Friends, Casuals, Piranhas, Funk Dogs… the Orange County musical wizard’s colorful life, explained.
BY TIM HINELY
Corky Carroll is a true renaissance man. Oh sure, you know him from being a champion surfer (and a tireless spokesperson for the sport) as well as being on a Lite beer commercial but did you also know that he’s written several books (on surfing) and in addition opened a surf school in Southern California and has designed/shaped boards as well. In addition (and why we here at BLURT wanted to talk to him in the first place) he has recorded several albums over the years (many recently reissued on the Darla Records label out of Southern California) and has mined several different styles of music on those albums. As you’ll read below, surfing was his first love, but music was always a close second. He’s assembled numerous bands over the years and played solo as well. These days, though he writes a column in the Orange County Register newspaper he no longer lives in California, instead opting for a lush beach community in Mexico where he runs surf adventures (and, of course, still plays music). I can’t think of anyone else I’d want to have take me on a surf adventure. Carroll has lived a colorful life (to say the least) and he was more than happy to answer the questions I tossed his way.
BLURT: Where did you grow up?
CARROLL: I grew up in the small beach community of Surfside Colony on the far north end of Orange County. We were just south of Seal Beach. There were about 100 old beach houses along a little strip of oceanfront, not quite what you would call shacks, but close to it. Our house was so close to the water that I got to the point that I could tell what the surf would be like without even having to open my eyes, I could tell by the sound. It was a great place to grow up, especially for a surfer.
What was the first record you remember buying with your own money?
In 1958 I went to see my first surf movie. They were 16mm films that were usually narrated live by the guy who made the film and he would have a soundtrack on a tape recorder going into a couple of Voice of the Theater speakers for max volume. The movie was called “Surf Safari” by John Severson. I remember vividly when the big wave sequence came on, it is one of those frozen in time memories; the music was the Theme from Peter Gunn. That beat stuck in my head; in fact it’s still stuck in my head. Shortly after that I got my mom to buy me a record player for my birthday and I saved up my paper route money to buy records. My first purchases where the Peter Gunn album by Henry Mancini and a blues album by Jimmy Reed. Shortly after I started buying 45s and had a little set list in my room which included Ray Charles, Johnny Otis, Elvis and Buddy Holly among others. (Below: in 1968 Corky appeared in a Jantzen ad – the perfect beach bum, eh?)
What was the first instrument you picked up?
When I was about seven or eight years old we moved up the beach from a tiny one-bedroom place into a little bigger 3-bedroom place so I could have my own room. I had been sleeping in a little loft in my parents room and I think I was cramping their style a bit. Our new place came with an upright piano. My mom had been a singer when she was younger and sang on the radio back in the days of “live” radio. She had made a record, too; this is in the days of tin records. She came from a musical family. Her two brothers were professional musicians, one a concert violinist and the other a drummer in a popular jazz band of the 30’s and 40’s. She insisted that I take piano lessons. At first I was all for it and was ready to rock, but she hired the local pastor’s wife to teach me and it was a strict regime of classical and similar type music. I wanted to learn to play popular stuff that I could feel, but she was totally against that. For five years I struggled with that teacher and had no desire to learn or put in any practice time. I just wanted to go surfing. A couple of times somebody would show me how to play a little something I liked and that would kinda keep me going for awhile. Like when I learned how to play “What I’d Say,” by Ray Charles. That song had a kind of basic little riff to it and that sort of thing became kind of the base of a lot of later “surf” music. Then one time we went to Tijuana for the day and my dad bought me a cheapo guitar. That was really more my style, I loved that thing. I don’t think it even tuned correctly, but I would just bang away on it and it made me feel good. In about the eighth grade I had a pal who lived down the street and he got an electric guitar. Now THAT was really cool and I had to have one too. So I saved up a bit and asked my dad to buy me one. Not knowing anything about guitars and music he bought a crude homemade thing with a small Gibson amp that had a blown speaker. This had to be the cheapest thing he could find. Nonetheless I dug it and me and the kid down the street would spend zillions of hours working out the current instrumental surf songs of the time. Another friend of mine was learning to play the drums and I would go over to his house and bang away as loud as I could with him. His name is Tris Imboyden and he went on to become a great drummer, first with a wonderful band named HONK and then with Kenny Loggins and Chicago. My surfing career got in the way of my musical development for a number of years though and I didn’t take it much further at that time. It wasn’t until around 1969 or so that I got a nice acoustic guitar and decided to actually learn how to play the thing. Eventually I wandered back to electric, but have more or less kept a finger style of playing. I like the way Mark Knopfler does it so I kind of lean that way when I am looking for tones.
