Cory Lomberg built Brian Wilson that sandbox.
Underneath the overpass on Glendale Blvd., a crowd loiters along the curb. Nearly everyone here is under 22 and nearly everyone here opts for 100 percent additive-free natural tobacco. I’m 19 but I’ve never liked Spirits.
We all showed up for the in-store show at Lolipop Records. Three bands are set to play, although the kid I’m small-talking with is unfamiliar with them. He only came because there was an extra seat in his friend’s mom’s Subaru. But he likes what he hears, and feels inclined to educate me on the style of the headlining act, who we can’t quite see because the shop is packed with spectators. So many, they spill out into the doorway—a fire hazard dipped in denim.
My temples are throbbing as he explains the band’s alternate picking style and the array of reverb pedals set out across the carpeted floor. By the time he gets to their familiar drum pattern (kick, snare-snare, kick, he describes, with gesticulations), I’ve almost successfully slinked back into my corner beside the 45s. Still, his ending remark sticks with me:
“Surf rock,” he concludes, nodding enthusiastically. “I’m all about that.”
It can’t be. I thought surf rock died back in 2003, when the Black Eyed Peas sampled Dick Dale on “Pump It.” I wander outside, reeling. The crowd looks nothing like the cast of “The Endless Summer,” and more like that of the James Franco movie adapted from a James Franco book, which is actually good. The movie, on the other hand, isn’t any good. Have the masterminds behind Lolipop amassed a cult-like following in backing millennial reincarnations of Dale, Link Wray, and the clean-cut Ventures?
If so, they’re not alone in doing so. Not even close. Up in Seattle, Suicide Squeeze’s got Guantanamo Baywatch. Another LA label, Dangerbird Records, has The Frights. And then there are bands like The Buttertones, who have probably played every local venue with a capacity under a thousand this year.
It’s not a commodification of surf rock. This sound—the one at Lolipop and seemingly everywhere else—is informed by both psych and classic instrumental surf music. This must be a revival. Or something.
Surf music was by no means born in California, but it still feels appropriate to witness the resurgence in Echo Park, a mere 16 miles and one to three hours from the nearest stretch of beach. Aforementioned acts like Dale and The Ventures were the real veterans of surf music, in suits, ties and stoic expressions. Wray, too, though he typically went with leather. Either way, these musicians all subverted Californian sensations—the warmth, the slow pace, the smiles, the lack of winter layers. Surf rockers on the rise in the ‘50s and early ‘60s barreled through each song with aggressively quick tempo. None of them sang. The first wave of the genre is comparable to garage rock or punk: Dead Kennedys gave a nod to its influence on its 1980 B-side, “Police Truck.”
Then came the Beach Boys. Though perfect in every way, they did not make the same kind of surf rock. They sang about a woman’s scent. They wore Hawaiian-print shirts. They actually surfed. These were the very characteristics that made them Californian, and thus made them a commercial success. Brian Wilson was a different breed of rock star.
Today, Lolipop borrows from both ends of the surf spectrum. And if you can look past the buttons and the candy-colored cassettes, it’s clear that the label has done so constructively. Partnered with Burger Records, Lolipop has helped bring an element to surf rock that was never prominent before: female representation. Both labels sell and support work from women who put a contemporary spin on surf music.
In Lolipop’s home studio, Kim and the Created worked out a dark distortion of first-wave surf rock. Meanwhile, Peach Kelli Pop goes full-doo-wop-punk. It’s a paradoxical pleasure. The group’s third record, Peach Kelli Pop III, came out on Burger last year. They’ll be releasing a demo tape this spring through Lolipop.
At its 2015 SXSX showcase, the Lolipop team brought out Gal Pals: an Austin-born duo that thrusts garage rock riffs up against surf-pop harmonies. Since relocating to LA, they’ve played an in-store show as well. The sweetest end of Lolipop’s surf spectrum is reserved for dream-pop project Winter. Supreme Blue Dream — the band’s 2015 album released on Lolipop — channels the Wilson brothers in all of their salty glory. Still, the sound is distinct to frontwoman Samira Winter, with psych synthetics and select lyrics in her native Portuguese.
If any band, femme or not, has lead the surf revival, it’s undoubtedly La Luz. The members are much more than surf rockers—they’re storytellers of the noir. They materialize in an alternate reality where doo-wop and Dick Dale can coexist without Dale trying to pin down doo-wop and fuck up its bouffant. In a defunct surfboard factory, La Luz recorded Weirdo Shrine (2015), where the surf riffs and the femme rock and the heaven-sent harmonies and the ghost tales come to a head. All of it pays homage to a musical tradition more than 50 years past.
La Luz established itself as one of the best acts on the west coast in 2013, with its very first EP, Damp Face. Burger has been behind them the whole time. Though the group is signed to Sub Pop subsidy Hardly Art, all of their releases have been promoted and sold by Burger. They’ve played Fullerton festivals Burgerama and, most recently, Burger x Observatory.
While Burger annually brings in a girls-only lineup for Burger-a-Go-Go, it consistently books female headliners for its whole repertoire of festivals. The SoCal empire does a damn good job of representing female-identifying talent, surf rock or not. Lolipop follows suit in representing acts like Death Valley Girls, Feels and L.A. Witch.
With these labels at the helm, maybe California really can become surf rock headquarters. Anything is possible when you’ve got the thumbs-up from an army of teens wearing tiny Swedish backpacks.