Up Close with Dusty Watson
Drummer for Dick Dale, Slacktone, et al
[Interviewer's Note: My first contact with Dusty Watson was sometime in the late '90s, when he and the rest of Dick Dale's band were arriving in Albuquerque to do a one-night venue at the El Rey in Albuquerque. He had sent out a distress call by e-mail via the Cowabunga surf-rock instrumental list because he was certain that the equipment truck would not arrive in time for the gig. Being a member of Cowabunga, I contacted him, told him I was a member of The Knights, and that I would provide him with most of what he needed.
He had never heard of The Knights, nor me, for that matter, but then I never heard of him either. In my case, it was understandable, as The Knights' breakout success in 1964, with a guitar/classical piano, instrumental-rock 45 release called "Precision," was regional at best. In Dusty's case, his high-profile career as a superior L.A. drummer and, who is presently playing for The King of Surf Guitar, Dick Dale, is remarkable, and his name should have had at least a little ring of familiarity. But then, few people know whom L.A. sessionist Larry Knechtel is, even though he was either the keyboardist or bassist in more hit recordings of the '60s and '70s than most of the rock artists with household names! That's the way it always has been in the world of rock: superior talent does not necessarily earn one world-wide name recognition no matter how many high-profile gigs in which one has performed or how many recordings of note to which one has contributed.
Well, it turned out that Watson's equipment truck did arrive on time and he sent me a nice e-mail of thanks anyway for my offer to help. Since then we've really not stayed in touch that much (no real reason); however, throughout the four or five years I've been a member of the Cowabunga list, a great deal of the text has been centered around the greatness of Dusty Watson. This, in itself, inspired me to get more acquainted with Watson and to learn what he had to endure in order to arrive at such a supreme level of musicianship. Although he practiced like, as he says, "a madman as a youngin'," he had demons to slay along the way.]
[Lance Monthly] When and where were you born and in what kind of neighborhood did you grow up?
[Dusty Watson] I was born in Paxton, IL, July 5, 1957. My eldest sister, Debbie, got sick and the doctor suggested we move to a warmer climate. So we moved to southern California when I was two years old. Thank God for small miracles! I grew up in Corona, California, about an hour east of Hollywood. We were basically out in the sticks by city standards and so my friends and I made up our own entertainment most days, which resulted in me getting into a lot of trouble as a kid: getting suspended from school and having my dad kick my ass for something or another was pretty common.
I rode dirt bikes obsessively from about six or seven years old until well into my adult years, eventually switching to street bikes. I raced motor cross and rode in the desert for years, though [I] never competed in desert racing-a little TT racing at Ellsinore racetrack. Corona had an awesome racetrack and we rode out there quite a bit. We even had a motorcycle team at our high school! Also [we had] a wonderful music department in junior high and high school, so I was really lucky.
[Lance Monthly] How big a birth family do you have?
[Dusty Watson] I have two older sisters, Debbie and Denea. My mom and dad are still healthy and travel in their motor home several months a year since they have retired. They spend a few months a year at their condo in Hawaii on the north shore of Oahu. Of course, I'm no fool and try to make it over there as often as I can! My sisters have raised their families and everyone still lives locally, so we get together on holidays and they all still support me by coming to my shows whenever possible.
[Lance Monthly] Were there other members of your birth family that had a professional interest in music aside from yourself?
[Dusty Watson] Well, my dad always loved to play guitar and sing, but never had any hopes of being professional. He just really enjoys it. Now that he is retired, he performs a lot at nursing homes and campgrounds while they are traveling. He even performed at the Ryman Theatre at the Grand Ol Opry last year!!! He is so awesome! He loves country gospel music. We recorded an album together a few years ago, which turned out incredibly well. We are putting together another bunch of songs now and are planning on recording them sometime toward the end of this year. He has written several songs recently for this one and that is rad. My sisters both played clarinet and accordion in school, but neither one of them ever wanted to pursue music; they were just messing around, I think.
[Lance Monthly] Was there another genre of music that interested you first before rock?
[Dusty Watson] Yeah, I grew up listening to only jazz. I didn't play rock until I was fifteen years old, nine years after I had been playing drums! My drum teacher, Gerry Calipinto, was one of those totally hip jazz cats and he had me so tuned into Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, I really had no interest in any other drummers for a long, long time! Nothing wrong with that, though, as you can probably agree.
I eventually started listening to and playing modern pop music and eventually gravitated to rock, then punk, then surf, back to rock, to blues, then back to rock, back to punk, and now have landed back in surf. Wow, I am dizzy! I really like AND appreciate all kinds of music. The only requirement for me to enjoy it (whether I am playing it or listening to it) is for it to be good and played with passion.
