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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A Splash of Surf

Milwaukee's Exotics stir the tiki revival

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The Exotics were already together when people started talking to them about this cool new movie called Pulp Fiction. It wasn't so much the plot, or John Travolta's career revival, but the music that was the conversation starter. Milwaukee's surf instrumental band seemed to echo Quentin Tarantino's soundtrack, yet for founding member Don Nelson, choosing the surf sound wasn't prescience so much as persistence. He had grown up with this music and never lost sight of it.

"My father had lots of Ventures' records," says Nelson, the band's drummer. Papa Nelson, by the way, was the driver-roadie for The Legends, a popular early-'60s Milwaukee band whose instrumental rock was not unrelated to the sound of The Ventures, Dick Dale and the California groups that defined instrumental (as opposed to Beach Boys' vocal) surf music. "And," Nelson adds, "The Ventures always seemed to fly with the skateboard-punk crowd I was into."

Reverberations from the early-'60s surf beat surrounded Nelson as he came of age as a musician. Agent Orange covered the genre's signature, "Pipeline"; The B-52s brought the old sound into the new wave; and TSOL ran a surf shop on the beach of their California town. Aside from love of the music, Nelson was motivated to form The Exotics by the easy logistics. "We didn't have a singer, so we didn't need a PA. We could just set up small amps—little peashooters," Nelson explains. "I could set up a three-piece drum set and we could rock the house with anybody."

The Exotics have just released a three-song EP featuring "Agent from Osaka," "The Enchanted Interrogation Room" and "Surf Burglar." Recorded with natural room echo by producer Mike Perotto, the stripped-down arrangements wrap melodically rich songs with shifting dynamics and minor-key moods, propelled by crisp rhythms and lonesome trebly guitars with touches of organ and clicking castanets. The songs—written by Brandt Zacher (guitar), Jon Ziegler (bass) and Paul Wall (guitar)—are cinematic in scope, suggesting stories with their chord changes.

Wall wasn't quite as young as Nelson when he discovered surf instrumentals. "When I was 13 I learned to play guitar by listening to The Best of The Ventures. Everyone else was into Eddie Van Halen," he recalls. Wall's primary band for many years, Trolley, always included a few original or cover versions of surf instrumentals, and he was already a fan of The Exotics before joining the group in the mid-'90s.

Nelson always insisted on a purist vision for The Exotics. They aren't trying to be surf punks or metalheads with the ocean echoing in their ears. With their vintage instruments, hairdos and sharp-creased suits, The Exotics could have stepped through the time tunnel from 1963 into the 21st century. They have played in New York, Florida and across the Midwest, but are especially proud of the fandom they have achieved in the motherland of surf, California.

The Exotics will be touring the tiki circuit along the Pacific coast next month. Meanwhile, they're warming up with a gig at the "Chill on the Hill" concert series in Humboldt Park, 6:30-8:30 p.m. July 24.