Noted for their atmospheric and hypnotic surf music, the Aqua Velvets surfaced as part of an instrumental rock movement that drew sounds from the 1950s and 1960s and embraces a “less is more” aesthetic. Guitar Player’s Chuck Crisafulli described the sound of the Aqua Velvets as, “more akin to (Link) Wray than Return to Forever or Rising Force…. The Aqua Velvets revive the venerable sound of Southern California surf-rock.”
The band consists of guitarist Miles Corbin, bassist Michael Lindner, drummer Don Spindt, guitarist Hank Manninger, and keyboardist Spencer Chan. Although the band’s music undeniably inspires dancing—as witnessed at all of their live shows—their free-flowing instrumental style effortlessly lends itself to soundtracks and television scores. Their music has been featured in numerous various independent films, and television shows such as MTV’s “House of Style,” “Singled Out,” and CBS’ “Nash Bridges.” They’ve also had tracks in dozens of specials on the Discovery Channel, ESPN’s “Maxout”, ABC, and Fox, and were featured in three neosurf anthologies—including Rhino’s Cowabunga! The Surf Box. A.T. at Pipeline magazine described their music as, “scene-setting, private eye, smoky nightclub, foggy backstreet mode… soundtrack for a nineties film noir, all moody atmosphere plus melody… file under tasty modern guitar instrumentals.” A staff writer for the Los Angeles Daily News wrote, “(The band) doesn’t slavishly imitate others or attempt to duplicate the past. All songs on the aptly titled Guitar Noir are originals and many are quite good.”
In spite of success with television, films, music reviewers, and concert audiences, the Aqua Velvets are a specific niche band whose members feel ardently about the unusual music they create. All of the band members still held part-time jobs after the release of their fourth album, Guitar Noir; Corbin, who was raised in Fairfax, VA, worked as part-time manager of the snack bar underneath the lifeguard tower at Stinson Beach, just north of San Francisco, which was dubbed “Surfer’s Grill”. Lindner, from San Francisco, worked as a Porsche mechanic and part-time middle-school music teacher. Chan, from Dublin in Ireland, worked as a piano teacher. Manninger, from Berkeley, CA, raised Jack Russell terriers, and Spindt, from El Cerrito, worked as an internet consultant. Corbin told the San Francisco Examiner-Chronicle, “We play locally (in San Francisco) to stay in form, but record companies don’t give tour support anymore. So rather than quit our day jobs and come home broke, we stay here and work the music out of our own office, placing tunes on TV commercials and soundtracks and doing our own A&R and legal work.”
Band members cite a wide array of musical mentors as early influences, encompassing rock, jazz, surf music, movie music, and alternative rock; the list includes the Beach Boys, the Ventures, the Shadows, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Ennio Morricone, Angelo Badalamenti, Elvis Costello, U2, Chris Isaak, Dick Dale, the Doors, the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, the Grateful Dead, and the Talking Heads. The band incorporates a Latin beat into many of their songs, particularly on Guitar Noif’s “Casbah Club,” “Mysterious Mambo,” and “Argentina”. Corbin concentrates on the details of pick-and-whammy in order to create a distinctive surf effect rather than utilizing special effects. He usually accents the end of a musical phrase with a little tremolo, just as a vocalist might use vibrato for added effect.
Corbin described his band’s sound to Crisafulli as, “neo-surf spaghetti western,” and said he approaches composing as if the music is going to be the soundtrack to a movie that will never exist. He is often inspired by a visual image rather than a lyrical one. The first two songs the Aqua Velvets recorded were studio experiments in film scoring, and Lindner and Corbin enjoyed the music so thoroughly that they decided to form a band around it. The Aqua Velvets debut, The Aqua Velvets was released in 1992 and featured neo-surf sounds with a garage band/grunge sensibility. For their debut release, the AquaVelvets meshed Ennio Morri-cone-style movie music with the atmospheric sound of Angelo Bandalamenti, the razor-sharp twangs of Link
Members include Spencer Chan, keyboard; Miles Corbin, guitar; Michael Lindner, bass; Hank Manninger, guitar; Don Spindt, drums.
Music featured in numerous various independentfilms and television shows such as MTV’s “House of Style,” “Singled Out,” and CBS’ “Nash Bridges”; tracks in dozens of specials on the Discovery Channel, ESPN’s “Maxout”, ABC, and Fox; featured in three neo-surf anthologies, including Rhino’s Cowabunga! The Surf Box; debut release The Aqua Velvets, 1992; released Surfmania, 1995; Nomad, 1996; Guitar Noir, in 1997.
Wray, and the freewheeling surf rock of the Ventures. The album took nearly four years to make, and was recorded in their basement studio at home until neighbors complained about the noise. They eventually completed the album at the garage where bassist Lindner worked as a mechanic. The album’s guitar overdubs were recorded in the back of a Volkswagon van.
Surfmania was released three years later in 1995 and featured quirky singles like “Mexican Rooftop Afternoon,” “Martini Time,” Surf Samba,” and “Cabana Del Gringo”. Of all the material the Aqua Velvets released from 1992 -97, the 12 cuts on Surfmania were most reminiscent of Dick Dale, the Surfaris, and the Ventures. Nomad, released in 1996, was a surf rock compilation, with an emphasis on the surf portion of “surf-rock”. The Aqua Velvets released Guitar Noir near the end of 1997, featuring songs such as “Mysterious Mambo,” “Mermaids After Midnight,” and “Twilight of the Hep Cats”. Candace Murphy of the San Jose Mercury News wrote, “As for Guitar Noir, all that ’s missing is the fog.” The staff music writer for Music Reviews Quarterly wrote, “This recording has a dark lightness to its tone which results from the inherent brightness of the guitar tones contrasted with minor-keyed melody lines. That has all been planned and executed with surprising consistency and skill on Guitar Noir.”
The Aqua Velvets appreciate the surf rock pioneers that came before them; Corbin told Crisafulli, “People sometimes think of the Ventures as this odd, isolated phenomenon at the beginning of rock and roll, but there’s really just a short gap between what the Ventures and Dick Dale were doing and what John Cipollina, Jerry Garcia and Robby Krieger started doing a couple of years later. From 1963-67 it was the surf instrumental guys who really pushed the rock guitar envelope.” The Aqua Velvets infuse the traditionally happy surf sound of days of yore with a darker edge, experimenting with the strange and bizarre sounds of atmospheric surf music and creating their own multi-layered style. The staff reviewer for Baltimore’s Music Monthly wrote, “Nomad was met with widespread national acclaim, which helped to establish the Aqua Velvets as one of today’s hottest instrumental combos. Guitar Noir is destined to take the band onto an entirely new level.”
The Aqua Velvets, Riptide Records, 1992.
Surfmania, Mesa Records, 1995.
Nomad, Mesa Records, 1996.
Guitar Noir, Milan Records, 1997.
Billboard, December 6, 1997.
Chicago Heights Star, January 8, 1998.
Guitar Magazine, December 1997.
Guitar Player, February 1996.
Los Angeles Daily News, January 2, 1998.
Marin Independent Journal, February 12, 1998.
Music Monthly (Baltimore, MD), December 1997.
Music Reviews Quarterly, Winter 1997-1998.
Pipeline, December, 1997.
San Francisco Examiner-Chronicle, November 9, 1997.
San Jose Mercury News, October 26, 1997.
http://184.108.40.206/cg/amg.exe; AMG (All-Music Guide)
—B. Kimberly Taylor
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