Jim Thomas: I was born in 1953, November 23rd, in Newark, New Jersey, a town that became famous for the black riots in the '60s.
Jim Thomas: I came to San Francisco in 1987, 15 years now.
Jim Thomas: I guess, like everybody else, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
Jim Thomas: Probably when I was about 12 or 13.
Jim Thomas: I did. I took lessons, when I was little. Basic guitar lessons, kind of non-directional really. I never really got in to studying any kind of music, although there was a while there that I played classical guitar for myself.
Jim Thomas: Oh man, I listened to everything! I listened to so many different kinds of music: jazz, classical music, soul music. When I grew up in New Jersey, there was a big black population and there used to be a lot of Motown and all that soul stuff in all this jukeboxes everywhere. That was a big influence on me, that kind of music. I also listened to a lot of Bob Dylan. Everybody! I¥m such a crazy record buyer for every kind of music, you know. I really love so much. When I go to a nice record store, I get confused and can¥t buy anything!
Jim Thomas: Not really. As far as the surf instrumental thing goes, I was always attracted to my own reverb type guitar tone. Later on I discovered the Ventures, which I didn¥t know about when I was young. In 1966 I saw the movie "The Endless Summer" and the soundtrack of that movie got inside me. Have you seen "The Endless Summer"?
Jim Thomas: You haven¥t? Well, I tell ya, you should see it. "The Endless Summer" is the archetypical documentary surf movie, the most famous surf movie ever made. The group that did the soundtrack was called The Sandals and that soundtrack is real beautiful music.
I have another band, called the Shi Tones, and we played the whole soundtrack like 25 times last summer, the whole thing from beginning to end, exactly like the vinyl record. I love that music so much! That¥s a big influence!
Jim Thomas: No, never.That happened later, when I moved to California. In the Sixties I listened to whatever was happening, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones. But I was always attracted to the reverbed guitar tones. Later on, when I had a guitar and a reverb, I liked the way it sounded! It was funny. The Mermen made the first "Krill Slippin" record and I had never even heard of Dick Dale yet. Then I got turned on to Dick Dale after that, and I was blown away. All of a sudden I started hearing all these bands, I got more into the Ventures. Since that time I've played hundreds of Ventures songs, Shadows songs, play Astronaut songs. There is so much good stuff out there!
Jim Thomas: Yes. For a long time I wasn¥t really interested in playing other peoples' music. When I was learning Bob Dylan songs, or things like that, I was doing it by myself and thought that was fun. But I never had the discipline to join a band, was never interested in learning anything, finishing songs or anything like that.
It¥s funny, when I came up to San Francisco, I got a job in a music store. I was basically fed up with everything I did in my life, I had like 30 different jobs, was 35 years old and I was like: What am I gonna do now? I saw the ad for the job in the music store, got the job and once I was in the store I started writing all this music. They always had four track recorders in there and I¥d always demo them for people and write songs as I would do it, you know?. Alan, the bass player worked in the music store at that time and he always wanted to play when he heard me doing these songs, he said, "I like these songs, I play bass," and eventually he joined the Mermen, after four other bass players or so.
Alan was a real pro player at that point. I just played music and wrote music, but didn¥t know where I was going with it, but I realized I had the ability to write music. A woman who worked there paid for the recording of our first CD "Krill Slippin".
Jim Thomas: Nothing! I was surfing. There were 10 years where I just surfed, I didn¥t even listen to music all that much. I lived by the East coast, worked as a waiter and I just surfed all the time!
Jim Thomas: No. When I moved to San Francisco, I couldn¥t make enough money at the music store to live, so I got a job baking cookies. I worked two full time jobs! I worked all day in the music store till five o'clock and after that I worked in the cookie store till two o'clock in the morning! This was crazy! But making all that money made me able to buy all that musical gear and I just kept buying more gear and now I have a full bar recording studio with a 24 track, two-inch machine, the best Pro Tools system, all great tube gear, all the best stuff.
