Interview: Steve Soest

Martin Schmidt: Where do you live at the moment?

Steve Soest: I'm in the city of Orange, in Orange County in Southern California. I was born there in 1950.

Martin Schmidt: Is it at the coast?

Steve Soest: Yes, near the coast, about nine miles from the water, from Newport Beach.

Martin Schmidt: That's the way it has to be, when you play surf music.

Steve Soest: That's right.

Martin Schmidt: When did you start playing guitar?

Steve Soest: Right about when The Beatles came out. I was 13 I think, it must have been 1964.

Martin Schmidt: Why did you start playing?

Steve Soest: A drummer friend of mine was in one of my classes at school and he said, "We need another guitar player," and I said, "I can play," and I didn't. My grandfather got a guitar from a guy who owed him money , and gave it to me and I went over to jam with these guys and they taught me how to play.

Martin Schmidt: Which bands did you listen to back then?

Steve Soest: My older brother was a surfer and he had the Dick Dale album "Surfers Choice". That was my first influence. He also had a couple of early Ventures albums. Those were the two influences back then.

Martin Schmidt: Did you take lessons in the beginning?

Steve Soest: I tried to earlier, when I was eleven, but it hurt my hands too bad, so I only went twice and I never went back and didn't take lessons after that.

Martin Schmidt: You played by yourself?

Steve Soest: Yes, just by ear.

Martin Schmidt: Are you a professional musician now?

Steve Soest: Yes, I have a guitar repair shop, that's my main focus. I still play music, but not as a sole income.

Martin Schmidt: Did you ever make a living by playing only?

Steve Soest: Well, before I got out of high school. A lot of my friends worked at Taco Bell or McDonalds, but I was in a band, so I didn't have to do that. I was able to support myself by playing when I still lived at home with my parents. I went to work at Rickenbacker, the guitar company, right out of high school for a while. Then I went to work at a pawn shop, setting up and repairing guitars in the back of the shop.

Martin Schmidt: So you always worked on guitars and amplifiers and stuff like that?

Steve Soest: Yes. I got my own shop, it'll be 30 years next year. I'm a service center for Gibson, Fender, Guild, Yamaha and Gretsch.

Martin Schmidt: Who are your most important influences as a player?

Steve Soest: I really like George Tomsco from the Fireballs and Nokie Edwards from the Ventures. And Dick Dale. Later on, John Foggerty from Creedence Clearwater Revival was a big influence, the vocal stuff.

Martin Schmidt: Do you play other musical styles than surf music?

Steve Soest: I did in the middle period. I played surf from 1964 to '67 and then I joined bands that did more Beatles, British Invasion and Top 40 stuff. I played with Dick Dale as a bass player from 1979 to 1985 and so I got back in the surf thing.

Martin Schmidt: When did the Torquays come about?

Steve Soest: Jerry Gordon started the band in Shawnee Mission, Kansas in 1962 with a guy named Dick Harmer. They moved out to Newport Beach in 1964 and kept the band active. Then they went to the army and overseas. When they came back, they continued to play together and had different variations of the band. Derek got seriously about putting it together again in 1994 and that was when I joined the band.

Martin Schmidt: Are there still original members in the band?

Steve Soest: No. Jerry retired last year, he was the last original member. Dick retired in 1996. They still play together ocassionally, but not professionally.

Martin Schmidt: But the band is from the sixties?

Steve Soest: Yes, it's an original band from the sixties. They continued to play together in the '70s, but not actively, they didn't do gigs.

Martin Schmidt: Did they record anything back then?

Steve Soest: No, they never recorded anything until the first album we did in 1998.

Martin Schmidt: What's the intention of the band at the moment, do you play a lot of gigs?

Steve Soest: We do a lot of stuff. It's kind of a seasonal thing. Between October and March we don't do much , because a lot of the gigs we play are outdoor and the weather is not right for it. We do a lot of car shows, surfing contests, a lot of outdoor events, not too many nightclubs anymore.

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Martin Schmidt: But most of this activity takes place in the summer?

