Gary James' Interview With Matthew Grose Of
The Beach Boys Tribute Band
Matthew Grose is the leader of a Beach Boys tribute band called Still Surfin'. Not only does he get to play the music of The Beach Boys, but he's also had the opportunity to meet the musical genius behind The Beach Boys. We talked about that and more with Matthew Grose.
Q - How old were you when you first heard a Beach Boys song? Do you remember?
A - I think I was about four.
Q - Did you hear it on the radio?
A - No. My brother had purchased the "Endless Summer" album. At the time we lived in Northern Ontario. At four or five I didn't listen to the radio much. I couldn't remember what was popular back then.
Q - So, something stuck out in your mind about The Beach Boys' music?
A - Oh, yeah. Second I heard it, it was the most beautiful sound I ever heard in my life. Those harmonies and that falsetto voice was just unbelievable. It changed the way I listened to music. There's only been a few bands that ever did that to me.
Q - And The Beach Boys were one of them?
A - And the most profound, I think.
Q - How long has Still Surfin' been together?
A - I started in 1999 puttin' it together. It was me and a few of my friends. The problem was I always wanted to do something like that, but I never thought I could find the musicians that could pull it off. It was actually two people, Don Zirilli from
Papa Doo Run Run and my wife who said "why don't you try?" Don Zirilli was like, "it can't hurt to try. You can find the guys. Just take it slow and spend a year singin' and just put people together." Don's a really great guy. He's just a really, really nice guy.
Q - With an incredible history!
A - Yeah, incredible. It's amazing how many years he's been doing this and how much he knows. He's been very nice to me.
Q - You thought it would be hard to find musicians who could do the complex harmonies or look like The Beach Boys or both?
A - No. I'm not a fan of trying to look like The Beach Boys. There are multiple kinds of tribute acts, especially with Beatles. There are Beatles tributes who put absolutely no effort to look like The Beatles. They're just doing everything to sound like them. There are Beatles tributes that guys re-learn to play the bass left-handed so they can look like Paul and almost have surgery. Then there's the guy from
Soft Parade who had surgery I think to look like Jim Morrison. The Beach Boys are different I think because the five guys of The Beach Boys were only together for what, five years? By 1965 they'd already replaced Brian on the road with several different people,
Glen Campbell and more permanently Bruce Johnston. By 1966, 1967, they had two or three more people on those dates with them. By the early '70s there were what, ten guys on stage with them. They had a horn section. They had all kinds of stuff going on. So, I don't think The Beach Boys were one of those acts that was really so much about the look so much as it was about the music. One of the things that started hitting me was, we do wear the blue and white striped shirt. We have people come up at shows and say "So, what's up with the shirts?" They just don't know. They have no idea. And the truth of the matter is, 'til I was, I guess in my twenties, it never occurred to me that The Beach Boys put on the blue and white striped shirts. I had seen some pictures on the concert album. That to me wasn't really the signature look so much as Mike Love with his hat on and Carl with the big beard. Several different looks I think when I thought Beach Boys. We wear the striped shirts because I think if you're gonna do an early '60s type show, you have to have some kind of uniform to truly convey the time. Every band in the '60s wore some kind of uniform. It demonstrates the purity of the music.
Q - You're based out of Washington, D.C. Is that a good place to be based out of for a Beach Boys tribute act or would you be better off based in California?
A - I don't know about California. Our predominant venues are townships doing their summer concert series, corporate events and small theatre venues in the mid-west, Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas. That's where you see these small towns with the beautiful little theatres that they've re-done. Being that those are our venues and casinos, I'd probably be best if I was based out of Florida if I was just trying to do the pure volume of shows. It seems to me that's where there's an awful lot of shows to be done and a lot of casinos and a lot of everything down there. But what's nice about Washington is we're only a few hours from New York and there's a fair amount of work in New York, Pennsylvania. And of course we have Dulles Airport and I would say 70% of our shows we fly to anyway. Between Dulles and Reagan National, we have flights to almost everywhere and fairly cost effectively. Since we fly to most of our shows, I don't think so. I guess my answer is, yeah. I think it's a pretty good place to be based out of. (laughs)
Q - And so, how many gigs a year are you doing?
A - Well, it's down now from previous years. We typically do twenty, plus or minus five shows, eighteen to twenty-five shows a year.
