight in the wild, outside of well-heeled university libraries. And about the last place you would expect to run across it would be in the window-less cave-like studio that is Pleasure Point Recording.
The studio is the home base of The Mermen, one of the most accomplished and bewitching rock bands in Santa Cruz’s long musical history. The hidden studio is the lair of the band’s resident genius, guitarist Jim Thomas, who once told me that you could fill the place with water and not a drop would leak out.
It’s a musician’s dream space, designed by Thomas and Mermen bassist Jennifer Burnes, a thick-walled bunker chock full of guitars, drums, computers, compressors, equalizers, microphones, pre-amps and other equipment.
And now, it’s home to the OED. “It took me years to decide to buy it,” said the amiable Thomas, gesturing to his latest acquisition, on the top shelf of his formidable corner library. “I kept looking for a good price on eBay. Then, I’m looking one day, some guy had it for $700, up in San Leandro. I paid for it, drove up and picked it up.”
The Mermen — Thomas, Burnes and drummer Martyn Jones — work in the realm of the rock instrumental. That means, considering the recent acquisition of the OED, literally every word in the English language has gone into the band’s studio and, measured by its prodigious creative output over the decades, not a single word has ever come out of it.
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Casual fans of the band might be mystified by Jim Thomas’s avid interest in language given that he speaks in his work only through his guitar. But deep-dive Merfans, the thousands across the country, and indeed around the world, who form the foundation of the band’s almost single-mindedly devoted following, have come to learn that Thomas fits no one’s mold of a rock guitarist.
You want to talk guitars and amps and effects pedals with him, he’s happy to engage. But he gets just an animated, maybe even more so, talking about poetry, philosophy, art, and the wordiest musician to ever pick up a guitar, Bob Dylan.
“He wrote the greatest surf song ever written,” he said of Dylan. (“Surf” is the inadequate but inescapable musical genre to which the Mermen have been assigned.) Then, Thomas begins to recite from memory the stunning last verses of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man”: ... to dance beneath the diamond sky/With one hand waving free/Silhouetted by the sea ...
Last month, The Mermen released their latest album, titled “Splendeurs et Miseries,” from the French for “Splendors and Miseries.” Borrowed from Balzac, the title, Thomas felt, nicely captured the schizo emotional experience of the pandemic year, with his band and in the music industry more widely.
The new album fits neatly into the band’s signature sound which has defied any and all attempts at verbal description for more than 30 years. Liberated by Jones’s defiantly tribal drumming and Burnes’s sensuous bass, Thomas builds sonic clouds of texture and mood, some aggressive and breakneck, others contemplative and dreamy.
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The “surf” label suits the Mermen sound not so much because it has evolved from the Dick Dale-fueled surf sound of the early 1960s, but because it so well matches with the uniquely ecstatic experience of surfing, bliss punctuated by adrenaline. No music quite lives up to the term “oceanic” as well as Mermen music. When I hear it, I experience the sensation of motion, whether it’s cutting across the face of a powerful wave or soaring like a seabird high above the face of the water.
To mark the release of “Splendeurs,” I decided to find a few Mermen superfans for whom the band’s music is less a form of entertainment than a more a form of meditative practice. Santa Cruz-based fans might think that The Mermen are so entwined with the local landscape and the Pacific Coast that it couldn’t possibly make sense to those from elsewhere. But the legions of Merfans come from all time zones, coastal and very much otherwise.
‘I just want to dwell in the space he creates’
When I called Steve Penny of Aptos to talk to him about his years-long love of The Mermen, he was camping, alone, in a secret spot he frequents to the southeast of Big Sur, not far from the tiny town of San Ardo. “Some people go to church,” he said. “I go to mountain tops.”
Penny was a kid in the 1960s in Southern California, so he grew up inhaling both surf culture and surf guitar music. Even now, when he hears Dick Dale or one his many contemporaries from the period, he recalls that particular nostalgic feeling of being a ’60s beach kid. He calls it “sunburned and stoked.”
The Mermen sound tickles that feeling for him, but it takes him beyond it. “It turns up the amplitude,” he said. When he discovered The Mermen, he could listen to almost nothing else. Once, over the course of a few weeks, he listened exclusively to one nine-minute Mermen song called “Shooting Colors All Around” more than 300 times.
“I just want to dwell in the space he creates,” said Penny of Jim Thomas as a performer and songwriter. “It’s this feeling of awe and wonder. Man, it just has so many twists and turns all through it. But it elevates me.”