[Lance Monthly] Who were the first high-profile artists that you frequently listened to?
[Dusty Watson] Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Monkees, Beach Boys, Beatles, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Dave Clark Five, Chicago, Blood Sweat and Tears, Chase. That list eventually turned into Zeppelin, Zappa, Deep Purple, Sabbath, Who, Stones, Hendrix, Cream, ad infinitum.
[Lance Monthly] So the Ventures, The Fireballs, Duane Eddy, Dick Dale, and other '60s guitar instrumental-rock greats were not on your list of likes until later on?
[Dusty Watson] Well, out of that list I must say that Mel Taylor was indeed most respected by me. His snare work was closest to what I was into at the time, and I just loved his syncopated rim shots mixed in with his seemingly flawless flowing rolls. Dick's "Miserlou" and "The Wedge" were super hot recordings, but I really didn't give many other instros the respect they so rightfully deserve until much later.
[Lance Monthly] When did you develop a reputation as a cut-above-average drummer and did this get you a lot of session work?
[Dusty Watson] Hmmm … I still don't consider myself a cut-above-the-average drummer, so excuse me if I am somewhat sheepish here. I know that I worked very hard at mastering my craft as it were, and practiced like a madman as a youngin', though those days are long behind me and I must admit I have fallen way behind in continuing my studies. In fact, I cannot remember the last time I sat down behind a set of drums by myself and actually practiced.
I will say, however, [that] I have been very fortunate in being recognized in my field as a decent drummer and have been asked to record several albums with different bands, and they have all been rewarding in one way or another. I have mostly concentrated on being a performer rather than a session drummer, so I have not really pursued that avenue of expression as much as I could have.
I have recorded tracks with many different types of bands over the years, including a Billy Joel session in the early '80s to pay off a coke debt! I've worked in a lot of studios (A&M, Cherokee, Paramount, Record Plant, Fidelity, Clearlake, Q Division, Soundhouse, etc.), more than I can remember, and have always walked away with a better understanding of the recording process, which has helped me both in live and recorded projects. There is something very surreal about being in a recording studio. The thought of laying something down that is going to [be] played (hopefully!) for years and years to come is most exhilarating to me. It's always a great opportunity to dig deep and try to come up with a drum track that will make a difference and add to the depth of the song.
[Lance Monthly] What was the name of your first rock group of note and were you convinced that it would go places?
[Dusty Watson] My first rock group that actually got any recognition was The Lita Ford Band, which I joined in 1980. Of course, I knew the importance of that project and we had everything we wanted in regards to money and support from the label and management. (We were signed to Polygram and managed by Alan Kovac, now of West Bank Management.) So it was all big guns right out of the box. We had a production deal with Artie Ripp (who had Billy Joel for an unheard of ten-album deal at the time!), so although he didn't know it, Billy was paying all of our salaries and buying our drugs for many years. Hey, thanks Billy!
That was my first experience with MTV videos and tour buses. We just hung out at the studio all the time and I recorded lots of demos with all kinds of players that were around at the time. Steve Miller's band comes to mind. Also recorded some great stuff with Neil Merryweather and Nick Gilder's guitarist. I was just a snotty nosed kid back then and didn't realize what I had. So within a few short years, I quit in a stupid drunken brawl in Beaumont, Texas.
[Lance Monthly] Were there any popular mainstream rock groups that sought out your services before you gravitated to surf rock instrumentals?
[Dusty Watson] After I left Lita Ford, I joined Legs Diamond, who had a decent career in the late '70s and early '80s, touring with Kiss, Ted Nugent, etc., but by the time I joined them in 1984, our tours were rather short, though we did record several albums throughout the ten years I played with them, off and on. Also, around that time, I joined another L.A. band, Dream Six. We recorded at Earl Mankey's studio and I ended up quitting the band before the album came out in '86 with a different name, Concrete Blonde. They went on to enjoy quite a bit of success and recorded several albums after that. I recently saw them at the Troubadour here in Los Angeles and it was great to talk about the good ol days again!
[Lance Monthly] What was the name of the high school you attended and what was considered cool in reference to in-phrases, attire, and vehicles?
[Dusty Watson] I went to Corona Sr. High about an hour east of L.A. We had a great music department and won all kinds of trophies for jazz band and marching band. A really great experience for me, though as you probably know, being in band can kind of mess up your cool as you are marching around the parking lot in your monkey suit. But I didn't mind. I had all kinds of special favors, which I graciously cashed in daily-not having to show up for classes and hanging-out-in-the-band-room-all-day kind of stuff. Similar to jocks I guess. Not so bad really.
