A few years ago, guitarists Sean Sparbanie and Drew Fulton wanted to start an instrumental rock band, playing covers of ’50s and ’60s surf-rock and hot-rod instrumentals by Dick Dale, Link Wray, the Ventures, and the Champs, plus a few originals in the same style. Considering how much they love that kind of music, they expected a more vigorous response from other musicians.
“We put an ad on Craigslist for a drummer and got two responses, and one of them was expecting to get paid,” Sparbanie says. “It was like, nope. You don’t play surf music and get paid.”
They eventually recruited bassist Rodney Sheehan and drummer Austin Polley, Fulton’s bandmates in the stoner-rock trio Mass Driver, as the rhythm section for what became, in 2013, Appalachian Surf Team. Since then, Sparbanie and the rest of the Surf Team have learned that surf music is a calling, not a profession. They’ve played dozens of gigs around Knoxville, from just about every rock club to American Legion halls, and the lack of a singer has outright stupefied some club owners and audiences.
“A lot of venues have no idea what to make of it,” Sparbanie says. “There’s a running joke we have in the band—‘Y’all ain’t got no singer?’ We played a battle of the bands-type thing—I’m not going to name it, but it was rural—and we were doing our sound check and the guy who was running sound, he was dumbfounded that we didn’t have a vocalist. ‘They ain’t got no singer!’
“Some people have no idea. They missed the boat. They never heard of it. And there’s pockets of people who are just crazy about it. Small pockets. But those are the folks we’ll play for. We’ve done everything from car shows to wedding receptions to regular rock ’n’ roll venues, everything. Parties, you name it, we’ll play it.”
The way Sparbanie describes the music, and his enthusiasm for it, he makes it sound more like a lifestyle, or even a spiritual mission, than just a genre of pop music. Just like surfers chase the perfect wave, Sparbanie’s spent a big part of his adult life searching for the perfect reverb-heavy guitar tone, the right amp, the right room, the right chord. He talks about the music in nearly metaphysical terms.
“There’s an energy about it,” he says. “It’s hard to describe. It’s so electric, there’s so much energy in it, and above everything else, it’s fun. It’s difficult not to like this music. … It’s like a way of speaking without saying anything. It conveys a mood or just a vibe through chord changes and melodies. It’s a really neat concept.”
If surf music is a mission, it’s one Sparbanie’s been on since first hearing Link Wray in a record store as a teenager. “I didn’t know what it was,” he says. “I walked up to the clerk and he says, ‘It’s Link Wray.’ I bought a Link Wray album that day, even though I’d never heard of him before. … And we’re big-time gear junkies. Trying not necessarily to emulate someone specific but to catch that vibe—old Fender guitars and Fender amps and Ludwig drums and stuff like that. It’s a never-ending quest. But of course this isn’t something we’re ever going to make a living on. It’s purely for the love of it.”
Sparbanie’s written a handful of original songs for the band, but he likes people to recognize the songs—it’s enough of a challenge to hold an audience’s attention without a singer, he says, so you have to give them familiar tunes. There’s no shortage of recognizable canonical surf- and hot rod-rock material, from Wray’s “Rumble” and Dick Dale’s “Misirlou” to “Pipeline,” “Wipe Out,” “Secret Agent Man,” “Apache,” and “Tequila.” But even dedicated 21st-century surf revivalists need to shake up the set list, so Sparbanie’s worked up some original instrumental arrangements of non-surf crowd favorites, like Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” Judas Priest’s “Breaking the Law,” and the Godfather theme song. Right now, he’s slowly making his way through a surf arrangement of “Billie Jean” and “Beat It,” by Michael Jackson.
“It’s killing me trying to do a Van Halen solo to a surf tune,” he says of “Beat It,” which famously features a guitar solo by Eddie Van Halen. “I think the solo’s about 35 seconds long and I’m about seven seconds into it. It’s been a lot of work. But if I can nail it, it will be so much fun.”
Appalachian Surf Team plays with Anarcticats at Preservation Pub on Tuesday, July 26, at 10 p.m. Admission is $3. 21 and up. Photo by Chris Morgan.
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