Interview: Susan Surftone

Cover photo by Mark Maryanovich

Susan L. Yasinski, also known as Susan Surftone, is a surf/instrumental rock musician originally from New York now based in Oregon. She has one of the most interesting stories I’ve ever heard. Before she started recording professionally, she studied law and was a Special Agent for the FBI. In the early 80s, she reflected on life and realised she isn’t doing what she wanted to do and wanted to do something more fulfilling. She loved hanging out at CBGB’s and wanted to start her own rock band, which wasn’t something that the FBI liked, so she left and made her own way as a rock musician. In the 90s, she got inspired by Pulp Fiction and Backbeat to make music inspired by the early 60s. Thanks to the former movie popularising Dick Dale’s version of “Misirlou”, another wave of surf rock began and a community of people got interested in the genre. She formed The Surftones in 1994 and the following year was signed to Gee-Dee Music in Germany. She has toured Europe four times and recorded for three independent European record labels.

We are so lucky to have Susan Surftone here with us to talk about her music. You can listen to her latest release, a cover of a surf rock instrumental called “Baja” below – it’s a track that will be on an EP coming out in October 2020. If you want to learn more about her music, keep on reading!

Angie Moon: How would you describe yourself to a new listener? 

Susan Surftone: My music is best described as retro yet modern. The foundation is surf and 1960’s garage music but there is a third element taken somewhere from classic rock in the mix too. It depends on the song. I like to respect the basics of classic rock but give the music a bit of a new approach, maybe a new twist the listener hasn’t heard before.

Angie: How did you get into surf rock being from New York? 

Susan: My guitar teacher in Hudson, New York taught me “Walk, Don’t Run” and I found The Ventures. I learned “Diamond Head” and some of their other songs. I liked the clear melodic tone of the guitar. I never saw myself as a vocalist. I wanted to be a lead guitarist in a band when I started taking guitar lessons in 1964, right after the arrival of The Beatles in America. I heard “Wipe-Out” and “Pipeline” on the radio and that was it.

Angie: What makes the music of the 60s so magical to you?

Susan: There was so much music in the 1960’s to learn from. It was all new with a drive and a beat that just grabbed me and never let go. As new bands came along the music kept growing. As a guitar student there was always something new to learn and it was exciting. A new record would come out and you’d have your next obsession. I remember hearing The Beach Boys’ “Dance, Dance, Dance” for the first time at Osborn’s Music Store where I took my lessons. That bass intro made me want to learn to play bass. It took a long while but I did eventually pick up the bass too.

Angie: Which guitarists and bands are your biggest inspirations?

Susan: When I began to play it was The Beatles and The Ventures. George Harrison was my favourite Beatle in 1964. The early Rolling Stones, Brian Jones and Keith Richards, were a big influence and that leads to Chuck Berry. Link Wray is a big influence so brings in power chords and The Who. As I got older and started to listen to The Velvet Underground, I’d say Sterling Morrison was an influence too.

Angie: I saw on your bio that before going into music, you studied law and worked as a special agent, what made you want to study law? 

Susan: My mother told me I needed a job. I spent the summer of my junior year in college as an intern in Washington, DC. I went to a lot of Congressional hearings and it seemed the lawyers had a lot of influence. A lawyer was always whispering in a Senator’s or Congressperson’s ear during the hearings. I knew I did not want to work for a law firm. After I graduated from law school the FBI and the CIA were hiring. I interviewed with both but went with the FBI to eventually work Soviet foreign counterintelligence in NYC.

Angie: What was New York like in the late 70s and early 80s?

Susan: I got there in the early 80’s. CBGB was there along with Great Guildersleeve’s just down the street on the Bowery. There were a lot of other clubs with live music. There were bands everywhere. I realised that I really wanted to play guitar in a band after seeing The Ramones many times. I was 28 and it was now or never. The Bureau did not approve of my rock and roll ambitions so I left to start my first band. I knew I’d never find peace within myself if I didn’t try for a musical career.

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Angie: How accepting did you find the music industry versus the FBI to be as a lesbian? 

