San Antonio's Nuclear Juarez dropped one of last year's best local albums, Exil, proving the guitar-driven instrumental trio has the potential to make waves.
Just don't call it a surf rock band.
While Nuclear Juarez's music has some of the hallmarks of surf rock classics like Dick Dale's "Miserlou" — the song featured in Pulp Fiction's opening credits — or the Ventures' "Walk Don't Run," the members are eager to point out the breadth of their musical approach.
"We're not a surf band at all," drummer Brian Parrish told the Current during a Zoom conversation. "There's maybe a surf beat on a few of the songs. A lot of those bands have to look a certain way, their guitars have to be a certain model, they have to use a certain kind of amp. We're not that cool."
"And I don't look good in shorts," bassist Michael Pittman added.
To their point, basic surf rock ingredients float to the surface in the Nuclear Juarez sea. You've got your reverb-soaked chords that invoke surf whitecaps. And yep, some double snare hits on 2 and 4.
But those core elements are balanced out by dissonant lead guitar lines, unusual melodic choices and the occasional riptide burst of jagged noise.
The members of Nuclear Juarez have a way of playing off each other conversationally, and it's also evident in the way their music unfolds.
"We play the emotive stuff, and you can put the pictures together in your head," said Parrish. "I consider us a soundtrack band."
The members agreed that jazz guitarist Gabor Szabo and the Velvet Underground are key influences.
"I wouldn't say they introduce avant-garde into what we do," said Parrish. "But maybe something out there in the perimeter."
Guitarist Gus Wanner said the band's sound stems from the individual members' varied tastes.
"You've got three cooks coming into the kitchen," he said. "Let's break some new ground and see whose cuisine reigns supreme."
For his part, Parrish likes to keep things loose for their performances. "The music should not sound the same every time you play it," he added. "It should be a unique fingerprint every time."
That said, Nuclear Juarez does write a setlist in advance, though the members aren't averse to switching things up midstream, depending on how the crowd is reacting to the material.
While surf rock underwent a '90s revival, thanks in part to Pulp Fiction's influence, a broader interest in instrumental rock has been growing in popularity for a while now. Wanner has a theory as to why that might be. But then again, Wanner — a man whose bandmates claim can play "anything with strings" — always has a theory.
"Ear fatigue," he said. "You've got this deluge of words coming out of every speaker. When you can massage the ears with good melodies and good sonic procedure, that's gonna be more popular."
'Sometimes dreamy, sometimes moody'
Let's be honest: artists are notoriously not the best interpreters of their own work. So, to sort out the best descriptor for the Nuclear Juarez sound, we spoke to a bona-fide expert in the field, Mark Sanders, the host of Mark Malibu's Surfin' a Go Go Radio Show. Sanders' online show features instrumental guitar music from all decades, and he's included the San Antonio band in his playlist, which spans genre luminaries to lesser-known artists.
Sanders said Nuclear Juarez's unusual chord choices — "sometimes dreamy, sometimes moody ... but always tasty" — differentiate the trio from the surf rock crowd. So do Wanner's playing techniques, which Sanders hears as informed by flamenco. He pointed to the title track of Exil as a prime example.
Sanders said the ubiquity of instrumental rock — whether or not its practitioners apply the "surf" tag — helps explain its continued growth.
"The music is layered into so many of the TV shows, films and commercials that we consume," he said. "The viewer may not know the song or the artist, but they know it's surf music."
Battle of the bands
On the tail end of a string of unconventional road gigs, Nuclear Juarez is back on home turf and will play a free gig at north-of-downtown nightspot Sanchos Cantina y Cocina on Friday, August 5.
As part of that recent jaunt, Nuclear Juarez recently returned from Toronto, where it participated as the sole U.S. band in the Great Lakes Surf Battle.
Parrish said he enjoyed seeing "bands that concentrate on the tonal variants of 'traditional' surf music instead of the pompadoured, Hawaiian shirt Beach Blanket Bingo haze that many American bands fall into."
Nuclear Juarez also appeared at three home baseball games for the Seguin River Monsters, members of the Texas Collegiate League. The trio played brief sets before and after the games and wowed the crowd with a polka version of — you guessed it — "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."
In a saddening turn of events, the River Monsters lost all three games, but please don't speak of that. After all, it's better to judge Nuclear Juarez based on its winning record with instrumental rock than on its record with inspiring sports teams.
Free, Friday, Aug. 5, 8 p.m., Sanchos, 628 Jackson St., (210) 320-1840, sanchosmx.com.
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