Talking to Jim Thomas, the guitarist, songwriter and now producer who steers The Mermen, is not unlike listening to his music. His cheery conversation sprawls and laps at as many points and reflects as diverse influences as his playing, quoting Jimi Hendrix (the band’s name is taken from a Hendrix song) and T.S. Eliot with equal affection. I spoke to Thomas on the phone from his studio in the San Francisco Bay Area about the new album, The Amazing California Health and Happiness Road Show.
The Mermen are often classified as “psychedelic surf rock.” But Thomas was clearly pleased that handfuls of the reviews of the new album so far have come to the conclusion that, “Only the most lazy, boneheaded critic would ever refer to the Mermen as ‘a surf band’.” Thomas: “The Mermen have been around 12 years now, and there’s been periods during (that) time where I’ve played zillions of surf tunes in every way shape and form. Everything that’s out there. The roots of what I do are in that music, and…still, at every show, I’ll do like three surf songs. The Mermen’s history is rooted in surf music-clean guitar with reverb sounds. (It is) one form of playing the guitar that I kind of fell into, (but) my music blossomed from that.”
I’ll say it did. In a way, what we think of as “surf music,” the likes of “Pipeline” and “Wipeout,” are misnamed. They are the sounds of rush, strong, driving. Surf rock can be that, but “surf” is simply waves breaking on a shore, the sound not only of crashing down, but also of gently arriving, touching the shore, and pulling back into itself. Going by that definition, The Amazing California is perhaps the truest surf music there has ever been. It shows what so many by-the-numbers guitar bands today have missed: That there are new things to be done and new sounds to be heard from the guitar if you’ve got the maturity not to thrash for the sake of thrashing.
“All the Mermen records, except for Glorious (Lethal Euphoria) and Songs of Cows—which are similar—(have) been really different. And there’s always an audience that is gained with the record and an audience that’s lost. I have fans that love the first record and hate the fourth record and then they like the third record. Putting the new record out was like…it really went a whole other step. If reflects my experience and my maturing as a musician “artist person,” or whatever you want to call it-and it definitely reflects growing up. It has a mature sense to it.”
Indeed, and that is part of the reason for the success of the album all the way through. Another is the melding of diverse influences (“classic” surf, country, raga, dub, jazz, punk, psychedelic), achieved without the self-consciousness of many western-music dabblers (David Byrne, I’m looking at you). And without sacrificing a cohesive sound of it’s own.
“I can’t consciously control the way I write music,” Thomas said. “Like, ‘I wrote: This. And it meant: That.’ Never happens like that with me.” Much of our ensuing dialogue turned on exchanging impressions of what some of the material that most excited me on the album “meant” to each of us, he as “artist/person,” and me as “audience/critic/person”. He seemed tickled to hear others interpretations of his songs.
“Unto The Resplendent” rolls up at the start of the album, with Vince Littleton’s drums hitting like a salty spray against Thomas’s bobbing guitar. This is soon joined by a shimmering, Duane Eddy-like twang that puts you under the water, and when the pedal steel (guest Joe Goldmark) comes on top of this, it’s like dolphins breaking the waves.
“I can remember the first time I came [to Northern California]. I was standing on a cliff the first time I saw the Pacific (and) I was like, ‘This is nothing like New Jersey [from where Thomas comes]!’ Standing on this 33 foot cliff or bigger and there’s nothing out there, not one boat, and the sea just goes on forever. And in New Jersey, the sand is level with the ocean. You feel like you can get your bearings. In California it comes across as something big and unwieldy, something you can’t really manage, (and that reflects) that sense of bigness in yourself. “Unto the Resplendent” really speaks of my own migrating westward and experiencing this really beautiful place.
“Merry Go Round” takes the looping guitar constants of surf rock and plays them slower than they have ever been played before, adding gentle waves of notes swelling up from beneath the surface like bubbles and echoing through the air. The end result feels like the wind on your face as you ride the carousel at the Santa Cruz beach boardwalk.
“That’s nice, I must be doing something right there,” Thomas says, laughing. “It’s not exactly what it’s meant to do, but I guess I just…the sound…I really don’t know what to say about it.” As evidenced here, Thomas sometimes shies from assigning meaning to a song and then being stuck with that meaning. “After I write a song and [sometimes) record it, I really don’t think about it. I just do it, and later on it comes to me what I really did.”
Later in the conversation we discuss videos, He doesn’t want to make one. I agree with him. If your reaction to this music is anything like mine, it will be very strongly visual. Even acknowledging videos powerful say on the charts, this is music that you don’t need a video for (always assuming any music “needs” a video, but that’s another topic for another piece). You don’t need a video coming in and saying this is the visual for this music.Or to put it another way, Thomas may want his record to sell, but not if it means he has to be on the cover half-naked a la Mariah Carey.
And speaking of nudity, I asked Thomas about the origin of what has to be the winner of the best song title I’ve seen this year award, “To Be Naked and French Is Always Hard.” “You know what that comes from? It started out-The bass player in the old band, Allen…told me this line from a poem, “To be naked and fresh is always hard.” I thought that was gross, stupid. So I said Ah! If I put “French” in there, that would make it a really great title. And I did.” Peeling away more layers, he adds, “French people, they’re much more open about their sexuality, they have a much more elaborate character than American people. For an American, to be naked and French is really hard.” We laugh again. “The idea really fit the sensibility of the music really well, I thought, because the music had this real delicate quality. I actually had a picture for the record that I saw somewhere that I wanted to use. It was a picture of a naked man standing on a giant whale and the water was blowing out the blowhole giving him a shower.”