It¥s been a long time, a lot of work, 15 years, from nothing to having a good thing going on.
Jim Thomas: The first show the Mermen formally did was the night before the San Francisco earthquake, in 1989. Before that, it was kind of informal. We recorded "Krill Slippin'" in 1988 and Alan Whitman played bass on it, but he wasn¥t part of the band.
Jim Thomas: The core of the band was built around my original compositions. Martin Jones, the drummer, comes from the Captain Beefheart school of music, and he wouldn¥t have been interested in joining if the Mermen music wasn¥t kind of art and different from the typical surf music stuff a lot of other bands were doing. He liked my compositions. So the deal was that the core of the music was built around the things that I wrote, but then we were always performing a few covers, like "Moments of Truth" or "Unknown" or "Crash" or Quiet Surf" or "Casbah".
Then we started to improvise on sections of the songs, dragged the songs a long time. We were loud, with feedback, my amps turned up all the way, that was kind of a crazy time. Some of the energy from the music of those shows is pretty out there.
Jim Thomas: Yes, I do. We play regularly all over the place, and do music for films and video games. I make a living playing music since 1994. The Mermen are pretty popular in the United States. In Austin, Texas for example, we play two nights at the Continental Club, which is a big deal, because Austin is a real competitive music city and we play two nights, a Friday and a Saturday and pull enough people. In most major cities we do really well.
Jim Thomas: I¥m not rich, but I have enough to build a recording studio and have good equipment.
Jim Thomas: Yeah, but it helps. I made some good money with a video game that sold 1.5 million copies and we had four songs on that. These things happen by accident. On the record for the video game were also Sugar Ray and Kid Rock. At the time we did that record, none of us were known. Then Sugar Ray got famous, Kid Rock got famous and we¥re kind of semi-famous (laughs).
Jim Thomas: It¥s rooted in surf music.I don¥t know what to call it, that¥s part of the problem with record companies and stuff, people really don¥t know how to classify it, because it goes into all these different areas. We have our own kind of following, people who like the band, we don¥t fit any category.
With The Shi-Tones, the other band that I have, we do shows with 30 cover songs in a night, "The Good The Bad & The Ugly", "Ghostriders". So it¥s rooted in that stuff, but it definetely stretches out into my own take on what it means to make music, I guess. More than anything else it¥s like a poetic endeavour to me, not a technical endeavour. I get excited by certain sounds. When I think of Dick Dale and what he did in 1962, that was pretty amazing. When you listen to that kind of energy, to a song like "Miserlou", the original version, you¥re like WOW! These kind of exageterated things that push your emotion without using words.
I get interviewed a lot of times by all kinds of people and I don¥t know what to say to people. I say to them, "You tell me what it is." I discover more about the music by letting other people tell me what they think it is. I can¥t really say, I¥m playing the music and I have no objectivity.
I always think the Mermen are kind of a hybrid of Link Wray, Dick Dale and The Ventures. If you look at Link Wray's "Jack The Ripper" with its weird, droning, psychedelic thing going on, then you got Dick Dale which is real focused, loud and energetic and then you got the Ventures, they just do a lot of pretty, melodic, beautiful things with good drum sounds and beautiful guitar sounds. I always thought the Mermen are coming from that educated school of those three things."
I definitely have my eye on the past and my eye towwards whatever I¥m trying to put out there, but those people have definitely helped form a framework for what I do, the guitar sound I have and use.
Jim Thomas: I can't say I¥m conciously influenced by him, Õ never learned his songs or wanted to play them, but I think if somebody asked for the best guitar player who ever lived, I might speak his name. When I listen to a song like "Waterfall/May This Be Love", to the character of that guitar solo, the punch in his sound, the urgency of what that guy did, it still amazes me until this day! It amazes me that I never heard any guitar player even come close and that guy died when he was 27 years old. It blows my mind! And I¥ve seen a lot of guitar players over the years.