Steve Soest: Yes, the summer, spring and the fall and then we take off the time around Christmas.

Martin Schmidt: And you start recording?

Steve Soest: (Laughs). Yeah, that's what we did last time. We started recording the last album in December and finished in February.

Martin Schmidt: Do you consider yourself a traditional surf band?

Steve Soest: I think so, compared to bands like the Mermen and some of the other ones, that have more of a psychedelic or harder rock edge, we use the instrumentation like the Fireballs or the Ventures, rhythm guitar, lead guitar, bass and drums. Same with traditional melodies, a lot of minor keys, with a strong rhythm guitar. We use traditional instruments like the original Fender Showman amp and the Fender reverb units and a vintage drum kit from the '60s.

Martin Schmidt: You try to recreate the sound of the '60s?

Steve Soest: Yes. We want to keep the sound we heard back then, maybe fatten it up a little. Sometimes outside we get lost, because we don't use a PA system or mike anything, we just set up and play.

Martin Schmidt: Just like the old bands did.

Steve Soest: Yeah, just like the old bands. They didn't have a PA or a monitor. You just had your guitar and your own amplifier, no effects except for the reverb.

Martin Schmidt: On the latest CD you played only own material. Do you try to get away from cover versions?

Steve Soest: There a couple of reasons for that. We're writing more. First when the band started we did only covers and around 1996 we started playing some material I've written and then Duff, the drummer started writing some stuff. Around the time of the first record, back in 1998, we had four or six original songs, but mostly covers. Then people asked for more originals at the shows, a lot of people said why don't you play originals. Sot we decided by the last one, it was time to do all originals and not putting any covers on it.

Martin Schmidt: Do you still play cover versions at gigs?

Steve Soest: Yes, we do. A lot of gigs are 3 or 4 hours long and we only have enough own material for two hours, so we mix it up. We still do play The Ventures, Dick Dale, Chantays, Pyramids, Fireballs, all that stuff.

Each member of the band plays lead guitar on the latest CD.
Live, Armin and I handle most of the lead work, it's fifty fifty. Duff the drummer comes out and plays lead on four songs, I go back and play drums. Don just stays on bass. On special shows, when we do a CD release party or something like that, he comes over on guitar and I switch to bass.

Martin Schmidt: Does the vintage sound and look of your band appeal more to older people, or are younger people into the band too?

Steve Soest: I think it's both. There are a lot of old surfers in the area, who stayed there. So if we play down at the beach, we get a lot of the old surfers there and that's what they remember. I think it's intersting for the young kids, because they're used to either rap groups or punk bands, dressed in torn t-shirts, jeans and tennis shoes and when they see us with the red blazers on, the nice shoes and ties, it's unique, so they find that interesting and when they hear the music, it draws them in, because it's so different from anything else. It seems like all ages enjoy it.

Martin Schmidt: On the latest CD you included different musical styles, Irish music and Hawaian music. Did you do this on purpose?

Steve Soest: Yes, we thought we'd try some different stuff. The Irish one was kind of a joke. I worked for the Danelectro company, I designed guitars for them and we built an electric mandolin. When we had the sales meeting, they said, "Well, play the thing, so we can hear it." I said, "I don't know how to play mandolin," so I started picking something up and that's how that song developed.

Because a mandolin is backwards from the guitar and I didn't really know how to play it, so I just came up with that, thought: oh that was kinda cool, drove home and wrote it down and when it was time to record, I turned it into a little song. There's a couple of Irish bands that play around here and we did that like a fun joke towards them.

Martin Schmidt: Do you try to get new stuff into surf music?

Steve Soest: Yes, just to keep it from getting to boring, Everybody kicks the reverb, does the rundown like in the beginning of "Pipeline", there are certain things that are surf music, but we try to incorporate new things, but still try to stay traditional.

Martin Schmidt: Are you influenced by todays music?

