(Big Wave Music)


On the scene since 2001, the Minneapolis, Minnesota based group known as The Surf Dawgs have a great new CD out in 2013 entitled Unleashed. In the spirit of the most renowned American surf-rock band of the USA, The Ventures, guitarist Zippy Caplan and company knows the value of a great rock and roll melody. Some tracks here such as a Surfdawgs cover of the 1962 Bobby Vee hit, “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes” really benefits as an instrumental. Thanks to imaginative arrangements and excellent performances from Zippy and his Surf Dawgs band mates, these instrumental covers, when listened to as an album experience, makes for solid foot tapping fun. Caplan is a fine instrumental guitar composer too although, aside from a pair of originals the CD is very much tilted towards a covers-friendly party time kind of album. Other highlights include a Surf Dawgs cover of “Look For A Star”, written by Tony Hatch and a splendid guitar instro take of the Jerry Leiber / Phil Spector classic “Spanish Harlem”. With one great track after the next, Unleashed is a worthwhile album of guitar instrumentals by The Surf Dawgs. presents an interview with
Zippy Caplan of The Surf Dawgs

mwe3: Who is in the current lineup of The Surf Dawgs? When did the band start and how has the group sound evolved over the years?

ZIPPY CAPLAN: The core of the band is myself on lead and rhythm guitar, in the future I will be playing some bass too, Bernie “Bombers” Bomberg on rhythm guitar and keyboards, and “Cadillac” Sally West on drums. Plus Steve Carlyle played bass on the Unleashed CD along with Gregg Inhofer, keyboards on “Georgia On My Mind” and Grammy nominated David Young, flutes on “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”. Most important though is Bob Spalding of The Ventures, who wrote the lead off song on the album, “Bullet Wave”, and he also played lead on “Lullaby Of The Leaves” and “Perfidia”. In addition, Bob played second lead and did some rhythm work on “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, “Raindrops”, and “Look For A Star”.

The band was formed in 2001 after Bernie and I completed my solo album, Zip Caplan And Cast of Thousands, Monsters And Heroes, a project I had been wanting to do for years and finally got around to in 1999. It took two and half years to complete it and when we finished Bernie and I decided to put together a vintage style instrumental band playing Ventures and other classic 1960’s instrumentals. We basically did it just for the pleasure of playing that kind of music, a back to our roots kind of thing. It just kept growing and evolving over the years into what it is now, which is a well known act with original material and covering classic songs, both instrumentals and instrumental versions of vocal classics of the 1950’s and 60’s, with the occasional step into more current material like Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”, which closes the Unleashed CD.

mwe3: Why do you call the new CD Unleashed? Is this the definitive Surf Dawgs CD and is there a way compare Unleashed to earlier album releases by the band?

ZIPPY CAPLAN: The name “Unleashed” is both a play on words, being that the name of the group has “Dawgs” in it, but mostly referring to the harder edged material on the album which is closer to straight ahead rock than it is surf music. Our previous albums stayed more in the vintage and surf style of music, although we did start to break away from that a little on our 2011 album New Tricks. I think Unleashed takes that transition another step further.

mwe3: What was it like working with Ventures guitarist Bob Spalding on the lead off track “Bullet Wave”? What’s the history of that track and did you work with Bob Spalding in other ways as well?

ZIPPY CAPLAN: Bob and I had been communicating regularly for the last several years and when we were getting ready to record this album I asked him if he had any original material we could listen to and if he’d also like to play on the record and he said yes. “Bullet Wave” was one of five songs he sent me to check out and I knew right away when I heard it that, not only was it a very good song but I also saw the commercial value of it. This is our single and I feel it’s a very catchy mainstream type of song. The others I listened to were also good and we may use one or more of them in the future but “Bullet Wave” was the perfect song to kick off the record.

Working with Bob was fantastic. One of the nicest guys in this business you’re ever going to meet. He was not only great to work with but his playing is superb and he knew just what to do in making the songs he played on exceptional. In fact when we had our CD release showcase here in Minneapolis, Bob flew in from Texas just so he could appear with us and sat in on several songs. A great gig and a great night. Going forward, Bob and I are working together on new originals and subject to his availability will hopefully be playing with us periodically.

mwe3: The Ventures were the biggest American guitar instrumental band of the past 55 years. Who else made a big impact on your guitar playing, your sound and writing? Can you also say something about the other bands you’ve worked with? For instance I know Sundazed just reissued your album with the group The Litter? Can you tell us about The Litter?

