The Mermen

by Stephen Rose on May 16, 2012

By: Stephen Rose
Led by guitarist Jim Thomas, and supported by Allen Whitman on bass and Martyn Jones on drums, the Mermen are a San Francisco surf-rock trio formed in 1989 and considered to be part of the “3rd Wave” of instrumental surf music, which is loosely associated with the 1994 Quentin Tarantino film Pulp Fiction for including two Dick Dale songs in its soundtrack.  Other notable 3rd Wave surf bands include Jon & the Nightriders, Los Straitjackets, Pollo Del Mar, The Bambi Molesters (from Croatia ), The Surf Coasters ( Japan ), The Insect Surfers, The Surf Kings, Slacktone, The Halibuts and many others.

The Mermen derived their name from the Jimi Hendrix song “1983… (A Merman I Should Turn To Be)”, from his 1968 album Electric Ladyland.  Historically, the Mermen have always resembled what Jimi Hendrix would sound like if he played surf-rock at its most acid-drenched extreme.  However, at other times they can be very melodic and reflective producing ballads of grace and beauty in the spirit of Hendrix classics such as Little Wing, Sand Castles in the Sky, and The Wind Cries Mary.  A perfect example is one of my favorite Mermen tracks called “To Be Naked and Fresh is Always Hard” from their 1996 limited release live album “Only You”.

I have been a big fan of the Mermen ever since Rhino included the live version of their song “Honeybomb” on the 1996 Cowabunga! surf boxed set, and also since hearing their studio track “Ocean Beach” on the excellent 1994 surf compilation “Beyond The Beach”.

Honeybomb is included towards the end of the Rhino box and is likely as hard-rocking a surf instrumental as you will ever hear.  As the song progresses it continuously veers further and further out of control until exploding with raw energy in the climax.  The first time I heard it I thought it was too over-the-top and perhaps included solely as an example of how far astray the new breed of surf bands had deviated from their more melodic and distortion-free predecessors, but after repeated listenings the emotional impact of the bombastic ending spoke to me, saying “wake up dude, there’s something special going on here.” I have been a big fan of the band ever since, collecting all of their albums, and was even fortunate enough in 1993 to see them open for Dick Dale at Slim’s in San Francisco.

The Mermen released their first CD, “Krill Slippin,” in 1989.  It was a DIY effort sold by the band at their shows (initially only available on cassette).  All of the compositions are by Jim Thomas, and drummer Martyn Jones contributed the cover artwork.  While not as polished as their later efforts the foundation is firmly in place and the album contains many strong tracks including “Ocean Beach” (to be redone on their second release); “Splashin’ with the Mermaid;” the relaxed vibe of “Sand;” and “The Whales,” where Jim Thomas uses a bottleneck slide to replicate the mournful cry of the leviathan.  On several tracks he uses a chorus effect to fatten the reverb, including the upbeat final track “The Goodbye.”

“Food For Other Fish,” the Mermen’s sophomore release came out in 1994.  The production values are more polished, and the playing is more assured than on their debut.  Once again all compositions are by Jim Thomas.  Overall, the album is more representative of their current sound – more effects driven with high octane feedback and distortion added to several tracks giving an extra layer to the guitar’s tone and characterizing their contribution to the surf genre.

The improved production values on “Food For Other Fish” are immediately apparent during the arpeggio introduction to the opening track, the mystical “Be My Noir.”  The fourth track, “My Black Bag,” is a dark exercise in feedback and distortion that gives way to the explosiveness of the fifth track, the studio version of “Honeybomb.”  Other standouts include the redone “Ocean Beach,” (included in the “Beyond The Beach” compilation); the relaxed vibe of “Raglan;” and hypnotic imagery of “Madagasgar.” The climax of the album is the psychedelic “Pull Of The Moon,” accented by drummer Martyn Jones’ mocking laughter.

“Live at the Haunted House” was released in 1995 and contains live tracks taken from radio broadcasts between 1991 and 1994.  Included are ““ Lonely Road (krill slippin)” and “Splashing With The Mermaid” from the band’s debut; “Honeybomb” (chosen by Rhino for their surf box); and a new original called “Gulch of Spleens.” The band also performs amped up covers of “Quiet Surf” by Richard Podolor; “Penetration” by the Pyramids; and “Unknown” by the Vydells.  The final track is a down tempo, groovy rendition of the Ventures’ Hawaii Five-O theme called “Slo Mo HVO.”