Steve Soest: I don't listen too much to it. I listen to mostly old stuff. I listen to classical music when I work, but I'm not really after all the bands and band names anymore. I did work for No Doubt for years on their equipment when they came in, but I didn't know who they were until I saw them on the cover of the Rolling Stone. I went, "Oh, these are my customers (laughs)." I don't really follow that stuff.

Martin Schmidt: What do you think are the most important elements in surf music?

Steve Soest: The melody is really important. It has to be fairly simple, if it gets too complex, it kind of loses it and becomes maybe another kind of music. The chord structure, the instrumentation. There are some bands that I've heard that we played with that I think are not really surf music, I would consider them instrumental rock. They don't use reverb, they use Gibsons rather than Fenders, so the tone is a lot darker and distorted, not that clean midrange tone you try to get with a Fender Jazzmaster or Jaguar. The simplicity of it! It has to make me feel like I'm fourteen again, setting up and playing in somebodys garage for a party, where they have the Cokes on ice and a bowl of popcorn. The whole feeling about it.

Martin Schmidt: But you think a special sound is necessary to play this kind of music?

Steve Soest: Yes, I think so. That's why we use the old gear. To be considered surf, it has to be that way. A lot of people consider the Fireballs surf music, but it wasn't, they're from New Mexico, they didn't really use reverb, they use echo. Surf music seems to be based on that stuff. The chord changes, just having two guitars, bass and drums, no vocalist.

Martin Schmidt: Why do you think it's still popular today?

Steve Soest: I don't know, it's pretty amazing though, isn't it? (laughs). Maybe the whole simple thing, it kind of harkens back to a simpler time. It didn't last very long originally, the first time around there were few radio hits in the states, bands like the Shadows and stuff in Europe lasted longer. Around here there were very few Top 40 surf hits, except on local radio stations in Southern California, you didn't have many national charting. It was a real short run. And when the Beatles thing happened and all the british groups, that wiped it out immediately, pretty much effortlessly. It was gone. Maybe it's the fact that it isn't a real large group, it's kind of a cult following. Some people saw "Pulp Fiction", they recognize "Miserlou", go, "Oh that's Dick Dale," listen to a few songs and move along. It's a fun music, it's innocent, it's pure, it doesn't have any meanhearted lyrics or anything.

Martin Schmidt: So there's a special feeling or attitude that's transmitted by surf music for you?

Steve Soest: Yeah, I think so. I really enjoy playing it and I enjoy looking out and seeing the reaction of the people, when they hear it. It's very positive, it's uplifting. Surfing has always been a wonderful, healthy outdoor sport in the ocean. The human kind is tied to the ocean all the way back. Maybe it's a subliminal thing in your brain, the sound of the waves and that kind of thing they try to recreate with surf music.

Martin Schmidt: Are you connected to a kind of surf scene or network?

Steve Soest: Mostly locally. We do a lot of charity work for the international surfing museum down in Huntington Beach. They have concerts throughout the year and concerts at their facility in Huntington Beach on Sunday afternoons. We played there several times and it's a benefit for the museum. They bring in a lot of new people that are just tourists that may be interested in surfing and they come in and have no idea what it's about, they just know guys are standing on a surfboard, they don't know about the culture, the skateboards, the dress, all the things that came out of that . So when they go to that museum, they learn a lot about it, they seem to be more interested. We're tied in the scene that way. We get letters from people in Ohio or places that are way far inland, where there is no surf and never has been, but they still like the music and they're real excited to find it, when they find our CD and that makes me feel good.

Martin Schmidt: But you stay mostly in Southern California?

Steve Soest: Yeah, we played as far as Las Vegas, down to San Diego and up to Santa Barbara. We stay pretty local, no tours or anything.

Martin Schmidt: Do you play with a lot of other surf bands?

Steve Soest: The clubs will do that, put a surf night together and we play with two or three bands. Or a touring band comes from Chicago or somewhere and we play support for them. We played with Los Straitjackets, Agent Orange and several times with Laika and the Cosmonauts, when they came over from Finland for a tour. Sometimes the bands put shows together and promote it themselves. Everybody in the scene knows each other. Having a guitar repair shop, I usually work on most of their instruments, so I know 'em.