ZIPPY CAPLAN: Actually The Ventures are the world’s No. 1 instrumental group followed only by The Shadows from England - all others are down the ladder from these two.

My first and probably strongest influence at the time was Bob Bogle of The Ventures, who sadly died in 2009, and a little later Nokie Edwards who I had the pleasure of working with on my Monsters And Heroes album. In the mid 1960’s of course I liked Jimmy Page, Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, but the one guitarist who probably had the most influence on me in the late 1960’s and even to this day is my friend Johnny Winter. I first met him when White Lightning opened for Johnny Winter And at a festival in Minneapolis in 1969 and we subsequently wound up opening for them several more times and I got to be very good friends with him, which led to a lot of jam sessions which were not only a lot of fun but I picked up a lot of great licks and tricks from him. I owe him a lot. Eventually I got to play bass with him at a concert in Long Beach, California on my 25th Birthday. How’s that for a nice birthday present! I saw him recently when he played here in Minneapolis and we had a chance to get caught on things.

My writing is not really influenced by any one group in particular as it comes from within me but if you listen closely you can hear little bits and pieces of my influences as they always seem to have a way of sneaking into my material. As for The Litter, yes Sundazed has just released a real nice replica of our first album Distortions on vinyl. Sound quality is great as I sent them the original master tapes to work with.

What can I say about The Litter except that it never ceases to amaze me how it just keeps going after almost 50 years. Reissues of the albums, songs still played on the radio and more recently, thanks to K-Tel, several songs have turned up in both movies and TV Series. Sundazed is planning on releasing a 45 single on vinyl of “Action Woman”, our signature song backed with “A Legal Matter” and after the first of the year I believe they are planning on doing the same with our second album $100 Fine. I’m proud to have been in that group and I’m definitely most recognized as being the lead guitar player with The Litter despite all the other things I’ve done and groups I’ve been with. But I look at that as a good thing. We played everywhere back in the day and opened for just about everyone from Jethro Tull, The Who and Genesis to Cream and I wouldn’t trade it for anything—no regrets even though we never quite made it ALL the way I’m very satisfied with where we’re at this far down the road.

mwe3: What parameters did you use in choosing the various tracks for the Unleashed CD? Was there someone in charge of a&r on the CD? For instance, track 4 “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” is an unusual choice for an instrumental but the track has such exuberance that it really works. What’s the history of that track as done by The Surf Dawgs?

ZIPPY CAPLAN: Basically we have a giant list of what we consider as great songs from the 1940’s all the way up and we hand pick from that list as to what we think we would like to do and if it will fit into the concept of the album. Sometimes they don’t always fit. We actually recorded the “Escape From New York” theme music from the movie for this record and in the end decided it wasn’t going to fit the album so it got released as a single on i-tunes instead and it’s actually doing very well that way. As in the case with most of the songs we record, Bernie and I pick them and then we work them out just the two of us and then present them to the rest of the group and refine them. Most of the time that works real well but sometimes if we feel it’s not happening we have to drop it. In the case of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”— great song, great recognition and I’ve always loved it. We weren’t sure at first if it would work as an instrumental partly because it’s basically a vocal song with a lot of voices and parts. We knew we would have to do something special with it in order for it to work. Having Bob Spalding on this track was a life saver as his backing guitar track really helps set the mood and he simulates the “Weem a Wepps” excellently. Also David Young’s flutes were just the ticket to accentuate those high background vocal parts plus, the coloring to the track they provided was just the extra dynamic the track needed. This is not to say of course that we couldn’t have done those parts on the guitar or keyboard but I think they are much more effective on those flutes and it helped to add a whole other dimension to the album.

mwe3: Do you prefer recording covers songs and giving them the Surf Dawgs treatment or do you rather prefer recording your own originals? The first original on the CD is “Lightning Strikes Twice”. Great song, great beat and drive too. What’s the history on that track and was there a specific beat and groove you were aiming for there? Some great effects on that track! In a word—wow.

