Up Close with Ted James, Lead Guitarist for Squid Vicious
[Editor's note: Above photo information - Squid Vicious @ Hole in the Wall, Austin June 28, 1996 (from left to right) Ted James, Tony Cooke, David Riling, Ben Howard; photo (c) Jim Barrilleaux]
[Lance Monthly] What is your age, marital status, and birthplace?
Ted James 37, single [and my] birthplace: Fort Walton Beach, Florida (the surf is in my blood).
[Lance Monthly] When did you decide you wanted to become a musician and were there other musicians in your family while you were growing up?
Ted James When I was ten, I wanted to play drums. I was always banging on something. I made drums out pie tins and coffee cans. When I got to junior high, I joined the band, but somehow I ended up playing trumpet and then baritone. I also played a little trombone. I stuck with that through college. I had always wanted to play guitar, though. After graduation in 1989, I finally bought my first guitar, and I've been playing ever since. I've also played a little bass and mandolin. I started my first band, Rattletrap, in 1992. I played bass.
My sister played clarinet in the school band. My dad and aunt sang Country and Western in nightclubs in southern Illinois when they were teenagers in the '40s. My dad's brother and his family all play string instruments, mainly as a family activity. We all jammed once at a family reunion. They had never heard Surf music, so it was an interesting experience.
[Lance Monthly] When did you move to Austin?
Ted James I moved to Austin in October 1992 from Huntsville, Alabama.
[Lance Monthly] In your first band Rattletrap, was that an all-guitar-instrumental band, or mixed with vocals?
Ted James This was before I really got into Surf and Instrumental music. I was heavy into guitar Jazz and Rock instrumental artists like Eric Johnson and Jeff Beck and everything on the IRS No Speak series throughout the '80's, but I didn't get my first taste of surf until '93.
Incidentally, I hosted a college radio show from '85 -'89, and I always featured a lot of Instrumental Rock.
Rattletrap was a typical four-piece rock band: guitar/vocals, guitar/vocals, bass, drums. I played bass because, in Huntsville at the time (and in most small towns), there were only a few bass players, and they were all playing in multiple bands already. We had three guitars and a drummer. I agreed to play bass, because I wanted to learn it, anyway. The whole time I was experimenting on my own with instrumental melodies on guitar. At the time, I didn't know what to do with them.
[Lance Monthly] How long did the group last?
Ted James I was in the group for three months. I quit because the rest of band didn't want to work on originals. They just wanted to be a rock cover band. They ended up spending countless hours learning note-perfect covers of songs. I had ideas of my own, so I split. They ended up becoming a funk cover band.
[Lance Monthly] Did you record any tracks with Rattletrap?
Ted James Never did. Shortly after that, I moved to Austin where I discovered Surf music and formed my next band, Whirled Peas.
[Lance Monthly] Wow! Whirled Peas! That's a trippy name. So that was your first Surf-Rock band?
Ted James Right. In May 1993, I started jamming with this bass player and drummer. We had planned all along to find a singer. In the meantime, in addition to writing the music to several vocal songs (none of us could write lyrics or sing), we also wrote and played a handful of instrumentals. We started off with a few covers: "The Munsters," "Ghost Riders in the Sky," and "Pipeline." After a few failed attempts at finding singers, we decided to become a fulltime instrumental band. There was a small instro scene in Austin at the time with bands like Death Valley, 3 Balls of Fire, the Sandblasters, Teisco del Rey, the Spoilers, and the Swanktones. I figured that a Surf-influenced band could do ok. So later in '93, we gave up on the vocal idea and proceeded to write and play more instrumentals.
In February 1994, I got to see Dick Dale for the first time. That was a major eye opener. All I had heard was the Rhino comp, which was pretty amazing. And then actually seeing Dick Dale in action was enough to make me a convert for life. Shortly after that, I happened upon Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet (shadowy.brainiac.com). Like just about everyone else, I always liked the cool music from the Kids in the Hall series. So when I found out that the band, who actually played that music, had released a CD, I had to find it. On first listen, I was hooked. I decided that this was where I wanted to be. Shadowy Men became a major influence for me.
