Tomorrows Tulips on why the flop of the surfing and music industries is a good thing

Tomorrows Tulips on why the flop of the surfing and music industries is a good thing

You gotta embrace mistakes — Backstage with Orange County surf punks Tomorrows Tulips.

Alex Knost and Ford Archbold are stretching some cobwebs across a dressing room backstage at the Scala in Kings Cross, London. It’s the night before Halloween, 2013, and their band Tomorrows Tulips is about to open up for their friends and Costa Mesa neighbours The Growlers – who are all spooked up in matching witch costumes.

They’ve been on tour in Europe for just over a week and Alex and Ford have fully relaxed into rock-star road life, sporting psychedelic thrift-store threads and matching sun-bleached bobs. Tomorrows Tulips – a three-piece (drummer Jamie couldn’t make this tour) that’s gone through different line-ups over two albums – is a warped, beachy brand of stoner pop that channels 1960s doo-wop through 1990s grunge rock. And although both Alex and Ford balance band life with pro surf careers (counting progressive surf brand RVCA as one of their main sponsors), they’re pouring a lot into their music right now, having just recorded a third album in San Francisco. Not a day goes by, the chilled artists say, “where we don’t pick up an instrument.”

At the centre of two industries that have struggled in recent years to retain their DIY roots, Alex and Ford are refreshingly unwilling to bend to the hyper-commercial constraints of modern creativity, and seem to represent a new wave of Californian counterculture that embraces the impossibility of ‘going big’. Perched in this Scala dressing room, with a box of wine and creepy pound-shop paraphernalia, the mid-twenty-somethings are a far cry from the limelights and Lamborghinis of Sunset Strip, but Alex and Ford have a penchant for appreciating the smaller things.

You put out your first record Eternally Teenage on Thomas Campbell’s label Galaxia and your new album Experimental Jelly on Burger Records. Why the switch?
Alex: Galaxia put out the first record on vinyl and Burger actually ended up putting that out on cassette afterwards. I think maybe our album just did better on Burger, they have more of a similar audience perhaps than Galaxia, which is more jazz-based. It’s a really awesome label, but it’s like eight hours north of where we live as opposed to Burger being ten minutes up the freeway. We were playing shows with a lot of bands that were on Burger too so it kind of just happened quite naturally.

Burger Records seems to be the centre of a garage rock revival in Orange County. What’s their vibe?
Alex: I think they just embrace and support a lot of bands.
Ford: They’re on the same level as all the bands.
Alex: Yeah it’s not like you go into a meeting and it’s some guy in a suit who wants to sell you something. Their just like poor record geeks who smoke pot and try to be as generous as they can with their income. So I think it’s important to have that in the modern world. People that are genuinely interested in music.

Tell us about the Beach Goth Party night you recently played in Santa Ana. Seems like a real celebration of this DIY OC scene.
Alex: The Growlers put that together and it’s awesome! Kind of a step in the right direction of putting an audience together for this kind of music. It’s first-hand, by the bands for the bands, not some outsiders trying to associate with a movement. It’s putting the power back in the hands of musicians, which is cool, and there’s a real sense of camaraderie. The Growlers could probably hold that thing with only them playing but I think it says something for them that every year they try to implement new younger bands and water the seed rather than take the money and split and buy fancy cars of whatever haha. They make it a brotherhood, or a sisterhood, or whatever. They embrace the people. It’s nice to see. The music industry flopped, everything has its period in time, but when something deconstructs it reconstructs. I think we’re in the reconstruction period now, at least where we live.

The surf industry has been flopping now for years. Do you think it’ll have its reconstruction period?
Alex: I think it’s difficult for us to have a vantage point on that because it’s a really big industry. There are a lot more overheads, and manufacturing, tons of clothes overseas.

But guys like Joel Tudor – who’s Duct Tape Invitational is an antidote to the elite pro surf scene – are really trying to steer things in a different direction?
Ford: Well he’s one of the great guys who’s always been himself and done things differently. Surfing still has money though.
Alex: Yeah the system still works. You can witness it in California. Kid grows up, dad’s a pro surfer, coaches and film teams groom the kid to be the next pro surfer. And that’s great, he’ll probably be one of the world’s best, but it’s a machine. It’s made to be a career. Whereas that’s pretty impossible in music unless you abandon your interests and do pop music.
Ford: If you’re in Hollywood and you’ve got rich parents and you’re attractive you can become a pop star.
Alex: Ford lives with [surf filmmaker] Jack Coleman, who’s about as gung-ho and DIY as you can get. And I think having someone like that still alive in the surf industry, someone who basically lives off popcorn and cigarettes, who makes a rare cent and puts it back into making films – not because he wants to be a celebrity but because he actually enjoys the artistic process and documenting the culture – I think that’s what will save surfing. Because that’s what it stemmed from. Just like music, it’s a culture.

