An Interview with Susan Yasinski
Lead Guitarist for Susan and the SurfTones
Interviewer's note: When instrumental-rock guitar was the rage in the late '50s and early '60s, being the lead guitarist of an instro-rock band was considered a manly thing. Yes, there were some female guitarists, but none achieved the popularity of that of their male counterparts during those early rock-guitar-instro days. The only important connection that Susan Yasinski has to the standout, male-instrumental-lead guitarists of the late '50s and early '60s are with those who gave her the inspiration to become one of the finest pickers in today's modern world of surf instrumentals. Her entertaining live performances and right-on, modern recorded efforts certainly prove that girls can be strong contributors to this genre as well.
[Lance Monthly] What is your age, marital status, place of birth, and location where you presently live?
Susan Yasinski I'm 48, single (always have been), place of birth is Hudson, New York. Now I live in Portland, OR.
[Lance Monthly] Aside from yourself, were their other musicians in your birth family?
Susan Yasinski I am the first musician in my family.
[Lance Monthly] From where did your inspiration for becoming a surf-instrumental artist come?
Susan Yasinski I started taking guitar lesson back in 1964. My teacher introduced me to some songs by The Ventures. I also heard songs like "Wipe Out," "Penetration," "Blue's Theme," and "Pipeline" occasionally on the radio. I was really drawn to the guitar sound on those songs.
[Lance Monthly] At what age did you pick up the guitar and did vocals play a big role in your life before you went instro?
Susan Yasinski I was nine when I started to play the guitar. I was never interested in being a vocalist. From the very beginning, I wanted to be a lead guitarist, which was a bit of an unusual ambition for a nine-year-old girl in 1964. George Harrison was my favorite Beatle when I was a kid because he was the lead guitarist. I played in some bands in NYC and Rochester, NY, before Susan & The SurfTones came about, but I was always the guitarist . . . never the singer.
[Lance Monthly] When I was performing with The Knights in the '60s, female rock guitarists were nearly unheard of. That began to change later on, but not much. Did this conventional way of thinking at times hamper your progress?
Susan Yasinski I think it did. When I was in junior high and high school, I watched boys form bands. I wanted very much to be in a band. I was always told I was good, but they couldn't have a girl guitarist in the band. I didn't have that early experience of playing in bands that guys did.
[Lance Monthly] Give our readers some information about the bands you performed with in New York. What were their names, what genres did they specialize in, were the band members all female musicians, and at what age did you make your first performance?
Susan Yasinski Black Tights was the name of my NYC band in the mid -1980s. The singer had a passing resemblance to Edie Sedgwick, the Andy Warhol superstar of the '60s. Life Magazine had featured Edie in a spread called "The Girl with the Black Tights." This band had a Blondie thing going on. It started out all female then became mixed. In Rochester, NY, in the early '90s, I was in a duo with another woman called The Change. It was kind of Indigo Girls with a more rock/jazz bend. I made my first real appearance in a band when I was 28.
[Lance Monthly] Did any of the New York bands of which you were a member lay down any tracks, and in what genre of rock did they mostly specialize? Were any of them surf-instrumental groups or did that come about with the formation of the Surftones?
Susan Yasinski Yup . . . demos were made, but nothing was released. There were no instrumental-surf groups for me yet, but whenever I could fit a surf lead in, I did, and it always seemed to work.
[Lance Monthly] Describe the New York venues in which you typically performed, and did any of your bands develop any measure of popularity?
Susan Yasinski I played the dives of NYC, many of which are now gone. Then I moved to Rochester, NY and played the dives of Rochester and Buffalo. Black Tights did open up for Kurtis Blow once.
[Lance Monthly] What enticed you to move to Portland, Oregon?
Susan Yasinski I wanted to see what the West Coast was like. A friend from college, Avory Gray, lived in Portland and asked me to come out. Avory is now the organist in the band and the proud owner of five vintage combo organs.
[Lance Monthly] Keith Hannaleck mentioned to me that you are an attorney. Could you elaborate on that? What is your specialty and are you practicing in Portland?
Susan Yasinski Yes, I am an attorney. I practiced in New York State. I have a background in civil law, mostly civil litigation, contracts, bankruptcy and real estate. No, I'm not practicing in Portland. It would require taking the Oregon bar exam. I am not completely convinced that I am that committed to Portland to expend the time and money required to pass the bar exam.
[Lance Monthly] How soon after you moved to Portland did you form Susan and the SurfTones, and did you interview a ton of musicians before making your final choices?
Susan Yasinski I moved here in 2000. In 2001 I traveled back East to meet up with the band on the East Coast for a month-long European tour. Shortly after that tour, it became obvious that a bi-coastal band was not going to work out any longer and it was time to reform the band on the West Coast. The West Coast line up sort of fell together without an extensive search for musicians.
