Rochester is hopelessly landlocked, if you don’t consider Lake Ontario. But it’s also home to one of the best surf instrumental bands anywhere, the Isotopes. Go figure.
Rochester has its pride in things like Garbage Plates, but some equate that lowbrow culinary treat with throwing up in reverse. And Kodak film is bound to make a comeback as soon as this whole digital thing blows over. In the meantime we’ve got the Isotopes to keep us wet. And they’ve been doing it since 2001.
Handsome B. Wonderful (guitar), Lance Uppercut (guitar), Admiral Awesome (percussion), and Rock Strongo (bass). The band also has a new dedicated light person, Guy Incognito, who sheds light on the situation and the band’s flailing big surf guitar roar. No cannon fodder, no overexposure.
The ‘Topes have released seven studio albums and are celebrating their 20 years in show business with an anniversary show blowout on June 19, when the band unveils its most recent, most excellent record “Pick Your Brains,” on its own Isotopes Records label. It will be available on all digital music platforms in late May.
The four main musicians have been the same since the band’s last album, “The Isotopes Play Surf Music” (2017).
And let’s not forget the go-go girls, Lucy Tightbox, Hootie McBoob, and Ophelia Cox, who all add to the gyrating blur of the shimmy and shake. They’re all amazing. Every band should have some.
I sat down with the band’s lead guitar player, Handsome B. Wonderful, to discuss maintaining melody in the surf and the pandemic.
ROCHESTER BEACON: How is this album different from the others in your catalogue?
HANDSOME B. WONDERFUL: We knew we wanted to release a new album for our 20th anniversary in 2021. When the lockdowns happened, we shifted from our usual focus on live shows, and all started composing this album. It’s the first time we’ve ever had an album where all four of the musicians contributed to writing music.
It’s also the first time we wrote a song based on how we could perform it live. On “Jack Acid,” we each take turns playing solos. When it gets to the drum solo, Admiral Awesome wrote four parts on different instruments that he recorded. When we play this live, we’ll all pick up these instruments and perform the solo with all four of us playing percussion. Also, just to note, Admiral played the drum solo on his kit on his very first take and it was flawless. There’s a reason he’s named Awesome.
ROCHESTER BEACON: How is the new album the same?
WONDERFUL: Even though we started as a “surf’ band, we’ve been playing a wide variety of musical styles for a long time now. It helps that our drummer is a music teacher who plays and composes on every instrument. But the thing we’ve always focused on is melody. We’re an instrumental band that plays music we hope you’ll be humming after the first time you hear it. Some people are turned off by instrumental music because they gravitate to the vocal melody in songs. We make it a point to cover that with our guitars. For me personally, I’ve been putting fewer guitar solos in the songs I compose and even when there are solos, I try to keep them very melodic.
We’ve also been re-recording a song from a previous album on each album. This time it was “Positron,” which first appeared on “Sounds of the Subatomic World” (2007). We’ve been making this a tradition because we keep getting better and we want to have good versions of our favorite songs.
ROCHESTER BEACON: What’s something you did on this album that you haven’t done on the others?
WONDERFUL: As I mentioned, this is the first album where all four of us contributed to composing music including some nice collaborations. We also recorded a ton of percussion tracks at our drummer’s studio and brought them into Watchmen Studios in Lockport, for final mixing and mastering. So, we could really layer on a ton of percussion without it costing us anything.
ROCHESTER BEACON: What’s something on the album for your new fans?
WONDERFUL: Not sure if this counts but we snuck in the music from Pac Man in the bridge of “Truth Decay.” We’re all super stoked to be celebrating our 20th anniversary with no signs of slowing down or stopping. The band keeps getting better, the shows keep getting more entertaining, and the older we get, the more we appreciate the opportunity to play shows and entertain people. We’ve been doing a ton of collaborating over the past few years and rarely play a show without guest musicians and new cover songs.
ROCHESTER BEACON: You’re also planning the release of a covers’ album?
WONDERFUL: Speaking of which, we also are releasing “The Isotopes Duck and Cover” on June 19th. This is a CD that features 22 of the cover songs that have been very popular at our live shows. There’s a huge variety of songs from Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” to Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” to Ram Jam’s ‘Black Betty.” We recorded this over the past few years and actually completed the project in March of last year when the whole world shut down.
Check out the Isotopes’ free show with special guests Overhand Sam, Sisters of Murphy and Violet Mary. Saturday, June 19, 3:30-10:00 p.m. at Radio Social. Isotopes take the stage at 8:15 p.m.
Frank De Blase is Rochester Beacon music writer.