Were the Beatles a huge influence for you? Beach Boys? Anyone else?
I was a huge Beatles fan and even more so of the Rolling Stones. I played both of their albums until they melted. At first I didn’t like the Beach Boys and thought the “surfin’ bop dipty dipty dip” thing was really lame. I was much more a fan of pop, R & B, and the traditional instrumental surf music of people like Dick Dale, but as the Beach Boys’ music evolved I could not help but like the beat and the good vibrations of it. It was a shock to me when I went to England in 1967 that for the most part the Beach Boys were more popular there than the Beatles. Then I got a chance to work with them on a little promotional film they did and got to be friends with Dennis Wilson and Bruce Johnston. They actually asked me if I would go on tour with them as it would be an asset to have a “real surfer” in the band. At that time all my energy was into being a professional surfer and I was not even close to being skilled enough to play or sing with those guys, so I passed. I would have only embarrassed myself, which is something that I never seemed to back down from, but right then it didn’t seem like a good idea. I did become a big fan of their music and even more so as time went on and I understood more about it. In the long run though I would have to say that the bigger influence on my music came from the Stones. And later a little bit from Jimmy Buffet, who I am a huge fan of.
At what point did you start writing songs and recording? What was your first release?
At first I only played guitar and didn’t sing. My first album was done with a bunch of friends who were also surfers that played music. It was called Corky Carroll and Friends and came out in 1971. I did a few sort of mellow acoustic guitar instrumentals. At about that same time I got offered a gig playing the off nights at a little restaurant and bar. So I learned some songs and started singing. Many questioned that decision too. I was not a good singer at first, but I forged ahead at it and over the years had a lot of voice training and eventually found my way on key. It took awhile though and after many, many years, like in the late 1990’s, at it I found out that I had some ear problems that were really holding me back. When I found out that I needed to use headphones my voice finally really came to me and opened up. Without them my hearing is all wrong. I also have to use hearing aids on a day-to-day basis. So I use full on headphones on stage when I perform, not just the in ear monitors. Sometimes people ask me why I have them on and my favorite answer is “I’m listening to the game.” It doesn’t even surprise me when they believe it. After a few years of playing in bars I put together a project called the Funk Dog Surf Band. We did a show of really absurd surf and skate related songs and included three great looking backup singers called the “Corkettes.” We had a single released in the U.S. and in England that was recorded by Dennis Dragon at his studio in Malibu called “Skateboard Bill.” We also were on the Gong Show two times, one time we won and the other time we got gonged. I like to think that this was my “learning” band.
(Below: Funk Dog Surf Band)
Was the Coolwater Casuals your first band? If so how’d that come together?
After awhile the Funk Dog band mistakenly thought we needed a cooler name so we changed it to the “Tropics.” Eventually that ran it’s course and while I was sort of in between things I was introduced to a fantastic musician named Chris Darrow by a mutual friend, Rick Griffin. Rick was an amazing artist who started out doing surfing cartoons and then went on to concert posters and Grateful Deal album covers and a number of other good things. Chris had been a member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and the Kaleidoscope and was the leader of Linda Ronstadt’s touring band, among a zillion other things. He was a big leaguer and he also had just moved to the beach and was learning to surf. He and I clicked right off the bat and became pals. He worked on my musicianship and I worked on his surfing. He put together the Coolwater Casuals and together we wrote songs and put together a show. We imported the Corkettes too. Where the Funk Dog band had been fun and silly, and meant to be that way, the Casuals were a damn solid rock band. I loved that feeling. I loved being on stage with both of those bands, but in a different way. The Funk Dog Band was a novelty and intended to entertain and make people laugh and I liked that part. I want to come back as a stand up comedian in a later life, it feels so good to get a room laughing, but the Coolwater Casuals rocked and that really felt right to me. Chester Crill was in that band too, one of the great electric violin guys ever.
