Back on the surf-rock sonar

Hanging 30 with the Fathoms
By CHRIS CONTI  |  May 20, 2009

fathoms main
'OUT ON A LEDGE' The Fathoms.

'Tis the season for veteran surf-rock trio the Fathoms to usher in the warm weather when they play a free gig at Nick-a-Nee's on Saturday. The all-star outfit has made the renowned watering hole an unofficial homebase since releasing Fathom This! in 2007 (available at iTunes and at myspace.com/thefathoms), which was their first disc since 1998's Overboard (whose title cut was used in the 2000 cult spoof flick Psycho Beach Party). In terms of musicianship and years on the scene (25-plus), no one can deny the Fathoms their props: guitarist Frankie Blandino won the WBRU Rock Hunt in 1987 with Frankie & the Premiers, then went on to form the Cranktones, who often shared the stage with the Royal Crowns in the mid-'90s. Bassist Paul Tomasello played with Roomful of Blues and Young Neal & the Vipers, and drummer Doug Hinman formerly hit the skins for the Duke Robillard Band, among others.

And while I'm probably not the only one out there whose knowledge of the genre doesn't extend far beyond namedropping Dick Dale, the Ventures, and "Wipe Out," or envisioning Frankie and Annette bugging out in those old beach makeout movies, that doesn't hinder the listening experience on Fathom This! From Blandino's nimble work on "Dagger Bones," the opening title track, and "Panito" to Hinman's rumbling kit on "Aqua Beat" and "Dark Secret," these guys are master craftsmen of the surfstrumental sound, and someone should pass along a copy to Quentin Tarantino. There are a few twists, including piano and keys on "Castle Island Dream" and Dave Scholl's sax on "Palomino," "Leap Froggin'," and "Midway A-Go-Go," but the band usually hits the road as a trio, and Blandino anticipates a "raw and unadorned set" at Nick-a-Nee's.

Check out some live footage on YouTube and gearheads will appreciate the vintage equipment Blandino wields, including the Fender Jazzmaster, a crucial element to that surf-sound twang. "I use a mid-'60s Jazzmaster and play through an old Fender Deluxe Reverb amp — there's no other way to get that signature 'drip-and-ping' surf sound," Blandino informed me. "There is no substitute for the organic sound of certain vintage gear, but I have been using a Holy Grail reverb pedal recently. I know surf purists can't fathom that I'd commit such a sacrilege, but I get my sound nevertheless."

Blandino's "sound" strays from the norm on "Rat Bike"; the thick chords and distortion resemble "Get It On (Bang a Gong)" rather than the average Gidget-gone-wild stuff. " 'Surf rock' is far too narrow and misleading, people start thinking of the Beach Boys," Hinman noted. " 'Rat Bike' is the closest we push the envelope toward the psychedelia period in '67 and represents the classic biker exploitation flicks.

I asked about trying to connect with a particular demographic. "We initially attract an older crowd familiar with the genre, but invariably we pull in the younger, musician types along with those who make the Pulp Fiction connection and appreciate the honesty and energy in the music.

"It's very tough to book gigs because we are completely out on a ledge stylistically," Hinman said. "Rhode Island has always had a vibrant music scene and there's still no place like it, although the days of playing three clubs in one week are long over."

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