Asheville’s Ouroboros Boys to play surf rock at Monstercade
How does one wind up playing surf rock? In the case of Asheville’s Ouroboros Boys and its co-founder Nicholas Marshall, the path involves some curious eddies and cross-currents through punk and old-time music. It involves a feeling for how things come undone and get pulled apart.
Surf rock has plenty of appeal. The mostly instrumental genre showcases bright metallic guitar sounds, melodic riffs and a terseness that’s both strutting and nostalgic. Twang, tremolo and reverb gave the recordings a sense of body and space. The music is meant to conjure waves and surfing, but just as often the sounds suggest bikers and the open highway, another equally American stand-in for youthful freedom over the imposing vastness of the world.
But Ouroboros Boys aren’t engaged in retro time travel. As Marshall says, he wasn’t raised on the recordings of the Ventures and Dick Dale.
“I grew up with Public Enemy, Skinny Puppy, Negativland, and the Books,” he said, explaining his fondness for samples.
Marshall plays electric mandolin in Ouroboros Boys. But one shouldn’t expect any suggestion of bluegrass surf. The mandolin fits in nicely, providing a thrumming trebly tone, the high filigree that glides above the other textures. Marshall also assembles and manipulates samplers, which are a central part of the kind of collage-ish surface of the Ouroboros Boys sound.
“For me, the music is like a painting and the samples are like newspaper photos or clippings from books or photographs,” Marshall said.
Marshall started the band with guitarist Sean Dail in 2012.
“When we formed the band we weren’t all that interested in making songs with words,” Marshall said. “Neither of us were songwriters. We want to write banging music.”
Marshall and Dail channeled their energies into making sounds and songs that had a steady undertow, a seemingly calm exterior that could pull one in, all without the use of lyrics as a centerpiece.
“I guess there’s this thing where most people say ‘If I’m gonna write music, I guess I should write words,’” said Marshall, explaining that he and Dail resisted that. “We went down this sonic lane.”
Ouroboros Boys have a few songs posted on Bandcamp, but they’re heading into the studio in May with plans to record a full album’s worth of new material. On April 29 they’ll play at Monstercade in Winston-Salem.
When listening to Ouroboros Boys, fans of North Carolina music might hear a few connections. There’s a kinship to the coiled internal-combustion rock of Southern Culture On The Skids, with the trailer-park schtick replaced by something a little more trippy. That link between surf rock and hotrod rock is a real one, each genre trading in a celebration of liberation through speed and motion. Ouroboros Boys also bear a sonic similarity to the Family Dollar Pharaohs, another more obscure but excellent Chapel Hill band from the ‘90s, who played surf rock with a twitchy melodic edge.
Viewed from a certain angle, surf rock can seem like one of the more confining genres, with a limited set of tones and effects, a predetermined set of themes, excessive use of whammy bars contrasted with muted, percussive plucking on the guitars. But the music has tendrils that reach out into all kinds of different directions, into space rock, psychedelia, gypsy jazz, spaghetti western soundtracks, rockabilly, library music, honky-tonk, exotica and girl groups. And Ouroboros Boys push their music into the interstellar end of the spectrum.
“I feel like I was listening to Ennio Morricone,” said Marshall of the influences that were percolating as the band took shape. “I was listening to Santo and Johnny, and I was listening to Link Wray. But I was way into Man or Astro-man? We’re influenced by heavy psychedelia, like Hawkwind, and early Pink Floyd.”
Ouroboros Boys are now a quintet, which allows for expansive sound-exploration. In addition to Marshall and Dail, with Mars Sigler on drums, and Benjamin Hatch on bass, there’s also a band member, Mario Martinez, devoted to old synths.
Despite Marshall’s claim that the music is essentially “devoid of any meaning,” he has plenty to say about the ways that the band’s sound, with songs that are embedded with samples and found snippets, reflects something about the time we’re living in.
“We love that post-punk sense of urban decay,” he said. “There’s a bit of late-model capitalism sort of ambivalence in some of our music.”
The band name, too, even has actual meaning — not always the case with band names. The ouroboros is the the ancient symbol of the serpent eating its own tail, an image that suggests the circular, always-destroying/always-becoming aspect of the infinite universe, perhaps.
“We’re interpreters of culture, and this culture is something that goes around and around and around and around,” Marshall said. “You’ll see bits and pieces of various 20th century cultural artifacts, it’s sort of recycled in a way that fits the name.”
The new record, Marshall said, will be “full of anxiety and tension.”
If there’s a line to be drawn from the punk and industrial music of his teenage years, to the old time and string-band music that first drew Marshall to the mandolin, and to the instrumental surf-psych he’s making now with Ouroboros Boys, it might be that looming sense of threat and menace.
“When you’re young and you’re, like, riding trains, you’re interested in fortified wine and any song that has a stabbing in it, or a murder ballad, or anything juicy like that,” Marshall said. “I loved that stuff. It’s just kind of visceral and it’s kind of brutal.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
See Ouroboros Boys on Sunday, April 29 at 9 p.m., at Monstercade, 204 W. Acadia Ave., Winston-Salem, 336-893-8591.