As a young surfer guy striving to eke out an existence on the northern Jersey coast — toiling away at Posillipo’s restaurant in Asbury Park and any other job that would allow him the freedom to pursue his passion for waves — Jim Thomas lived for those moments just after a summer storm blew through the boardwalks and bungalows of the Shore. Heading out to the beach all stoked on the mental image of a choppy ocean surf; music on the car radio setting the mood and the pace; the Newark native turned avid surfboarder probably thought it couldn’t get much better than this.
Flash forward a couple of decades and then some. The transplanted easterner is living his own version of the California dream right on the beach in Santa Cruz; building a custom home studio and working on new material with his longtime instrumental rock band The Mermen — that is, when he’s not simply walking out the door with his board to go paddling off into the Pacific. Thursday nights are dedicated to a longstanding and wildly popular surfband gig at San Francisco’s Beach Chalet — and if you’re Jim Thomas, life these days is surely looking sweet.
So why then would anyone leave this idyllic scene for the pothole-pockmarked road of the low-budget transcontinental rock tour? For a specialty band like the Bay Area-bred Mermen — soon to make one of their quasi-annual appearances at The Saint nightclub in Asbury — the impetus is the level of zeal they’ve managed to instill within a rarefied but rabid core of followers; a fanbase that includes not only some of the most legendary figures in the sport of surfing, but many of the nation’s most snobbishly particular record shop clerks as well.
Thomas himself was both a waverider and a counter jockey upon relocating to the Golden State in the 1980’s, although curiously enough his own tastes and influences at the time ran more toward the Byrds and bluegrass than the sonic sweep of the 1960’s SoCal scene. It took a viewing of filmmaker Bruce Brown’s classic surf documentary “Endless Summer” to attract the amateur musician to the sound of a reverb-drenched guitar — along with a 1988 live show by “Misirlou” maestro Dick Dale that, in Jim’s words, “totally blew my mind.”
“Seeing Dick Dale implanted something in me,” Thomas says of the colorful character regarded as the King of the Surf Guitar. “”It inspired me to take my guitar playing to a whole different realm.”
When the original Mermen lineup convened in 1989 (playing their first show the night before the big Bay Area earthquake), the West Coast surf revival was in its infancy; with such groups as Los Straitjackets, Satan’s Pilgrims and the Aqua Velvets introducing a new generation to the breathtaking thrills of a “wet” fretrun — joined soon enough by the likes of Alabama’s Man or Astro-Man?, Canada’s Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet; even Finland’s Laika and the Cosmonauts. Still, while the band’s debut “Krill Slipping” stayed true to the fundamentals of the surf subgenre, Thomas and company would avoid wiping out in the aftermath of the craze by deconstructing the base elements of the surf sound and spinning them off into frankly experimental, often unsettling and sometimes epic pieces like “White Trash Raga” and “Burn,” both from the most recent Mermen release; the lushly produced 2000 effort “The Amazing California Health and Happiness Road Show.”
These days, the core personnel of Thomas and bass-playing mermaid Jennifer Burnes (who replaced Alan Whitman a few years back) are augmented by any of several players in a floating-drummer platoon that finds original Merman Martin Jones once more taking the driver’s seat for the current set of dates, which brings the band to the Saint stage this coming Wednesday night. Last time out at the Main Street bandbox, Jim and Jen were joined by charter Tubes member and Frisco fixture Prairie Prince; they also work their Beach Chalet gigs with Japanese percussionist Shigemi Komiyama, putting a dizzy spin on classic instros by Link Wray, the Astronauts and the Shadows under their side-project aegis of The Sh*tones.
“There was a time when I could sing all the words to about thirty Dylan songs,” says Thomas of the days before he found his calling in the wordless workshop of instrumental rock. “But I found more satisfaction; a more lyrical way of expressing myself by playing guitar.”
For anyone who’s ever felt like pulling the plug on the pushy points of view and in-your-ear mewlings of countless lead vocalists, the lyric-less Mermen are nevertheless one of the most articulate combos currently working that vast no-man’s land that lies just beneath the nation’s celebrity radar. While Thomas’s promises for the new tour and next recordings hint at a simpler approach than that found on the last album, the Mer-people are never skittish about throwing their audience anything from a challenging curveball to a comforting cover-tune cantaloupe.
“For fifteen years, we’ve operated without a setlist,” the guitarslinger proudly vouches. “We don’t like to go in with a plan; we prefer to feel where it’s going.”