Muscle cars were cool (I was in high school 1973-1975), though I drove a '66 Dodge van all pimped out with bed and stereo, curtains, etc. Let's just say the local girls' moms weren't very impressed when I picked them up to go to a zillion concerts at the Swing Auditorium.
Cool and bitchin' and bad and boss were terms I recall, though I still use those words. So I am kind of out of it in today's world, to be sure! I wore the same thing I wear today: T-shirts and jeans. We went to the beach as much as possible, usually Newport or Huntington, and I remember the cops were way harder on us in Huntington Beach compared to Newport. We would end up getting harassed and searched and run out of town because we weren't locals and we were minors, so they frowned on that.
[Lance Monthly] What are your takes on Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, et al? My 33-year-old son, Jason, is on that level and I'm thinking about bringing him out your way for a special appearance one of these days, and would certainly need a drummer and bass player on an advanced scale that could keep up with his licks and complicated timings. Interested?
[Dusty Watson] I like that some people have the ability to write (and perform) instrumental guitar oriented music without being too far out or too progressive. Call it wanking or whatever, but you know what I'm saying. That style is outdated, overrated and quite a bore to me to watch. Even worse to sit in a chair and listen to. Take the new releases from Zeppelin. Great rocking stuff, which I just love. Some of the CD gets into some Jimmy wanking and I am done with that in a couple of minutes.
Satriani has some great melodies and structures and was one of the first instro guys for me to see. A blues band I was in, Jimmy Wood and the Immortals, opened for him in San Diego around '85. I guess and he and his band were just getting it. Really a great performance and I dug that. I never owned any of his stuff (or any other rock instro guy for that matter), but certainly appreciated his sound.
Steve Vai is a bit of a wanker for me. I did see Eric Johnson at a festival in San Antonio in the '80s. He opened for a hair band I was in, Legs Diamond and he was good, but a little too "nice" for my liking. I want some grit and he just didn't seem to get it up. I recently recorded some stuff with ex Sha Na Na guitarist Rob McKenzie, and we did a bunch of surf tunes in a raucous setting and it was pretty fun. Dick's old bass player, Ron Eglit played bass with us.
Regarding playing with Jason, I have played that style and though it is not my favorite, it can be quite a challenge to make it sound "natural." I am talking about time signatures and stop/starts. If you can put it together in a way that doesn't come off like Rush, it can be interesting sometimes. I would like to hear what he is up to. Sam and I are pretty locked in with whomever we play, so if it sounds like something we would enjoy we could certainly talk about trying to schedule something.
[Lance Monthly] You mentioned that you have a daughter. Are you married?
[Dusty Watson] I was married when I was nineteen and divorced when I was about twenty-three, I guess-too young and crazy maybe? I dunno. We had a daughter, Casey, who is now twenty-six and [she] has two daughters, Athena and Amity. I have another daughter, Taylor, who is fifteen and lives a couple of hours east of me. I don't get to see any of them as much as I would like, but we do get to hang out quite a bit, so that is cool.
[Lance Monthly] It's no secret (as L.A. studio sessionist, Larry Knechtel told me in a recent interview) that drugs were and still are rampant in the high-profile music community of Los Angeles. To what degree did your admitted coke habit interfere with your progress as a professional musician over the years?
[Dusty Watson] Hmmm . . . well as all good things go, as long as you keep some degree of moderation in mind, things usually work okay. There was never any moderation in my life (very little even today!), so yeah, I was affected by alcohol and drugs for several years, and I did make some foolish decisions while under the influence, like quitting Lita Ford and Concrete Blonde, getting pissed off at John Blair over a guest list at the Roxy in Hollywood, and getting shitfaced enough to fall off my drum riser during our gig there the next night. Or turning down an offer from Brian Johnson on a train in London to go with him to a castle in the U.K. while recording an ACDC record. There are plenty of stories like this, but you get the drift.
I was just pretty out of it most times. I am so far removed from the pulse, as it were, that I really don't know how the drug scene is playing out in L.A. these days. I know we were all pretty buzzed in the '70s and '80s, and I did have a pretty good run going on back then. But I had to walk away from all of that nonsense and find some kind of peace within myself without running away from everything all the time. It was weird at first, as any change is, but these days it has come full circle to being about the music again and that is good with me.
[Lance Monthly] Was the brawl in Beaumont, Texas, between you and one of your band mates and did it happen on stage? What made you quit over that?
[Dusty Watson] Nah, I was only involved with one brawl onstage that I can remember, in Orem, Utah, of all places! I was just out of it and got a little carried away one night in a hotel, but the road manager put an end to that by knocking on my door at 7:00 A.M. with a ticket home. Ahhh, not one of my most proud moments!