Musically, the song starts off with solo pedal steel guitar (Goldmark again) with it’s quintessentially lonely sound. And then, almost classical guitar figures appear behind it, eventually taking the steel guitar’s place, though it will return, alternating with other elements until the song becomes a dialogue between sadness and beauty.
“I would say you’re probably right on the money. Because I can tell you that’s where my music is coming from.”
And all this without one lyric. Amazing.
“In my musical career, if things had fell a certain way, I might have gone toward performing and writing songs with me singing, cause I’ve written many songs with words. But it never really resonated deeply enough with me where I had to do it. I don’t desire to do that because I think, God, (singer songwriters he admires) like Willie Nelson and (Dylan), all these people, they feel that and they want to do that. And they really believe in themselves doing that, and I guess I never did. I fell into this realm of doing instrumental music.” “I can write a song…you know when you have a dream and the dream kind of reminds [you) of a way that you’re trying to rehearse yourself for the next reality in your life. I make music and it’s as if the vibrations and the textures of the piece go out in front of my life like a carrot that I’m reaching toward.”
Expanding further along these lines, Thomas quotes Eliot’s “Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock.
“I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.”
“That line just really got to me because I thought-human voices-the minute you use words, you’re really not in your experience but you’re really more in the word.
Of the final song, “Burn, Thomas says, ‘“I gave it this heroic quality, like an old film. It’s like soundtrack music (to something that) disintegrates into complete failure.” The long (almost 17 minutes including the separate-track intro) song is “really meant to test your patience. Because it takes such a long time for it to go out. And I think for me it’s like a lesson. It’s saying, “You gotta wait and be with something. And a lot of people, they’re just going to go right by that but if you listen to it and hear how it slowly undoes itself….you know those de-tuned sounds you hear at the end? Where it’s “boing boing?” That’s me-we’re playing this all live, and I’m taking the strings off my guitar, totally un-tuning all the tuners till the strings are just loose on the guitar. And I’m banging the strings (and) just tuning them lower and lower. “
Since first listening to the album, I’d heard the final moments of “Burn” as a “surfacing” effect, I told Thomas. The musical elements are washed away into a sea of bent and distorted notes, as we rise until even those are gone, all is still above.
“I see the thrust of that song as trying to be heroic, going for something, and then just losing it. And you die at the end. It’s like, “it’s over. Bye.” You’ve failed. Or maybe you’ve succeeded. But the fact is, you’re going to die anyway. And things do fail.”
Then, a reprise of “Unto The Resplendent,” adding arty synthesizers, and we go back into the water.
“The ‘Unto The Resplendent’ that’s at the end of the song is [the) solo demo. I loved the way I played the guitar on it, and to put it on the end like that made sense to me. It was not something I intended till the last minute, but I saw there (were) two minutes left (of room on the CD). It definitely adds a circular meaning to the whole thing.”
Elsewhere in our discussion, Thomas sounded off about a glitch in the mastering of Amazing California, which affected the first few thousand copies, including those sent out as promos. “You’ve got the damaged one. What happened was, that somebody over there gave the manufacturing some kind of master that cut two seconds of every fade in the songs.” This caused a couple of songs that were supposed to flow one into the other to be interrupted, and cut short a spoken word phrase at the end of another. This was caught at the last minute and the correction made on non-promo copies, but the frustration it caused Thomas is palpable. He also has some differences with the record company press release that attempts to explain the four-year gap between releases (the last Mermen CD, Songs for Cows, was in 1996) as “exploring new music” and “refocusing.” Thomas himself puts it down to “my own slow going nature. I’m never really in a rush to do anything. Never. I guess they have to send something out there about why that is.”
This “doing your own thing in your own time” has applied to Thomas’ entire career. “The Mermen was the first band I was ever in. This was not some kind of like conscious path I was on. I came out to California, I got a job in a music store, and I started writing all this music and taping it. It reached a point where I had to say ‘Well, what am I gonna do with this? I met the first bass player, Allen, who got a job at the store and we ended up starting a band & somebody offered to put up the money for the first album.”
Asked about the latest bedevilment of big record labels, Thomas offers, “What is happening with Napster is just something that is a reality that needs to be integrated into the reality that certain people make music for a living. And there needs to be an equitable way for people to be paid for their music. But on the other hand, I see it almost like a backlash against the record industry who for so long has been making huge amounts of money that is so out of proportion to what the people on the low end of the scale make.” Not to mention the ridiculously high price of new CDs.
Besides having much of the spirit of his record, Thomas on the phone is also a lot like your friend who can’t wait to share his enthusiasms. I’m the same way, and at different points in the conversation we recommend movies and books to each other. He praises Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (movie) and But Beautiful by Geoff Dyer (book). I trade him, for Kiss of the Spider Woman (movie, directed by Hector Babenco, screenplay by Leonard Schrader from a book by Manuel Puig) and A Cure for Gravity by composer Joe Jackson (book). Thomas recalls hearing Jackson interviewed and saying that despite all the frustrations of a life in music, “In the end, what it comes down to is that it’s worse not doing it than doing it. And I so agreed with him. That’s the final thing. It can be so utterly stupid and painful and ugly and petty, yet, to not do it would be worse.”
Much as Roy Hargrove’s recent California-infused album (previously reviewed for PopMatters) inspired me to friendly feelings toward it before I even pushed play, the title of this one alone encouraged a connection with me. But I could not have anticipated liking the album as much as I do, it being in a primarily guitar-based rock form, and my tastes running to keyboard-based pop, or more recently horn-based jazz. It repaid my goodwill with a smile. This is an album to fall in love with, this is an album to mediate on, and this is an album to restore your faith.