The imagery in all his songs, in "3rd Stone From the Sun", "you¥ll never listen to surf music again", water and sand and fire, "watch the sun rise from the bottom of the sea" in "Are You Experienced?", all this crazy stuff. I could almost say Jimi Hendrix was the greatest surf musician who ever lived (laughs).
Jim Thomas: We do "1983 (A Merman I Will Turn To Be)" every once in a while, just the melodic part of the song and improvise a little bit. I don¥t like trying to do his songs, because I feel like it would mess them up (laughs).
Jim Thomas: Yes, they do, because the guy was the ultimate adventurer, right? I keep thinking, some day I¥m gonna do "3rd Stone From The Sun. I was thinking about that for ten years. I mean, I can play it, I fool around with it, but I haven¥t played it yet. It¥s gotta be right. Other instrumental bands just play these songs just because it¥s there to play, they¥re not bringing anything to it.To me, that¥s not what music is about. Either you play and bring something to it or don¥t do it. That¥s kind of a hard rule, but I don¥t like messing with Jimi Hendrix songs, they¥re like sacred or something, they definetely are.
Jim Thomas: When we did the first album, "Krill Slippin'", I was playing with Fender Twin Reverbs and Stratocasters and that album has no distorted guitars on it, no feedback. I used older twins back then, blackface or silverface models and they had no fuzzboxes on em. Then I got my hands on all those red knob Fenders. These amps had a really great tube gain knob in one channel and a really clean channel on the other side. You could also combine the channels to get all these screwed up sounds.
We did a show and played "Jack The Ripper" by Link Wray and that was the first time I ever used feedback. I turned the amps up, and in the song I started to feedback. And that¥s when the whole noise thing came into its own, after that. I bought an Echoplex, a looping thing and I started looping things over the band, then doing loops by myself, just doing all kinds of funny things.
It¥s funny, we did a couple of shows over the past week and I hardly used any kind of effects at all, I¥m just pulling all of that and going back to guitar playing.
Jim Thomas: The structure of the songs is worked out. But we do things that are spontaneous jams, like I start doing something and we all start playing, much like...
Jim Thomas: Well, the Allman Brothers would play songs. They had structure. The Mermen are the same way, they have a structure and then we would improvise over the structure of a part of a song.
But sometimes at a show, we¥ll do something like a loop jam, I do a riff, Marty does a drum beat, somebody plays a bass line and we just start creating something on the spot, whatever it is and we just go with it and see if everybody can tag along. I enjoy doing that too. I don¥t do it as much as I would like, because at this point, The Mermen have six records out and a lot of people who come to the shows want to hear all these songs, so I constantly think about, which songs we¥re going to do, relearn some of these songs, I gotta listen to the audience, what they want, it¥s not that I can go out there and do whatever I want, they¥re not going to be happy.If we do too many new songs, they want to hear the old songs (laughs)!
Jim Thomas: It¥ll be like the record, but it¥ll be improvised. Sometimes the structure of the songs will be different. The Mermen live are really different then they are on record. I think you get a lot more from a live show, because you get a lot more music. It depends, it¥s just two different things, they¥re both good, but just different.
Sometimes I enjoy the studio, because you can experiment and try things out. On the last record "The Amazing..." I went too far into that direction. The next record is going to be really straight ahead, good sounding drums, bass and guitar, no other instruments.
Jim Thomas: I write them by myself. Usually I have an idea, that¥s pretty clear and I just present it to the band. And then, as we play it, it kind of morphs itself into something. Sometimes we work things out and I say well, that bassnote, can you use that inversion of the chord on that place. A lot of time I piss off the other guys in the band, because I have a pretty good idea how to make that things sound so that it sounds like something. I really hate to play when I feel like the feel isn¥t there and I¥m not going. Sometimes we try to do the songs from our records and the band isn¥t coming to the table with the way it¥s supposed to sound. It¥s demanding and all the people I work with hate it because I¥m demanding. I don¥t like busy drummers, I like things that are kind of slowed down and solid, I don¥t like stuff that¥s played for the sake of playing. When you improvise, that¥s a different thing, but I try to move towards players who aren¥t busybodies.
