There’s something inspiring about rock and roll lifers—the men and women who spend decades practicing their musical craft through DIY means, creating art for art’s sake, not to cash in on changing trends. A textbook example is David Arnson, guitarist and founder of Los Angeles-based surf punks Insect Surfers. Since 1979, Arnson has blended his childhood love of surf instrumentals with punk rock fervor and psychedelic flair for the self-proclaimed “planet Earth’s longest-running modern surf band.”
“When I was 6 years old, my parents brought home the Beach Boys’ Surfin’ U.S.A. album,” Arnson says. “It was their second album, and it happened to have five instrumentals on it. I heard the Beach Boys play ‘Misirlou’ before I heard Dick Dale play it. So I always had that sound in the back of my mind. I always liked instrumentals no matter what genre, but I didn’t really get into Davie Allan and the Arrows, the Ventures and stuff like that until I was out of high school. When I did, I knew that was how I wanted to express myself through music.”
Arnson’s late-'70s pursuit of surf rock was not grounded entirely in childhood nostalgia. “Punk rock really changed my life,” he says. “I love Patti Smith and the Ramones. The B-52s are one of the funnest bands in the world, and with Television I liked the guitar playing. I wanted a band that combined an old surf sound with some of the newer sensibilities.”
Insect Surfers began in Washington, DC, placing Arnson smack dab in the middle of a storied punk scene. “We used to play with a lot of punk bands, like Bad Brains,” he says. “There’s an area in DC called Adams Morgan, so there’s a place there called Madam’s Organ. There was a different punk band playing there each week, and we got to play with some of those bands.”
Arnson formed a new lineup after moving to California in 1985, crafting with it a sound and approach that’s defined the band since. “We use to do a lot of vocals back then [in DC],” he says. “It was about half with vocals and half instrumental. Since coming out to California, we switched to almost all instrumentals. I like to joke that we lost our capacity for speech.”
Insect Surfers have never been a predictable revival band, keeping their music relevant and interesting at times when purists have been passé.
“We’ve [taken] surf music kicking and screaming into the modern decades,” Arnson says. “You’ll find some surf bands that want to sound like it’s 1952, or whatever. We don’t wear Hawaiian shirts on stage. We do more of a revved-up and psychedelic approach. I’m really influenced by two-guitar bands, like the Allman Brothers, Quicksilver, Sonic Youth and bands like that… Some surf bands have one guy who plays lead and one guy who plays rhythm all the way. What we do is we switch lead and rhythm each verse, so it’s a little bit more interesting for us.”
Artistically free yet comfortably familiar, Insect Surfers’ sound has kept the group actively touring, including trips to Europe to play such events as Italy’s Surfer Joe Festival. Despite the occasional East Coast swing and Atlanta’s constant surf rock presence, the band hasn’t played Georgia since 1983. Back then, the DC lineup played legendary Atlanta punk club 688 and a WUOG benefit somewhere in Athens.
A long overdue return comes Sept. 17, when the band plays the all-day Southern Surf StompFest in Avondale Estates, which is co-headlined by monster-movie-obsessed Alabamians Daikaiju and a host of other regional acts. That daylong event will be followed by an appearance the next night at The World Famous alongside local surf combo Forbidden Waves. The Insect Surfers lineup for both shows reunites Arnson with original drummer Dan Buccino, who will travel from Baltimore. Atlanta’s Chad Shivers, of the Mystery Men, will fill the second guitarist’s role.
Arnson’s years as an Insect Surfer hasn’t earned him the widespread indie cred of Atlanta-via-Auburn legends Man or Astro-man, much less a taste of mainstream success. He technically makes his living off music—he had to be reached directly at his record-store day job to squeeze in a last-minute interview. But that’s all beside the point to a lifer like Arnson, as his spot in the ever-shifting underground matters less than yet another opportunity to perform his own take on the music he’s loved for nearly his whole life.
“It’s something I still love doing, and really, there’s no expiration date,” he says. “You don’t have to look young and pretty to play surf music, so I’ll probably play it until I kick the bucket.”
INSECT SURFERS Billed as "planet Earth's longest-running modern surf band," this Los Angeles group plays psychedelic surf tunes. See story on p. 9.
FORBIDDEN WAVES Surfy local garage-rock combo.