[Lance Monthly] Dusty, knowing that the surf rock instrumental genre has a limited audience, under what circumstances did you decide that that would become your rock genre of choice?
[Dusty Watson] This is funny to read, not because you wrote it, but because I never really made a decision (it seems to me) to play any particular kind of music. When opportunity knocks, I just answer the door and that has just developed into playing with a few surf bands over the years. When Dave Wronski and I ran into each other after not hearing from one another for ten years, we decided right then and there to put together our surf band, Slacktone. But other than that, I really never thought of myself as a surf drummer, as it were.
The one thing that I will say in favor of playing drums in surf bands, the music usually offers me a powerful form of expression: there is unlimited opportunities to create moods. As there is no vocalist to "conduct" the audience into understanding or following along with the song. It is up to the players to create the ENTIRE message or sound, so it is much more challenging for me than performing in a more standard (i.e. vocal) band.
As I have from the very beginning, I still play in several different bands each year, which include different styles of music, and I hope to continue doing just that. My main gig these days is with Dick Dale, who, by all rights, is so removed from surf these days it is more like a hard-rock gig I did with Legs Diamond in the '80s! But it is understood that he is the King of Surf Guitar, so even though he hates that title, it is what it is.
I've recently recorded with punk band The Queers, pop/new-wavy Boss Martians, psycho-surf Rich Griffith from the Balboas, [and] Pollo Del Mar's Ferenc Dobronyi. [I] have played live shows with TSOL's Joe Wood, blues artist Becky Barksdale, bottleneck player Lauren Ellis, Surfaris, Insect Surfers, Agent Orange; in other words, I just love to play. I am always interested in playing with new people in different situations; that's what keeps me sharp and interested in playing drums. Without the diversity of these different kinds of bands, I think I would have burned out years ago just playing the same ol' thing over and over every night.
Another added bonus in my playing is that bass player Sam Bolle and I play together 90% of the time, so we are always locked in and ready to back someone up on the drop of a hat. I dig that. I am very fortunate to still be playing after all these years and having just signed an endorsement deal with Ludwig (who is building my new kit for Dick Dale's tour as I write this); it just keeps getting better and better. I have said for a long time that I am the Self-Appointed Ambassador of Good Will, traveling around the world doing what I love to do and making people feel good. Now how in the hell are you gonna top that?
[Lance Monthly] That would be hard to top, Dusty, but again, of course, you had to take the good with the bad to get to where you are today. Nevertheless, all musicians experience burn out and go through a period of just wanting to bag it and go into some other type of work, whether related to music or not. Did this happen to you?
[Dusty Watson] Hey, well we all have time to think while on the road and yes, of course, I have thought of coming off the road at some point and what I might do when and if that time comes. As you can see, I am still on the road (right now I am sitting in a hotel in Madison, WI), so I haven't thought of anything yet. I'll let you know when I do!
In all fairness, I have been working with a friend of mine off and on for many years when in town booking and routing tours. I like to sub for bands when I'm in town and do that occasionally. Though I don't know about playing in town permanently, I think I would get tired of the same ol', same ol' and I would burn out doing that much quicker than traveling and playing to new faces every night. What I really get off on is doing drum circles with a friend of mine who has an organization called Drum for Life. She has fifty hand drums and sets up these drum circles for Easter Seals, Kids at Risk, Elementary schools, and all kinds of places. So I bring a small kit and lay down a solid beat for the kids to lock onto and we have a blast! You should see some of these kids that have never felt how powerful that can be, hooking up with fifty or sixty people all pounding out the same rhythm. It is so rewarding to me!
I recently finished doing an online interview with three fifth grade classes in Long Beach. I was touring through Europe for six weeks and they were playing "Where's Waldo" except they changed it to "Where's Dusty," emailing back and forth. When I got home, I took my kit to their auditorium and they all sat around while I talked about being a traveling musician and drummer in particular, played some and answered their questions, then had them all come up one at a time and play my drums. It was an incredibly rewarding experience for me.
[Lance Monthly] It's interesting that Dick Dale doesn't like to have his genre of music labeled as surf guitar. Davie Allan of the Arrows hates that too. I suppose The Ventures don't like it either, but just let it slide. But in Dick's case, he has the distinction of being called the King of Surf Guitar because of his breakout instrumental success in the early '60s. Do you think that Dale would have the popularity that he has today if he didn't have that title of importance?