Jim Thomas: It just went where it went. There was no conscious decision. I just wanted to explore a mellower kind of psychedelic thing on the last record. There¥s some great stuff on it. It got really great reviews in the United States, all over the place. But the record company actually fell apart and now it¥s not even available. We just licensed the thing to somebody else and it will be available in a month or so again.
Jim Thomas: No, not really. If you look at every Mermen record, each one is different. The first record had no distorted guitar, "Food For Other Fish" was performed live to 2-track DAT, "The Haunted House" was live on the radio,"The Glorious Lethal Euphoria" is a really elaborate, kind of live performance studio record with overdubs, "Songs Of The Cows" has got its own thing... My idea for the next record is to have just a really stunning sound of drums, bass and guitar with no instrument really dominating, to have a big clear beautiful sound with good songs. I always wanted to do this, but in every other recording situation it just happened that I wasn¥t able to do exactly what I wanted, but now I have equipment, I have the whole thing set up to do this. I can¥t really say where it¥s gonna go, but it¥ll be the next step. It¥s just music about whatever people write music about. The pulse of life, the more authentic and organic you can get, the better off it is.
Jim Thomas: Not really. I have something in my head. Take the last record. Every song there had something I have in my head, like the song "Bare White". It¥s like a soul song and that was really coming from - as we talked about - the Motown years in my life. I¥m always writing these funny little things that have that kind of influence. "Walking The Peach" has a little bit of that, too. If you look at the first song, "Into the Resplendent", you can really see where I¥m trying to go here.
Have you ever listened to Jack Nitzsches "The Lonely Surfer"? It¥s a surf instrumental that was played on baritone guitar. He was a great film writer, who wrote music for films, played with Neil Young. It was a hit on the radio in the Sixtes. What he does, he picks that kind of mood of California, being by the coast, the ocean, the resplendence of California.
For me, the music that I have been involved in playing, has been so influenced by the California coastal ethos, as I call it. The coast of California is a pretty unique place. Dick Dale, The Beach Boys, a lot of music came from here, there¥s a certain kind of influence.
On the last record, I exerted some ideas about the California thing. It was like snapshots of my musical sensibility about the geography, the history, the feelings you get when you are here. California is a magical place, there are lots of weird places in California; it can be pretty harsh weather-wise and environmentally, big waves and all that stuff. I live right at the beach, I can see the waves breaking on the ocean from my window.
Jim Thomas: Yes. I¥ve been living here for 15 years. All these influences come together in the feeling of the last album. I always think that music expresses emotionally qualities or poetic qualities. That¥s what I try to do when I make music. I don¥t really think of myself as an entertainer. I don¥t enjoy putting on shows all that much, although I enjoy the music, but I don¥t like the entertainment values. A lot of guitar players just want to be in front of an audience and play their heart out and they love that. I can¥t say I love that, I don¥t. I ¥m more interested in just making music. The entertainment stuff, I could let that all go!
Jim Thomas: We play every kind of venue! The Fillmore, every major club in San Francisco, giant places with big artists. All the cool clubs all over the country, outdoor shows.
Jim Thomas: All kinds of people. Young people, old people, punk people, hippies. That¥s the thing about the Mermen, we don¥t seem to gather one type of audience. We don¥t promote any kind of image or philosophic stands. If you look at bands like The Phantom Surfers or The Cramps, they dress a certain way, look for a certain kind of following. But I have never been interested being in one place with the music, where you become a rockabilly band or a surf band. You can go around and see a thousand surf bands. They've got the reverb unit, their echo boxes, but the sound never really stretches out. It very much stays in the same vein, just like The Ventures or The Shadows, they build a career doing the same thing on different songs. Beautiful music, but that¥s their destiny and their job and my job is something else.
We've played with tons of instrumental bands, The Ventures, Dick Dale, Man or Astroman, Los Straitjackets, and we¥re all different! Everybody has got their own, funny niche they fill in, no one is better than the other.
