Aspen Times Weekly: Surfing between reggae and rock

by Stewart Oksenhorn
California reggae-rock band the Expendables, with guitarist Geoff Weers, airborne, play Friday, Jan. 31 at Belly Up.
Courtesy photo |

The first gig ever played by the Expendables featured an interesting mix of styles. Playing at the Boys & Girls Club in their hometown of Santa Cruz, as part of the city-wide First Night New Years’ Eve celebration in 1998, the band’s set list included the 1950s proto-rocker “Johnny B. Goode,” the surf instrumental “Wipeout,” and “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by ’80s hard rockers Guns N’ Roses.

The show was promising enough to keep the band together. Fifteen years later, the Expendables, who met as high school students, are still together with nearly the same lineup they had in that initial performance.

And the band still mixes styles, and has retained elements — hard rock, surf — from that initial performance. But the mix no longer represents a stylistic jumble. Early on the Expendables fused two sounds — reggae and hard rock — in a way that has now become their signature. The end result, heard on six albums and countless concerts, is built on reggae’s staccato rhythms, but also features aggressively shredded guitar licks.

It is a brand of music that is closely associated with the California coast, and Geoff Weers, the Expendables’ vocalist and guitarist, has a definitive answer for how that association came to be.

“A lot of it has to do with Sublime,” Weers, 33, said from a tour stop in Portland, Ore., referring to the Southern California trio that had a short but prominent run in the first half of the ’90s. “Sublime set off a lot of people’s brains that reggae and punk rock could exist together seamlessly, could be put in the same song, that the same band could play both.”

Weers notes that Sublime wasn’t the first band to mix reggae into a hybrid sound. The Police used reggae and punk, but filtered it through ’80s British New Wave. Sublime, he noted, cast the net out a little further by putting hip-hop flavor into its music.

Sublime was from Long Beach, on the southern side of Los Angeles. But their impact was easily felt by Weers and his mates — drummer Adam Patterson, lead guitarist Raul Bianchi and bassist Ryan Demars, all of whom new each other during their high school days, and all of whom are still in the Expendables — nearly 400 miles up the coast. “Once it got out there on the radio in L.A. it spread to our town and all over California,” Weers said. Perhaps an even more direct influence on the Expendables was Slightly Stoopid, which also mixed hardcore with reggae. The San Diego group “was like Sublime’s little protégé back in the day,” according to Weers. When Slightly Stoopid launched its own label, Stoopid Records, the Expendables were the first act signed.

Weers began playing guitar at 13, focusing on blues, classic rock and metal. “Because the guitar stuff was so cool,” he said. He had his first close encounter with reggae a few years later, through the surf scene. “I had friends into roots reggae — the Meditations, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh. The real Jamaican stuff. And a lot of the dub stuff — King Tubby, the Scientists, Eek-a-Mouse. They were shown to me through the surf connections, near the beach.”

The 1998 album “The Longest Barrel Ride,” the second release by Slightly Stoopid, was an example of how those styles could be mixed. “One or two of the songs were almost like a cross between reggae and metal,” Weers said. “I thought that was so cool. That set my brain off — you could put sweet metal riffs in a reggae song and it could sound good. We heard it a lot and then started to sound like it.”

Weers says the cross between easy-going reggae and the hardcore sounds reflects the states of mind embodied in surfing. “In the surf community you have to be really amped up out there to get the big surf, to charge out and get the big wave,” he said. “And the reggae is very mellow — you envision sunsets and beautiful emotions. That’s why people from the coast can relate to both musics. The environment is beautiful, but also aggressive. And the coastal areas are melting pots. People gravitate toward the coastline, so you meet people from different areas with different tastes.”

Though the Expendables have settled on their essential style, they haven’t stalled creatively. Their most recent album, 2012’s “Gone Soft,” pretty much eliminates the band’s harder side; the album is all acoustic.

“We’ve gotten more intricate at times,” Weers said. “We’ve learned different styles of music and put that into it while keeping the same direction. We definitely keep the same vein.”

A consistent note in their music, no surprise, has been a pro-marijuana stance. Among their songs are “Ganja Smugglin’” and “Come Get High.” As the Expendables look at a set of Colorado dates — including on Friday, Jan. 31 at Belly Up, with opening sets by fellow Californians Seedless, plus Massachusetts dub-reggae band Stick Figure — Weers is thinking about the impact the state’s legalization of pot will have on the rest of the country. He believes Colorado has put itself in a place of responsibility.

“People will look at you guys and use you as an example for good and bad,” he said. “If it works out well and there are no issues, a lot of states will look at Colorado and say, We should do that too. Or if it doesn’t go well, they’ll use that as an example that way.”

However it goes, the Expendables will throw their support behind the state.

“I’d still come to Colorado regardless,” Weers said. “It’s beautiful. We’ve been coming through a long time. It’s the farthest east we went at first. It’s awesome. It’s like the mountain California.”