“A Glorious Lethal Euphoria,” also released in 1995, finds Jim Thomas modifying his tone to capture the grunge, and distorted overdrive normally associated with Neil Young or Pearl Jam.   The Crazy Horse vibe is especially prominent on track 5 “Obsession For Men” and track 7 “Under the Kou Tree.“  Two of the more traditional sounding surf songs are the tranquil second track “With No Definite Purpose,” and the slightly more aggressive fourth track “Scalp Salad.”  The band does some serious shredding on track 8 “Lizards,” then lays down a jam that would have fit in with the Jimi Hendrix set at Woodstock on track 9 “Quo me cunque rapit tempestas.”  Track 12 “Between I and Thou” expands the album’s loveliest melody into a nine minute epic of darkness and redemption.  The album concludes with a reflective interpretation of “Brahms 3rd Movement 3rd Symphony.”

 

The Mermen’s fourth studio album, “Songs of the Cows,” released in 1996 is slightly more psychedelic than their previous effort. Staccato picking, bent chords, and a rollicking drumbeat announce the surf is up and the waves are pounding on the powerful opener “Curve.”  The second track “Slipping The Glimpse” opens with vibrato tempered feedback, then Jim Thomas soars overhead with a heavily distorted lead while Allen Whitman’s bass drives the melody.  Other highlights include the Russian-themed “Varykino Show,” which gives way to the bittersweet waltz of “A Heart With Paper Walls.”  The four-part “Brain Wash” concludes the album by beginning with a delicate melody that segues into the band’s most experimental track to date – a subtle electronic symphony awash in distortion and feedback.

In 1996 the Mermen released two more live albums: “Sunken Treasure,” recorded at the Crocodile Café in Seattle; and the limited edition “Only You,” recorded at San Francisco’s Fort Point National Monument at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge.  The late Chet Helms, known for his concert promotions in the 60’s at the Avalon Ballroom, introduces the band at the Fort Point show.

It must be said at this point that a true artist is never satisfied residing within safe zones and pre-defined boundaries by repeating what has already been done before.  It is only when we push against borders and expand our boundaries that we are experiencing life and truly living rather than merely existing.

Complacency only breeds contempt and mediocrity, and the Mermen are a perfect example of a band that has avoided mediocrity by continuously expanding their horizons.

Cases in point are the Mermen’s two most recent albums: “The Amazing California Health and Happiness Road Show,” released in 2000; and “In God We Trust”, which came out in 2009. Both of these albums are sharp left turns for the Mermen because neither relies on the Hendrix-inspired sonic-assaults that characterized the two previous releases.  Aaron Marshall contributes to the other-worldly nature of both albums with his evocative artwork.

“The Amazing California Health and Happiness Road Show” is the surfing equivalent of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”  It is Jim Thomas going nuts in the studio and using every trick in the book to make the most thrilling and unique surf-rock album imaginable.  On this release he takes full advantage of multi-track technology to create a headphone masterpiece.  This tour de force is stylistically as diverse as the Golden State from whence it came, containing raga chants, Eastern mysticism, country picking, pedal steel, synthesizers, and backward tape looping.  The only unifying theme is experimentation.  The standout track on the album is the unassuming named “Bare White,” the greatest Acid Jazz song never written.  It begins with steel drums, subtle wah wah guitar, and an Allen Whitman bass line evoking a Jamaican dub vibe until Jim Thomas throws a monkey wrench into the proceedings by tossing off a jazz guitar riff that would fit right in on a Wes Montgomery or early George Benson album.  Other highlights include the vibrato and reverb drenched opener “Unto The Resplendent;” and “Sponge Cookie,” which harkens back to the distorted psychedelic surf riffs of the previous two albums. The final track “Burn” concludes the album with a Hawkwind-inspired space-rock jam layered over a jungle drum beat that fades out in a jumble of feedback and distortion before ending on a note of optimism with an acoustic reprise of the album’s opening melody.

On the Mermen’s latest release “In God We Trust” they are catching a more tranquil wave as lead guitarist Jim Thomas channels David Gilmour in a set of spacey, ambient and hypnotic tunes that would not be out of place on the second half of Pink Floyd’s 1971 Meddle album.  As a matter of fact, because of the strong Pink Floyd influence, a more appropriate title for this disc might have been ‘Dark Side of the Surf’.

In God We Trust is consistently listenable from beginning to end. The music takes you on a journey to a place where you have never been before and don’t want to come back from.  If you are looking for three-minute radio-friendly traditional surf classics then In God We Trust is not for you, but if you are open to experiencing a new-wave surf-sensation then this voyage may be just the trip the doctor ordered.  In God We Trust is melodic groove music at its finest, and a really a far-out 3rd Wave surf-rock album from one of the best of a new breed of surf-rock bands.