Whirled Peas (and later Squid Vicious) often covered Shadowy Men tunes. We played together from May 1993 until March 1995 when our drummer graduated from college and moved to Dallas. We recorded ten demo songs in the summer of 1994. They were kind of rough. This was our first time ever in a recording studio. Also, the engineer had never recorded an instrumental band, so he didn't really know what to do. Call it a learning experience. We got some good gigs with those demos, though.
After we split up in March '95, I spent six months looking for a new band to continue where Whirled Peas left off. After auditioning about a dozen drummers and a handful of bass players, I finally solidified the new lineup as Squid Vicious in September 1995. More or less, Whirled Peas evolved into Squid Vicious.
[Lance Monthly] When you were a radio jock in the late '80s, did you spin any Surf-Rock discs? What college was it?
Ted James I worked at 89.1-FM KLPI at Louisiana Tech in Ruston, LA. I had not yet been exposed to Surf other that "Wipeout." However, I always loved instrumental Rock and guitar Jazz, so I played plenty of that on my shows. A typical show featured as much as 25% instrumentals.
[Lance Monthly] What made you fall in love with Surf-Rock instros?
Ted James As I said, I had always listened to instrumental music. Growing up, I listened to a lot of Jazz and Classical music in addition to Rock, and had developed an appreciation for a good melody. I really liked the imagery that a good instrumental tune could invoke. I also liked the raw sounds of early Rock & Roll as well as the power of '80s Country Punk bands such as Dash Rip Rock and Jason & the Scorchers. To me, surf music really captured the best parts of all of this: the power, the drive, the melody, strong rhythms. It just seemed natural for me to love this music.
[Lance Monthly] When Squid Vicious made its debut, were gigs hard to get in Austin?
Ted James In the mid-'90s, gigs weren't really that difficult to get. We started out playing parties and then eventually worked our way into the local clubs. After about nine months, we were playing at least twice a month, sometimes more. Eventually, we started venturing out into other parts of Texas, mainly San Antonio and Houston. The crowds in those two cities are always great.
Were there any other working Surf instro bands in or near Austin? I think the Texas Surf scene hit its peak in the '95-'98 time frame. These are just the bands that I can remember off-hand. I know there were more all around the state:
Austin - Squid Vicious, 3 Balls of Fire, Teisco del Rey, Death Valley, Austin Transit Authority, Sir Finks, Sandblasters, Mayhem Brew, the Crabs, Herman the German; San Antonio - Soda Pop Spys; Houston - the Neptones; and Dallas - the Buena Vistas. It was a colorful scene with no two bands being remotely similar at all. There were also a number of bands that always included instrumentals in their set.
[Lance Monthly] Please give our readers details of the member and gear line-up of SV from its onset to the present.
Ted James Ted James - guitar (1995 to present); Ben Howard - bass, vocals (1995 to present); David Riling - drums, vocals (1995 to 1998); Tony Cooke - rhythm guitar, keyboard, drums, percussion, vocals (1996 to 1998); Adam Byram - drums (1998 to present); Colin Burt - keyboard (1999 to 2001)
We played about 25% vocals in the early days. It was fun to add a Black Flag or Stray Cats tune to the set. Tony also wrote some vocal songs.
[Lance Monthly] Who else gave you the passion for playing guitar-surf instros, besides Dick Dale?
Ted James Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet is probably my biggest influence. What a fun band! They always cringed at the thought of being called a Surf band, but like it or not, they influenced so many Surf and Instro bands throughout the '80s and '90s.
In 1994 to 1995, new Surf releases weren't always so easy to find. I had no real clue what was going on in the rest of the world. The Cowabunga mailing list had just started up, but it took awhile for bands to get involved. Someone on the list sent me a tape with music by the Mermen, Insect Surfers, and a few others, and I found my self amazed that bands were playing music like this.