Q - I see you've met Brian Wilson.
A - Yeah. I have, several times.
Q - That had to have been a thrill for you.
A - It was. It's not the man himself, it's the music that I loved. For me, I as much enjoy going to see him perform the music as meeting him. Meeting him, there's kind of a line-up of people. You go up and say hello. You may have met him four or five times. You might have met him a half hour earlier. But he meets so many people that he only really cares to remember his really close friends. I'm certainly not that. (laughs) It's like meeting Gershwin. It's like meeting Mozart or any of the other greats.
Q - Do you think The Beach Boys know about Still Surfin'?
A - I don't know if Mike Love or the other Beach Boys know if I do it and I doubt very seriously if they care. (laughs) I wouldn't be so presumptuous to think they care.
Q - On your website,
www.StillSurfin.com, you have a video where you point to a woman named Shirley England who the song "Fun Fun Fun" was written about, correct?
A - That's right. That's her.
Q - I never heard of her.
A - Her father owned the radio station in Provo (Utah). The Beach Boys had come to Provo to do a show that her father's radio station had put on. The next day he was driving back to the airport in Salt Lake City and he was telling them how he was so angry at his daughter because; he was also a professor at Brigham Young (University) teaching communications. So, he had a teacher's parking spot. So, when she went to school she would always park in the teacher's parking spot. She had said "I'm going up to the library to do some research. Can I take the car?" He said "Yeah, sure. Go." Then something happened and he had to run up to the school and sure enough is parking spot was empty. He realized she hadn't gone to the library at all. She'd gone off to meet this boy at a diner of some kind. She got caught. They (The Beach Boys) thought it was hysterically funny. Apparently Brian laughed about that hysterically. He and Dennis got the biggest kick out of the story. At least that's how the story was told to me. I believe it.
Q - Do you think The Beach Boys music ever sounds dated? You're performing it all the time.
A - Yeah. I think some of the early stuff does. I think some of the "Surfin' Surfari", "Surfer Girl" stuff, which we do a fair amount of, I think it sounds a bit dated. But once you get up to the stuff that's more of The Beach Boys today, "California Girls", "Summer Days, Summer Nights", some of that stuff, it seems like almost a cultural icon. It's a part of our culture.
Q - What I find so strange is how the songs of The Beach Boys became so popular. How could someone in the mid-west relate to a song about surfing?
A - How do you identify with it?
Q - Right.
A - You know what? I read some books that said it was the car songs that sort of swept them across the nation. Everybody could identify with that. But I don't know that that's true. I can relate it from this standpoint, being Canadian, as a kid I thought the United States was a Beach Boys' song. To me, I didn't know any differently. As far as I knew, that's what the United States was. I thought everybody were those beautiful surfer girls. I thought everybody drove around in those cars. I was a young teenager when we emigrated into the U.S. I found that wasn't it at all, but I look back on it and it's almost funny. That was truly what I thought. That's what I thought the United States was. I've actually heard from some people, Australians and some people from Europe that I've met, that said they thought the same thing. In their mind, The Beach Boys was America. That was America. I think even Americans on some level picked up on that and realized that this is the sound of us. It wasn't Doo Wop. It was unique.
Q - Their harmonies were certainly unique.
A - I never knew, having grown up a Beach Boys fan, it wasn't until I was an adult that I started reading books and found out that it was The Four Freshmen that were Brian's vocal inspiration. Maybe other people knew it. I didn't until I was in my twenties and I started listening to The Four Freshmen. I was like "Wow! This is beautiful harmony," and there's all kinds of these Jazz vocal groups from the '50s. There's clearly some influence I think having listened to it and certainly having studied it as a musician, but I don't see it as a copy or anything. To me, it's still very unique even from The Four Freshmen.
Q - Before you put this band together, were you in another band?
A - Oh, I played in all kinds of bands since I was about fifteen.
Q - Rock bands?
A - Rock bands. Top 40 bands. I played in a Reggae band. When I was nineteen or twenty I was in a Shriners Swing Band, Big Band. Just about everything. Blues. Remember when Blues was big? In the '90s after Stevie Ray Vaughn died. I was really tired of playing in bars. You play in bars, you're playing for three or four hours. Half the people there don't care what you're doing or that you're playing even. I'd gone to see Papa Doo play and it was like "Oh my God! I'd love to do that That looks like that would just be the greatest!"
