Volcano of the Gamma
Watch out Sacramento—there’s a new surf band in town
As my interview with Gamma People begins, the talk has already drifted into monster-movie territory. There’s discussion of Excel spreadsheets multiplying, becoming sentient and taking over, blob-style. It’s a fitting place to start: Gamma People are a surf band with lyrics that often dive into sci-fi B-movie imagery.
When Gabriel Nunez, Gamma People’s drummer, talks about his previous band with singer Amanda Chavez, he hints at what was to come with their next band: “When we were in Krebtones, I used to joke that we were ’Central Valley surf,’ go surf on Folsom Lake or something,” Nunez said. “Our closest connection [to the ocean] is two hours away.”
Chavez and Nunez are now Gamma People, a band with influences that run the gamut, from Ennio Morricone to The Munsters. Along with Dire Deparra on bass, Jono Carraba on guitar, and Adam Iniguez on both guitar and organ, they’ve just finished recording their first album after two singles released digitally in November. It’s a significant output for a band less than a year old.
Surf, easily one of rock’s most surface-innocuous sub-genres, developed during a complicated era. It’s as danceable as it gets: Surf’s initial popularity coincided with the height of Cold War nuclear threats, and as the genre evolved over decades, that atomic anxiety seeped into what had been marketed as a fun-loving soundtrack to the early ’60s. Nothing to see here. Everything’s fine. Keep dancing.
The surf bands that may be top of mind are vocal bands such as the Beach Boys, whose early contributions borrowed from both rock and surf but, like other bands, used surf as a marketing gimmick more than core style (please see me after class for a lecture on why Jan and Dean were terrible). But instrumental surf such as the Ventures or Dick Dale are better representatives of the core surf sound.
Though the casual record-buying world shifted its attention to other genres as the ’60s wore on, surf never really went away. In a lot of cases, it just got weird. One of the best early post-’60s examples: the B-52s—a band that surfaced in the late 1970s that was named after members’ bee-hive wigs, which resembled the planes developed to carry nuclear warheads. Their pre-Whammy output (think “Rock Lobster”) melded upbeat surf music with sci-fi, B-movie imagery that created something both surf-rooted and incredibly unique. Bands including Man or Astro-man? and Servotron continued the tradition of surfy sci-fi music.
Sacramento has been a loving home for landlocked surf of all stripes long past the genre’s ’60s heyday. From the straight-ahead surf of the Tiki Men to the surf-influenced punk of ¡Las Pulgas!, the genre has always had a place in Sacramento’s independent music scene.
Now, Gamma People also carry Sacramento’s weirdo-surf torch.
“I feel like it’s a music that can speak to everyone,” Nunez said. “It’s so proto, so early. It can be mixed with a lot of different-type genres.”
Most of the members enjoy playing mixed-bill shows in the spirit of their variety of inspirations, which creates the band’s unique sound.
“We all have different inspirations,” Chavez said, “and it meets in the middle and creates this nice volcano of the Gamma.”
Though he’s the lone dissenter on the topic of shows featuring seemingly incompatible genres, Deparra has particularly broad tastes, “from 1930s to present.” Those contemporary influences include rockabilly and the music he plays at Club Séance as part of the post-punk darkwave and goth night he co-hosts monthly.
As far as the surf ethos, Deparra says: “I have no interest in surfing or surf culture. It’s just the music … I don’t even like going in the water.”
Back to Cold War pop culture and B-movies—Gamma People’s name is taken from a 1956 sci-fi flick about radiation and mind control. And just like those earlier bands, in some of their songs Gamma People juxtapose surf sounds with themes of atomic annihilation. Their organ-soaked, upbeat single “Lizard Party,” highlights how danceable one’s fears of nuclear annihilation can be: “1962, disintegration ray-gun, mint condition,” links back to monster movies from an era where nuclear mutation didn’t seem so farfetched.
Their self-titled full-length album will release digitally next month, and the vintage sci-fi themes are present there, too, with cover art that’s influenced by artist Ed “Big Daddy” Roth.
“The cover is all of us running away from this giant rabbit,” Chavez starts to describe, before Nunez cuts in—“that’s like, radioactive … You could call the comparison back to The Gamma People, like being under mind control.”
The band already has material in the works for an additional EP, and they have several shows lined up in the next month, including a late April date at the Torch Club.
A Gamma People show is worth witnessing, and Chavez is a presence onstage. Her vocals incorporate new wave styling that complements the band backing her up with infectious, poppy, danceable surf-influenced goodness.
“When I’m onstage, I feel like I’m a giant,” Chavez said. “Listen to what I have to say, and listen to these guys behind me, because they’re amazing.”