The next month, the annual South by South West music festival took place in Austin. In one club, I got to see the Goldentones, the Insect Surfers, the Mermen, the Halibuts, and Teisco del Rey. Needless to say, I was blown away. I couldn't believe what was going on. This was a far cry from the '60s surf that I had grown to love. These bands, especially the Insect Surfers and the Mermen, showed me where you can go with Surf music. Hearing the Mermen live really opened me up and got [me] to start experimenting with sounds.
Later, I happened upon the "Calling All Martians" CD by the Chicago band, Spies Who Surf. Spies Who Surf combined Surf with Spy Jazz and Space themes to create unique sound. This was an amazing CD! Another eye opener.
Then I saw [the] Austin band Death Valley do their spaghetti western/Morricone bit. I had always loved the Morricone soundtracks, but seeing them live and then listening to their CD "żQue Pasta?" really got me into writing and playing twangier Southwestern-flavored tunes.
[Lance Monthly] How did Squid Vicious get its name, and was the intent to give the impression of a Punk Surf-Rock band with a touch of Metal?
Ted James When we began to search for a name, we decided first of all that we wanted to use the word "squid." So Ben (our bass player) wrote out a long list of squid-related names. Squid Vicious just felt like the best one for us. At the time, we were combining Surf with the edgy qualities of Punk. Our tattooed and body-pierced drummer, Dave, was a diehard Punk, yet he really understood where we were going with the music. I guess you'd call it Punk-Surf.
[Lance Monthly] In your years of performing in Austin, you've had personal contact with some of the guitar instrumental founding fathers such as George Tomsco, Nokie Edwards (including other Ventures' members), Dick Dale etc. Please elaborate on these encounters for our readers.
Ted James I met Dick Dale for the first time in early 1994 in Austin. He was playing at the Back Room in Austin for about 50 people. I was really surprised at the time that he went to the trouble after the show to meet and sign autographs for everyone that wanted it. He was very friendly. I've talked to him several times since then, and he's always friendly. I've gotten to know Dick's bass player, Ron Eglit. Ron's a pretty good guy with a lot of funny stories from the road. And of course, there's Dusty Watson, Dick's drummer. Dusty's pretty much the cream of the crop when it comes to musicianship, professionalism, and being an all around nice guy (but don't tell him I said that). I've made good friends with Dusty, and I've seen him play with Slacktone and Agent Orange.
George Tomsco is another great one. I first met George through Mike Vernon of 3 Balls of Fire. George came to Austin in March 2000 for South By South West, mainly to hang out, see bands, and promote the Fireballs. One night during SXSW, Mike, George, John X. Reed, and Speedy Sparks (Texas Tornados) were jamming at Speedy's house. Someone from SXSW called Speedy and asked him if he could put together a band at moment's notice to back up the Legendary Stardust Cowboy that night. So they all loaded up and headed over to La Zona Rosa to get ready for the gig. I went, too, and hung out with them all backstage. That's where I met the Legendary Stardust Cowboy (unusual and eccentric guy) and made friends with George. John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin was also there to play a showcase. Let me tell you, George is as nice as they come. Their show that night was a blast. They all just jammed while the Cowboy did his bit (with his pants both ON and OFF).
In July 2000, George came back to Austin to do a short tour around Texas with 3 Balls of Fire as his backing band. Unfortunately, I missed those shows because Squid Vicious was on tour.
I first met Nokie Edwards as well as the rest of the Ventures in June 1999 in Port Aransas, Texas. They played outside of Pat McGee's Surf Shop on a flatbed trailer as the sun was going down. Pat McGee's is just a stone's throw from the Gulf of Mexico. So while the Ventures were playing, you could smell the fresh salt air, and in between songs, you could hear the surf. It was surreal. This was the original Ventures (with Mel's son on drums, of course) playing in Texas of all places! The next night, they played at the Executive Surf Club in Corpus Christi. It was great! The Ventures with Nokie on guitar twice! After both shows, they all hung around to sign autographs and talk to the fans. I got to talk guitars with Nokie Edwards!
