I’m strolling across an artichoke field on the ocean side of Highway 1 at Four Mile Beach, just north of Santa Cruz. The day is awash in late afternoon sunshine, and as fresh as only April days can be. Behind me, the hills near Bonny Doon are screaming yellow with wild mustard flower.
I arrive at a vista spot 40 feet or so above the beach. I gaze out at the silver Pacific, the diffused sun making a trail of diamonds on the water’s surface to the horizon. The view is intoxicating.
Then I put in my ear buds, and soon I feel something akin to flying.
The song “Unto the Resplendent” opens with a pillowy build-up that suggests a gradual dawning of light. It then comes to one simple, majestic, tremolo guitar line that quickly sweeps me out of my body to some elevated vantage point above the ocean, above my life, above history.
In that hypnotic melody, I’m feeling a sense of momentous arrival after a journey, of the thousand trails and mountain passages across the continent behind me, of Walt Whitman’s “public road,” of the migratory impulse that explains the American story.
It’s the bliss of being alive, sure. But it’s also the communion of standing where nameless others have stood before me, the triumph of meeting the end of a long road, the wonder of being small and facing the immensity of natural forces.
This is the music of the Mermen.
This is peak California.
The Drowning Man Knows His God
The tyranny of the pop singer dictates that any band that goes without a vocalist altogether is likely to pay a steep price for such heresy. That’s not the only reason, or maybe even the primary reason, that the Mermen, almost 30 years after their first recording, have never found big-time mainstream popularity. But it matters. A singer gives a band a protagonist, a storyteller, a theatrical hero figure with which to seduce the audience. Not having one is a handicap.
The Mermen have no Jagger or Joplin. They are, and always have been, a rock instrumental trio—now featuring drummer Martyn Jones, bassist Jennifer Burnes, and the band’s guitarist, composer, and creative lodestar James “Jim” Thomas—who emerged out of San Francisco in the late ’80s, where a hive of intense fans on the club scene grew into a diaspora of devoted Mermen lovers around the world. For more than a decade, they have been based in Santa Cruz.
In recent months, the band has experienced a creative boom, releasing not one but two new albums at the end of 2017; We Could See It in the Distance and The Magic Swirling Ship, both of which will be showcased at a Moe’s Alley concert on Friday, May 11. Like much of the Mermen catalogue, the new recordings are jewels of cinematic, expansive, gloriously eccentric rock music.
The Mermen are often thought of as “surf music,” a label that is paradoxically exactly right and all wrong. Thomas, the band’s frontman, is a devout surfer and ocean lover—“I’m living in between this wave world of sounds and a wave world of water,” he says. His music is often used to provide musical muscle to surfing documentaries, particularly those by his buddy, the big wave surfer and filmmaker Grant Washburn. And he’s clearly influenced by Dick Dale, the widely admired King of Surf Guitar.
On another level, though, “surf music” as a genre blossomed and faded in the early 1960s, a quarter century before the Mermen played their first gig. Thomas and his bandmates will still occasionally come together in an alter-ego band called the “Shi-Tones” in which they tackle all the great surf hits of yesteryear. But the Mermen’s music is of an entirely different character. Many fans of old surf bands like the Surfaris, the Chantays and the Tornadoes don’t think of the Mermen as surf artists.
As a programmer at KFJC in Los Altos Hills, Phil Dirt championed surf music for 25 years. He’s a fan of both the old-school surf groups and the Mermen’s idiosyncratic sound. Dirt says that in the ’60s, “instrumental surf music was the indigenous folk music of Los Angeles.” Coming a generation or two later and from the Bay Area, the Mermen represented an evolution of the form, a new synthesis of SoCal surf and San Francisco psychedelia. If surf is more about energy, says Dirt, “psychedelia is much more about mood. And [the Mermen] can combine them. It’s the two things I love most in music in one band.”
Mermen superfan Tim Foley says, “I always categorize it as ‘psychedelic surf.’ When you mix salt water with LSD, you get the Mermen.”
The visionary behind the band and its unique approach to “surfadelic music” is an affable but studious Buddha-like figure who conjures his muse and faces down his demons at his custom-built recording studio/man cave near Pleasure Point. Many of those who think of Mermen music as the quintessential soundtrack of Northern California might assume that Thomas was born on Ocean Beach in the shadow of the Cliff House. The truth is much stranger.
The chief Merman is originally from Jersey.
Between I and Thou
For someone who plays wordless music, Jim Thomas is a surprisingly verbal guy. For a guitar god, he is not too interested in talking a lot about guitars or gear. But if you want to talk books, he can wile away the hours.