I know a lot of the original guys like Eddie Bertrand from Eddie and the Showmen and Paul Johnson from the BelAirs, who wrote "Mr. Moto". I've known those guys for years and we all keep in touch with what's going on.

Martin Schmidt: Which current surf bands do you like?

Steve Soest: I really like the Blue Hawaiians. They're considered surf, it's more of a moody, almost movie scene music, but their use of the steel guitar is really great. And there's an offshot to that band called the Vanduras, the steel guitar player's son has a record out and I really love that stuff. It's really spooky sounding steel guitar, great reverb and echo tones. And I like Los Straitjackets quite a bit, because it's just straight ahead and I like that they stick with the wrestling masks. I still love the Ventures. There's a band down here called the Reventlos, a little bit more high powered, fusiony surf and I really like those guys, I've known them for about thirty years.

Martin Schmidt: Do you like more modern bands like Pollo Del Mar or The Mermen?

Steve Soest: Yeah, we've played with them. I don't get to see them very much, because there up there in Northern California, but Ferenc sells our records. I've met him several times, when he came to see our band. There's kind of a surf scene down in San Francisco. Another band that's really good are the Eliminators.

Martin Schmidt: What about Slacktone?

Steve Soest: Slacktone? They just scare me to death, they're so good! Dave Wronksi is probably the most talented new surf guitar player, he's the best writer in the bunch for sure. What he can do with one guy, it sounds like four guitars sometimes. He's really focused on the gear and the technique and the sound to get what he does. He's got an amazing tone! I play with Dusty all the time. When Dick is not around, I play with him and Ron Eglit (Dick Dale's bass player) as the Dickless Deltones. If they can't afford Dick, Ron moves over to guitar, calls me and I play bass with them. And I played with Sam (Bolle, Slacktone's bass player) in a band called Wipe Out, which became the Deoras with Mike Palm from Agent Orange. It's a small scene, everybody knows each other and we play together in different line ups.

Martin Schmidt: Yeah, that's amazing. Each time I do an interview with a surf musician, he knows the next guy I'm going to interview.

Steve Soest: Yeah, there is not many of us around. Like I said, it's almost like a cult. There's probably 25 guys in the whole country that are real heavily involved in this and carry on different bands over the years So we always seem to hook up somewhere.

Martin Schmidt: Do you think surf music can be developed further commercially?

Steve Soest: I don't know. It's still kind of a... (thinking) what is the word I'm looking for, kind of a novelty. Have you heard of Deke Dickerson?

Martin Schmidt: Yes, he's a rockabilly, western swing and country guy.

Steve Soest: Yes. He said the same thing about his own music. He plays 200 shows a year that are sold out, but he can't get arrested as far as the mainstream music. People see him, the hat and the doubleneck guitar and think it's a novelty act. He's very frustrated that he can't get considered as far as mainstream music. The radio programming he thinks is involved, because they pick a certain thing and we're only gonna hear, what they gonna let us hear. There's very few radio stations who play surf, rockabilly or blues, together with current folk or roots music. It's always Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera or the Backstreet Boys. I just wish that the kids coming up would have a choice to be able to hear everything on the radio and be exposed to that stuff. I think for that reason, the radio programming and the companies have ten bands like the Hives and the White Stripes, all doing the same thing and that's hot for a year and then they look for something else. It's just not right.

I've heard from bands that come back from Europe that over there you can go to a club and each night you have a different type of music. Even on the same bill, the types of music are mixed up, that's really refreshing! But here, it's either all rockabilly, all blues, all surf, so the crowds don't get to hear anything else, except what they're into.

Martin Schmidt: So you think the music will stay more of an underground thing?