Two years later, Mike Vernon brought Nokie to Texas to play a short tour with 3 Balls of Fire as his backing band. Nokie flew in, and they played shows in Austin, Houston, and San Antonio. Of course, I saw every show and hung out with Nokie each time. He is a very nice person who is very much willing to talk to every one of his fans. My biggest thrill was when Squid Vicious got to open the San Antonio show (Thanks, Mike!). What a memorable gig!
I've also met Link Wray. I got him to sign a Telecaster pickguard. He joked that I lost the rest of my guitar. I've also had the pleasure of meeting and making friends with members of some of my favorite modern bands, including Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet (my all time favorites), the Mermen, the Insect Surfers, Slacktone, and Agent Orange.
Squid Vicious got to open for Agent Orange a couple of times, and my other band Johnny Vortex got to open for Slacktone in October. Very exciting and fun shows!
[Lance Monthly] When did you create Deep Eddy records and (aside from your group) who are the artists on your label?
Ted James I created Deep Eddy Records in the fall of 1996, mainly as a reaction to another local label I was associated with. They were planning to release our first single and even did some of the groundwork for it. But then they just sort of gave up and let it sit. So I had to take control and actually coordinate getting it pressed and promoted. After that, I realized that I could actually do this. I decided that from then on, I wasn't going to wait around for someone else to promote my band. So Deep Eddy Records was born.
It made sense to make my first real label release a compilation. I could promote my band and many others all at once. I started contacting bands (all through email) and put together the Reef Madness! compilation (1997). Reef Madness! featured twenty-four bands including Slacktone, the Surf Kings, the Space Cossacks, Pollo del Mar, Los Mel-tones, Brazil 2001, Squid Vicious (of course), and many more. Reef Madness! was really well received, largely thanks to the promotion efforts of Ferenc Dobronyi of Pollo del Mar and Bernard Yin of Brazil 2001.
Since Reef did so well, I followed it up with my second surf compilation, Fiberglass Jungle, in 1998. Again, I featured twenty-four bands from around the world.
Other releases include:
Soda Pop Spys s/t CD (1998)
Austin Transit Authority "Surf*Dance*Rockabilly*Turbomachine" (1998)
Bongo King "Operation Latin Surf" CD (2000)
3 Balls of Fire "Friday Night at Ego's Lounge" CD (2000)
Squid Vicious "At War with the Whale" CD (2000)
v/a "Better Than the Average Weekend: A Tribute to Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet" CD (2001)
3 Balls of Fire "FirePower" CD (2002)
By the way, I want to take this opportunity to thank Jay Hector for his wonderful mastering work over the last six years.
[Lance Monthly] Please share with our readers some memorable experiences that occurred during some of Squid Vicious's live performances.
Ted James We've had more than a few memorable experiences. One of the most memorable is a show at the Travis County Rodeo and Livestock Exhibition in March 1996. We, and a few other bands actually opened for the rodeo. We ended up playing for about fifty first graders who were out on a field trip. At first, they didn't know what to make of our music. But then they started to dance. They really loved it! During "Walk Don't Run," they actually had a little mosh pit in the front. "Now remember, kids. Tell your parents that you saw Squid Vicious!"
In 1997, we played a showcase at SXSW alongside Death Valley, Sir Finks, the Exotics, and Teisco del Rey. That was a fun night. The club was packed solid with surf music fans from around the country.
In June of '97, we took part in the ill fated (but fun) Surfari Tour. We got to share the stage with so many great instro bands from around the Country including Jon & the Nightriders, Thee Phantom 5ive, Space Cossacks, Penetrators, Atomic Teen Idols, Volcanos, the Neptunas, Agent Orange, and more! I say it was ill fated because the tour promoter failed to do his job. Very little promotion was done. The shows were under attended, and the bands did not get the money they were promised. Other than that, we all had a blast playing with so many other bands and meeting so many new people.