Jim Thomas: I guess it means a reverb guitar, played with umdadaumda behind, that¥s one level. There¥s something about sound that defines the genre. It¥s almost like an illusion, there¥s a gravitational center, which really doesn¥t exist, but which all the bands revolve around and depending on how creative somebody is they¥re all influenced by that gravitational center and stretch out, whether it¥s Slacktone, Man or Astroman, Los Straitjackets. It¥s like food, we all use the same basic food elements and cook up different dishes (laughs). You know what I mean?
Jim Thomas: It¥s definitely one of the defining features, when you say there is something like surf music.
Jim Thomas: There are certain songs I like. "Pressure" by the Pyramids, "Unknown" and "Crash", I don¥t know the names of the band that did those. There¥s a couple of songs by the Fender Four like "Malibu Run", that¥s really amazing. And of course the early Dick Dale stuff is amazing, songs like "Miserlou", "Hava Nagila". I¥m not into the later stuff at all, that old stuff is the best! When you listen to "Miserlou", the energy of how that was done, everybody is looking up to that! Whether it¥s Slacktone or whoever, that¥s the archetype everybody is looking for!
Jim Thomas: You mean people who want it to be old, who like it traditional? I think it¥s very good. You know why? Because it preserves the tradition, it cultivates a sensibility for what is old. But the reality is, you can¥t stop anybody else from playing the music they play, stretching out into something different. But I definitely see complete value in believing in the old stuff and the tradition, because there's some really amazing stuff there. To perform that is an art. It¥s like classical music, look how in the classical tradition of music they have preserved the traditions of the past, the whole thing is build on the past! And it¥s so difficult for new composers to get anything performed. Every major symphony, every string quartet, the whole core of the perfomances is build around doing older stuff, except for some people like the Kronos Quartet.
By the way, Martyn, our drummer, played "Miserlou" with them on one of their recent records. They did a string quartet version of it.
Jim Thomas: It¥s pretty cool. But you know what I¥m saying? Can you imagine that one day surf music is turned into like the formal classical thing and there are schools like the Juillard school of music teaching how to do surf music, studying the reverb unit, the drum beat. I mean this is not beyond comprehension, I¥m telling you, they¥re already doing this with other forms of music like bluegrass. You go to these bluegrass festivals during the summer and they¥re all doing the same songs, there are judges and contests and who¥s doing the song best - I hope that doesn¥t happen to surf music. In a certain way, there¥s something very valuable that happened in those days. There was good sound, good performance, good energy and it always amazes me, the kind of excitement, almost religous fervor of people who love instrumental surf music. We¥re all nuts about the music, we all love it! So there¥s something there, some core, an element that we all gravitate to, we can never quite figure it out, but it¥s there!
And these guys who say preserve the tradition, it¥s one thing when they say you can¥t do anything else, but they can¥t stop it, so it doesn¥t matter!
Jim Thomas: No, not at all. Everybody¥s gotta do what he¥s gotta do. Nobody will ever stop me from making music that moves my emotions.
Jim Thomas: I play American Standard Stratocasters. I also use some funny doubleneck guitars. I took six Stratocasters, cut them in half and made three doubleneck guitars. I got one doubleneck with one Strat in open tuning and one in regular tuning. Then I have a Rickenbacker twelve string coupled with a regular Strat, all that crazy stuff.
Jim Thomas: I play Fender Dual Showman heads - old ones and new ones. Live, I use six red knob Dual Showman heads. That¥s what I¥ve been using for the last ten years and now they¥re all completely messed up. I¥m just at the point now trying to figure out what I am going to use next. The old Fender Amps sound best!
Jim Thomas: My main thing is the Lexicon Reverb. I never use chorus or fuzz boxes, except for a Real Tube overdrive rack thing. Sometimes for the loop stuff, I use a delay to modulate the loop. 98 percent of a show all you gonna hear me doing is a guitar with reverb.That¥s it, there¥s no delay on there. The only time I use delay is as a real obviously in your face effect, as on the song "Varykino Snow" from "Songs Of The Cows", where the song stops and I push the delay - use it for an effect.