ZIPPY CAPLAN: Thank you. I appreciate hearing that. I like recording both originals and great covers in all genres and to be a little selfish, especially songs I grew up with and have always loved and wondered how they would sound as instrumentals. I think it’s important however to be recording your own material too as it helps to define who you and the group are and it also helps give you a certain identity that people can relate to when they hear your name and your music and also what to expect. “Lightning Strikes Twice” was a White Lightning song called “Prelude To Opus 4” I wrote back in the day. I did not change the feel—I always liked the drive that song had. What I did have to change was the arrangement and then the melody as it originally was a vocal and our singer Mick Stanhope sang it in a way I knew would not work as an instrumental. So, I did rewrite the melody to fit the new version although it is based to a certain degree on his original vocal track.

mwe3: Speaking of effects, what guitars are you playing on the Unleashed CD and can you tell us what guitars Bernie and Steve are playing on Unleashed as well? How has your choice of guitars and amps changed over the years? Are you a guitar collector?

ZIPPY CAPLAN: I mostly used my Fender Classic Player Jazzmaster on the album. I also used my Fender Stratocaster on “Georgia On My Mind”, because I wanted to get more of the B.B. King blues type of sound and the Strat is much better for that especially with toggle switch in the out of phase position. To add more authenticity to the track I played the entire song with my thumb rather than the pick. I played through a Roland Microcube, a little 5” speaker amp for most of the tracks, as I’ve been doing for the last several albums, however, for this album I did play through a Marshall on “Lightning Strikes Twice” and “Beat It” to get that bigger tougher sound. Bernie also played his Fender Classic Player Jazzmaster and Steve played a Fender Bass.

My choice of guitars is very wide depending on what era you’re talking about. I started in 1960 on a Fender Jazzmaster and then went to a Gibson 335, then an Epiphone Riviera, a Rickenbacker George Harrison model, a Gibson SG Standard, a Guild and ended up on a Gibson Flying V by the early 1970’s. It all depended on what group I was in at the time, as they all had a different sound but the one guitar I wish I had back above all the rest is the George Harrison Rickenbacker. I loved that guitar and never should have gotten rid of it. I tried one of the reissues in the mid-1980’s and it was terrible. Oh well—someday. After I sold my Flying V I got my first Stratocaster—a vintage 1957 V-neck and it was fantastic. At the time they weren’t worth that much but it played unbelievable once you got used to the V-neck. Beautiful Sunburst and that’s the other guitar I wish I had back. Oh well—not someday as they’re going for about $80,000 these days. For amps I always used Fenders except for a couple of years in The Litter and White Lightning when I Y-chorded 3 Marshal stacks together. Our bass player Woody Woodrich also had the 3 Marshall stacks Y-Chorded set-up. That’s LOUD!. In fact a review of White Lightning in the Fargo newspaper back then called us a “wall of sound without mercy”!!

mwe3: Featuring a female drummer to keep the beat is a great idea. Can you tell us about Surf Dawgs drummer “Cadillac” Sally West and what drums she uses on the CD?

ZIPPY CAPLAN: Yes Sally is great on the drums—love her playing. She really understands what this music is all about and how to properly play it. When Bernie and I were auditioning drummers in the beginning a lot of good drummers came in—even some that I personally knew were good but they just didn’t cut it on this stuff. They all thought, “ah instrumentals—no problem easy stuff” BUT—it’s not. There are certain nuances this music needs and a certain style of playing to correctly integrate with the guitars and if you don’t know it you won’t sound right on the material. Sally and I go way back but I hadn’t seen her in years. Luckily someone I knew told her about us and she came in and nailed it. Sally cut her teeth with The Fendermen if you remember their hit single “Mule Skinner Blues” and they followed that with “Don’t You Just Know It”, a reworked version of an old Huey Piano Smith song. She’s also played with The Castaways (“Liar Liar”) and several other 1950’s and 60’s style groups but she can also play the crap out of newer material too like “Lightning Strikes Twice”. I don’t know what the drum set was she used on the album as it was a studio set not hers.

mwe3: The song “Raindrops” is cool. What’s the history on that track and why did you choose it for the Surf Dawgs?