Susan: At the time I was an agent the FBI would fire a Special Agent for being gay. The times have changed and LGBTQ agents are free to live their lives openly now. I didn’t have to worry about being fired in the music industry. I can’t say if being a lesbian has held me back in the music industry or not. I am just me and I followed my own path. Maybe it has a bit but I can’t point to anything specific. Being a female lead guitarist in male-dominated surf music hasn’t always been easy but I just move past the men who can’t deal with it and have found much support among the men who can accept a woman playing lead surf guitar.

Angie: What brought you to Oregon?

Susan: A friend from college lives in Oregon. We reconnected in 2000 and I felt it was time to try the West Coast. I spend a good deal of time in LA now too.

Angie: What was touring in Europe like and how did fans receive the music?

Susan: Touring in Europe was an experience of a lifetime and we did it four times. We actually played in the venue where the Kaiserkeller was located off the Reepherbhan. We made our four trips to Germany when we were signed with Gee-Dee Music in Hamburg. We played in Switzerland, Denmark, Austria, France, Belgium and The Netherlands too. The fans were a lot of fun and knew the music very well. The clubs were crowded and we were given plenty of beer to drink. In honour of The Beatles in their Hamburg days we always had a beer on stage. The Europeans had no problem with that but some American club owners were aghast at our insistence about an on-stage beer. A club manager in Seattle, WA had the biggest freak-out of all but we did it anyway.

Angie: What does surf rock mean to you?

Susan: Surf rock means fun to me. There’s a power and freedom to the music that is inspiring to play and it is uplifting for the audience. Without words it allows the listener to define it for themselves. It can mean many things to many people.

Angie: What inspired your latest single, Baja?

Susan: First of all, it is high among my favourites of the surf classics of the early 1960’s. There is a certain elegance to it. I had played other genres for awhile, rockabilly, blues and explored some unlikely cover material like The Velvet Underground, The Clash, and The Ramones. We had always closed our surf set with The Who’s “My Generation.”

This year marks the 25 anniversary of my first CD “Without A Word” so I wanted to return to surf music. I was never completely satisfied with my two prior recordings of “Baja” so that was the song I picked. I teamed up with LA drummer Nick Vincent who has the perfect touch for my style of surf music. Nick’s drumming is very powerful and creative. I played guitar and bass. Jeff Silverman at Palette Studios, Mt.Juliet/Nashville, TN mixed and mastered the single. Jeff is a long time associate of Rick Springfield, having been Springfield’s guitarist, and has the perfect feel for classic rock.

The three of us work well together and we’ve recorded a six song EP to be released in October, 2020. It’s called “Cottonwood Beach” which is also the title of a new original I wrote for the EP. The song was inspired by an experience I had with an unexpected tidal bore at Cottonwood Beach, WA during the Super Blood Moon on September 27, 2015. I  revisit some of my favourite older originals giving them a fresh approach. “Baja” is also included as the sole cover on the EP.

Angie: Who are your favourite surf rock musicians?

Susan: I really liked one of the bands we toured with, Husky and the Sandmen, from Finland. I also liked The Raybeats a lot. I saw them in NYC at the Peppermint Lounge in the early 80’s at a New Year’s Eve show and I think it may have helped inspire me to get a surf band together.

Angie: What has changed about the music industry from the 90s to today?

Susan: Everything has changed. There is much more opportunity today for musicians to make the music they want to make. People who appreciate the music you make can find you and we’re all better off for it. Musicians in various locations are able to work together now making much possible that wasn’t possible in the 90’s. Recording technology has vastly improved and become more accessible to musicians everywhere.

Angie: What advice do you have for young LGBT people and aspiring musicians? 

Susan: Don’t give up. Work at what you do and do it well. Having talent doesn’t mean you don’t have to do the work. Try new things and keep learning. Push yourself to improve. Listen to your critics and learn to pay attention to helpful criticism while not being distracted by criticism meant to cause you to doubt yourself. I read a lot of rock biographies. There is much to be learned in the stories of those who came before you. Remember to have fun doing what you love doing.

You can follow Susan Surftone on Facebook, Twitter, and her website.

Shoutout to my friend Patrick for supporting the blog!

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