[Dusty Watson] No way! My opinion is that he should accept the fact (because in my mind it is indeed a fact) that he is the King of the Surf Guitar and just go with it. I don't know what the big fear factor is. Dick will tell you it is because labeling one's style of music eliminates the possibility of attracting new listeners and perspective fans if they are opposed to that particular style. In other words, there are a lot of people out there that only think of one thing when you mention surf music. Nine times out of ten they are going to say, "Oh you mean like the Beach Boys?" Hey I must say right here and now, The Beach Boys rule in my book! That band really had magic starting from the writing, the unorthodox playing of Dennis, all the way through the production of their records.
But REAL surf music (imho) is instrumental double picking guitar and pounding drums. Yes with the double snare on 2-And. The reverb tank came after the music was already named, but nowadays everyone pretty much has agreed reverb is another necessary ingredient.
I am not challenging Dick on his opinion because a lot of the time he is right on the money and he has more experience than I, but I hold my ground when I say he should get back on the wave and ride baby ride. (Side note: After Dick played with The Beach Boys a few years ago, Mike Love pulled me aside and said, "Hey you know our drummer is getting kinda old and if anything happens to him, you'll come and play with us, right?") I hope you can guess what my answer was.
[Lance Monthly] Dusty, give our readers a little history about Slacktone from the band's origination to the present. I realize drumming for Dale is your main gig; however, how often and at what venues do you presently play with Slacktone?
[Dusty Watson] Slacktone started as a result of Dave Wronski and me running into each other at the annual NAMM show in Southern California. We wanted to get back together and play some surf music. I had been playing with bass player Mike Sullivan, with Lisa Dominique, "a hottie moaner," but we wanted to do something different so we got together and started learning Dave's songs. Not an easy feat!
We started playing out in '95 and released our first CD in '96 or '97: Warning: Reverb Instrumentals. We played a lot of surfing events, mountain bike events, snowboarding events, etc. MTV hired us to be their house band for their annual Rock 'n' Jock Super Bowl game in San Diego a few years ago, and also had us write the theme song, kicking off the game. We hung out with them for three days driving around in a '72 convertible Caddy with [the entire] camera crew crawling all over us; it was a great experience! We did all the bumper music live and then LL Cool J played with us at halftime. Crazee shit.
We wrote a bunch of songs for a series of Slim Jim commercials with Randy Savage and that was fun. We released our second studio release, Into the Blue Sparkle in 2002 and our live from Prague, Surf Adventure Tou, shortly after that. We really don't play out that much, as we are trying to work around other bands' touring schedules, so that is the downside of the band, which is very frustrating for all of us.
We have toured Europe five or six times and will be there again this summer. We play up and down the California coast mostly, and have flown to New York and Florida for shows. There are so many offers for us to play in other regions (Denver/Chicago/Seattle, etc.), but we haven't been able to schedule those trips yet. Right now we are learning the new album's material and hope to record it soon and release it by the end of the year.
Dave is without a doubt the most skilled writer and player in the history of instrumental music, and I am not the only one who thinks that way! Listening to his music shows his ability to capture emotions and push and pull the listener along. But watching him pull it off live is an experience that has yet to be matched. His unique style of playing the melody, the rhythm, and harmony parts all at the same time with the utmost precision is mind-boggling!
[Lance Monthly] How much preparation does Dick Dale normally do with the rest of the band in the way of rehearsals before a high-profile tour, and where do you typically rehearse?
[Dusty Watson] This is a great one and you will love the answer to this: I joined the band and Ron Eglit and I drove out to Dick's house once and hung out and rode motorcycles and quad runners and played pool and messed around with massive computer rigs, and on and on. Oh yeah, we sat up and played a few songs and talked about watching each other and listening to each other. And then Ron and I drove home. That was over seven years ago.
The only other time I played music with Dick in a rehearsal type setting was when Ron left the band last year and I convinced Sam to fly home early from an Agent Orange tour (he was in the middle of) in Europe. Sam picked me up and we drove out to Dick's and again sat around and talked, played a few songs, talked some more, then drove home. We flew to Salt Lake City the next morning and started a six-week tour. So lets see . . . ummm, that makes two rehearsals (and I am being generous in calling them that) in seven years. In other words, Dick doesn't rehearse. Everything he does is pure spontaneity happening right now on stage in full volume aggressive behavior. It is possibly the most thrilling thing I have ever been privileged enough to be involved with. Truly amazing shit! We are creating in the moment and somehow making it all click each night. Crazy and fun, and certainly never boring!
[Lance Monthly] What were the circumstances around you being picked as Dick Dale's drummer? Did he openly advertise for one or did he seek you out because of your reputation? In addition, who was his previous drummer?
[Dusty Watson] I was playing with Slacktone at Toe's Tavern in Redondo Beach, CA, and after the show a guy walked up and told me his boss was always looking for drummers and handed me a card. It said Dick Dale. I thought, hmmm, I hadn't ever thought about playing with that guy; might be interesting. (Funny thing was, another person handed me a phone number that night for a band that had been looking for a drummer for two years and after a couple of auditions I was hired for Geffen's band, Sugartooth. That was an awesome gig until Geffen basically folded a couple years later.)