ZIPPY CAPLAN: I always loved that song-—great everything about it from the melody to the back ground guitar parts and I really believed that could make a really good instrumental. That was one of those songs that we wanted to do as it was originally done and not try and change it all around and it worked beautifully. One of the best tracks on the album in my opinion. Again partly thanks to the masterful work of Bob Spalding on the back ground guitar leads and rhythms.

mwe3: “Perfidia” just seems to work as an instrumental decade after decade! What’s the Surf Dawgs connection to the song? Where did that song come from? (lol) Seems like it’s been there forever! Aside from the Surf Dawgs cover, what other covers of that track do you like

ZIPPY CAPLAN: That song is from the early 1940’s I believe and it’s been in movies and on the radio forever. Also done by all the big bands—Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and the rest. It has words which a lot of people don’t realize. There is a great version of it on YouTube by a group called The Cliffters—totally different from ours but it’s really good. I also of course love The Ventures version which is probably the most well known version of that song but even with a Venture playing on the album we didn’t want to just do a copy of theirs so we decided to go back to the original big band style and I added a harmony part to Bob Spalding’s melody. I really like that track too.

mwe3: “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes” is one of the great songs from the pre-Beatles era. Bobby Vee had a big influence on The Beatles too? What made you and the Surf Dawgs choose that track?

ZIPPY CAPLAN: Once again another song we all really liked especially Sally who knows Bobby Vee and it’s never really been covered by anyone so need I say anymore?

mwe3: I don’t think I ever heard “Georgia On My Mind” played as an instrumental. Great soulful rendition by the Surf Dawgs on the Unleashed CD. Can you recall when you first heard that track? Most people remember the Ray Charles version.

ZIPPY CAPLAN: Yes I heard it for the first time when I was just a kid and loved the song---the melody, the chord changes and ambiance that song creates just captured me. I know it’s been covered by a lot of artists and at first I tried to copy Ray Charles’ vocal parts but that proved a little difficult as he sings it in a way it’s impossible to capture the feeling instrumentally so that’s when I came up with the idea of doing it in more of a blues style but keeping the essence of his version. Both Bernie and I were concerned it may not work at first but thanks to Gregg Inhofer’s outstanding piano parts I think we pulled it off. It gets mentioned in reviews quite a bit.

mwe3: How about the Lonnie Mack cover of “Wham”? How would you describe Lonnie’s influence on the guitar world and what’s you favorite Lonnie track or album?

ZIPPY CAPLAN: Actually I forgot to mention Lonnie Mack earlier when I was answering your question about my influences. In the early days of my playing he was definitely an influence on me but back then all I could do was just enjoy listening to his records because I couldn’t play them to save my life. I saw him live many times, the last in 1993 and he was great every time it’s just too bad his health has prevented him from doing very much in recent years. Getting back to “Wham”... I’d been wanting to learn that song forever. I had “Down In The Dumps” and “Memphis” and a whole bunch of his other songs down pretty good as I got older but I could never get that damn song so when we began planning this album I told Bernie “I’m going to learn that son of a bitch if it’s the last thing I do” and I worked really hard on it and I’m very proud of our version. As for my favorites I’d have to say “Memphis”, “Wham”, “Down In The Dumps”, “Why” and “Chicken Pickin”.

mwe3: “Night Runner” is another new original track. How did you write that and who was your song-writing partner on that track? It has a kind of an Allman Brothers guitar sound to it! Great driving sound.

ZIPPY CAPLAN: It’s another White Lightning song I wrote back in the day and all that exists of it, as it was never released, are the instrumental tracks. The vocal track was lost so I had no idea how it went. I took the arrangement and basically kept it the same and wrote an entire new guitar melody to go with the progression. I found out later that our singer Mick Stanhope remembered the lyrics and melody and after he sang it for me. I thought my new melody was similar enough to his original melody that I gave him a song writer credit on it with me.

mwe3: “Bali Ha’i”. Wow that’s going back to the early 1960s? Oscar and Hammerstein? How did you approach that track and what did you do to give it the Surf Dawgs treatment?

