Twang ten Toronto
The Surfrajettes and a slew of surf bands ready to face off at the Great Lakes Surf Battle
The Surfrajettes, (L–R:) Nicole Damoff (guitar), Shermy Freeman (guitar), Sarah Butler (bass) and Amber Rutschmann (drums)
It’s soon to be summer, and in Toronto that means sun, sand and, for Shermy Freeman — one of the founders of the Surfrajettes — and other lovers of instrumental beach twang, it also means surf music.
This month, Toronto’s 12th annual Great Lakes Surf Battle takes place at downtown bars the Cadillac Lounge and Shameful Tiki Room, featuring some of best of the genre from Luau Or Die to the Mexican wrestling-garbed Blue Demons.
Surf music was popularized in the ’50s by guitar legends such as Dick Dale and the Del-Tones. Although it isn’t obvious to those not looking for a little Ventures with their nightlife, Toronto has become something of a hub of surf music despite the decided lack of, well, surf.
It all started when buddies Pete Jones and Dano Villano met a Californian named Tiki Tina on MySpace. (Remember that?)
Long story short, she was coming to town, and the boys wanted to show her a good time, so they organized the first surf battle with six bands playing over two nights at Smiling Buddha and Mitzi’s Sister. The rest is history.
“It remains a tribute to Tiki Tina to this day,” says Jones. “We keep it going in the hopes that she comes back.”
Back then, there were only two surf bands in town: Jones’s Blue Demons and the Fin Tones. Now, thanks to the Great Lakes Surf Battle, Toronto is drowning in primo surf music. Case in point: the Surfrajettes.
Freeman discovered the genre after getting involved with the Toronto Vintage Society, which often booked surf bands to play events. In addition, one day she woke up with the desire to learn “The Munsters’s Theme” (nominated for a Grammy Award in 1965) on her guitar.
“I’ve always been a music nerd,” she says, on the phone from her home in Port Perry outside Toronto. “So next, I said I was going to learn ‘Walk Don’t Run,’ by the Ventures, and that took a long time, but I kept practising and got alright at it.”
Soon, Freeman and her friend Nicole Damoff were jamming.
“Nicole wanted to be in a surf rock band,” Freeman explains. “So we decided we needed more band members. I called up this girl Amber, who played behind me in senior band [in high school] and asked her to join. She said, ‘Sure, can I play guitar?’ And, I’m like, ‘Nope, you’re drums.’ ”
Although Amber (Rutschmann) didn’t technically know how to play drums, there was an old kit in Freeman’s grandfather’s attic, so a few intense lessons later, the band was starting to take shape, and the
Surfrajettes booked their first gig at Cherry Cola’s just three months after forming.
“I’m not saying it was great, but when we played our first show, it was the most packed Cherry Cola’s had been,” she says.
Two years later, and the band plays around 30 cover songs and four originals.
In addition to instrumental surf guitar, they throw in a smattering of psychedelic rock à la “Paint It Black,” some serious beehive hairdos and matching outfits generally of the go-go variety: the makings of one helluva party band.
“As a guitar player, it’s really great to be able to play instrumental music because it’s more interesting,” Freeman says.
“I’m not going to say it’s more challenging. It’s not that. But it’s also not just playing rhythm and improvised solos. You are literally playing the melody, and if you don’t play flawlessly, it’s really noticeable. And sometimes it’s really great to, like, not deal with the singer.”
Although they were still self-professed “noobs” at the time, the band was asked to play at last year’s Great Lakes Surf Battle where they turned more than a few heads, narrowly losing the crown to Men In Grey Suits from Montreal.
“We weren’t Jimi Hendrixes at first, but we are what we are, and we do our best,” Freeman says. “We have fun, and people seem to enjoy that.”
The surf battle, according to Freeman, has a reputation for drawing some pretty impressive bands to the city but also is something of a holiday for surf bands toiling in relative obscurity for most of the year.
“It’s a giant celebration for us. Everyone is super supportive,” she says. “When I started a band, I was so excited to play at it.”
This year, the Great Lakes Surf Battle runs over four days from June 1 to 4, but the bulk of the festivities fall on Friday and Saturday evening.
“There are, like, bands from coast to coast, from the United States and all over the place trying to get in on this,” says Jones. “It’s really brought us all together.”
The Surfrajettes play Saturday at the Cadillac Lounge alongside the band’s grey-suited nemesis as well as the Hang Ten Hangmen, Blue Demons and more.
Since the last surf battle, the Surfrajettes have signed on to perform at surf festivals across North America including gigs at the Hukilau Festival in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Asbury Park Surf Music Festival in New Jersey.
“It’s not mainstream music,” says Freeman. “But I feel like I’ve struck gold by being asked to play the stuff we’ve been asked to play. Surf isn’t what you would call ‘profitable. ”
In recent years, another exciting band to arrive on the scene is the C and C Surf Factory, something of a supergroup that includes Blue Rodeo’s ace shredder Colin Cripps and Champagne James Robertson of New Country Rehab. Although they won’t be playing the Great Lakes Surf Battle, there is a new album on the way: a followup to their 2015 debut Garage City.
Whether you witness a surf battle or catch one of the bands at a club, you’ll walk away knowing that surf music is a unique addition to the city’s live music scene.