Up Close with Lead Guitarist, Mike Vernon of Three Balls of Fire
One of Austin, Texasís Leading Surf-Rock Instro Band
". . . the Texas tours with Nokie Edwards and George Tomsco [with my group] as their backing band blew me away. I got to play with my heros and thatís something that money cannot buy."
[Editorsí note: Mike Vernon is a passionate and very talented guitar instrumentalist and his genre preference of delivery is surf rock. We contacted Mike just before leaving on his West Coast tour for an interview and, although he was strapped for time, he graciously came through before departing. Many thanks to Mike for providing our readers with an insight into the world of a indie, surf-rock instrumental guitarist.]
[Lance Monthly] What is your age and where did you grow up?
[Mike Vernon] [Iím] 48 years old. I've lived in Austin since '85, I moved here from [the] Dallas-Ft Worth area. I was born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico and lived in the same house from '54 until '69, when we moved to Texas.
[Lance Monthly] How did you get interest in surf-guitar instrumental music?
[Mike Vernon] Well, music was always this magical thing to me ever since I can remember. My dad was a standup gospel singer and also played guitar in bands in West Texas in the 40's and 50's, and cut a couple of records in Lubbock in 1959. He was a huge Chet Atkins fan so I grew up listening to a lot of guitar instros. And there was always my dad's giant Kay guitar around the house.
[Lance Monthly] What is your marital status?
[Mike Vernon] I am a single parent . . . my son Rob is 15. His mom passed away when he was 11 so it's just me and him. We have a lot of fun and he is a really good kid. He plays guitar and bass and wants to get in a band. He's already playing some surf licks.
[Lance Monthly] When did you form Three Balls of Fire?
[Mike Vernon] I formed 3BF in 1987. I had an instro group called Perry Mason from '79 till 85 and we mainly played in the Dallas area. When I moved to Austin I decided to start fresh and go for more of a surf sound. I was trying to come up with a good name and was watching Mickey Roonie in an old flick, "Babes on Broadway." Of course, Mickey was a tremendous jazz drummer and, in the movie, he played in a band called the Balls of Fire. I thought that was a great name [especially] since we were a trio. I'm also a big fan of the Fireballs (also from NM) and thought of it as a sort of a cool tribute. . . . I was always interested in guitar stuff. When I was a kid there was a lot of surf and instrumentals on the radio. I had all the 45's - "Pipeline," "Walk donít Run," etc. and especially "Penetration". . . that was the first song I learned on guitar when I was eight. And then, of course, the Beatles hit and all of a sudden there was no more surf or any instrumental guitar anywhere! As you know, surf-guitar bands couldn't get arrested. These older guys that lived down the street had a surf band (I think they were called the Surf Men) and when the British thing exploded they literally changed their tune and their name over night. But I loved the Beatles and all that stuff that followed. I liked and still like a big array of music; but, there isn't anything quite like the shimmering, slivering sound of a surf guitar. Ya know what I mean? I know you had a surf band at the same time I was learning "Penetration" in Albuquerque which is really cool. I would really like to hear some of your recordings from back then.
[Editorís note: Reference is being made to The Knights, which formed in Albuquerque in 1961 as a guitar-rock instrumental band because of the popularity of The Ventures and The Fireballs. The band added King Richard to its name when the British invaded.] Anyway, I did my first paying gig when I was 14 in 1969, in Arlington, Texas at a BBQ joint. The band was called Stoned Catsup!! It was a rock band, with a lot of blues-based stuff. In Texas, if you wanted to play back then, you had to play blues, country and rock and roll and do it all in one night. So I cut my musical teeth playing a lot of different things. But I always was writing and listening to guitar instrumentals whether it was jazz, r & b or surf. I just get real sick of hearing vocals about someoneís broken heart (get over it!) or some political crap or whatever. So when I was 24 I said enough is enough and started my own instro band, Perry Mason, and have been doing it ever since.
[Lance Monthly] When did you meet Ted James and what is your band's relationship with his company, Deep Eddy Records?
[Mike Vernon] Met Ted James in '97. He called me cuz he heard that 3BF was playing again and wanted to tell me about his group and record label. We never really quit playing but were kinda low profile from '95-'97. We have a cool relationship between the band and Deep Eddy. We've done two CDs with Ted and some other things. He runs my web site and keeps me informed of the going-ons in the international surf guitar world. He knows a lot of people in the surf business and he is a better business person than I am! He also has a cool band, so he's not just a suit, if you know what I mean.
[Lance Monthly] What national acts has Balls of Fire opened for?
