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Local Look: Gillbillies

In Music
CREATURES FROM THE BLACK LEATHER LAGOON The Gillbillies play the Caravan Friday, December 22.

CREATURES FROM THE BLACK LEATHER LAGOON The Gillbillies play the Caravan Friday, December 22.

Other surf bands tell the Gillbillies they’re really a rockabilly band. But rockabilly bands tell them they’re really a surf band. “I guess neither camp wants to claim us,” says guitarist Jimbo Borkowitz.

They call themselves outlaw-surf and look like they’d feel at home in a rowdy biker bar. With cowboy hats, leather jackets and two-thirds of the band sporting ZZ-Top-beards, Borkowitz notes, “We look more like hillbillies than surfers.”

But the beards and cowboy hats aren’t an act—it’s how they dress offstage, as well. Even stranger is where the members all grew up—in gunfighter towns like Cheyenne, Wyo. (Borkowitz), Nevada City, Nev. (bass player Nick Kavros) and Yuma, Ariz. (Brad Hunton).
“It sort of fell in place. We didn’t add up the whole ‘Where we all come from’ thing when the Gillbillies came together. It’s funny how it’s all unfolding,” says Kavros.

Their songs are mostly surf and instrumental covers, but what gives them a harder edge than the originals is the Gillbillies’ love for ’70s power-trios, particularly their love of ’70s hard rock guitars, like the Les Pauls and Flying Vs. Traditionally surf is played on Fender Stratocaster, which gives the guitar that legendary Dick Dale tone.

“No one’s ever played a Les Paul in surf, let alone a Flying V,” Borkowitz says. The bass and drums match the edgier guitar tone by giving the songs the power and volume of early heavy metal bands like AC/DC and Black Sabbath.

While the whole outlaw-surf theme initially developed organically, the members have fun with it and continue to add new details to it to make it more complete. For instance, they decorate the stage with cow skulls and other old West imagery.

These elements come help fulfill what the Gillbillies feel like is their primary role at clubs—being entertainers. To them that means a whole lot more than just playing good music.

“We want to put on a show as much as we can, something that people will talk about and remember no matter how many beers they’ve had,” Borkowitz says. “As far as I’m concerned, the performance part begins as soon as we get out of the car in front of the venue.”

Borkowitz, who studied graphic design in college, understood that in order to really solidify their theme, they’d need a logo, so he designed one that plainly summarized what they were all about: a skull with a long beard and a cowboy hat. It also fit his image for the perfect Gillbillies T-shirt, especially after thinking back to rock shirts he always liked.

“What’s the most successful rock & roll shirt of all time? The Misfits. Everybody’s probably owned one of those shirts because it’s a cool image,” Borkowitz says.

In fact, the Gillbillies shirt is only their image. They left their name off because they think it’s actually better publicity for them that way.

“When people see a shirt without a name, anybody that comes up to them, they have to explain the shirt to them. Now they’re talking about the Gillbillies,” Kavros says.

Their take on surf may be different than most other surf bands, even compared to all the subgenres of surf that already exist like space-rock and spy-rock. This difference comes from who their biggest influence is, an instrumentalist that came along before the terms surf was ever coined—Link Ray.

“He was pre-surf. He had that aggressive raw energy, that kind of outlaw thing. We are more influenced by Link Ray than Dick Dale or the Ventures or any of those surf bands,” Borkowitz says.

Their biker attitude and classic rock execution is just a natural extension of what Ray was doing as early as 1958 with his instrumental classic “Rumble.”

“He started metal, punk and all of it. It all sprung from there,” Hunton says.

Friday; 9pm; free
The Caravan, San Jose


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