Ty Segall said in a Pitchfork interview recently that all the kids growing up to EDM like Skrillex are going to freak out when they hear rock ‘n’ roll. Do you think playing garage rock is actually radical, not retro, now because it’s so different to what’s pop?
Alex: Well it varies, you know? You go to certain places like Glasgow and Manchester and it’s all house music, which is cool, but it was strange for us to be in towns that have so much heritage in rock ‘n’ roll and see that it’s completely vanished. We were in Liverpool asking kids where we could go to see live bands and they were like, ‘What’s that?’ Haha. It’s just constant evolution. Parents that were real hippies, their kids are into black metal, you know? I think with Orange County having so much money and having such large industries based there, the kids just naturally gravitate towards things with less expectations. I know so many bands that work so hard and end up eating crappy food and touring non-stop but that’s kind of the heart and soul of the whole idea. It’s kind of weird, in this unsuccessful manner they’re creating something exciting and new. They’re disillusioned with the idea of success because success is impossible man, at least on a financial level. There’s no music industry, there’s no limelight and Lamborghini on sunset strip. You’re just gonna have to do it for the love of it, which is kind of refreshing to see. One of our friends in the band Cosmonauts spends half his time flipping burgers and half his time on tour.

So there’s more of a DIY approach?
Ford: We’re DIY because there’s no other option. You wanna put out an album? You’re going to have to design the cover. Or one of your friends is going to do it for free. It forces you to be creative.
Alex: Obviously Ford and I make a paycheque from surfing. But for all our peers, even bands like Growlers, being DIY is the only avenue you have. You don’t have any money to give to anyone to make a music video or anything. So things just stem from your circle of friends, who are naturally like-minded. Like Jimmy [James] who did our music video. Jimmy actually manages to make a living from surf filmmaking, which is insane because a lot of talented people don’t get recognised. The fact that someone like him gets paid by the surf industry is a step in the right direction – in preserving it as a counterculture. Another of our friends, Dominic Santos, recently turned his house in San Francisco into a recording studio for us to make our third album.

Your live shows can be really experimental with you both reacting to each other and going off in different directions. Is improvisation an integral part of Tomorrows Tulips?
Ford: Yeah 100 per cent. We don’t play instruments very correctly or grammatically or whatever.
Alex: Everything comes out of having limited resources for us. When you have less options, things come out of necessity. And in a weird way the necessity creates originality because you don’t have a giant reverb machine so you trip something else out to fudge it, and you end up discovering something different. The music we’re interested in are the bands that had a great interest in exploration. When you stumble on something that hasn’t been done before it can’t really be wrong because there’s no precedent and there are no guidelines. I think we both appreciate the lucky accidents from having to play bass out of a guitar amp, or having to put direct inputs through certain pedals that aren’t normally associated, or tape machines, or cellphones. We use iPhones to record as much as we use vintage reel-to-reel and we discover new textures through that, which is exciting.

You have to rely on intuitive reactions in surfing too…
Ford: Surfing is impossible to predict!
Alex: Well it’s not possible for either of us. Maybe if you’re really good it’s different. [Laughs] We just surf outside Ford’s house and try to have fun.
Ford: We don’t work during the day, we spend it surfing, and it’s really cool being able to have that freedom.

Is there a band or record that made you want to start a band?
Ford: Beck’s fourth album One Foot In The Grave. I thought that was awesome.
Alex: I think I was sixteen or seventeen the first time I heard the Velvet Underground box-set, I think I was on a surf trip, and I totally remember listening to that. My dad always listened to records The Cars and Buffalo Springfield, but those bands always seemed so complex and it seemed impossible to become like that. But I remember listening to Velvet Underground and the out-of-tune guitars and there was such a sense of freedom to it. I think I heard them and thought, ‘I wanna do that.’

Were you sad when Lou Reed died?
Alex: Yeah I was like, ‘Fuck that sucks.’ Brooks [from the Growlers] was like, ‘Dude was like seventy-two and he was fucking raging.’ And it’s true. He did everything you could possibly do in life and he did a great job. Fuck being sad for that. He achieved a lot more than a large percentage of our population, or music population. So he kicked ass for that.

What does the future hold for Tomorrows Tulips?
Ford: Big spotlights and strawberry-flavoured cocaine. [Laughs]
Alex: Just to be the best songwriters we can be, you know? We’re surrounded by such a talented group of people. Our drummer Jamie plays in two bands called Holy Shit and Sam Flax and is a part of that San Francisco music scene. Playing with him has opened so many doors. So I think as long as we continue to meet creative people and surpass where we’ve been before and don’t limit ourselves, that’s a good direction to go. We’re just lucky to be able to do what we love.

What about with surfing?
Ford: Of course we’d like to see it go back to its roots.
Alex: I think it’s just about exploring all the freedom you can in it. If you try to dictate what the future will be, you’ll just end up limiting yourself. I think there’s still a tremendous amount of freedom in surfing, as compared to a lot of other things in life, and the same with music, too. I think you’ve just got to appreciate all the different aspects. As I get older I appreciate surfing so much more. I appreciate surfing shitty waves. I appreciate just catching a wave. When you’re younger you kind of have this specific idea of what you want and where you want the horizon to be, but the longer you do something the easier it is to appreciate the smaller things. We’re losing money on this tour but we would never have been able to come to all these towns and see these sights and meet new people and spend time with The Growlers, who are some of our best friends from home, so that’s pretty rad.