It used to be if you wanted to sell a record, you slapped a pretty girl on the cover, called it the band's biggest hits (or named it after their biggest hit), then sat back and watched the albums fly off shelves. For Portland, Oregon's Guantanamo Baywatch (who genuinely loves the rock 'n' roll and surf rock vibes they're well-known for lovingly mutilating), the '60s was it. The band exhausts every effort to keep that spirit instilled, and not just as an active haunt in modern music. In their crass way, they warp time to become an extension of that period of rock.
"It was just a cheap way for them to sell records back in the day, putting a hot girl on the front," says guitarist and vocalist Jason Powell. "So it's sort of like everything that we do from the album, songwise and artwise, you're supposed to get that this is kind of a thing that we — not even like we're trying to do something for an aesthetic, it's just I love this kind of music. And I don't want to be copying it. I'd like to be included in the canon of that kind of music legitimately."
With their latest release, Darling ... It's Too Late, the band steered away from their surf rock roots and their early lo-fi recording habits to create an album that's set apart from the live experience you'll have with the same songs. At Atlanta's Living Room Recording, Guantanamo Baywatch found recording masterminds who could help the previously DIY four-track tinkerers achieve the sound they secretly always wanted for their slanted-oldies songwriting tendencies. This included the ability to apply much more muted effects when employing reverb or echoes (Powell describes a Captain Obvious-like creative epiphany from working with better tools leveraged by informed engineers), and most importantly the opportunity to add backup vocals you can actually hear in the mix.
"So much recorded music right now, especially garage rock stuff, is really lo-fi, and it's a cool aesthetic," Powell says. "But sometimes I listen to the stuff like, 'Man, I wish I could hear the lyrics.' Or, I can tell the guitar is doing something cool, but I can't really tell what it's doing. A lot of times if you're recording really lo-fi, you don't have that much room, you know, like sonic room to put in shit like backup vocals. It's really hard to do backup vocals that don't make stuff sound really muddy on a lo-fi platform. So it was cool. We could do all the backup vocals I always wanted to do."
Five tour vans ago (back when backup vocals were just a hazy dream), Guantanamo Baywatch headed out on their inaugural tour with one especially creepy stop. Huge John Waters fans, the band appropriated and altered the cover art for his 1986 book Crackpot for a random, very limited cassette Powell says he can't even remember why they made, or what songs were on it. Then they had a friend (a former Facebook employee and stalker-skilled hacker) track down Waters' address before they got to Baltimore. Once there, they knocked but no one answered, so they left an offering: a pizza box with their debut LP (Postcard From the Tar Pitz), the cassette and postcards, plus a Gatorade bottle full of tar they'd collected in the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles. Fast-forward to this summer when Guantanamo Baywatch will at last meet the curious cult figure for the first time at Burger Records' Burger Boogaloo on the Fourth of July, which Waters is slotted to host.
"My dream is that what's going to happen is we're gonna get to the Boogaloo and get on stage and in some weird fantasy that I have, he's gonna be onstage and introduce the band and he'll have the tape," Powell says.
Guantanamo Baywatch plays with Brothels and Junkfood Junkies at 9 p.m. on Friday, June 19 at the Painted Lady Lounge; 2930 Jacob St., Hamtramck; $10.