Jim Thomas: I use big strings, 013, 017, 028, 038, 048, 060, tuned regularly. And I use open tunings, two different D-tunings, one is D-D-A-D-A-D and the other one is all strings tuned to D, except for the fifth string tuned to G. I use it on "Burn", the last song from the new record.
Jim Thomas: I play loud, but not as loud as I used to play. On "The Glorious Lethal Euphoria" all the amps were turned up all the way. I can¥t do that anymore. I¥m lucky I have real solid ears. I think I¥m half deaf in my left ear, but I can still hear really good, I can hear everything. But I¥m too old for that, it was like punk energy. There even was a time when I used to smash equipment at shows, smash my amps, guitars and the drums. I used to do that all the time, but now I¥m more older and more interested in music than smashing amps.
Jim Thomas: It does get really expensive, but when you¥re doing it, you don¥t think about it. I used to get really drunk and break stuff, especially when something didn¥t work, I got really pissed off.
Jim Thomas: I am, but I can¥t afford it. I¥ve got two Super Reverbs and a bunch of things. I like the old stuff, but I can¥t afford it, it costs a lot of money.
Jim Thomas: No. I bought the Pod Pro from Line 6 and I took it home and returned it the next day. I couldn¥t get a sound out of it, no matter what I did. Another day, me and a friend bought a Cyber Twin from Fender and spent a whole day with it and not one sound from that sound was as good as a tube amp. I actually have the amp farm from Line 6 in Pro Tools, but all the time I¥ve had it, I¥ve never been able to once use it for guitar and be happy with it. I use it for drums, sounds great to mess up the drums, but never on guitar. I can¥t use that stuff, I tried over and over. If you¥re somebody like me, who worked in different music stores, has all kind of crazy tube stuff, direct boxes, pre amps, compressors, amps, everytime I listen to all that digital modelling stuff, there¥s something completely missing. I read about people like Todd Rundgren, who did the last Bad Religion record and he says he uses Amp Farm on every guitar. I can¥t figure that out.
Then I see the Edge using a Pod, Elvis Costello using a Pod.
I don¥t understand it. I¥m so used being around tube amps that it¥s hard to adapt to listening to something else. Especially when something is called modelling, a model of the real thing, it¥s not the real thing! I¥d rather use a tube amp and a microphone.
Jim Thomas: I go surfing, I read a lot.
Jim Thomas: Right now, I¥m reading lots of books about recording. I have a huge collection of books on the ocean and water, a lot of books on music, all the philosophical aspects of music, hundreds and hundreds of books. I¥ve been buying a lot of books lately about the technical side of recording, electricity, acoustics. I basically know how to run a recording studio and that has taken a lot of time, to learn how to do things right. A lot of my energy of the last year has been invested there.
Jim Thomas: Just make this next record, do some shows, go on tour. We¥re going to play in Hawaii in August, just go wherever life takes me, that¥s where I¥m going. I can¥t say I make any plans or try to do something... I¥m obsessed with guitar sounds and buy all these tube pre amps. I¥m always experimenting with recording equipment, mics, speakers. All my life and money goes into this musical endeavour. I love it. I could sit here and freak up a guitar tone and listen to it forever! Moving the mic around and go, "This is a great sound and that is a good sound."
Jim Thomas: Hopefully. We never released a record in Europe, some of the record companies promised to do that, but they never did! We had a couple of opportunities to go there. Somebody wanted to bring us there, but not pay any money, just go there to promote and pay for it by ourselves and I didn¥t want to do it! Part of the problem is, when I play in the USA, I have special kind of stuff I use, speakers, amps, guitars in different tunings, so I gotta have three guitars to do the songs I do and I would have to bring all that equipment to Europe and that¥s so expensive.