Surf mu­sic is tak­ing over Toronto this month with the Great Lakes Surf Bat­tle.

The Surfra­jettes and com­pany ready to face off at the Great Lakes Surf Bat­tle

Thornhill Post - - Arts -

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 self­pro­fessed “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.

The Surfra­jettes, (L–R:) Ni­cole Damoff (gui­tar), Shermy Free­man (gui­tar), Sarah But­ler (bass) and Am­ber Rutschmann (drums)

The Blue Demons — from parts un­known

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