The Mighty Surf Lords
A towel lies on the stage-front monitor as the three musicians positioned behind it rip into a tune that transforms the scene from an Irish saloon to a sunny day on the California coast. But instead of watching an avid surfer wipe out on a wave, the audience watches Reno’s surf rock landsharks, The Mighty Surf Lords. And instead of using the towel to wipe off after a killer wave, quick-picking guitarist Billy Woods uses it to wipe the sweat off his brow after a killer chord.
The scene is typical of a Mighty Surf Lords show. The all-instrumental outfit has been bringing a bit of the beach to the Biggest Little City since 1994. While Woods, the band’s founder and songwriter, has seen his share of member changes over the years, the current lineup consists of himself, bassist Karmin Robbins and drummer Ivan Smith.
The band’s boastful name has been more stable, with only one change in 1998, brought about by a few modest former members.
“They came to me one day and said, ‘We don’t feel very mighty, can we change the name of the band?’” says Woods. “So I went to the Surf Lords.”
But it was soon changed back after discovering another band already had dibs.
Reno may seem like a strange choice of residency for a band of longhaired surf rockers. All three members have their roots in California—although none of them actually surf. In the Golden State, Woods was able to grow up on classic surf rock pioneers such as Dick Dale and The Ventures. He then passed the passion onto girlfriend-turned-bassist Robbins, by not only exposing her to the music style but also by personally teaching her to play bass, something for which he had hidden motivations.
“I’d be up playing, and there’d be a hundred guys all over her,” says Woods. “I got tired of that, I threw her on stage after two months.”
While classic surf rock has the hindrance of no vocalist demanding attention in a noisy bar, Woods says having a frontman has never been a consideration. They use other means for commanding a crowd.
“You let the guitar do the singing,” says Robbins. “It’s [something] that’s unique, so a lot of people appreciate that.” The lack of vocals isn’t the band’s biggest obstacle when it comes to its music style. That distinction goes to explaining what “classic” surf rock actually is—and it’s not the Beach Boys.
“A lot of people don’t know what we’re talking about when we say surf music,” says Robbins. “I tell them to go listen to Sponge Bob SquarePants. They have a lot of surf music in that cartoon!”
Catching a live performance may be light-hearted fun—Woods is proud to say that there’s never been a fight at a show—but the Lords take its music seriously. The hard-working musicians plan to put out two albums this year, one featuring cover material and another with all original tracks, adding to the previous seven releases. In their remaining free time, there’s still no rest. The musicians’ love goes beyond their instruments to the community. Under the name of their charity group, The Loving Hearts Club, the band gets together with a group of volunteers to feed the homeless every Sunday, along with hosting fundraisers for causes such as SPCA and Juvenile Diabetes.
“It’s spurred a whole new meaning for me with the band,” says Robbins. “That we can use it for helping in whatever way we can.”
With their generous hearts and gnarly groove, the surf rockers leave little to be said short of stealing a line from their own T-shirt: Praise the Lords.