Steve Soest: Maybe we need another "Pulp Fiction", that was a good shot in the arm for the music, because it opened people's eyes to it and the old bands got some money for their old songs, that they probably never got paid for originally. They seemed to have a good year and a half run on it and then it died down again and there wasn't so much interest anymore. We noticed it right away, because somewhere after "Pulp Fiction" came out, we had twice as many bookings as in the year before or the year after. People did see that movie, so a lot of these corporate guys put surf music in the background of a tyre commercial and they hired a surf band to play at their function. But next year, it was a blues band (laughs). It never seems to go for a long time, maybe it comes back in five years for some reason.

Martin Schmidt: OK, now here's the musician police. Let's talk about gear. Which guitars do you play?

Steve Soest: Live, I play a 1962 Fender Jazzmaster. On the record I also used a '65 Jaguar, a Fender Custom Shop Telecaster, a Danelectro twelve string, a Stratocaster, several acoustic guitars and some ukuleles.

Martin Schmidt: Which amps do you use?

Steve Soest: Live, and in the studio, I mostly use a blonde Fender Showman from 1962 with JBL Speakers. For the "Shadowcaster" tune we used a Vox AC 10 for the lead and a Vox AC 30 for rhythm with an Echoplex. On "Attack of the Flying Squirrels", the song my son wrote, he used my Fender Jaguar through a Magnatone amp.

Martin Schmidt: Do you use any effects?

Steve Soest: Basically it's only the Fender Reverb. In the studio we use tape echoes sometimes. On one track on the first album I used a Bosstone Fuzz from the sixties.

Martin Schmidt: Do you think vintage equipment is necessary to create the surf sound?

Steve Soest: Well, nowadays with all the sampling and digital stuff you can play a Les Paul through a modeling amp and dial up that Fender Reverb Showman Jazzmaster tone. It's pretty close!

But still there's something organic about the old stuff. If you push an old amplifier too hard, it'll distort and new amps don't do that, it's more a sample of a clean tone, it doesn't have that available dynamic you get from using the real gear. But I heard some stuff that amazes me. A girl I play in a band with (Sally Landers) has a Vox Modelling amp and I was amazed how good that sounds. You can get any kind of tone you want with the same guitar.

Martin Schmidt: Do you think older guitars and amps are better than new ones?

Steve Soest: Not all of them. I've seen a lot of changes in this business happen. In the 70s the companies were horrible. Fender, Gibson, all they made was junk! All they cared about was the money. They were too expensive, the woods, everything was changed. But now the companies are very concerned again. Fender and Gibson and Gretsch are making better guitars than they did in the sixties. Some of the American Reissue Jaguars and Jazzmasters from the custom shop are amazing, they're really good. They feel good, they're lightweight, they use dried out wood again and are really kept in the vibe of the old stuff. I would say you have a better chance of going to a store grabbing a good guitar of the wall than it would be buying a vintage guitar, saying, "OK, ship me this one." You never know.

The old guitars have a lot of problems, because of their age, the neck changing, the pickguard shrinking, pinching the Pus and making them sit crooked, things like that happen with age. If you find an old guitar that looks new, because it hasn't been played, usually those are pretty stiff and doesn't feel any different from a new one. If you asked me that question ten years ago I would have said you have a better chance with the old guitars, but now the new ones are great! Even the stuff from Korea is amazing, they used to make junk, but Korea is now where Japan was five years ago.

Martin Schmidt: So it's a better time for guitars?

Steve Soest: I think there's really good hope for guitars in the future, because all the companies that are doing well are basing their business on the stuff they were making in the '50s and '60s. Nobody really wants to hear anything new. All the stuff that's succesful is either a copy or a reissue of something from the '50s or '60s. Nobody really plays a modern, sort of Flash Gordon guitar, they are limited by the space or the size of it, it has to feel comfortable, when it hangs around your neck and has to fit into a case. I think that's what works. The new guitars are really good. I don't see as many bad ones as I used to in the '70s and the '80s.

Martin Schmidt: And it's the same with amps?

Steve Soest: The amps are doing really well. I think what happened on that was, we had so many boutique and small amplifier companies starting up that didn't say we have to sell 10,000 amps a month. Instead they raised the price and made handmade copies of Voxes, Marshalls and Fenders. They took the old technology, learned from that, used improved components, better capacitors and transformers and they're amazing! The only thing they can't get better now are the tubes, they're quite inconsistent now. But those amps are amazing!

