Ever since Elvis Presley entered her life when she was three years old, Susan Surftone knew she wanted to live the rock n roll life and age hasn’t stopped her from shredding her guitar on her latest release entitled “The Magician”. The former Special FBI agent sits down with us to tell us about her influences on the new album and life as a tomboy musician.
She is a former FBI agent turned singer/songwriter who shreds the guitar playing surfy bluesy rock n roll. That’s almost unheard of but life has a funny way of dealing its cards and Susan Surftone has so far played a mean hand in the music business. Listening to her music is like being part of a Quentin Tarantino film credit opening. It feels surfin’ awesome dude!
Blues and surf guitarist and vocalist, Susan Surftone is back with her first digital dose of riptide-ready rock and roll for 2016 entitled “The Magician”. One of the premiere female surf guitarists of our time, Surftone has released her brand new single called “Blue Moon of Kentucky”.
Surftone is no stranger to breaking grounds. The New York native had, early on already defied convention by learning how to write and perform electric guitar music instead of contenting herself with listening and dancing along (like most other girls) to the day’s big boy bands.
To say that Surftone plays a mean guitar is to put it mildly. Now more than merely a great female guitarist, Susan has established herself as a terrific player. Her recordings and live performances prove so.
Yet the road to success was not an easy one and she certainly paid her dues. After she graduated from law school at Boston University, the Federal Bureau of Investigation approached her about becoming an agent. She took the job with the F.B.I. at the height of the Cold War before plugging in her guitar permanently.
Since then the Portland, Oregon resident has led her own stellar group, The SurfTones, through many many album releases – at least thirteen – as Susan and The SurfTones. From Without A Word (1995), Thunderbeach (1996) and This Ain’t No Beach Party (1999) and onto later classics like 2007’s There She Goes Again – Susan and The SurfTones Play The VU (Velvet Underground), Susan has stayed the course of her sound.
From “A Little Bit Lied To” and the thunderous “Rumble” to “Blue Moon of Kentucky”, we enjoyed the ride as we crested the smooth and retro wave sounds of Susan’s new album “The Magician”. So imagine how stoked we were to get Susan to get on Tomboy Tarts for our Tomboy Musicians Series. We talked to her about her new album and life on and offstage.
TT (Tomboy Tarts): Hi Susan, thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview for our site. We love your badass surf rockin’ music. Tell us about how rock n roll influenced you as a child and now?
SS (Susan Surftone): Thank you. I’m glad to hear you like my music. Rock n roll influenced just about everything I did and formed my identify as a child. Elvis Presley was the template…throw in a bit of James Dean too… and then The Beatles came along, primarily George Harrison and John Lennon. George, more when I was younger and John as I got older. When I started guitar lessons at age nine in 1964 I found out I was good and off we went. I wanted to be a guitar player in a rock n roll band. Now my brand of rock n roll is who I am. The true, real me comes out in my music.
TT: Yeah, we hear it in those instrumentals and guitar solos man so it’s amazing to us how you transitioned from an FBI agent to a musician. Is there anything from that life you have brought into your music?
SS: It was difficult being a female Special Agent for the FBI when I went into the Bureau back in 1980. We were fairly new in the Bureau and there was resistance. I think that toughened me up for being a female, non-singing, lesbian rock n roll lead guitarist back in the mid-1980’s.
TT: A lot of female musicians like Grimes, who have come out to say that the music business is rather sexist in nature. Being a mature musician that got into the music lately, what have your personal experiences been like navigating the business? Is sexism, ageism etc still rife in the industry? What are your thoughts on that?
SS: Yes on all counts but it is way better than it used to be. Women in the music business have proved themselves to be just as good as the men and sometimes better. We just have to keep doing it. You change minds when you just get up and do it and make sure you do it well. As far as ageism goes, well, Deborah Harry is proving to all of us that age doesn’t matter, even for a woman. For me I just played and I keep playing. Now I sing too. I ignore the detractors and focus on the supporters. I enjoy the support of many men and I am thankful for that.
TT: “A Little Bit Lied To” has a Blondie ska-like beat behind it. Tell us the inspiration for that song.