In my first interview with Thomas in his Pleasure Point studio, we talked for an hour about the books most meaningful to him. He had just discovered the illuminating essay collection Where Light Takes its Color From the Sea by the late Santa Cruz novelist James D. Houston. In a corner of his studio, bookshelves run from floor to ceiling, and as he talked about the insights he had drawn from Houston, he scanned the books for other titles that inspired him: a Van Gogh biography, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven by John Eliot Gardiner, and especially Martin Buber’s philosophical treatise I and Thou.
Allen Whitman, the Mermen’s original bass player throughout the 1990s, says that Buber has always been a preoccupation with Thomas. “Once we were driving together,” says Whitman, “and he’s just reading to me out of Martin Buber, because that’s what he did. Suddenly, he reads this phrase, ‘glorious lethal euphoria,’ and I said, ‘Wait, that’s it. That’s the name of our next album.’” Sure enough, it was the name of their 1995 release.
“He’s always struggling to answer questions that don’t require an answer,” says Whitman.
Thomas grew up surfing, but not in California. He developed his love for the ocean at the Jersey shore. His experience as a teenager in New Jersey was wretched, a deep dive into drinking, gambling and blowing off school that he says he was lucky to escape. “Surfing probably saved my life,” he says.
Thanks to his mother, he had a solid grounding in musical education. “My mom was a real estate agent and she rented a business that happened to be a music store. So she was like, ‘You wanna take guitar lessons?’ Remember, this was Sopranos’ New Jersey—all Italians. And all the guitar teachers were these, like, great jazz guitar players.” Later, she took her son to see guitar giant Andres Segovia at Lincoln Center in New York.
Still, Thomas was miserable. As a young man, he discovered that he had a heart condition, which left him frightened of physical activity, and convinced him to chase all kinds of alternative treatments and wrestle with mortality. It wasn’t until he was in his 30s that a buddy convinced him to take a one-way trip to California. Thomas was working as a car salesman, so apathetic about life, he says, that “I never even picked up my paychecks. I was kind of depressed. I didn’t care if I lived or died, honestly.”
He arrived in the Bay Area in the mid 1980s with nothing more than a guitar and a surfboard. He discovered the waves at Ocean Beach in San Francisco, and eventually settled in the neighborhood.
The Mermen creation story began soon after Thomas took a job in a San Francisco music store, where he had access to guitars and other equipment. It was then he began writing songs, some with lyrics. With a four-track recorder, a drum machine, a reverb unit, and a borrowed Stratocaster, Thomas laid down instrumental tracks in the hour before the store opened for business.
Whitman was a co-worker at the store. “We didn’t feel comfortable around each other when we first met,” he says, “because he’s Jersey and I was Philly. There was already a frisson there.”
Soon, though, Whitman caught Thomas in the act of working on his music, and asked to hear it. “There were these great melodies and catchy little hooks,” he says. “It was a simple but very clear vision. You could tell right from the start there was real artistic integrity there.”
Whitman asked Thomas if he could lay down some bass parts. After that, the two went out in search of a drummer to replace the cheesy drum machine. Thomas put an ad in the local weekly, which said only that a drummer was wanted for “surfing bongos.” Answering the ad, and driving up in a primer-gray Cadillac hearse, was former record-store clerk Martyn Jones, a local kid who was born in Liverpool, the hometown of the Beatles.
“I told Jim, ‘He can play, but more importantly, he’s the living embodiment of what you’re looking for,” says Whitman. It was Jones, incidentally, who came up with the name of the band.
“He was very Jersey,” Jones says of Thomas, “rough and kind of rude, the kooky guy with long hair. His personality didn’t gel with these beautiful songs he gave me on this cassette. I had a little trouble figuring him out.”
The Mermen played their first gig in March of 1989, and that same year, Thomas’s music-store compositions, recorded in a Mission District studio run by a former member of the Steve Miller Band, was released under the title Krill Slippin’, available at the time only on cassette.
For the next 10 years, the band pushed on through a furious schedule of gigs in venues all around San Francisco, from dive bars and private parties to prominent clubs like the DNA Lounge, Slim’s, the Great American Music Hall, even the Fillmore. All over town, the Mermen were a hot ticket. Soon, they were cultivating a loyal fan base that felt their psychedelia represented San Francisco’s millennial counterculture.
In 1994, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction included a song by surf legend Dick Dale, and almost overnight surf rock was hot again. The Mermen, who were ruling San Francisco’s live music scene, felt the ripple effects. That same year, they became one of the first bands to livestream a concert over the Internet.