Anyway, I must have had a good show that night is what I'm sayin'! So Dick and I talk a couple of times on the phone and we are both busy as hell with lots of tour dates already booked, so we agreed to hook up at some point. I was touring a lot with Sugartooth and doing some Slacktone tours and Agent Orange tours. I didn't have any breaks for quite a while. It took over a year before I actually saw Dick and it happened to be in the lobby of the Rock 'n' Roll Ramada in Denver. We stood there [with him] doing his tonguing thing playing drums with your mouth kind of thing? Maybe you have seen him do this. Anyway, it's pretty funny shit and he and I were in this lobby doing this "digga, digga, digga, digga, digga, digga" on and on and on. I am kind of having fun with the accents and elbowing Ron and laughing a bit and Dick was laughing and we just hit it off, I guess. I gave him a Slacktone CD, but I have since learned that Dick never listens to anything people give him, E-V-E-R!
So even after that meeting it was a few more months before I finally got a break in my schedule and went out to his house. As soon as I did one show with him, he hired me to be his full time drummer. Ron and Dick's wife, Jill, counted how many drummers Dick had gone through from when he started doing his three-piece gig up until then. We are talking six years, as this was 1997. Are you ready? 21! That is twenty-one drummers! That is freakin' crazy! So either Dick was finally tired of firing drummers, or I am one stupid sonofabitch for sticking around this long, or we like playing with each other. I haven't figured out which.
[Lance Monthly] Dusty, did you ever get on the bad side of Dick and get a good chewing out as a result?
[Dusty Watson] Let's see, do you think Dick will be reading this? Nah, just kidding. Dick is a really demanding individual. He demands a lot out of himself, and therefore a lot of those around him. If you've ever talked with him, you know what I mean. It's not a bad trait necessarily, it's just challenging at times. To be able to maintain your integrity and voice your opinions without upsetting the flow of the organization, as it were, is sometimes hard. He has experienced so many things in his life and has been screwed over countless times, so he is a bit leery about new ideas.
He is extremely straightforward and will tell you exactly what he is thinking, so you are never confused about that. In regards to my drumming for him, he has a distinct style in mind that works best with his double picking style, and we had a few discussions about that in the beginning. I had to become aware of all of those, but once I got them down, the last few years we have gotten along incredibly well.
[Lance Monthly] All musicians (whether high profile or not) have some rough venues now and then. Can you describe a couple of negative Dick Dale performances for our readers, why they occurred, and the eventual outcomes?
[Dusty Watson] Dick plays all kinds of venues and sometimes we get stuck in a room with inadequate PA or incompetent soundmen, etc. In the very worst cases it can ruin the show. We've all been playing for so many years, we know how to work through it and make the necessary adjustments to overcome most disasters.
I remember one gig we did at the Henry Fonda Theater in L.A. for a Lifetime Achievement Award Dick was getting. We played only two or three songs and there was no sound check, as there were a lot of acts getting up to play just one or two songs. We jumped up and started playing and the guitar was not even in my monitor. I could not hear anything at all and was trying to follow Dick by just watching him but it was useless. We were so off the whole time it was very frustrating. Every once in a while we would actually hook back up and hold it for a while, but basically it was a wash and a sad state of affairs.
Playing instrumental music (for the most part) demands the players to be able to see the necks of their guitars as the whole song is based on hitting the right notes. Duh, right? So sometimes the lighting tech is more into the regular lighting techniques, which might include blacking out the stage now and then or setting up mood lighting. When that happens, it can be a mess with the guys up front trying to find the notes in a blackout and well, you can imagine the results. We always tell them to keep lights on the stage at all times, but that doesn't always happen.
[Lance Monthly] Without going into the particulars, does Dale have you on a weekly or monthly salary, or does he pay you a percentage of the take on each gig, plus expenses?
[Dusty Watson] We get paid per gig. Not enough gigs. Not enough pay. It varies on the bigger shows, but generally stays the same each show. Regarding expenses, I can drive out to his ranch and ride with the trucks to start each tour if I want, but I just fly commercial from home to the first show and fly home from the last, and those extra days are well worth the added expense to me. I pay for all my own sticks/heads/cymbals, but am endorsed by Aquarian heads, Vater sticks, [and] Sabian cymbals, so I only have to pay cost, which really helps. Ludwig is building me a kit for Dick's tours and they are covering the expense of that, which is rad as hell.