SS: You are the first to mention the ska-influence. It’s in the bass line and I did it to give the song a bit of a modern lift. As far as the inspiration goes I’ll say cherchez la femme. That includes all my songs with lyrics, right up to the latest, “Up Down And All Around”. It goes for the covers I choose too. For “Little Bit Lied To” I had entered into a new relationship that had a few surprises.
TT: You’re absolutely in the zone, shredding it away on “Rumble”. What went into that track?
I am a big Link Wray fan. I’ve asked for three autographs in my life, Link Wray, Dick Dale and Bill Clinton. I took what Link did in his original and added myself. Producer and drummer Steve Kravac gave it his all too. We truly had a good time with that one. I think the “bad boy” came out for both us.
TT: There’s a lot of Carole Kaye influence in your music and blues style. Was she or any other female guitarist a great influence on you?
SS: I have great admiration for Carole Kaye and Lady Bo. The problem was when I was learning to play the guitar back in the 1960’s you didn’t know a woman was the bassist on all those hits. You didn’t know about the great female jazz guitarists you never heard of even now. At least we have YouTube today. Back then you couldn’t find them. History has been written to exclude them.
TT: How long did it take you to work on ‘The Magician’ EP? Were there any challenging or fun times while working on the album?
SS: I got “The Magician” done in two three day sessions with Steve Kravac at his studio Hell’s Half Acre. Steve and I always have fun working together. He’s a great producer with a great ear and his drumming swings like no other. The challenge for me was the vocals. I had never sung before “Little Bit Lied To” and I was nervous and doubtful. I had a very supportive and encouraging e-mail exchange with a friend, Aeone. She’s a British vocalist/composer with the most beautiful and unique voice I have ever heard. She didn’t laugh at me but offered gentle encouragement. When I stepped up to the mic for the first time I thought to myself, if she thinks I can do it, well, I can.
TT: Tell us about the collaborations you did on this album.
SS: On my upcoming single, “Up Down And All Around” (power pop mix release date October 4th, CDbaby) Mia Moravis sung backing vocals. This marks the first time I have ever sung with anyone and Mia brought the right stuff to the song. She “got” the song and enhanced it with the perfect approach. Mia and I are label mates on Bongo Boy Records. Producer, musician, songwriter Gar Francis along with Dan Caruso mixed and mastered a garage version of “Up Down And All Around” that will appear exclusively on Bongo Boy’s upcoming compilation “Out Of The Garage Vol. 3”. Personally I really like both mixes of the song a lot.
TT: There have been many iconic lesbians in rock n roll, Melissa Etheridge, KD Lang, St.Vincent, Ladyhawke who have carved out distinct musical styles of their own. Being an LGBT tomboy, you’ve spoken very frankly about the challenges you face as a musician and in society. Has there been any more insights on your evolution in that area.
SS: I can’t believe how far we’ve come so fast. I had the privilege to speak often with Storme DeLarverie in the NYC clubs in the 1980’s. She was at Stonewall and she may have thrown the first punch. If you don’t know who she was, look her up. We all owe her and the lesbians of her era a huge debt. Never take the progress we’ve made for granted.
TT: Do you think advocacy in the music industry for LGBT artistes is improving and why/why not?
SS: I’m not sure if it’s improving. We are certainly there and we are certainly able to be ourselves but I think there is still some blow back for that. I think some of my generation are still uncomfortable with it although they can no longer directly say so. But they sure can ignore you.
TT: When not performing, what gets Susan SurfTone up in the mornings?
SS: My cat, Bianca, fondly known as The White Vixen, gets me up. I am a political junkie and have been since about age five. My first political memory is of Castro’s take-over of Cuba. This election gets me going. If Hillary wins we go forward, if she loses we go backward. It is that simple and that important.
TT: What’s next for you Susan? Will you be touring and taking ‘The Magician’ on the road?
SS: Well, I’ve talked about the upcoming single. There are plans in the works for a 2017 early summer tour of my old stomping grounds in the Northeast, Albany, NY, Rochester, NY, NYC, Boston, with Mia and British blues artist Trevor Sewell. I’ll be joined by long-time SurfTone Kim13 on keys and bassist Jimmy Loveless. There are also plans for a 2017 live recording in LA with Kim 13, Jimmy and Steve Kravac drumming as well as producing. I’m hoping Mia will join us. The working title is “Making Waves Again”. It’ll be half vocals/half instrumental. Maybe a few new songs if I get the inspiration.