How did you end up recording with Michael Nesmith of The Monkees for the “Tan Punks on Boards’ single”?
The record company, Criminal Records, which released my first single, “Skateboard Bill,” in England, heard a demo tape from a rehearsal with the Casuals. Chris and I had just written “Tan Punks on Boards” and it was the opening song to our set. They liked it and wanted us to record it. Chris was pals with Mike Nesmith who owned his own label up in Carmel called Pacific Arts. Mike got involved and we recorded “Tan Punks…” at Lyon Studios in Newport Beach. It was released shortly after as a single on Pacific Arts. Not long after that we put out the “Surfer for President” LP. (Below: related photo of Carroll, courtesy Art Brewer.) Most of that album was recorded on a TEAC 4 track in my garage.
What was next? Corky Carroll and the Piranhas?
No, that is just recently since I signed with Darla Records. After the Coolwater Casuals ran its course I didn’t perform much for a number of years. But then a small label in Switzerland signed me for a “Best of” album and one more after that. This led to a series of CD’s on European labels and I started my own little independent label to release small quantities of a number of albums that I recorded in my home studio either totally solo or with Chris Darrow. And I went back to doing solo gigs in local bars in Southern California. My main gig was being house musician at Duke’s on the Huntington Beach Pier for a number of years before I moved to Mexico in 2003. Since then I have been doing occasional dinner concerts at local cantinas and writing new material.
How did you hook up with James at Darla Records who started reissuing your records?
He found me on Facebook and asked why he couldn’t find any of my music online. This sort of led to him finding some of the old stuff and wanting to reissue most of them plus do a new “Best Of” followed by a totally new album, which I recorded last summer. That is the Blue Mango album, which the Piranha plays on. This is a really great group of extremely fun and talented musicians that I was lucky to be able to put together for this project. I love the connection with Darla Records and with James himself. The dude surfs and we have a lot in common, plus he is a really good guy. And Darla is a very lovely label, it says that right on their stationary.
I notice a lot of your songs talk about different environmental issues. What current issue is the most critical?
Well there is always something isn’t there. I used to get more into that kind of thing but lately have tended to write more about things within my current experience or that I am feeling right now. Sometimes the environment falls into that, sometimes it’s about a chicken standing on the side of the road debating about crossing in traffic or Surf Zombies. I am a fan of those really bad horror movies that are so stupid they’re good: Mega Piranha, Zombeavers, Sharknado – that kind of thing. Sometimes there just seems like there are so many things to be concerned about that I just go into alternative realities and ignore current events – or I just go surfing and forget about them. This only works for as long as I am in the water though. It’s turning on the TV that’s dangerous. The world is not the safest place these days. I just wrote a song called “Holy Moley.” It’s about turning in the TV looking for cartoons, but all I see are blood and guts and gore and ragin’ ruins. Don’t swipe my lyrics here kids, hahaha.
How did the column in the Orange County Register come about? Is it weekly? Is it mostly music?
They approached me to write a weekly column about 25 years ago and it’s still alive and going. I actually do two a week, one is a question and answer and the other is whatever I feel like writing about. Mostly it’s surfing related or beach lifestyle in one way or another. Sometimes I write about music too, but the main topics are more about surfing. At times I do cover musicians who surf such as Jackson Browne or Jack Johnson or surfers who do music such as Tom Curren or Donavon Frankenreiter. All these guys are examples of just because you are good at one thing does not mean that you can’t be been at another. Sometimes people don’t want to give somebody credit for that because they assume that just because you are well know as a surfer you certainly can’t be all that great of a musician, or the other way around.
Tell us about your current band members, Matt Magiera and Matt Marshall? How long has this lineup been together?
Matt Magiera was the original drummer back in the Funk Dog Surf Band. He was a teenager and still in High School then. We used to have to get a note from is parents to get him into the clubs we played at most of the time. He was already really good then and went on to become outstanding. He introduced me to Matt Marshall. That Matt works with his brother Phil Marshall doing big time movie scores and he has also worked with my friend Henry Kapono. We were lucky that he was available the week I was in California recording the Blue Mango album. Super clean bass player, I hope to do a lot more with both of these dudes in the future. (Below: Corky with core Piranhas Matt Magiera, Richard Stekol, and Douglas Miller.)