[Lance Monthly] Susan, give our readers some background information on the other members of the SurfTones such as gender, occupation, ages, and gear they employ.
Susan Yasinski Avory Gray is the youngest SurfTone at 43. She's a graphic designer for the Oregon Zoo. Her combo organ arsenal includes an Ekosonic, a GEM, two Whitehalls and a Rheem that needs some work. Bob Becker and Jim Fritz, both long-time denizens of the Eugene, OR music scene, are in their late 40's. Bob plays a basic drum kit rarely hitting the floor tom and I believe Jim plays a Peavy bass hitting all four strings.
[Lance Monthly] What's your brand of guitar and why?
Susan Yasinski Stratocaster . . . I think it's the most versatile electric guitar available and it's a comfortable fit for me.
[Lance Monthly] How active is your band in live performances and what are your typical venues?
Susan Yasinski We usually will tour to support a new release so I am hoping to get on the road at some time in 2003 for a tour supporting our latest CD Wrap-Around. A typical venue is wherever they will have us.
[Lance Monthly] What cover songs do you enjoying performing?
Susan Yasinski My favorites are "Baja," "Jack the Ripper," and "Blue Moon" . . . I might even smile during that one.
[Lance Monthly] Which instrumental guitar groups, both modern and vintage, impress you the most?
Susan Yasinski The Ventures and Link Wray are it for me as far as vintage instro goes. Jon and the Nightriders, The Insect Surfers, and Finland's Husky and the Sandmen are my favorite modern groups.
[Lance Monthly] Has Susan and the Surftones made any tours and/or opened for any high-profile rock acts?
Susan Yasinski We've toured Europe four times, and did a short swing down to L.A. last summer.
[Lance Monthly] How popular is the surf instrumental genre in Portland and what are the names of other surf bands of signficance (if any) in your town?
Susan Yasinski There is an audience for the surf instrumental genre here in Portland, but the hard part is getting the clubs to book it. Well, Satan's Pilgrims were a Portland band, but they are disbanded now. I believe The Surf Trio played their last show a little while ago.
[Lance Monthly] Does Susan and the SurfTones have the support of any of the radio and television stations in Portland and surrounding areas?
Susan Yasinski KBOO, a Portland community station, has been very supportive. We did a live show for KBOO. KWVA, 88.1FM University of Oregon (Eugene) has also been supportive.
[Lance Monthly] How's your latest release, Wrap Around, doing and how big of a promotional effort have you pledged for it?
Susan Yasinski The initial reaction to Wrap Around has been great so far. Rob Ruggeri at OmOm Music is handling the promotional efforts for the CD. I am hoping to do some touring in support of the release. [Interviewer's note: Look for an in-depth interview with Rob Ruggeri in the March issue of The Lance Monthly.]
[Lance Monthly] Susan, give our readers a little summary of your Europeon tours. Were they all overall successes in your eyes? Were there any negatives? In what countries did you perform, what kind of numbers did you draw, and what were your favorite and worst venues?
Susan Yasinski The first time we went over was in 1996 for one show in Hamburg, Germany. We went over again in 1997 for a two-week tour of Germany. In 2000 we went over for a month. We were in Germany, Denmark, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, The Netherlands and France. We went back again in 2001 for a month and returned to Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and Denmark. Yes, I think the tours were successful. The month long tours can become stressful for the band at times and everybody deals with stress differently. The numbers were, for the most part, good. It varies . . . sometime the club is packed and other nights the club is maybe half full. It's hard to say what venue was my favorite. I enjoyed most of them.
[Lance Monthly] How would you describe your style of picking? Do you do a lot of double picking like Dick Dale, or are your efforts more in the line of the Ventures and other related, traditional instrumental artists?
Susan Yasinski I do some double picking in a few of the songs we do. "Jezebel" is an example of that. I mix chords in with the melody lines in several of the songs. That's why I like Link Wray so much . . . those power chords.
[Lance Monthly] What are your goals for Susan and the SurfTones? Are you hoping for eventual mainstream recognition?
Susan Yasinski To keep going [and] I think we all hope for eventual mainstream recognition. The past year has brought some positive notice of the band in the alternative/independent music press.
[Lance Monthly] What, in your opinion, is the future for surf-instrumental guitar bands?
Susan Yasinski I think surf-instrumental-guitar bands will always be around. Many of the third wave bands have really brought some new approaches to the genre and that is what will keep it alive. It's got to keep moving forward without losing touch with the traditional foundation.
[Lance Monthly] Do you, at times, yearn to return to New York?
Susan Yasinski Yes . . . I love big cities. I really enjoyed L.A. when we were down there for some shows last summer. I keep thinking about L.A. a lot while sitting up here in the Portland rain.
[Lance Monthly] Your final thoughts to your fans?
Susan Yasinski Thanks. I cannot begin to tell you how much your support means to me.
For more information about Susan & The Surftones, visit their website at Susan & The Surftones.