Mica Johnson has a dirty secret: “I can’t surf for shit,” he says bluntly.
For the majority of us, that’s not a big deal. Learning to surf sits on most people’s to-do lists even with joining the Masons and seeing Siberia. But for the Remedy Motel frontman, copping to the fact he can’t ride a barrel is like Donald Rumsfeld admitting to following the Dead for 10 years and going by the name Moon Fry. It’s flat-out shocking.
See, in the last year Johnson has become the surf world’s favorite troubadour. He’s not exactly sure how. He doesn’t sing about beach babes and life on the waves. The Utah native knows more about packed powder than he does palm trees, even after four years in SoCal. And Remedy Motel sound more like a dusty road outside Barstow than a boardwalk in San Diego, the group sticking a lazy country drawl on top of hard-working roots rock.
But then the band sent a tape to U.S. Surfing Federation president Paul West in hopes of playing the massive U.S. Surfing Championships earlier this year. “We just got adopted by the guy,” Johnson says.
West booked the band for multiple shows throughout the festival. He flew the group out east for the 2003 East Coast Surfing Championships. He’s written letters for the band detailing how the group is now “the sound of the American surf culture.” And he’s looking to push the group at numerous events next year.
“We just got him a CD,” Johnson says a little befuddled. “I guess he was really into our vibe. But when we met we really clicked with him; then he started booking us. He flew us out to Virginia Beach and had us play in front of these huge crowds. Whether or not we’re ‘the surf band’—even if they are his words—I’m not sure about that. But it’s cool. We’re just going along on the ride he’s offering.”
The benefits have been incredible. West has introduced the quintet into the surf world’s tight-knit community, opening up a vast and interconnected audience Johnson never knew existed.
Remedy Motel’s shows around SoCal are always packed with riders. Outside, the band has been passed around from surfer to surfer like directions to a secret beach with killer breakers. CDs sales have picked up. The Web page is continually getting hits. The interest has been enough to spark a major tour and give the group incentive to invest in their own RV. “It’s a big family,” he says, “and they take care of you. They watch out for their own.”
Two years ago, Johnson couldn’t have fathomed being at this point. He just had a batch of songs sitting around that he wanted to get on tape. “I just wanted to put some of this stuff down before I withered into a cubicle,” he says. He roped in a few of his Utah friends who had all found their way down to San Diego. The quintet started practicing constantly, knowing that there wasn’t enough money for screw-ups once the group hit the studio. Once the group’s debut, Six Days in Westchester, was done, Johnson and company decided to push it and see what happened.
“We decided to give up all those dreams about how much money you want to make and what label you want to be on, the stuff that always gets in the way of things, and just play the music we’d written,” Johnson says. “And as soon as we stopped giving a shit the music really came out.”
It’s surprising in a way. Both Six Days in Westchester and the group’s new sophomore disc, A Better Life (RemedyMotel.com), don’t sound like tossed off records. Songs like jangly “Hollywood” and the harmony-laden rambler “Train to San Diego” are drenched in vivid images, quiet optimism and gently lapping grooves—not the kind of stuff that can come out of a front-porch jam session easily. And the “Greatest Part,” a song that comes off like the Jayhawks strutting happily through a cornfield, has the kind of hum-able melody that feels as simple as a breeze but takes global forces to align. Even “Any Ol’ Time,” a bluesy stroll that could spark an epic open jam, has the kind of hook that overwhelms its simple foundation.
But no matter how basic or complicated, Remedy Motel can’t escape the fact that it’s still more of an alt-country band than some modern-day Beach Boys. As long as the Sex Wax crowd wants to throw their weight behind the band, though, Johnson isn’t going to question anyone’s intentions.
“I like to think that what people see onstage or hear are the songs—we’re not reinventing the wheel here, but they’re good songs,” he says. “And as long as people like them, no matter who they are, and we don’t starve, then we’re going to keep doing this.”
REMEDY MOTEL, Port O’ Call, 78 W. 400 South, Saturday, Dec. 6, 9:30pm