Also in ’94, Whitman went to Burning Man for the first time. “It was pretty damn amazing,” he says. “I came back and I was frothing at the mouth. I said to Jim and Martyn, ‘Sit down, check this out. We have to do this.’”
For the next decade, the Mermen were the most prominent live-music act at Burning Man, playing on platforms on the playa, at Center Camp, and on a dizzying variety of vehicles in a surreal landscape that fit the band’s mind-expanding sound almost too perfectly.
“Playing Burning Man when we did has to go down as one of the funnest and weirdest experiences of my life,” says Jones. “There was only one thing going on. We played and the entire focus was on us. The last time we went, there were 10 billion things going on to watch and do.”
Jennifer Burnes, who eventually replaced Whitman on bass in the band, remembers a moment from 2002: “We were driving around on the top of a little ship built just for us made out of driftwood. The theme that year was ‘The Floating World,’ an ocean theme. And these giant ships were following us, and people dressed as krill on bicycles and Moby Dick and the Yellow Submarine. It was a total Mermen moment, especially the way the music was echoing across the playa. That band was perfect for Burning Man.”
Unto the Resplendent
From the club scene in San Francisco to the discovery of the Mavericks surf break near Half Moon Bay to the emergence of Burning Man as a touchstone event, the Mermen created the sound of a broad, emerging counterculture of Northern California.
Foley remembers the band’s regular gig every Thursday at the Beach Chalet: “The fun bus would arrive, and there would be fire dancers and belly dancers. The whole fun bus freak show would unload. And these tourists are all looking on. Yep, just a Thursday night in San Francisco.”
The decade culminated in the release of the band’s most important album, The Amazing California Health and Happiness Road Show, released in the summer of 2000. “Amazing California” displayed a new diversity of sound, bringing in Eastern flavors and marking an evolution beyond the classic Mermen sound of Krill Slippin’ and Food for Other Fish. It was the band’s most ambitious bid for mainstream attention. But its trippy, kaleidoscopic textures and sounds were never going to capture the imagination of a record-buying public that seemed to want more of Destiny’s Child and Matchbox Twenty.
The label pushed Thomas to bring in a star producer on the album. Names offered included Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham and Bruce Springsteen keyboardist Roy Bittan. But Thomas insisted on producing the record himself. “The band hated me after that,” he says. “Now, yeah I regret that a bit. I would have gotten a connection to Springsteen. There were a lot of opportunities for me back then that I just walked past.”
Thomas’s quirky decisions and brash personality created tensions in the band. “We had our fights,” says Whitman, who was replaced on bass in 1999. “He did drive me to blind fury on many occasions.” Despite the stormy relationships, the band has remained in its present form for more than 20 years and even had a rapprochement with Whitman.
“When I think about how much those guys have gone through together,” says Denise Halbe who has designed album covers for the band and currently moderates the Mermen’s Facebook fan page, “and they’ve always managed to have their battles and then just go forward. It’s OK to have these problems and just accept each other and still love each other. Everybody’s got a story about how they got mad at Jim. But at the end of the day, I always end up respecting him. He’s authentic and he’s forgiving and he tries.”
After 2000, rising rents on downtown rehearsal spaces in San Francisco compelled the band to relocate to Santa Cruz. Burnes came first. Thomas followed. Burnes engineered and built the studio that the band still uses today—one that sounds so tight, marvels Thomas, “you could fill this place up with water like a fish tank.”
The last year has given Thomas, 65, a jolt of energy, thanks to the out-of-left-field inspiration for the band’s two new albums, which came at a crucial moment in his creative life. “I went a long time thinking that I’m never going to write something meaningful again. It’s a little miracle, almost, to make a decent record.”
The guitar lines are still as buoyant and lyrical as they’ve ever been, and the new music still crackles with life. Much of it pushes fearlessly into the mystical. The band still performs regularly, and the Mermen fan base is unbowed by the years.
“My guess,” muses Whitman about Thomas, his friend and sparring partner, “is that the ocean is more important to him than music. You know, people change. Who he was when we worked together is not who he is now. I think he’s butted heads with the universe pretty strongly, and it’s humbled him. I remember him describing to me the perfect life as he gets older. He said, ‘I’m going to go to some place like Fiji and marry some Samoan woman, have eight kids and just sit around on the beach.’ That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?”
Friday, May 11, 9 p.m. Moe’s Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. $12 advance; $15 day of the show. moesalley.com.