ZIPPY CAPLAN: That song had such a haunting melody and is actually kind of a rip-off of some of the music Max Steiner wrote for the 1933 movie “Bride Of Frankenstein”. When Bernie and I were recording Monsters and Heroes we discovered that similarity and I told him back then we should one day try and do a version of “Bali Ha’i”. The question was how to do it. We didn’t think it would work very well for a guitar band in its original movie form so we decided to speed up the tempo and give it more of a tropical surfy feel and by using my vibrato arm while playing it that was just the extra touch it needed. We also put in the “tiki tiki” part and the short drum solo to fill it out, as there are a bunch of other parts to that song that are all orchestrations making it too long and too big of a production to copy them.

mwe3: “Spanish Harlem” has been a consistent favorite among oldies and instrumental music fans. It doesn’t get any better than Jerry Leiber and Phil Spector writing together. What was Phil’s greatest contribution to instrumental guitar music in your opinion?

ZIPPY CAPLAN: I think the best stuff Phil did was with the Girl Groups and the orchestration and instrumentation behind them is nothing short of fabulous.

mwe3: How did you find the song “Look For A Star”? Wasn’t that written by Tony Hatch, who wrote all those great songs by Petula Clark? Great track and I just emailed Tony and told him! Are there other “chestnuts” like that the Surf Dawgs are just waiting to “unleash” so to speak?

ZIPPY CAPLAN: We’ve got well over 200 songs on our suggestion list for upcoming albums—I hope we get a chance to do them. I’ve liked “Look For A Star” ever since I saw the movie Circus Of Horrors as a kid. They played that song all through the movie and by the time I left the theatre I couldn’t get it out of my head. Then it hit the radio over in the U.S. by Gary Mills and Dean Hawley both and I never forgot it—like the words, like the melody, like the whole atmosphere of the song. I never thought we’d ever actually do it but Sally loves it too and we’ve been after Bernie for years to go along with us recording it—he finally gave in and now he’s glad. I do want to mention once again Bob Spalding’s great background guitar work really helps to make that track as good as it is.

mwe3: Where did you find “The Grind” and what made you want to cover it on Unleashed? Any history on that track you can share?

ZIPPY CAPLAN: “The Grind” was a local hit in Minneapolis in the mid 1960’s by a group called Gregory Dee and The Avantis. He wrote the song and they were big here for many years—they also had a whole bunch of other 45 releases that did well. I think “The Grind” broke out regionally but never got any further. Greg died last year and we played a benefit for his family back in December. I was glad we resurrected the song. A very catchy and very danceable tune—everyone seems to like that song no matter what kind of music they’re into.

mwe3: “Beat It” as an instro? (lol) Whatever, but it sounds great! I’m sure Michael Jackson would love the Surf Dawgs version? How did that dawn on you? Is that a Surf Dawgs tribute to the late great king of pop?

ZIPPY CAPLAN: I guess you could say that. This one was Bernie’s idea and he was positive we could do it and make it work. I wasn’t so sure and at first and I tried to talk him out of it. Now I’m glad we did it but it was a total left turn for us from what we normally do. Luckily our engineer and co-producer Brian Bart was able to help a lot with it as he had done a string of “tribute” albums for a label several years ago and this was one of the songs, so he already knew the best way to approach it and that’s when I decided to go ahead and bring up The Litter side of me and use the Marshall amp and just go all out on it. Not easy when you think about having to play a solo that Eddie Van Halen did on an iconic song like this but I gave it my all and I think based on the response from people we pulled it off.

mwe3: Everyone loves the Unleashed Cd. Pipeline just gave it a glowing review which was great. What’s next and even though the Surf Dawgs are revered in Minnesota, what’s the plan to spread the Surf Dawgs music far and wide in 2013 and 2014 and beyond? What’s coming up for the Surf Dawgs in the coming months as far as new music, new recordings, shows, movie soundtracks and more?

ZIPPY CAPLAN: Right now we’re just being as proactive as we can on pushing this CD and there are some things in the works for upcoming shows that I can’t really discuss right now but anything that breaks will be posted on our Facebook page and people are invited to go there and like us and they can hear 8 different tracks from the album on Reverbnation while they are on the page. There is a great music video for “Bullet Wave” on YouTube and all of our albums, singles and music are available on i-tunes and Amazon so I invite everybody to check it all out.


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