Surfing with the Sharks
Surfing with the Sharks
A Q&A with Montag the Magnificent (aka Ian Hansson)
Of Great White Caps
By Geoff Gehman
The first time Ian Hansson heard “Misirlou,” during the opening credits of “Pulp Fiction,” he was hooked line and sinker. Chaperoned to the R-rated flick by his “very cool” parents, the 13-year-old punk-rock guitarist was absolutely pulped by the skidding, pipelining instrumental from Dick Dale and His Del-Tones. It felt hip. It felt right. It felt like he was shaking inside a cranked-up amp.
That day Hansson became a surf-rock dude. Eighteen years later, he still is. The New Jersey native is the lead guitarist, chief songwriter and main man of Great White Caps, a rip-roaring surf band from Bethlehem, which is not even the surfing capital of Pennsylvania. The seriously sideburned Hansson and his three pals wear beach outfits, sport smart monikers (Johnny Utah, Montag the Magnificent, Sylvester Seaweed, Warchild) and play twanging, twistering tunes with tart titles like “Betty Lou’s Got a New Tattoo” and “Sweet Teat Meat.”
The Great Whites have been on a feeding frenzy since they debuted on a snowy night in December 2009. They’ve shared bills with Start Making Sense, the Talking Heads tribute group with Caps members; opened for the Ventures, the most popular surf band of all time; recorded two full-length records (including the new vinyl LP “Screech Beach!”); started making a documentary about their cross-country tour last summer, and accompanied “Point Break,” the 1991 cult film where an FBI agent named Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) infiltrates a gang of surfing robbers. They’ll up the ante on Feb. 2 at the Mauch Chunk Opera House, where they’ll score “The Endless Summer,” the classic 1966 documentary about two guys who spend a year surfing the globe. Hansson & Co. will replace the soundtrack, which features the Sandals’ version of the movie’s hit theme, with a more eclectic collection. Expect originals (“Moonlight Beach”), standards (the Ventures’ “Journey to the Stars”) and obscure gems (“Plymouth Rock” from Satan’s Pilgrims, Hansson’s current favorite surf group).
During a recent phone interview Hansson hung-10 about the pleasures of playing California klezmer ragas all year round.
Q: Why did surf rock capsize you from the start? I mean, it certainly makes you shake your booty, smile your fool head off and shorten endless winters.
A: It was something I could really put my personality into. It really felt familiar; it felt like music I should have been playing all along. It felt like punk, which made sense because at the time I was playing at parties with punk-rock dudes anywhere from 13 to 17. When I first began diving into surf, it was the coolest thing. We were cranking amps as loud as they could go, turning the reverb way up. Once I figured out the technical aspects, including what gauge strings to play, it was even more of a blast.
Surf music is really embedded in our culture. It’s one of those really American things we tend to be drawn to. I think it’s the first form of punk music.
Q: “Bradley Beach” is the name of a Caps tune and the name of a popular summer resort on the Jersey Shore. Was it a hot spot for you, too?
A: My grandparents had a house in Bradley Beach and I spent every summer there. That’s where I learned to boogie board. I still go surfing there every year, even though the waves aren’t exceptional; it’s still something I feel I should do. By the way, the reason “Bradley Beach” has a very Middle Eastern flavor is that Bradley Beach had a large Jewish community—which is why we were there–and I wanted the song to have a little bit of klezmer.
I love beaches. The song “Moonlight Beach” is named for the beach in North San Diego—Encinitas–where I got married. Last year, when we were on tour, making the documentary, I played “Moonlight Beach” on acoustic guitar sitting on Moonlight Beach—just me and Warchild. I recorded it on my phone and sent it to my wife right away. It can be hard on the road when your wife’s at home.
Q: I know Johnny Utah is the name of the Keanu Reeves character in “Point Break.” But where in the hell did you find Montag the Magnificent?
