Chevelle Wiseman had never played bass when she agreed to be the bassist for Guantanamo Baywatch, a handicap she overcame by showing up to the band's first practice sporting acrylic nails that depicted, appropriately enough, an "island scene."
"I had to rip off every nail," Wiseman says. "And then we didn't actually play. We just got fucked up."
Call it the philosophy of "40-ouncers over finesse," but for the first year after its 2008 inception, Guantanamo Baywatch gained a local following mostly by virtue of its willingness to press the adjective "apeshit" into new and fascinating variations. The group played well over 100 shows in its first year, distinguishing its performances by dint of makeup, stage names and questionably functional amps. Drummers came and went, but the papier-mâché lizard masks remained.
According to guitarist-vocalist Jason Powell, "All my friends would come because it was like, 'These guys are just going to get as drunk as possible, and they don't know how to play their songs.'"
That the group wound up developing strict aesthetic convictions was almost as much a surprise to the band as it was to fans who had repeatedly attended their pantsless, shit-faced performances.
Fond of histrionics though they might be, Wiseman and Powell, the two original members still in the group, had started Guantanamo Baywatch as an outlet for their love of 1950s surf rock. Owing in part to technical necessity, and in part to a penchant for all things DIY, the duo filtered this fetish through a chaotic scrim of reverb, distortion and gutter-punk filth worship. After two years of growing up in the public eye, Guantanamo Baywatch found a sound suggestive of a beach-blanket party taking place downstream from an oil spill.
"I love the old surf people who come up to us at shows," Wiseman says. "They don't think we know a lot about surf music. They want to school us, like, 'Have you ever actually seen Dick Dale?' And we're like, 'Yeah, we actually have.'"
The most common point of comparison for Guantanamo Baywatch's grimy bedlam is camp-rockabilly demiurges the Cramps, though Powell insists this comparison misses the mark. Indeed, Guantanamo Baywatch's rigid dedication to the conventions of surf music distinguishes it from the Cramps' rock-'n'-roll fetishizations, but one can't ignore the similarities between both groups' adoration of Americana kitsch.
"I think just being poor and trashy in general attracts you to that aesthetic," Wiseman says.
Guantanamo Baywatch's hydra-headed fan base seems content to take or leave the irony as it pleases. In addition to surf-rock die-hards, in regular attendance at the group's shows are rockabilly enthusiasts, crust punks and the basement-show set in front of whom the trio's sound developed.
After two years of such formative bedlam, Powell and Wiseman started working with drummer Chris Scott (also of Boom!), and Guantanamo Baywatch began a wholly relative shift toward maturity. Shortly after Scott joined the group, a fortuitous deal with Dirtnap Records set Guantanamo Baywatch about the recording of Chest Crawl, its sophomore LP, which was released May 22.
Whereas the group's first album, Postcards From the Tar Pitz, fell short of capturing the trio's live enthusiasm, a tighter control over Chest Crawl's production allowed Guantanamo Baywatch to craft a record in keeping with its unique skill set.
Bursting with Powell's screeching vocals and the skull-piercing treble of 1950s-style reverb, Chest Crawl sounds like an enthusiastically rendered, 30-minute record scratch. Previously infamous for song titles in the vein of "Cum Fart Food," Guantanamo Baywatch has on this outing scoured its surprisingly love-hurt lyrics to provide monikers such as "Sad Over You," "We Came With Dottie" and "Pina Colada." Chest Crawl makes it abundantly clear that "surf" should grab the premier spot in any hyphenated genre tag relating to the group.
Like trash-culture auteurs John Waters and Quentin Tarantino, Guantanamo Baywatch excuses its gaucheries by dint of a genuine love for its formative schmaltz.
"If I wasn't in this band," Powell says, "I'd be in a band that was exactly like it."
SEE IT: Guantanamo Baywatch releases Chest Crawl at Club 21 on Wednesday, May 23, with Jr. Member and Youthbitch. 9:30 pm. Free. 21+. There will be a hot dog eating contest.