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Surf Rockers Slacktone Drop In To The Ritz

In Music
SURF'S UP:  Slacktone headlines the second annual International Surf Classic at The Ritz this weekend. Photo by Dave Maddux.

SURF'S UP: Slacktone headlines the second annual International Surf Classic at The Ritz this weekend. Photo by Dave Maddux.

Dave Wronski spends a lot of time thinking about how to put the “surf” in the instrumental surf rock music he makes with his band, Slacktone—comparing what he does to what Ennio Morricone did with his iconic soundtrack to The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

“Guys like him wanted to create imagery with music and sounds,” Wronski says. With Slacktone, Wronski takes that same framework and applies it to the world of surfing. “The sound of Fender reverb, that really big and romantic guitar sound, kind of a mournful tone” is central to the vibe he is going for.

Distinguished by its cranked vibrato, lightning-fast tremolo picking, exotic scales and, of course, waves of reverb, instrumental surf rock was originally pioneered by the likes of Dick Dale and his Del-Tones in the early ’60s. Though the musical style’s heyday was short-lived, it remains an influential and inspiring movement in rock & roll history and continues to inform pop music to this day.

Wronski, who leads the forward-looking yet tradition-honoring Slacktone, recalls how he first fell in love with surf music in the 1960s.

“The dad of the kid across the street had a Ventures record,” he says. “I really liked the sound of it. I had always listened to a lot of different kinds of music, and my dad and uncle were big music enthusiasts, too.”

Wronski’s father had a big record collection and, even as a first-grader, young Dave would make his own mixtapes on a reel-to-reel deck.

“Then, when the British Invasion hit, I got the idea of bands in my head,” Wronski says. He learned to play guitar and has been playing ever since. “I made my living that way for a long time,” he says.

By the early 1980s, Wronski had joined Jon and the Nightriders, a popular “second wave” instrumental surf band. There he first played with drummer Dusty Watson, who today is in Slacktone with Wronski and bassist Sam Bolle. After playing on some studio recordings, Jon and the Nightriders got a gig opening for Malibu’s notorious Surf Punks at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.

Wronski knew how mercilessly Surf Punks fans treated opening acts—often spitting on them—but he was prepared. “I said to the other guys, ‘We’re gonna have to take care of that.’” By that time he and Dusty were seasoned players with experience in punk bands as well. So they decided to alter their approach from the band’s traditional style. “We decided we would play real fast and hard,” Wronski says with a chuckle, “and just shove it down their throats.”

The gig was a success, and soon the band took off on a tour. “We were the first instrumental surf band to go to Europe,” Wronski says. The band eventually cut some tracks—covers of surf standards—at famed Gold Star Studios with producer Shel Talmy, the man who first recorded the Who, the Kinks and David Bowie. But since Wronski wasn’t the leader of the band, he had little say in the material chosen to be recorded.

Eventually Wronski decided, “Okay, screw it. No covers. And I want to do this the way it should be done, as a three-piece.” He and Watson formed Slacktone, and from that point forward played original music. Slacktone would turn out highly-charged songs true to the surf aesthetic—lots of twang and reverb, a solid, steady backbeat—but with a harder, modern sensibility.

Wronski and Slacktone aim to take things a step beyond the original surf groups. “Those guys wanted to create imagery to match the sport of surfing,” he says. Slacktone’s music is designed to do that as well, but also to evoke the spirit of extreme sports like snowboarding, off-road motorcycling, competitive skateboarding and mountain biking. These days, the band often gets booked to play at extreme sporting events.

For Slacktone, it’s not about long, showy jams; the songs are concise and built around razor-sharp hooks. “I listen to some pop songs,” Wronski says with a laugh, “and I think to myself, ‘get to the good part!’” His goal is to make sure that nobody who hears a Slacktone song ever says that.

Slacktone shares the stage with Kilaueas, the Tomorrowmen, Fascinating Creatures of the Deep and Aloha Screwdriver at KFJC’s second annual International Surf Classic this Sunday.

Slacktone
Jul 30, 5pm, $20
The Ritz, San Jose
theritzsanjose.com

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