With their matching light-blue fringed dresses, ’60s beehive hairdos and knee-high white boots, The Surfrajettes look like glamorous mod superheroines as they prowl across concert stages up and down the state on their debut West Coast tour. As visually arresting as they are, it is the Toronto quartet’s distinctive approach to surf music — blending evocative original instrumentals with unusual covers — that’s shaking up the sometimes staid and historically male-dominated surf-music scene.
The Surfrajettes’ tour culminates this weekend with a key appearance at the Tiki Oasis festival in San Diego on Friday, August 9, followed by a show on Sunday, August 11, at Alex’s Bar in Long Beach, where they have been added at the last minute to a bill with L.A. group The Volcanics, the aptly named Argentine surf band Los Frenéticos, and San Francisco’s The Greasy Gills.
Although this is The Surfrajettes’ first tour of California, they stirred up widespread interest last year when a homemade YouTube video of the band performing in a living room — in which they transformed Britney Spears’ glossy dance-pop hit “Toxic” into a strangely beguiling and hypnotic surf instrumental — went viral, drawing millions of views. The band’s refreshing twists on the surf-music formula attracted the attention of husband-and-wife duo Vincent Minervino and Magdalena O’Connell, who signed them to their Asbury Park, New Jersey, label, Hi-Tide Recordings. The Surfrajettes released a single with “Toxic” and “Party Line” on Hi-Tide Recordings in 2018, which was preceded by a self-titled debut EP in 2017, which features such original instrumentals as “Undercover Secretary” and “Mrs. Moto.”
“We’re a DIY band to the max,” says guitarist Shermy Freeman, 30, by phone as the group are driving to a show in Tempe, Arizona. “We were 1,000 percent self-made until a year ago. We couldn’t have done [the tour] without Vincent and Magda.”
Amid a large, curious crowd who were generally dressed down in shorts and white T-shirts at the Surf Guitar 101 convention at Alpine Village last week, The Surfrajettes might as well have been exotic creatures from another planet, as they were the only women to perform onstage at the daylong festival, apart from a hula dancer and a go-go dancer who briefly enlivened another band’s set. While there are other women who play surf music — L.A. trio The Neptunas have been around in various configurations for more than 20 years — they are relatively rare. Decades after female musicians shattered the glass ceiling in numerous other genres, surf music — much like fusion jazz — has stubbornly remained a boys’ club, hermetically sealed and stuck quaintly in the distant past.
“People are shocked that women are playing instruments. It’s just funny,” Freeman muses. “People say that it’s weird that we would like surf music. We’ve heard everything at this point. … There’s always that group that’s stuck in that mindset. I don’t think we’re ever going to get away from mansplaining. But we have had a lot of positive support from male musicians. We have lots of people in our lives that aren’t like that at all.”
“We have our own spin on surf, but it’s not as strict as some bands who play note for note,” says drummer Anna Liebel, 29.
“I think that’s what separates us from other surf bands,” guitarist Nicole Damoff, 29, says about how each of The Surfrajettes comes from a different musical background. “We bring a fresh take to it. … Within the surf-instrumental format, there is a lot of room to play with different styles.”
Damoff started as a blues guitarist, whereas bassist Sarah Butler played standup bass in Canadian rockabilly bands The Millwinders and Real Gone before switching to electric bass in The Surfrajettes. “The bass is more melodic and complex in surf music compared to rockabilly, which is more about the root notes,” Butler, 46, says. “It’s definitely more busy and intricate. It’s tricky training my fingers to move that fast.”
Although Butler carves out some elaborately rumbling bass lines, the approach by guitarists Freeman and Damoff is more about crafting radiant tones and shimmering melodies than full-on shredding. The Surfrajettes also defy expectations by juxtaposing traditional surf music with atypical song selections, such as a primal version of Iron Butterfly’s “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida” that suddenly shifts into Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” and a heart-catching spaghetti Western–tinged interpretation of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” that morphs into “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” A remake of “She Loves You” replaces The Beatles’ euphoric harmonies with Damoff’s eloquently restrained guitar lines, which imbue the tune with a newfound poignancy.
“It’s hard to come up with something original that still has all the tropes of a surf song,” Damoff says. “We’re just always listening to music. When a song comes on, we think, ‘Could this be a surf song?’”
“You have to pick songs with interesting melody lines and vocal parts that translate well into an instrumental song,” Freeman says. “Beatles songs have so many interesting parts and chord changes. … We like playing classics by turning them into a medley. Why don’t we mush them together? We would never play ‘Pipeline’ at a surf convention, but because it’s paired with ‘Paint It Black,’ it’s possible because we did something creative with it.”
Freeman and Damoff alternate seamlessly from lead guitar to rhythm guitar, often within the same song. Who decides when to solo? “It’s not really a conscious thing. We’re about equal coming up with songs, so we switch off very naturally,” Damoff explains. “We’re roommates. It’s easy to sit around and play together.”
Damoff and Freeman first met in high school in Port Perry, Canada. “I was in the rock band at our school that did covers, and Nicole was in the blues band at high school,” Freeman recalls. “I’m pretty sure that we were the only female players at our school in those bands.”
“My guitar playing is coming from blues rock. Back when I was 13, my dad introduced me to Led Zeppelin. That’s when I fell in love with music,” Damoff says. She decided to learn how to play the guitar, and her admiration for Jimmy Page’s playing took her deeper into the blues. “I know how to play blues guitar. Tremolo picking and palm muting to get that chunky sound — those are new to me. I’ve had to adapt to the surf style.”
“We both knew we liked old music,” Freeman says. “She made me mix CDs with surf music, and I already loved The Ventures.” The two eventually decided to form their own surf band. “Nicole and I sat down and re-learned that kind of playing,” she says. Butler joined The Surfrajettes about two years ago, and Liebel came onboard last year not long before the band’s Britney Spears cover blew up on YouTube.
“I’m the Charlie Watts of the band; I’m the elder stateswoman,” Butler jokes.
Liebel used to play in a “slinky, garage-y” band called Harmonica Lewinsky and travels to Surfrajettes rehearsals from her home in Rochester, New York. “I commute [to Toronto]. It’s not a pain,” Liebel says. “It was a little strange at first. It took awhile to feel comfortable, but they were very welcoming. … When the ‘Toxic’ video went viral, it was pretty wild.”
“I remember we had a cake made when we had 3 million views,” Butler says. “I remember messaging each other late at night, taking screenshots — we just couldn’t believe it.”
“I feel like we pay a lot of attention to the details — our instruments, our clothes, our song choices, our hair,” Freeman says. Butler and Liebel replaced earlier Surfrajettes members who weren’t crazy about having to dress up for shows, Freeman says. “I think from the get-go that was my vision [dressing stylishly]. It is my comfort zone — that is my personal style in real life. We did struggle at first. … With our lineup now, there’s never an issue.”
Is it difficult to find matching outfits? “We usually go to clearance places and factory outlets and buy really cheap,” Freeman confides. “We have a seamstress, Deb, who helps us, and we’ve made our own outfits before. Sarah and I are the ones who do the sewing.”
Given the way The Surfrajettes have bent the rules of surf music to create their own idiosyncratic blend of garage rock and pop, would the band ever consider adding vocals to their music? “It think it would be fun to bring singers in once in awhile,” Damoff says. “We all have decent voices — it would be nice to do one song with four-part harmonies and mess with people.”
The Surfrajettes play at Alex’s Bar, 2913 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach; Sun., Aug. 11, 8 p.m.; $12. (562) 434-8292, www.alexsbar.com.