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Catching the wave — and some tasty guitar solos — at a surf music convention

The annual Surf Guitar 101 convention shook up Alpine Village Saturday. The convention celebrated surf music in all forms and paid tribute to surf music icon Paul Johnson.

The Blue Hawaiians from Los Angeles were there, as were Frankie & the Pool Boys from San Francisco and Fascinating Creatures of the Deep from Santa Cruz.

The Black Flamingos came in from New Jersey as well as King Pelican from Texas, Tremolo Beer Gut from Denmark, Surfer Joe from Italy, the Kaisers of Kalifornia from Argentina, Les Agamemnonz from France and Urban Surf Kings from Canada.

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They were there for the 11th annual Surf Guitar 101 convention last Saturday at the Alpine Village in Torrance, and for the 500 or so hardcore fans in attendance it was a chance to savor tasty guitar solos while lounging in prime Tiki decor.

The restaurant resembled a 1960s beach party filled with flower leis, Hawaiian shirts and Tiki accessories. Flamingo-shaped lights illuminated the room while live surf music blasted so loud it could be heard from the parking lot.

Surf rock came of age in early-’60s America. The instrumental music, pioneered by such acts as Dick Dale and the Del-Tones, the Ventures and Jan and Dean, was meant to evoke the sounds of crashing waves and the chill beach lifestyle. It started on the shores of Southern California, but it soon spread around the world where the sound continues to have fans to this day.

“It helps that it’s instrumental,” said event coordinator Jeff “Big Tiki Dude” Hanson. “It’s a music that crosses borders easily because there’s no language barrier … I think it’s interesting that surf music has grown all over the world but people still associate it with here.”

Hanson has been the showrunner for the festival since its beginning and treats it like a family reunion. And like many family reunions, there was joy and laughter as well as tears and a heartfelt tribute to a beloved member of the tribe.

This niche surf music family was born on the website Surf Guitar 101. Since 2006, the forum has been the central hub for all news regarding surf music. The music convention allows the community to meet in person each year and celebrate its love of catchy beach sounds together.

Each year Hanson tries to incorporate different types of surf rock, including younger bands with a modern sound. This year Hanson brought on four international groups, including France’s Les Agamemnonz. The group — which performs in togas — made its way to the States for the first time ever, kicking off its tour at Surf Guitar 101.

If you’re wondering how a group of young French musicians discovered surf rock, the answer is Quentin Tarantino, who used surf music such as Dick Dale’s “Miserlou” in his films.

“I just heard about the surf music from ‘Pulp Fiction’ but I didn’t know about the scene,” said lead guitarist Benjamin Bonaventure, who was signing autographs for older fans. “For the first time I fell in love with the music and I’m always discovering new stuff from the ’60s era.”

Bonaventure described surf music as a language that stays alive through the records and bands that continue to play it. He said he’s looking forward to performing in the “birthplace of surf music.”

Bands, including Les Agamemnonz, and vendors staked out tables around the perimeter of the space where music, gadgets and collectibles could be purchased.

Drip Switch creator Mel Waldorf, left, and Les Agamemnonz guitarist Benjamin Bonaventure talk shop during the Surf Guitar 101 convention.
Drip Switch creator Mel Waldorf, left, and Les Agamemnonz guitarist Benjamin Bonaventure talk shop during the Surf Guitar 101 convention. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Across from the Les Agamemnonz merchandise table stood New York surf guitarist Mel Waldorf, who proudly played surf music before “Pulp Fiction” popularized it again.

“I’ve been playing surf music since 1993 and got lucky with ‘Pulp Fiction,’” Waldorf, 47, said. “I was a loser and after [‘Pulp Fiction’] hit I was suddenly cool.”

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Waldorf, who plays guitar for Meshugga Beach Party, created a small, blue device called the Drip Switch that adds an additional mix on Fender amps, which helps surf bands control the reverb that’s part of the surf music sound. The Fender reverb is what creates the famous and recognizable surf-like sound.

Although he said he only sells a few, the mixing box does well at conventions like these because this is his market.

Waldorf is not the only one who creates accessories for surf musicians. David Outline, 30 was one of the many Tiki shop owners who sold artwork and memorabilia during the convention.

Outline just moved to Long Beach for his business Outl1n3 Island, which designs and sells stickers, buttons and Tikis inspired by different islands. He joined the surf and Tiki family while showing up to share his work at different events.

“Surf music is the soundtrack to Tiki culture so it is great to be a part of something like this,” Outline said.

Marie King, executive bar manager at Los Angeles’ oldest Tiki bar, the Tonga Hut in North Hollywood (there’s another location in Palm Springs), helped merge the Tiki scene with the surf community this year at 101. She said her fiancé — Jonpaul Balak, who proposed to King at Surfer Joe, an Italian surf music festival — played guitar Saturday at the Alpine Village event.

“We are exchanging vows next summer at 2019 Surfer Joe,” King said, to which her soon-to-be husband drolly added, “Well, it’s in the paper so now there’s no turning back!”

King talked about the closeness of the surf music family, recalling that back in 2010, hundreds of people from the community gathered to raise money for King after she survived a car accident that left her unable to work for two years. They called it MariePalooza.

The energy remained high throughout the 12-hour festival until things took an emotional turn when legendary surf band PJ & the Galaxies took the stage — minus a prominent member.

Paul Johnson, a major influence on surf music, was diagnosed with leukemia two weeks before the event. He couldn’t attend the convention because he was receiving treatment.

Many performers dedicated their sets to the music legend, including David Arnson, creator of the longest-running modern surf band Insect Surfers. Arnson told the crowd he went to visit Johnson in the hospital leading up to the event and recorded a message from the musician.

The surf party came to a sudden halt so everyone could hear the iPhone voice message.

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“I feel you’re all with me today … and I trust that when this is all over we’re gonna have some stories to tell,” Johnson said.

The crowd cheered as he continued, “I wish I could be with you, maybe next year. God bless you all and thank you so much for today’s tribute, I call it a blessing and a stoke.”

After Johnson spoke, the tribute commenced as fans raced to hit the dance floor. Arnson played fan favorites along with other surf music icons Matt Quilter, original bass player of PJ & the Galaxies, Steve Pugh, Dave Wronski and Pete Curry.

The small yet mighty Kita Curry, surf music groupie and cousin to Pete, danced her way down to the front row to boogie until her feet were swollen. This wasn’t her first convention and it certainly wouldn’t be her last.

“It’s amazing, the camaraderie of it all,” she said. “No egos involved; they’re just up there playing music for us and for Paul.”

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