 

 

Discography

 

Krill Slippin’ (1989)

Food for Other Fish (1994)

Live at the Haunted House (1995)

A Glorious Lethal Euphoria (1995)

Songs of the Cows (1996)

Sunken Treasure (1996)

Only You (1996)

The Amazing California Health and Happiness Road Show (2000)

In God We Trust (2009)

 

 

Videos

 

A Heart With Paper Walls (Nov. 2011)

Raglan (Nov. 2011)

Last Forever (Nov. 2011)

Honeybomb (Jan. 2010)

Curve (Jan. 2010)

Little Stinky Kitty (Jan. 2010)

100 Foot Lemon (Jan. 2010)

Kou Tree (Jan. 2010)

Ocean Beach / Casbah (Apr. 2008)

Riptide (Apr. 2012)

Honeybomb (Apr. 2012)

Raglan (Apr. 2012)

Curve (Apr. 2012)

The Whales (Jan. 2010)

 

Editorials

 

“The Mermen have been praised for ‘pushing the envelope’ of guitar-driven instrumental music with a sound that is sometimes mystical, sometimes exuberant, and other times downright in-your-face brutal. The grassroots success of the Mermen is proof positive of the band’s awesome ability to affect people with their unique sound.” – Amazon.com

“One of the odder and more wonderful bands to emerge from the surf music revival, the Mermen race between high-octane surf anthems and spaced-out blasts of psychedelia. Neither their albums nor their live shows follow any sort of expected or ordinary path, and the band has made many sincere attempts to get away from the surf music label. Based in San Francisco, the band has developed a broad cult following, encourages tapers, and has developed a strong relationship with radio, resulting in numerous radio broadcasts, some of which were compiled for The Mermen Live at the Haunted House.” -– ThePirateBay.org

“About 5 years ago, I got this cassette in the mail from these guys in San Francisco that I’d only heard slags about from the local snobby nosed purists. It was a 16 track cassette album called Krill Slippin’. Well, I listened and listened. There was something really cool going on under relatively unsympathetic production. I thought about it for several weeks, and decided to write the band with encouragement, production values suggestions, and some trad surf sensibilities. I wasn’t sure what was trying to be accomplished. It could go in a really great trad direction, or it could become what it has… the best band in the world! Anyway, this has been 5 years coming to CD. It’s very important in that its great music, good listening, and, when combined with At The Haunted House provides true perspective on the development of a marvelous band. This will please any serious Mermen fan as well as instrumental fans… OK, so I’m a bit biased toward these guys, but that doesn’t take away from their music.” -– Phil Dirt

“It’s been decades since Jimi Hendrix advised the world that they’d “never hear surf music again.” But the Mermen (who take their name from a Hendrix song) not only prove the venerable guitar god wrong, but make a compelling musical argument here that if Hendrix were alive today he might well be sitting in with them on these moody, musically expansive tracks.  Just as Jimi was reinventing himself at the time of his death, the Mermen tweak surf-instrumental clichés beyond recognition–that is, when they’re not trashing them altogether. Guitarist Jim Thomas’s influences range from (of course) Hendrix to Dick Dale, Django Reinhardt, Ravi Shankar, Neil Young, Clarence White, and his own hometown heroes, the Dead Kennedys. Listen closely and you’ll hear them all (and more) in a progressive collection that offers a surprise at nearly every turn, whether it’s the soaring steel guitar flourishes of “Unto the Resplendent,” the sitar colorings of “White Trash Raga,” or the spacey Floyd-isms of the 13-minute-plus noise-symphony, “Burn.” Like his heroes, Thomas never lets flash block the path of illumination, delivering his rich palette of tones and influences with an ocean-bred sense of grace and destiny. –Jerry McCulley

“…in terms of the genre overall, I would have to pick The Mermen as the unique cream – or perhaps foam – of this crop.  The sound of their early albums – their first, Krill Slippin’, in particular – is unmistakeably surf – the monumental guitars, the echoing atmospherics, the rolling pull of the sound – but is also deeply psychedelic in the true sense – not the faux psychedelia of sixties and seventies rock with its clunkily naïve mysticism, its sitars and picturebook lyrics, nor the irritating melodiousness of psychedelic trance, but a psychedelia which combines dreaminess, insistence, the evocation of unfamiliar mental and physical states, the sense of a journey both embodied and transcendent. The bizarre beauty of the ocean documentary – one of my favourite televisula genres – is definitely an appropriate reference point.  As much as being a soundtrack to a white-plumed voyage above and within rolling waves populated by mer-creatures and horses of foam, Krill’ Slippin is also a soundtrack to a bedazzled, lazily drifting state of beach becalmedness infused with mild melancholia – in other words, perhaps the perfect summer music. While their later works tends towards being heavier and more experimental, Krill Slippin’ (with their second album, 1993’s Food For Other Fish, running a close second) is their masterpiece – a masterpiece of navigation between crests and lulls, the evocation of a half-mythical, echoing space of flows, located somewhere in uncharted waters.” –genrenaut

 

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