[Lance Monthly] How would you describe Dick Dale's overall demeanor as a person on and off the stage? Have you ever seen him lose his cool with anyone?
[Dusty Watson] Oh man, this is a funny one. I have seen him go absolutely ballistic one minute and stay as calm as the Pope the next. Depends on what his mood is AT THAT MOMENT. He loves to laugh and goes to the movies constantly. Every night off he is at the movies. He loves his family more than anything on earth. When his mom and dad were living, he would spend hours on the phone with them, everyday. He has multiple phones and they are always going. He is most proud of his twelve-year-old son, Jimmy, who is an accomplished musician (guitar/drums/piano) and also flies remote control choppers and races motocross. Dick talks and brags about him non-stop.
[Lance Monthly] When touring in Europe with Dick, which countries are most receptive of the band's music and which of those are somewhat hard to please, if any?
[Dusty Watson] Man, I don't know if one is more receptive than another. It seems like everywhere we go in Europe, no matter what band I am touring with, we get an overwhelmingly great response for the most part. Europe has a much better opinion about musicians in general. They don't have the when-are-you-going-to-get-a-real-job attitude and we are treated with the utmost respect. That in itself makes it worth while flying over!
Belgium, Holland, Germany, Italy, it just goes on and on. I have always had great shows over there and that is why I keep going back. I have been going over since '86 and don't plan on stopping anytime soon. Slacktone had trouble in France a few times and that may have been because of the promoters or the club or something else going on in town; hard to say. I told our promoter we don't want to play there anymore. A couple of other shows we have done (maybe the room was too small or I didn't like the club for one reason or another), at the end of the tour I have told our promoter not to book us there again. Very few times, though, and overall any band going over will have a successful tour, even if it just means breaking even and playing to a bunch of people and selling a lot of merch. Oh, and seeing some rad scenery to boot!
One of my favorite towns for surf music would have to be Gent, Belgium. That is the hometown of '50s Combo, and that place always goes off. There are only two European promoters that are bringing bands over these days: Freddy Spaepen and Gert Geluykens. They are both from that area so maybe they have influenced the crowds being so receptive to surf bands. Rudolph Heinz (also from Belgium) used to bring Dick and Jon and the Nightriders over, and I also worked with him when I was in Sugartooth, but he basically ripped everyone off and I don't know anyone working with him anymore.
[Lance Monthly] Dusty, has Dick reminisced with you about his early '60s breakout days and his eventual taking-a-back-seat (like so many other U.S. rock bands did) to the British? In addition, how did he adapt to the new sounds of the U.K. and did he struggle to the point that he had to take on a day job?
[Dusty Watson] No we've never talked about that, only some small talk about him getting started. Dick was really in the spotlight for a couple of years: lots of radio airplay, in a lot of movies; it was all happening. He only wanted to be a country-western singer when he started and never imagined himself being deemed The King of Surf Guitar, so I am sure it was pretty amazing while the scene was blowing up. Then the bottom fell out in America, starting with "one, two, three, four" on the Ed Sullivan Show! (When was that? February 64, I think.) So I am sure there is some emotion attached to that.
The band he had in the '70s and '80s was a joke: big Vegas lounge act with dancers and doing shitty covers-most embarrassing. He had the balls or insight or whatever you want to call it to start playing with an aggressive styled three piece in the early '90s, and has been able to rebuild a strong following all over the world.
The only day job that I am aware Dick had was when he just moved to south central L.A. from Quincy, MA, in 1954. His dad was a metal worker and he got Dick a job at McDonald Douglas or somewhere like that by LAX. I don't know how long he worked there, though.
[Lance Monthly] If you could live anywhere else in the world and successfully continue your music career, where would that be and why?
[Dusty Watson] I have lived in Southern California since I was two years old. Grew up in Corona (current home of Fender Guitars), moved to Hollywood, Venice, Marina del Rey, Silverlake, Long Beach, and now back in Hollywood. (It's all L.A. to us.) I have traveled to every state and several countries and I have yet to find another place I would rather live. LA offers me everything I want and all within a short drive. Well, it could take you half the day to get there with traffic!
I love getting in the water, snowboarding in the local mountains, eating great meals, seeing a couple of bands, and having a late-night snack, all in one day. I have yet to find another town that can offer me that. I do love Austin, New York, San Francisco, and could live in any of those cities, but really don't see it happening. I thought about spending some time in Belgium at one point a few years ago, but after talking with Sam Bolle about his attempt at living there, I scrapped that idea. I know we pay out the ass for everything, and there are just too many damn people everywhere, but I am pretty happy where I am.
[Lance Monthly] Is there a special lady in your life with possible wedding plans in the future?
