In a city where the closest beach is a three-hour drive and a "pipeline" is the head shop you get your glassware from, instrumental trio King Pelican are pleased as spiked punch to simply play "surf."
"I always had a problem with 'surf rock,' I think that just sounds so clinical, with no soul whatsoever ... but in the last year I've become really comfortable with just saying ... 'We play surf.' Just one word. That's it," says guitarist and the group's primary songwriter, Ernie Hernandez III.
You may have scoped out the trio at one of the city's ever-growing tiki-related gatherings, where the drinks all come with umbrellas, names pulled from Captain Ron quotes and smell like little kid sunscreen. But don't be confused, bassist Lloyd Walsh, Hernandez and drummer Darren Kuper are not your PTA president's luau band. Think the Dead Kennedys with a jazzer's ear for conversation; how the instruments play with each other, synchronize and encourage one another. To use a depressing-but-aquatic example, the first Shamu, before she was placed inside the equivalent of a plankton-sized mockery of her former habitat, every generation after being born inside the fiberglass walls and those sad, stunted Shamus II through XXXIV, their dorsal fins frowning in solidarity with their spirits: that's your typical surf band, good for an occasional Baja Blast Doritos commercial and Hawaiian-themed retirement parties. Not King Pelican.
"If you notice, most our tunes, if not all of them, are not longer than two-and-a-half minutes, 'cause no one wants to hear a jam. [Without vocals] you have to learn how to engage the audience in a different way ... If you notice, I kinda really watch people and look for openings to kinda get in with folks, try [to] make it fun. That's part of the American rock 'n' roll thing, man, y'know? These fuckers that we grew up listening to, The Beatles and other English bands, when you really get back to the root source of what was happening ... I love The Beatles and I grew up with The Beatles and ... I have a hard time listening to them these days. I would really rather hear Little Richard do 'Rip it Up,' y'know, just that raw power of it."
Interestingly, The Beatles would rather hear Penniman (the surname of the makeup-wearing bisexual badass known as Little Richard) play "Rip it Up," themselves. It's rather fitting that Hernandez would use an Iggy Pop title to describe where all that fire and gusto comes from, especially as King Pelican don't just play 'surf.' They write the majority of their tunes, something few surf bands are inclined to do due to the widely-disseminated Ventures and Link Wray discographies, and lately they have also been backing up the one and only Rudy "Tee" González of Reno Bops fame.
For those unfamiliar, San Antonians Rodolfo González and his brother Manuel "Red" González originally formed the groups Red y Su Conjunto and Conjunto Los Panchos, starting in 1952. Then, in 1955, the year that Ford introduced the first Thunderbird, after getting turned on to rhythm and blues, Rudy and Red formed Rudy & the Reno Bops. In 1957, they released Louis Walters' "Cry, Cry" on the Rio label, located at 700 W. Commerce St. They toured throughout the U.S. and Mexico and, eventually, along with "El Pato" González, formed the label PaGoGo Records, which put out Question Mark & the Mysterians 1966 recording of "96 Tears," with Rudy mentoring the group.
As to how the group got hooked up with González to form Rudy Tee Gonzalez Y Los Pelicanos del Rey?
"I don't know. The best I can tell is [local DJ] Jason Saldana ... he heard us play and immediately he thought of Los Teen Tops and the record that Los Straightjackets did covering Los Teen Tops by themselves, so he thought we'd be a good fit for visiting some of Rudy Tee's earlier cuts that he did," says Hernandez, proud but somewhat incredulously, as if he's still tickled by the whole thing, because he is.
Surely Gonzalez has played with killer bands before. The fact that he chose the trio — a trio, mind you — to back him up speaks to the authentic love and lust the group has for real, sweaty, slutty American music.
Like a boozy, craftily concocted cocktail made from a garage-still, King Pelican, Los Pelicanos del Rey, whichever form they're in, ferment the rawness of rock 'n' roll, the pulp of punk and the heart of soul. A style that will have the band performing at such seemingly conflicting venues as the McNay before heading down to Mexico for a series of shows and then back up to the The Mix later this month.
"It's fun, man. It's a lot of fun. It's a lot of fun to play for folks that, at first, don't really get it. Like, 'Where's the singer? Where's the singer?' He'll be here any minute."