From the wrestling-masked Los Straitjackets to Japan's New Wave-catching Surf Coasters, a lot of bands who carry on the surf-rock tradition like to mix in a few punk-rock or rockabilly moves. But it takes a special kind of band to combine surf and jazz influences and actually make it work. Factor in the limited market for either form of music, and it takes a special kind of band to even want to.
Which makes the Mag Seven pretty special. On the Texas trio's shiny new Cotton Needle Sessions album, there's an undertow of Thelonious Monk beneath the reverb-drenched guitar riffs. Is this all a strategy to even further limit the band's potential audience?
"We know it's a niche," says guitarist Brandon Landelius. "A lot of times I write music that I don't hear from other people out there. It's like, the new Mastodon album is amazing, but when I want to hear surf and jazz and I don't know of anywhere to get that, then the next best thing is just to write something."
For this latest album, the Mag Seven took a trip to Bill Stevenson's Blasting Room Studios in Fort Collins. The drummer for punk stalwarts Black Flag and the Descendents, Stevenson has more recently produced the likes of Rise Against, NOFX and the Lemonheads. Along with Mag Seven's founding bassist Donivan Blair, Landelius and Stevenson channeled their love for jazz into a richly atmospheric recording.
"I have a reverence and respect for jazz because, in my opinion, it's the highest form of music," says Landelius. "Basically, we try to use surf guitar instead of trumpet and saxophone. I've never been a big fan of traditional beach-blanket surf, but I like the moodier things with a lot of jazz voicings and minor seventh chords. So to me, it just made sense to try throwing those two together."
Still, the guitarist admits to learning as he goes: "We were in the studio and Bill was trying to help us with some things. And he's like, 'What chord is that?' And I'm like, 'Dude, I don't know.' If you take lessons from someone who actually knows, there's a lot of shortcuts and you can save yourself a lot of time. But the discovery is a big part of what keeps you excited about it."
Landelius grew up in Fayetteville, Ark., where like-minded musicians were hard to come by. After moving to Amarillo, he struck up a friendship with Blair, who shared his interest in punk rock, jazz and Mahavishnu Orchestra, and then joined the band a year later.
Onstage, the Mag Seven throw in the odd Huevos Rancheros and Los Straitjackets tune, as well as a rendition of Monk's "Well You Needn't." But Landelius is generally leery of jazz covers: "It's gotta be done right or else it just comes across as phony, and I never wanna do that."
And then there's the risk of becoming derivative.
"I tend to listen to things that are 180 degrees from what we're writing, just because I don't want to have that in my subconscious and then slip out. It's like, 'Oh wow, that's really good.' And then I go back and listen and I'm like, 'Oh, it sounds really good because Ennio Morricone did it already.'"