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Over the years, Penny has gotten to know Thomas and the other band members personally. “Jim has one of the best hearts of anyone I know,” he said.
He often shoots video at Mermen shows and finds he has to be vigilant when it comes to capturing Thomas at work. “The best part of the concert is a lot of times when he’s just fiddling around between songs. It’s some of the most brilliant stuff he does and it never happens the same way twice.”
‘I just get lost in it every time’
Jack Sayler has lived his life divided between Birmingham, Alabama, and Savannah, Georgia, and though he had surfed a bit as a kid in Savannah, he was thousands of miles from Santa Cruz, both geographically and culturally.
Some time in the 1990s, Sayler, an amateur guitarist, discovered The Mermen through one song, a slow-build space jam called “Curve.”
“I just heard it out of the blue,” he said, “and it was just like, man, this is exactly the kind of music I’ve always wanted to hear. It was exactly the kind of music that I’ve heard in my head for years, but had never heard anyone do it, if that makes sense.”
He got to see the band perform live in Birmingham, and years later, on a business trip to the Bay Area, he would see Thomas and his bandmates play in their alter-ego band The Shi-Tones. Soon, Sayler was coming to the Bay Area regularly and arranging it so he could see Thomas perform. Soon, he struck up a relationship, and Thomas invited to come to Santa Cruz to visit the studio. The two men played guitar and surfed together.
Eventually, Sayler contributed to The Mermen mystique by serving as executive producer of a few of the band’s later recordings, including the Mermen Christmas album.
“I would call it ‘cerebral surf,’” he said. “I just get lost in it every time. It’s pretty much all I listen to now, and it’s been that way for about 10 years. Still, every time I hear one of their songs, there’s always something unique and different.”
‘The music does the talking’
Scott Deschaine is a writer and filmmaker from Doylestown, Pennsylvania, who has used Thomas as a composer for some of his films. Some of the songs from the latest albums are from the soundtrack to Deschaine’s latest project.
As a film producer, Deschaine has the opportunity to hear all kinds of textural and situational music. But he’s never heard anything quite like The Mermen.
“I would say each Mermen album is like a bottle of wine,” he said. “Some things are immediately apparent right away. And others, you enjoy for it a while before it reveals itself to you.”
Deschaine calls himself an “evangelist” for The Mermen. Of Thomas, he said, “The guy’s like a force of nature. I mean, he’s definitely channeling some kind of energy from God knows where. Some of the stuff he comes up with, I’m amazed at the technical proficiency, as well as the psychic and emotional language he’s tapped into.”
Among Deschaine’s films is a documentary on possible unknown life forms in the upper atmosphere called “Not Alone: The Life Above” and an upcoming horror comedy called “Draculaw.” He said he prides himself in exposing the music of The Mermen to a wider audience.
“I personally feel that the fact (Mermen music) is all instrumental is a huge benefit, because the music does the talking and it conveys so many more feelings and emotions without the symbols of words.”
‘Whoa, this is powerful stuff’
When Jim Thomas decided to make a new album in the midst of COVID-19, he was going to need another drummer. The band’s regular drummer Martyn Jones wasn’t available, so Thomas called his friend Daniel Guaqueta to fill in.
It had been a long road for Guaqueta to find himself playing on a Mermen record. He first turned on to the band while in college in Mississippi. His revelation came with “Be My Noir,” which opens with the sound of waves crashing at the beach. It was love at first needle drop.
At the time, Guaqueta was an aspiring drummer and he was into Megadeth, Firehose and the Mexican band Caifanes. He studied classical music and jazz. He was voracious and curious in his musical tastes.
“But when I heard The Mermen,” he said, “it really slowed me down and I thought, whoa, this is powerful stuff.”
He developed a correspondence with Thomas and eventually formed his own surf-rock band called Buddy & the Squids. Thomas mailed him a box of surf CDs to get him inspired. Then, partly because of his fascination with The Mermen, Guaqueta moved to Palo Alto.
“So, I wrote to Jim and told him I was moving to Palo Alto, and he was like, ‘Yeah, we should jam some time.’ And it started from the time I moved to Palo Alto.”
Not only did Guaqueta get to be a Mer-sideman, he also took up surfing.
“I’m a surfer now because I moved to the Bay Area,” he said, “but back when I first heard their music, I had never been surfing. But still, I felt like I was in the ocean.”
To begin your potentially life-changing journey with The Mermen, start here. And below is Wallace Baine’s essential list of Mermen songs.