Arts

New Century Surf

Gavan brothers at core of Guitar UP!’s retro sound
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Guitar UP! is (clockwise from left) Shawn Gavan, Mark Duval, Brian Heany and Jay Gavan. Courtesy photo.

That mid-century instrumental twangy rock 'n' roll that some call "surf" can conjure many moods other than those spurred by beaches, waves and bikinis. It can spawn visions of a moody night in a gritty urban setting, as when the Kalamazoo band Guitar UP! was playing the Old Dog Tavern's outdoor stage a couple years ago.

Under a full moon on downtown Kalamazoo’s east side, where the city’s industrial past is never completely eliminated by the many brewpubs that have sprung up there, a loud train blew through on the tracks just yards from the stage. "We probably broke into 'Rumble' at that point, right?" guitarist Shawn Gavan says. "That's our thing."

Of course, they did. Crossing bells at Kalamazoo Avenue started dinging, the train blasted its horn, and the band launched into a classic that was dangerously loud from the start. The original 1958 recording of Link Wray's "Rumble" was banned from many radio stations because concerned citizens feared its title and menacing sound would cause gang fights.

But name aside, the song was also appropriate because in 1997 Shawn's younger brother and Guitar UP! bandmate Jay Gavan went to see a senior citizen play in Kalamazoo's legendary music bar The Club Soda: Link Wray himself.

Jay remembers that Wray walked onto the stage as the backup band played an intro. "He's just taking his time, and then — he's not even playing a chord or a song, he's just playing open strings — 'BRAAANG!' And then he goes to the mic and yells, 'Guitar UP!'"

Wray was yelling across the room at the sound guy, who gave him a look of "You're up all the way, dude!" Jay says.

So, when the Gavan brothers formed their twangy band, the name was obvious.

Guitar UP! also features Bryan Heany on drums and Mark Duval on bass, but the core of the band was formed by the two brothers tied by a bond of guitars and surf music.

Homemade music

In 1978, Shawn was 11 and Jay 8 when Shawn started taking guitar lessons. "Mel Bay stuff," Shawn says, bringing up memories of the lesson book and its simple tunes for beginners.

"And you were bored out of your mind," Jay adds, revealing that their mother ultimately asked the instructor to teach Shawn “some songs that he'd like.”

The teacher, a former big-band player in his 60s, got out the hippest guitar music he knew: The Ventures, whose 1960 hit "Walk Don't Run" led to more than 250 albums of instrumental rock. It wasn't exactly hip anymore in 1978, but Shawn took to it.

Shawn would pick out "Walk Don't Run," and as soon as he put his guitar down, Jay would grab it and try it himself. "Just mimic what he was doing," Jay says. When they reached their early teens, they were both playing “some of the (surf) repertoire without even knowing what it was," Jay says.

Around 1984, Shawn and a few high school friends formed a band. "We didn't have a singer, so the songs that made sense (to play) were The Ventures' songs," he says.

They needed a bass player, so he turned to his little brother. But Jay needed a bass, so Shawn made him one. "I had an old bass neck pulled from the trash heap somewhere and slapped that on a slab of plywood with a guitar pickup and some chrome bike fender cut and bent out to make a bridge," Shawn says. "It was pretty awful but worked."

Jay, then around 13, started patiently learning to play the junkyard instrument, picking out the bass parts from Van Halen and other rockers of the time. "John Taylor (bass player) of Duran Duran blew my mind," says Jay.

The band didn't work out, so Shawn went on to join Phoenix, a cover band that played local bars and weddings (not the French alternative band of the same name from this century).

"You got into a bad-ass cover band, rockin' the world with Phoenix, and left me in the lurch with a homemade bass," Jay says to his brother.

Back together

It would be decades before the brothers played together again. Jay, now 50, eventually became a history professor at Kalamazoo Valley Community College. He also teaches kids to play rock as an instructor for the Kalamazoo Academy of Rock and has been in a few bands this century, from the protest rock band The Army to the gypsy jazz band The Birdseed Salesmen.

Shawn, 53, has worked in telephony as a communications engineer.

During family get-togethers, the brothers would break out the surf guitars. "We'd always talk about how we should do this, but it never came together," Jay says.

When The Army broke up, Jay and Shawn did a few jam sessions and found themselves getting twangy again.

In 2012 they made Guitar UP! official. The band put out the EP Liquid Sunshine in 2017, followed by Western Pacific in 2019.

The band’s tunes stylistically show that surf music isn't all about the beach. Western Pacific has sounds that recall spies, drag-strip hot rods, and bad hombres on horseback.

"For me, I dig a lot of the movie soundtracks from the mid-'60s, even before that,” Shawn says. “A lot of it was in parallel to the surf scene — the spaghetti western-type and spy-type soundtrack stuff that was going on."

There are no lyrics to guide the listener. "Without a singer, you have to imagine what you're hearing,” Shawn says. “I think a lot of that music is a mood-setter, like for a movie."

"You don't immediately conjure up a vocalist or even what the band looks like," Jay adds. "The memories when you hear that stuff are often cinematic."

Recognizable tunes

A strength of the original surf bands was their use of great melodies and recognizable tunes, Jay points out. He remembers seeing contemporary surf band Los Straitjackets wow an audience by playing Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On (Love Theme from Titanic)."

"They played that, and that was beautiful, because it's a really well-known melody, a simple melody. But you do it in that style and it's awesome, way better than the original,” Jay says.

“I'd rather hear a guitar twang that out than (Celine Dion)."

Hearing this version of the song inspired the quartet's pandemic project: doing surf covers of classical and jazz tunes. For example, they turn Chopin's 1832 Nocturne, Op. 9 No. 2 into something teens in a surf movie could twist to. The band’s surf/jazz/samba rendition of Brazilian Antônio Carlos Jobim's “Surfboard” feels like a sunny escape.

Prior to the pandemic, Guitar UP! played a lot of shows in Kalamazoo and had regular gigs at the Grand Rapids retro-music club the Tip Top Deluxe Bar & Grill. Guitar UP! was about to do its first show in Chicago when the lockdown came.

During the pandemic the band has kept up recording in their individual studios, but the band members hadn't been in the same room since February 2020. When they do perform together again, Jay hopes it’s like the time Guitar UP! opened for the Russian surf band Messer Chups at the Tip Top in late 2019. "The bass player for that band is like this tall, supermodel-looking woman. They're playing the same style of music, but you could see all the people in front of the stage just like…," he says, with his mouth hanging open.

"They were transported so far from Grand Rapids, Michigan," he says. "Your mind goes elsewhere when that music starts."

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See Guitar UP!
  • What: Guitar UP! performs
  • When: 6 p.m. July 2
  • Where: Allegan's Riverfront stage
  • Can’t make the show? Give ‘em a listen here: guitarupsurfband.com