Martin Schmidt: So it's a good time for guitar players?

Steve Soest: Yeah, you can buy real good quality and buy a nice guitar and an amp for 500 bucks. Before $500 wouldn't even cover the pedal. And all the stuff that's happening with digital recorders and burning CDs, a kid can take that and just go into his room and just create! And you don't have to spend $100 an hour in the studio for an engineer.

Martin Schmidt: But you recorded analog on your last CD. Why did you this?

Steve Soest: We like tape, because you can see it and we thought for the sound of what we're doing, we didn't really need all that equalization, we ran everything flat and we thought that was the old technology and all the songs that we listened to in the old days were recorded that way. It's actually getting hard to find any studio that still runs tape machines. So we recorded at Pete Curry's studio. He's the bass player for Los Straitjackets and played with Jon & the Nightriders and the Halibuts. He was also in the Torquays for a year, before he joined Los Straitjackets. He had built an old style studio with tube mic preamps, old microphones, old drums with everything in there and we felt comfortable with him as far as the engineering and helping us to produce it. He has a good knowledge of the gear he's using.

Martin Schmidt: Did you record live?

Steve Soest: Most of the stuff. We were all in the same room. He has a small room, but we used baffles around the drums, pointed the amplifiers to the wall. Everything was done live except the acoustic guitars, they were done later as overdubs.

Martin Schmidt: So it was a very old fashioned way of recording?

Steve Soest: Yes, we all had eye contact and we could hear each other without headphones.

Martin Schmidt: Do you improvise a lot with the band or are the songs worked out?

Steve Soest: They're pretty much worked out. In this format I think I would play the same solo night after night, because you want the lead part to be recognizable, just like on the record. It's probably the opposite of blues, which is improvised every night.

Martin Schmidt: So the non-improvising is part of the style of surf music?

Steve Soest: Yeah, I think so. That's a good point. Sometimes there is room for a little improvising, but the solos are always the same length. You play the main theme two times, then do a little solo. You stay out of trouble with that way too. (laughs)

Martin Schmidt: OK, last question. What are you doing when you don't play guitar?

Steve Soest: I have a house that was built in 1912 in a historical district in my city. That seems pretty recent by European standards (laughs), but here it's considered an old house. We work on that and we're involved with the historical society in the city and a preservation society that tries to keep all the old houses in the city from being torn down and building gas stations instead. So I'm involved with that and my kids are involved in all kinds of different things. And I play bass in a band called Sideswipe, three females and myself, it's an original rock 'n' roll band. We're getting ready to record their third album, they just signed to a record label.

Martin Schmidt: Do you surf?

Steve Soest: I do not. I haven't surfed since I was 14. There's a good story about that. I had a surf board and my older brother convinced me one day, only one time to skip school and go surfing with him and at about 12.30, we're surfing, I look up and see my mother coming across the sand with a bad look on her face. The school had called home to see where I was and I wasn't there and she knew exactly where I had gone with my brother. So they caught me out there, my dad took my surfboard and I was never allowed to surf again.

Martin Schmidt: The only way you got back a little bit of that was by playing surf music.

Steve Soest: Yeah, whenever I felt the need to surf, I played surf songs instead (laughs).

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The Torquays capture the sight, sound, drive and excitement of instrumental surf music at its peak with Steve Soest and Armin Brown on electric guitar, Don Parra on bass guitar and Duff Paulsen on drums, marimba and electric guitar. With their matching outfits and matching guitars and amps, The Torquays take the audience to a musical era that is as fresh today as it was in the days of Hot Rods, Hodads, Greasers and Gremmies. In addition to his guitar duties with the Torquays and a number of other bands, Soest runs his own guitar repair shop in Southern California.

Martin Schmidt recently sat Soest down for an interview, and they discussed his musical background, his current activities, and the state of the surf music scene.