Q - Was it hard to find musicians for this band?
A - Yes. In fact, most of the people I knew who were musicians in the area had one of two responses, particularly "Oh, c'mon, you want to be in an oldies, bubblegum act?" or "Wow! That's a really ambitious undertaking. Do you think you can pull that off?" It's not like you can fake your way through it. Everybody knows exactly what every vocal is. It's not like "do I know that song?" It wasn't that it was hard to find people who wanted to do it. It was more that it was very hard to find people who were capable of doing it.
Q - Is the work you get enough to live on?
A - No. None of us do this full-time. None of us really have any interest in trying to be a musician full-time.
Q - Could you go full-time if you wanted to?
A - I don't know. I guess. Actually I don't know if I could find enough shows. We'd have to do something more like Papa Doo does. I think we'd have to do something where we only did one set of Beach Boys' music and then did another set or two of other music. Just Beach Boys is a little too limiting to get really a lot of venues and a lot of shows. If you're going to be a musician and you're going to try and make a living at it, you've got to do a lot of shows. But I mean, I have young kids. Everybody in the band has kids and wives. None of us are really interested in being gone doing sixty to seventy shows a year. It's just not something that any of really wanted for ourselves, so it was never even something we thought of or pursued. Twenty shows a year, that's usually one a week throughout the summer months, plus you pick up two or three others during the course of the year, yeah, that's good. It's fun. It's enough that it keeps it interesting because we're not just playing in a bar once a month. We get on a plane and we fly to Wisconsin. We fly to someplace where we've never been. You show up and you do a show for a thousand people instead of fifty drunks.
Q - There you go!
A - Yeah. The people who watch it are listening and they enjoy it. So it's a way to be a musician, doing some very complicated, very rewarding music and do it on a serious level, but not have to devote your life to it.
Q - How many sets of Beach Boys material are you playing at these events?
A - Well, the shortest show is ninety minutes. But sometimes we do two hours. Sometimes we do a little over two hours. It really depends on the venue. A lot of these summer concert series it's a ninety minute show. That's what they want. The corporate events are usually a ninety minute show. When you play these theatres in the mid-west, it's always two, one hour sets 'cause it's an old, beautiful, re-furbished theatre and they want you to come out and do a set and want you to take a break so they can go and sell some concessions and then come back and do your second act.
Q - You have to know a lot of songs then.
A - We know about forty-five to fifty songs. We typically do about thirty-five to forty of them a night. But they're only like two minutes long so you gotta do a lot of songs to fill that time.
Q - How many times have you seen The Beach Boys in concert?
A - Oh, I don't know. Since the 1980s probably a couple dozen times.
Q - Taking notes every time you see them?
A - No. You know what? I'm a bit of an emotional guy. I find it to be more of an emotional experience for me. The last few years it hasn't been. It's a very good band. The last few years it's been great seeing that band, but it's not what it used to be. It's not that the show isn't. Don't get me wrong. I'm not putting down the show or the musicianship or anything like that. With Mike and Bruce up there onstage, it's just not the same to me. I don't know why. I still like it. I still enjoy it, but I remember one of the last times I saw Carl play before he passed and the second half of the show he ended up having to sit on a stool and it was just heart breaking. I swear I had a little tear in my eye. It was heart breaking to see this wonderful part of music history crumbling like that. It was awful. I remember the first time I saw them in the early '90s when Matt Jardine, Al's son, was singing the falsetto parts and I got emotionally choked up. I thought, "look at this. There's Al's son a part of the band now. What a wonderful voice!" What a wonderful falsetto he had. I'm weird like that. I'm just emotional like that at times. So I didn't take notes. I was listening.
Q - Did you ever see the band when Dennis Wilson was in the group?
A - No. I didn't and I had a chance to. I'd never seen The Beach Boys play and at the time I was living in Alabama and they did a show in Fort Walton Beach, Florida and it was about three and half hours away and I forget why I didn't go, but I couldn't go. I think that was one of the last few times that Dennis played before he died.
Q - And he died in '83.
A - Yeah, this was probably the summer of '83 when this happened, because he died in December of '83. So, I never saw Dennis play. I saw The Beach Boys with all the others. All four onstage at the same time, with Brian, Al, Carl and Mike. But I never saw Dennis play.