Most people were first exposed to oldies music—tunes by artists like Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly—as kids, by their parents or grandparents. And when you’re that young, the lyrics usually don’t register in your brain; you might sing along, but not grasp what the words actually mean. As an adult, though, some of the outdated attitudes of the eras that produced those songs can clash with a more current worldview, eliciting the reaction, “Wait, what did he just say?”
Just listen again to Neil Sedaka’s “Happy Birthday Sweet 16”—about a guy watching a girl grow up and then wanting to hook up with her now that she’s turned 16—which is “one of my favorite kind of songs, where it’s so stupid,” says Jason Powell, lead vocalist and guitarist in Guantanamo Baywatch.
As Powell writes his band’s decidedly non-personal lyrics, he draws inspiration from those eyebrow-raising topics often found in oldies songs. A lot of songs written in the ’50s and ’60s have hidden in their earnest, rosy-hued stylings “some fucked-up stuff that’s actually being discussed, which is kind of great,” he says. “Maybe I don’t agree with that stuff, but like there’s kind of like an edge to those kind of things. So that’s kind of cool, too.”
Akin to the innocuous packaging of the lyrics in ’60s songs, Guantanamo Baywatch’s lyrics are “mostly just about stupid love stuff, because they’re based on oldies in a lot of ways,” Powell says. “The lyrics are so generic, but they’re supposed to be generic. That’s kind of part of it.” And if you peel back the layers in the words a little bit, you’ll find Powell riffing off those past artists’ writing by playing a similar game. “I try to do some kind of twist on the lyrics where there’s maybe some kind of double meaning,” Powell says. “If you really think about what’s being said,” he says, you might realize you’re hearing something “creepy.”
Well, except on “Love This Time,” a track from Surf N Turf, Guantanamo Baywatch’s split single with Natural Child, released in 2013. “That one is pretty straightforward. There’s definitely a story. It’s like you’re into a girl and her parents won’t let you have sex with her … and you gotta meet in secret,” he says with a laugh.
Lyrics (as well as the voices that deliver them) are, in fact, a newer addition to the Portland, Ore., surf-punk band’s music. When Powell and bassist Chevelle Wiseman decided to form Guantanamo Baywatch in 2009 based on their shared musical interests—“we were watching a lot of Elvis movies,” Powell says—the band was playing purely instrumental songs. Drummer Chris Michael joined the band in late 2010. And when Powell finally took the mic, his Lux Interior-inflected yelps were a perfect fit for Guantanamo Baywatch’s sexed-up retro sound, which reflected his love for the work of “really generic” surf-rock bands, he says. “I really liked the kind of bands that stood out, like The Atlantics or The Deadly Ones,” especially songs that were “jazzy or darker or more goofy.”
Guantanamo Baywatch’s jungle-juice-fueled beach party hasn’t been heard on a full-length album since 2012’s campy, gloriously scuzzy Chest Crawl, but the band entered the studio to record its next album—slated for release in early 2015—at the end of June. The as-yet-untitled album will feature the band becoming more comfortable in its own skin. “I remember listening to the [Chest Crawl] mixes and being like, ‘Oh, I don’t like my voice,’ or something like that, so we’d make it quieter or add more reverb than needed,” Powell says. “So I think that now it’s like, ‘Let’s just be confident about it and make the fidelity higher so people can really hear it.’ ”
And one thing listeners will hear is Guantanamo Baywatch’s unique approach to creating music, one where the instrumentation comes first and lyrics second.
“To me, the lyrics are important, but really, it’s more like the way the lyrics sound together is more important to me,” Powell says. “You try to think a lot about how the actual song sounds. So, then, adding lyrics is like adding another instrument, and it’s gotta sound cool—and if you can make it mean something that has something fun that’s memorable and goofy is usually the best.”
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