[Mike Vernon] Dick Daleís first tour in 93 or '94, Link Wray a couple of years ago, Jerry Lee Lewis in Ft Worth, Jimmy Reed in Dallas and a few others . . . just enough to get a little stardust on me!
[Lance Monthly] I note that you have a friendship with the Fireballs, especially with George. How did that come about?
[Mike Vernon] In the early 90's, I called Raton, NM info and got his phone number and called him. We had a good little chat and then he came down and played with us a couple of years ago. Also we played together at Nokie Edwards shindig in Oregon awhile back. On our upcoming tour, weíre going to stop in Raton and have lunch with him on our way to Colorado Springs. I really love George. Heís a great guy and a super picker and writer. 10. Well, there are NO active surf bands here except us. Everyone has either split up or only play very occassionaly. We do alright and have some real good nights and some rough ones too, but overall, I think most people know about us because we've been around so long. But there are so many bands here, it's ridiculous really.
[Lance Monthly] Austin, of course, is a major music city loaded with talent. Do the leading, active surf-instrumental bands have a decent following in your city?
[Mike Vernon] Well, there are NO active surf bands here except us. Everyone has either split up or only play very occasionally. We do alright and have some real good nights and some rough ones too, but overall, I think most people know about us because we've been around so long. But there are so many bands here, it's ridiculous really.
[Lance Monthly] How active is Balls of Fire at present?
[Mike Vernon] Well, as I said, we're going out on a two week tour this Sunday . . . Texas, Colorado, Utah, all over California, and back. We do a good amount of private parties and stuff like that and some months we play a lot and others are slower. I also play Spanish guitar and that keeps the rent paid as well as pick-up gigs with other bands. I also have a couple of guitar students.
[Lance Monthly] List the names of your band members and the instruments they play.
[Mike Vernon] I have several players at each position so I can keep every gig covered. On this tour I'm working with Nico Leophonte, drums; Pierre Peligrin, bass; and Homer Henderson on the other guitar. Nico and Pierre are are from Paris, France but long time Austinites. Homer and I go way back and have cool contrasting styles.
[Lance Monthly] Describe the Balls of Fire's gear in detail.
[Mike Vernon] I play an early reissue Strat through a late 60's Vibrolux Reverb and a late 60's Pro Reverb. I donít use a pick, I play with my nails flamenco style which gives a different tone quality than a pick. I also use a fuzz box on a couple of songs and a wha wha on a couple [others] . . . but mainly just play straight through the amp.
[Lance Monthly] Mike, give our readers two examples of your most memorable gigs . . . one positive, and one negative.
[Mike Vernon] Oh, the one in Ft Worth many years back, when there was a big rumble and I had to hit a guy over the head with my guitar, was pretty bad, then we all got arrested. . . . I think my first gig in '69 was great. I knew then and there thatís what I wanted to do forever. I got paid and laid! Also the Texas tours with Nokie Edwards and George Tomsco [with my group] as their backing band blew me away. I got to play with my heros and thatís something that money cannot buy.
[Lance Monthly] Describe the CD releases that you've had with Deep Eddy records and where they can be found.
[Mike Vernon] We recorded a live CD a couple of years back, 'Friday Night at Ego's Lounge', a cool little joint here in Austin...something like 27 songs, mostly 3 minute covers- surf, crime jazz, twang and r&b instros and then our new one, 'FirePower'. I wrote most of the material on this one, sort of modern surf and cowboy exotica. It's has been recieved real well, very gracious reviews. We worked hard on it and I'm happy with how it turned out. Also, Deep Eddy distributes 'The Best of the Balls' a comp. of studio recordings from '88-98'.
[Lance Monthly] How far do you want to go with 3BF?
[Mike Vernon] Musically, I want to get out to the edge and take it to the outer limits. Also would like to record a low down, savage garage instro record. As far as how the band does in recognition and popularity....well, I figure that you really don't have much control over those things anyway, whatever happens, happens. As long as we can get gigs and make albums, then I'm about as happy as a boy can get.
[Lance Monthly] Do you think surf instros have any mainstream possibilities in the future?
[Mike Vernon] Well they certainly are popular now as far as tv commercials go. It seems like every time I turn it on there is surf guitar going on in the background. Also a lot of theme music for film and tv have surf sounding things. I donít think it will ever be the music of choice for the masses, but I think almost everyone likes it, even if they're not sure what to call it. So who knows.
[Lance Monthly] Final thoughts . . .
[Mike Vernon] Thanks for the little chat Dick. We gotta get out to the Duke City or get you down to Austin and do a show together, ok? [Interviewerís note: O.K.]