We decided to make a stop in Lake Charles, LA, on the tour. It was on the way, and we had a night off, plus it was our drummer's hometown. About a month before the tour, this guy who had heard us [on] one of our compilation tracks called and asked if we had ever considered playing in south Louisiana. So when we pulled into town, we called him. We ended up playing a great show in this little sports bar on a Monday night. Lake Charles is a tiny college town not too far from the Gulf of Mexico. Not much goes on there ever. We did about four hours of promotion: hanging flyers, knocking on doors, and a radio spot. The local Classic Rock station interviewed me and then played one of our songs. In the middle of Skynyrd and Led Zep, they played Squid Vicious! They were just so excited to have an actual live band play in their town. There must've been 250 people in the bar that night. There were punks, skinheads, frat guys, all kinds of people. And they all loved the music.
At one point, one of the punks (the guy asked us to play in Lake Charles in the first place) dumped out a trash can and smashed beer bottles all over the floor. Then he proceeded to start a mosh pit right in front of us. What a crazy night! At the end of [the] show, one of the frat guys picked a fight with the guy who started the mosh pit. My girlfriend at the time (she acted as road manager) decked the frat guy with a single punch square in the jaw! It would've been a bigger brawl, but the cops showed up and cleared the place. That was the best night of the tour.
I have a lot more stories, but I'll stop with this one. A few years ago, we played a weeknight show at Austin's Voodoo Lounge to a good crowd of mostly teenagers. Our drummer Dave was dating a stripper at the time. In the middle of the set, she got up on stage and proceeded to do what she did best . . . strip! That went on for a while until the bar manager finally stopped her.
[Lance Monthly] Does Squid Vicious have a new CD in the works?
Ted James We released our "At War with the Whale" CD in 2000. That CD featured our Surf-Punk-Rock&Roll side. Currently, we have a new CD in the works that explores our more experimental side. A few people who have heard the rough mixes have made comparisons to the Mermen, Quicksilver Messenger Service, early Pink Floyd, Iron Butterfly (I'm still curious about this one), and Hawkwind. We hope to finish this album in January 2003.
[Lance Monthly] Ted, you indicated to me in an early email that you've placed the band on hold at present in reference to live performances because of other commitments. In fact, Mike Vernon of 3 Balls of Fire said in an interview with "The Lance Monthly" last summer that his group was about the only active surf band in Austin at that time. When will Squid Vicious go live again and are there tours in the forecast?
Ted James It's true that the Balls are the only regular gigging Surf band right now in Austin. The Squid's taking a break for a while. I've got a Garage/Psych/Surf band on the side called Johnny Vortex (www.johnnyvortex.com). We play about 25% instrumentals, and we plan to do more. Ben, our bassist, plays in a Country Rock combo called Otis. We're this close to finishing our second album. We also have a label potentially interested in releasing it for us. Once all that happens, we're going to play live again and possibly book a short tour. Incidentally, we already have plans (and songs) for a third album.
[Lance Monthly] What, in your opinion, is the future of Surf-Rock instrumentals?
Ted James Surf will always be around. New bands are popping up all the time. And Surf instrumentals are still showing up in commercials and movies. Unlikely places like Spain and Italy have up-and-coming Surf scenes. And Brazil's scene is pretty big. There are Surf radio shows in Spain and Brazil now. The interest is there, and I think it will stay. We're not going to see another "dry spell" like we did in the '65 - '79 time period. I doubt Surf will ever hit the Top 40 again, but it doesn't matter as long as there are record labels, zines, DJs, fans, and, most importantly, bands that keep the music alive.
[Lance Monthly] Any final thoughts?
Ted James Yes, thanks to you for all of your continued support, thanks to Cowabunga, thanks to everyone who makes an effort to keep the sound going.