Nobody watching The Skurfs at a recent Northside house party seemed prepared for the chaos that followed frontman Gavin McCourt's decision to obliterate his cherry-red Stratocaster against the hardwood floor. It wasn't a sedentary crowd. The kegs were already finished and the blissfully intoxicated stood shoulder to shoulder in rapt attention as the local surf-rock group hammered away at their instruments, crafting its trademark spacey, reverb-laden sounds in the corner of the room. But the energy built like a tornado, and it's hard to remember what came first: the shattered Strat or the mosh pit that whipped into a frenzy, sending the weak-of-heart searching for an exit as others crowd surfed from one end of the room to the other and beer rained down from above.
Weeks later, McCourt sits across a table from me at Bernice's Bakery, adjusting his horn-rimmed glasses and glancing out the window as we talk. It's hard to believe the calm, almost detached 28-year-old is the same person I recently watched stand on top of his amp clutching splinters of a broken guitar while the feedback was nearly drowned out by the rabid howls of inebriated college kids.
"It's a catharsis, I guess," he says. "It just gets to that point where something has to give. It's like you're running up a hill and you see the top and you just book it because you're so stoked you did it. You just get that last manic push of extreme energy."
That energy has been consistent with McCourt's performances. I've seen him smash three guitars while performing in various bands over the past five years. Fellow Skurfs guitarist Dan Venturella has wreaked his own havoc on amps and guitars during shows. In fact, The Skurfs build so much tension in their songs that even an unseasoned audience anticipates that something is about to happen.
Not to say that the entertaining display of smashing instruments is all the group has going for it. The band—which also includes bassist Sam Ore and the recent addition of new drummer Aaron Johnson—plays surf music, but it's a far cry from The Beach Boys' "Surfin' USA." The Skurfs are, after all, a Montana band with a bit of a chillier bite (ski + surf = skurf). They've reworked the classic surf sound into something like a tidal wave—heavy, psychedelic, and loud enough that, standing too close to the speakers, the vibrations could shake your teeth free from your gums.
The word "fun" comes up repeatedly during my conversation with McCourt, almost as a manifesto for the group.
"As far as the shows that I've enjoyed the most on a personal level, they're high energy," McCourt says. "People having fun, dancing, moving. It's an audio expression that can be physically emphasized while playing. I challenge people to dance at our shows, because I think it's one of those things in our genes that's such a unifying expression. I think people could stand to be more like kids again."
McCourt creates as interesting of a dynamic between intense and playful offstage as he does when he's performing. He plays with his recently purchased rubber "Sky Ball" ("These things can go 70 feet in the air," he exclaims) and jokes around with Venturella when his bandmate gets a break from his shift at the bakery, but waxes philosophical about his approach to music and is candid about his bitterness regarding the diplomacy of local venues.
"There's a healthy rock scene in this town, but...the expectation is that you're going to play for nothing, you're going to play for exposure," he says. "I think a lot of musicians say, 'Well, that's fine, we'll foot the bill anyways,' because that's what they want to do."
Add The Skurfs to that list of musicians, apparently. Having just put the finishing touches on their debut album, First Run, the group is gearing up to embark on a Northwest tour that doesn't promise to be lucrative, but, for McCourt and his bandmates, fills a need that is nearly spiritual in scope.
"I love coming up with a badass song or a badass riff, and to make a good record," he says. "But performing is just such a release. You're just a conduit for the 'other.' That's the best feeling ever."
The Skurfs play a CD release party at the Top Hat Friday, July 1, at 10 PM with Johnny Reno.