There are notoriously few good surfing destinations in East Tennessee. Some blame our unpredictable climate or skewed tourism priorities, while others insist it has to do with the hundreds of miles between here and the nearest beach. With Knoxville surf-rock quartet the Mutations around, we can at least be sure it's not the vibe.
"It's just too cool," says guitarist Tommy Goss of the wobbly, reverb-soaked sound that emerged from the West Coast in the early 1960s. "I grew up playing surf music. The first guitar riffs my uncle ever showed me were ‘Pipeline' and old Dick Dale stuff. And it sounds great wherever you are. Even right now, in the winter. It gets everybody a little warm, gets them dancing."
The members of the Mutations—Goss, guitarist Harold Heffner, bassist Joel Thompson, and drummer Scott Kapuscinski—may not have illustrious wave-catching pedigrees ("I've been to the ocean," offers Thompson, who along with Goss also plays in the more tropical Marina Orchestra) but they revel in the genre's sunny imagery. During a recent spot at a Tennesseans for Fair Taxation fund-raiser at Relix Variety Theatre, the group projected seminal surfing documentary The Endless Summer behind them as they tore through a set that included an extended, loving medley of everything from the surf-inflected '60s Batman theme to "Having an Average Weekend," better known as the opening music from The Kids in the Hall.
That "Weekend" happens to have become the most identifiable surf-rock song of the past 25 years, despite being composed in Toronto (by instrumental outfit Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet), suggests how little location has to do with the sound.
"There's actually a lot of great surf bands in the Southeast," Heffner says, specifically praising mysterious Huntsville outfit Daikaiju, who will share a bill with the Mutations at Pilot Light on Sunday. "It doesn't matter how land-locked you are."
As appealing as the driving, instrumental surf-rock sound is for performers and audiences alike, the Mutations' love for the spirit of the beach also finds them pushing into the realm of '50s and '60s vocal pop, with surprising results. Heffner, Goss, and Thompson possess three of the sweetest singing voices in Knoxville's often rough-around-the-edges underground rock scene, and, perhaps more importantly, sing well together, offering wild rounds and three-part harmonies on songs like the title track from their debut EP, You Talk Too Much. (The band plans to release the EP on vinyl and cassette in the coming months, but it will be available online at draculahorse.com beginning this weekend.)
"It's not just surf music," Goss says, listing a range of influences from the Beach Boys to less obvious touchstones like Motown and the girl-group sound of the mid-'60s. "It gives us a chance to do more of a variety, from really heavy surf numbers to slow-dance stuff."
"If we could be the ideal band to play at a prom in a movie, I think that's what we're going for," adds Thompson.
That the Mutations seem as comfortable playing cheek-to-cheek arpeggios as they do barrelling through more up-tempo material says a lot for their sincerity, especially since the members each cop to a history of sloppy punk rock before coming together in early 2011. Still, the punk attitude is there—onstage at Relix, Heffner introduced "You Talk Too Much" with a teasing "This is a true story," and certain lines in "My Woodie" can be read as a filthy triple entendre—and the band bristles at the suggestion that the Mutations necessarily represent a more docile, mature direction.
"We do quiet practices and loud practices," insists Heffner. "But mostly loud."
The band does admit the softer stuff has been more plentiful of late, but Thompson sees that as temporary.
"I think it's the winter weather," he says. "We have been slowing it down lately, leaning a little more towards soul. But come summertime, I'm sure we'll all be caffeinated and drunk, jumping up and down, like, ‘Let's write some fast ones!'"