How about some of the guys you’ve played with over the years. Brad Fiedel, Chris Darrow, Richard Stekol and Doug Miller. How about something interesting about each one.
As I have mentioned Chris Darrow and I have been playing together and recording together since the late 1970s. He would be my main musical influence and mentor. He got me into branching out and becoming a multi-instrumentalist. Chris and I just jell perfectly when we put songs together. And Doug Miller was also the lead violinist in the Funk Dog Surf Band and worked with me as a duo playing in bars and clubs in the early days. Brad Fiedel and I met when he started coming to Mexico to surf maybe ten years ago. He built a house near ours and he stayed with us while it was going up. He is a super musician having done well over 100 big movie scores as well has having toured with Hall and Oats. We would sometimes jam when he was at our house and I was stoked when he agreed to do the keyboards on Blue Mango. One of the movie scores he did was for a horror flick called Fright Night. Fantastic score. I had this song called “Surf Zombie”, which was just begging for some of that good Brad Fiedel/Fright Night kinda vibe. He also helped me do the final mix before we sent it off to Nate Wood to master. This was the first time that I actually got to work with Richard Stekol although we have known each other since the early 70s when he was playing with HONK. They were, and are, one of my all time favorite bands and I have always been a fan of his guitar work. When I was putting together the players for the album a great songwriter friend of both of ours, Jack Tempchin, heard a few of the new songs and suggested I ask Richard to do some guitar tracks. Thankfully he agreed and his work on this album really brings a lot of magic to the songs. The Piranha are a really unique mixture of players and I could not have asked for a more perfect lineup. When we were discussing band names and the “Piranha” came up it was Richard who said, “Hey, it’s perfect. After all, everybody’s gotta eat.” That sort of became our band motto.
With you being in Mexico and your band mates in California how often do you play shows and/or tour?
Together, not yet. But, that said, thanks to modern technology I am able to perform by myself and use the tracks from the album that I have recorded into a little box. I can do the songs from the album that way, I just leave out my tracks and play them live and sing live. I do this with my whole set, but the other songs I record myself in my home studio and use them as backing while my guitar and voice are live. It has a harmonizer too so I can thicken the songs with harmony. I can do a Beach Boys medley this way. Thanks to Chris for getting me to be able to play most of the instruments myself.
Who are some of your biggest influences, musically speaking?
I like the Stones and Jimmy Buffet. Also am a big fan of Jackson Browne, The Eagles and Jack Tempchin. The HONK band is at the top of my list. Chris Darrow too, his own albums are super cool and his personal input into my entire musical life has been enormous.
Of all the records you’ve released over the years could you pick a favorite?
By far it’s the new BLUE MANGO album. I love this work and am very proud of the final product. Some of the songs on Visions of Paradise stand out too.
What’s next? Shows? A new record?
Definitely more shows. Am working on a concert in Florida and trying to get one going in Texas and in Southern California later this year. And I will continue to do shows here in Mexico – it’s how I get to try out new material and keep sharp musically. I am not sure about plans for another album as of yet. Blue Mango is still relatively new on the market right now. Of course I would like to do another one for sure. I just wrote a couple of new songs I like a lot but have a ways to go to have enough material solid enough to record yet. Hopefully next year. The Piranha are on notice. It will help the cause if ALL of you who might be reading this buy Blue Mango right now. You will obviously love it and want to tell all your friends too. Come on, just do it.
Any final comments? Words of wisdom? Anything you wanted to mention that I forgot to ask?
Well, I feel that I have been really lucky to have been able to pursue the things I love most – surfing and music. They have so much in common. The late Timothy Leary once told me that we are all surfers of sorts riding different waves through the universe. Sound waves, cosmic waves, permanent waves, whatever. Riding through a guitar solo or singing is much like riding a wave on surfboard. You’re climbing and dropping and tucking into little sections and it’s a lot of ad-lib and expression. I love the feel both give me. Performing is a rush and I like that, but I also just love being by myself and plugged in. I can close my eyes and wander through new universes all the time. In surfing you gotta keep the eyes open or you will wind up on the rocks. But in music you can just soar without looking, just feeling. Of course you can always wind up on the rocks doing that too, that’s what puts the thrill into it. The only thing that bleeds is your soul.
Special thanks to James Agren at Darla Records for the help on this piece.