A: Actually, Warchild is also from “Point Break”; that’s the name of the guy Johnny Utah fights on the beach. Montag the Magnificent is another film reference, the name of the main character in [the 1970 splatter movie] “The Wizard of Gore.” He’s basically a magician with a macabre act.
I am a huge, huge horror movie fan. I have a tattoo of Montag on my left leg, along with a tattoo from “Sleepaway Camp,” which was one of the first movies that shocked me. I’m working on a tattoo for “Rosemary’s Baby,” which was my mother’s favorite film. I think I saw that a hundred times growing up.
Q: What are the endless-summer pleasures of playing to, and with, “Endless Summer”?
A: Well, it’s a surf movie, so it’s visually entertaining. It’s even more visually entertaining with a band playing in front of it. The scenes are perfectly timed for surf songs, which are about two and a half minutes each. Every time you end a song, the screen usually fades to black. And it’s great to play “Pipeline” when the surfers finally get to the Pipeline at the end.
“Endless Summer” is a nice change from “Point Break,” which definitely was not made for surf music. Although I have to say that “Point Break” is one of my favorite movies of all time; I wore the hell out of my VHS copy. It’s got surfing and skydiving and an abundance of terrible acting. I revel in terrible acting.
Q: What gear do you need to get surf’s seductive sound, that jingling, jangling jungle of noise?
A: The amplifier is really important. You need one with a spring-reverb tank, where sound makes the springs vibrate and you get that big, juicy reverb. For me, you just can’t fake that.
I’m still holding out for my dream amp: a [Fender] Dual Showman, which all the dudes used back in the heyday of the ’60s. They might be playing a beach party and to make sound travel far, they’d get these big Dual Showmans and crank them up as much as they could. Unfortunately, they’re pretty impossible to find.
Q: One of your great moments was opening for the Ventures, one of surf’s great pioneers. Why are they such rocking role models?
A: My dad’s a really big jazz fan, which meant I grew up listening to quite a lot of jazz. The Ventures were really more of a jazz band than anything else; they basically played jazz-rock songs as far as I can tell. They had great guitar players and a really, really unique sound; it’s not surprising they’re the longest-running and best-selling instrumental band of all time. They’re the ones to look up to for sure, along with Dick Dale and the Del-Tones.
We actually opened for the Ventures twice in one week, the second time at a theater in northern New Jersey where a friend works. They’re really, really nice guys, very welcoming and very funny. Standing up there, listening to them tell stories for 20 minutes, was more than I could ask for. That was a dream come true.
Q: Do you know that in Japan the Ventures are bigger than the Beatles?
A: Oh yeah, they still go there every year. There’s a live recording [“Live in Japan ’64”] where they are just on fire. They play everything at least 20 beats faster than normal. I don’t know if there was something helping them to be more active. In the early ’60s they were probably getting into experimental stuff [i.e., more exotic drugs]. It probably wasn’t opium; that would probably have made them too relaxed.
Q: Speaking of relaxed, why do you guys wear beach duds?
A: We figured there are enough surf musicians out there who wear suits. We’re just trying to keep it real, as they say.
Ian Hansson: The Scoop
First songs that laid him flat: Manfred Mann’s “Do Wah Diddy” and Donovan’s “Catch the Wind”
Back story behind the band’s name: He borrowed White Caps from a favorite song by the Mummies, then added “Great” for some extra bite. At the time he performed in another shark-toothed surf group: Hammerhead Tsunami.
Other gigs: Playing bass in Start Making Sense, the Talking Heads tribute band with Caps members; cooking at Blue Sky Café in Bethlehem
Dream project: Making a video with band members as cartoon characters designed by his cousin, a stop-motion animator. “It would be hilarious,” he says, “to be little Claymation dudes.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He thinks that “Misirlou” is one of the best tracks in “Pulp Fiction” and that Blue Sky Café is one of the best restaurants in Bethlehem. He can be reached at email@example.com.