Sun Jun 12
Surf Curse owes its existence to the indomitable spirit of rock and roll, or maybe it’s just the enduring power of friendship. Some would argue they’re the same thing. But they’ll remain timeless as long as kids aren’t willing to feel like outcasts in silence. In other words, forever. So it’s no surprise that Surf Curse, a band that has dedicated itself to expressing the heartbreaks and alienation and small triumphs of growing up, has managed to thrive in DIY spaces, grubby clubs and wherever teenagers and lapsed teenagers can be found online—from their humble origins on Myspace to their rise through Tumblr to Bandcamp and now the 2021 equivalent of MTV—their eight-year old song is a viral smash on TikTok.
The name of that song is “Freaks,” which Nick Rattigan and Jacob Rubeck describe as their “universal teen angst love letter.” It’s been a linchpin of their riotous live shows and the centerpiece of their 2013 debut album Buds. The second life of “Freaks” is certainly unexpected, but it’s more just a long time coming. Surf Curse lives for these “lightning strike moments” where unthinkable good luck can be traced back to their old school, get-in-the-van DIY work ethic. Drummer/vocalist Rattigan and guitarist/vocalist Rubeck first met at the age of 13 in a Las Vegas middle school, making their inauspicious start as Buffalo 66. As to be expected from a couple of kids who name their first band after a Vincent Gallo film, they didn’t find many peers growing up in Las Vegas, a city that holds promise for everyone…except for two weirdos raised on indie rock, obscure films and a sense that more awaited for them in basically any other city.
To paraphrase R.E.M., the duo hummed all the way to Reno, leaving the non-believers behind. Rattigan attended college at the University of Nevada while Rubeck washed dishes in senior citizen facilities. Inspired by a Brady Bunch episode and the beachy, lo-fi rock that was then sweeping indie culture, the duo changed their name to Surf Curse, almost as a dare to Reno’s musical stagnation. “We were sick of what we thought was the indie rock scene,” Rubeck jokes—they wanted to agitate, but also to inspire. Their hooks were catchy enough that they would’ve created an immediate following if they were in Austin or Brooklyn. But Surf Curse didn’t carry themselves like the many buzz bands that failed to outlive the last days of indie blogs. There’s only one Las Vegas and one Reno, but hundreds of cities like them across the world – bustling with commerce but starved for substance, places where weirdos, freaks and geeks are forced to create an alternate universe as a matter of social survival. These are the people that saw themselves in Surf Curse’s carefully curated anti-reality—and the reason songs like “Freaks” continue to resonate on a larger and larger scale.
Surf Curse built their reputation on hooky songs that lived by the adage of “write what you know”—heartbreak, disillusionment, movies. When they recorded “Heathers,” a tribute to the pitch-black revenge fantasy, they knew they were starting to find their voice. Surf Curse describe their inspirations as “anything with a youthful angst,” starting with 1990s Coppola and S.C. Hinton to the more refined and outré likes of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. “Heathers,” “Ponyboy,” “Freaks,” “Cronenberg,” “Reality Bites,” “Fire Walk With Me” – you don’t need a Criterion Collection to spot the allusions in Surf Curse’s formative early work. Yet while many of their garage rock peers were content to simply quote their favorite films or plug in samples, Surf Curse amplify the ambience and emotion of their references to make truly cinematic music – songs that can make the listener feel like the main character in the movie of their own life. If the goal of any artist is to leave a place a little better than they found it, Surf Curse succeeded. Reno’s prime all-ages, DIY space The Holland Project became a hub for young bands once Surf Curse proved that indie rock could exist and thrive in an otherwise forgotten town.
Rattigan and Rubeck arranged their class and work schedules to account for the 9-10 hour drives to Los Angeles for gigs that might pay for gas at most. The trips were gruelling and at times, dangerous—they recall showing up to one show after a car accident. The subsequent adrenaline rush resulted in one of their most intense and memorable sets. But they’re not too nostalgic for those days. Upon arriving in Los Angeles, Rattigan and Rubeck immediately ingratiated themselves with a group of likeminded bands at The Smell, a legendary all-ages space Downtown that launched the careers of No Age, HEALTH and Mika Miko. Surf Curse recorded their first two albums—Buds and 2017’s Nothing Yet—at The Smell in the span of two days, a testament to their plug-in-and-play work ethic and their sense of lineage. A key song on Buds says it best—“The Smell Saved My Life.”
Over the next decade, Rattigan and Rubeck expanded their artistic reach—Rattigan’s long-running Current Joys project released Voyager on indie rock powerhouse Secretly Canadian last year, while Rubeck has explored his muse in Gap Girls and Casino Hearts. Meanwhile, Surf Curse continued to build their following over the span of three albums, most recently 2019’s Heaven Surrounds You, a lush and confident record produced by Jarvis Taveniere of Woods. The success of Surf Curse during this period feels honest, even refreshing—not driven by critical hype or proximity to scene cred or commercial placements, but through personal connection. They’re still constantly surprised about how the same excitement from their DIY shows has extrapolated to bigger clubs through the West Coast and America as a whole. They joke that they’re “like the Beatles in Mexico” but they’re not really kidding.
If music execs could isolate and identify exactly why “Freaks” is now shooting up the charts nearly a decade after it was first written, well…they’re almost certainly trying…The band have gone from posting their demos on Bandcamp and recording in backhouses and empty clubs to signing to Atlantic (“we’re on the same label as Meg Thee Stallion,” Rubeck gushes) and laying down tracks at Electric Lady in New York. The impact they have on their fanbase is strong enough to withstand a year in which Surf Curse couldn’t foster that connection. When the duo think back on Buds, they hear “being 19.” Or as Rattigan puts it best, “these are songs that represent youth forever.”