[Dusty Watson] Yeah, I am totally in love with my girlfriend, Jen, and we have a lot of fun together. It really doesn't matter what we are doing: surfing in Hawaii, walking around San Francisco, going to movies, eating sushi, going out to see bands, or laying around the house and reading books; we just totally love each other's company. I met her in Austin several years ago and she recently moved to LA and totally loves it. We have talked about getting married, but no plans right now; just digging the groove. It's hard to be away so much, as anyone who travels can attest to. We talk all the time, e-mails and what not. She is flying out to spend the weekend with me in Boston while on this tour, which will be great.
[Lance Monthly] In your opinion, Dusty, what is the future of surf-guitar-instrumental rock and what's your take on today's mainstream music?
[Dusty Watson] It's hard to say what is happening with the instro scene these days. I was pretty [much] on top of it all for several years, but I have kind of fallen out of the loop. I just don't have my finger on any pulse, if you will. I see a lot of garage-styled surf happening, and some progressive stuff, [but] not a lot of traditional (though that is my least favorite, so I might not notice all that is out there). But regardless, I think the album releases have fallen off somewhat and I don't know what is in store for the future. We'll see what happens this summer.
I absolutely love the guitar rock bands-garage rock or whatever it's called these days: Yeah Yeah Yeah's, The Hives, The Walkmen, etc. . . loads of energy, not overly produced, great fast drums. I saw The Strokes and The Vines recently and was disappointed in both, though I still like their recorded music. Just too pretentious live for my taste. The boy bands like Blink play well and write catchy tunes, but I am sick of them. Maybe can handle AFI somewhat, as they haven't lost all of their edge yet. Beastie Boys have always made me smile-always ripping some great drum tracks and pretty funny lyrical content most times. Still like Foo Fighters, Hole, [and] would like to see Velvet Revolver before Scott OD's (sorry but seems inevitable).
I bought the latest Seal release and love it. Norah Jones is soothing, but doesn't take enough chances for me. Pink's release (not latest but one before that) was good. So much music out there and I hear a lot of stuff I like, but don't know who the hell it is usually. I think the music industry is shitting in their socks still and have no idea what to do about the cost of promotion versus the availability of free downloads and file sharing. Prince's idea of handing out CDs with live concert tickets is a great idea. Most major releases now have DVD and live concert footage or behind the scenes type stuff on them, so that is helping sales a little.
I haven't been signed to a major label since 1997 with Sugartooth, when we were signed to Geffen. As soon as our record wasn't headed for platinum, they pulled tour support. This was within ten weeks of release! Labels just don't have the luxury of keeping a band on any kind of salary anymore. You better hit the radio airplay hard right out of the box or head for home with your tail between your legs. I have talked with bands that are on MTV heavy rotation [with] plenty of airplay [and] tour buses-all the big tours-and are living on per diem of $150 a week. I respect those guys because that is where this business may lead you, and if you are into it for the right reasons to play music, then you can make that work for you. I say God Bless Em!!!
[Lance Monthly] Thanks, Dusty, for your enjoyable responses. What are your plans for the future and what advice can you give to the active surf-instrumental bands of today?
[Dusty Watson] I think the most important thing to keep in mind is why you are playing music in the first place. If it's to get laid and make money, you had better stop playing surf music immediately! If you enjoy the free form expression of instrumental music, whether it be keeping to your roots in a traditional vein or stretching the boundaries and allowing the music to take on a life of it's own, then I think instro is one of the best ways to achieve that.
I started playing big band and jazz music, then eventually graduated to rock and punk. I didn't start playing surf music until 1979 when John Blair asked me to record with Jon and the Nightriders, and I had a helluva good time doing it. I have been playing surf music ever since, and now I find myself playing with the King of Surf-the top of the heap as it were.
Having played in all three waves of surf music, the only thing I can hope for now is to be right there in the forefront of the fourth wave! . . . or did the fourth wave already pass me by?
As far as where I'm at personally, for the immediate future I want to get the hell off the road for a few weeks, go back to Hawaii, spend some time with Dave Wronski to learn all the material for Slacktones' new studio album, have my kids come and stay with me for a few days, go to the beach, ride my bicycle and my motorcycle, sit in my house and read a book, [and] run a couple of 10K's. I will try to get all of that done in my first week home. Right!
Future plans are staying in good shape, figuring out how to buy that condo on the north shore, see my family as much as possible, continue to listen to children, do more volunteer work, become more accomplished on guitar, write more (music, poems, thoughts, notes), smile as frequently as possible, remain teachable, and do what I can to keep music alive in schools.
It's been fun talking with you, Dick. Thanks for this opportunity to spill a little. See ya my next time through New Mexico!