If the name The Ventures doesn’t ring a bell, trust me, it doesn’t mean you haven’t heard their music – including in Pulp Fiction’s perfectly timed final scene (see below). The Rock & Roll Hall of Famers are credited with being the godfathers of instrumental rock, with hits like “Walk Don’t Run” and “Hawaii Five-O” that you’d recognize within hearing the first three guitar chords. The iconic band is also known for their unwavering fanbase in Japan, where they still tour regularly, and their substantial contribution to surf rock as a genre in its own right in the 1960s.
On the eve of their 60th anniversary, the band’s current lineup – Bob Spalding (lead guitar), his son Ian Spalding (rhythm), Luke Griffin (bass) and Leon Taylor (drums) – are on a four-leg East Coast tour with a stop at The Birchmere on Thursday, January 17. We caught up with the current elder statesmen of the group, Spalding and Taylor (whose father Mel was the drummer in The Ventures’ classic lineup) before they take the stage in Alexandria this week about their new record Here We Go Again, why they’re not just a surf rock band and what it’s like to have fans spanning three generations.
On Tap: I know we’re interviewing you for your U.S. tour, but I really want to know what it’s like to tour in Japan.
Bob Spalding: We’ve been to Japan so many times that I think most of us qualify for citizenship. We’re going back again this year. We usually end up doing 35 to 40 dates in a couple of months.
OT: How would you describe the experience of playing for fans in Japan versus fans in the United States?
Leon Taylor: We’re going on our 60-year anniversary since the inception of The Ventures, [so we’re probably looking at] 57 years of going to Japan. It’s quite a different audience in the sense that Japanese people are very reserved. They enjoy the show and they’re active in their seats, but they don’t get up and jump around like the U.S. audience does. It’s very different in that way. When I first went there, I thought they didn’t like us. But I learned that’s just the way they are.
BS: The Ventures had their first hit in 1960 with “Walk Don’t Run” and were invited to go on a tour of Southeast Asia in 1962. For all intents and purposes, they introduced Japan to the electric guitar. When they came back on tour in 1964, they were greeted by 10,000 people and they just became a tremendously popular group in Japan for a number of reasons. We’ve been very fortunate in being able to continue to go back to provide that level of music to the Japanese folks. And we’re still recording new music – not only for the Japanese folks but for the rest of our fans around the world.
OT: Can you tell me a little bit about your latest release?
LT: The album is called Here We Go Again. Basically, the idea is The Ventures have morphed with different members over the years. There’s always been different members looking to change things up a little bit. We wanted to make a statement and say, “Here we go again,” because that’s kind of where we’re at. We’re making a resurgence into the market and we’ve got new material.
BS: This will be the first new album [of originals] that The Ventures has done in 10 years or so. We will be playing some of our new songs at the show at The Birchmere, so look for those.
OT: Would you say the new album is more rooted in surf rock or instrumental rock ‘n’ roll in general?
BS: I’m glad you brought that up. That’s kind of a difficult thing for us because people want to slap a label on you. Let me just say that we have no problem being known as a surf rock group because we popularized so much of the surf rock songs like “Pipeline.” However, the talent of the group both in the sense of performance – and writing and arranging [music] – goes beyond the surf rock genre. One of the songs we’re going to play [at the Birchmere] is a rearrangement of a Chopin song. I guess you can characterize that as surf rock, but I don’t think so [laughs].
LT: If you want to say we’re a surf band, then we’re probably the most well-known surf band in American music. So, we’ll take it [laughs].
BS: Yeah, here we go again.
OT: How would you describe your experience joining the band after The Ventures had already established such great success? Did you feel like you had big shoes to fill when some of the original members retired?
LT: I definitely had some big shoes to fill and I knew it. Was it scary? Yeah [laughs]. It was very scary because the first time I played with the band, it was in front of 2,500 people in Japan and it was a packed house. But I rose to the occasion, and at one point one of the original members Don [Wilson] turned around and said to me, “If I hadn’t turned around, I could’ve sworn it was your dad playing.”
BS: It’s been quite an experience to be accepted as part of The Ventures family.
OT: What do you think gives your music universal appeal spanning generations – and even countries?
BS: We are very fortunate because the music we popularized is basically evergreen. People know it, and we’re slowly getting these younger fans. A lot of them were exposed to the music when they were kids. They really have an interest in and a fascination for it.
LT: When we have a fan come up and say, “My grandparents introduced me to The Ventures,” it’s cool and it’s kind of like, “Well, really?” [both laugh] It’s cool and kind of strange in the same way, you know? It’s amazing to have a following like that.
OT: What are some of the challenges you face in writing and performing purely instrumental music?
LT: If you don’t have melody, you don’t have song. So it’s a bit challenging in that regard.
BS: The hard part for us is to continue to develop, arrange and write new instrumental music and keep it in the character of The Ventures because of the sound that we have. We can’t say, “Okay, let’s do a Motörhead song.” That would be out of character for us and probably wouldn’t go over well because we don’t play like Motörhead. But we really try to continue the model of what the guys who came before us did, which is the interpretation of different songs as well as the development of new material within that Ventures’ [style], if you will.
Don’t miss the instrumental rock legends at The Birchmere on Thursday, January 17. Show at 7:30 p.m., tickets are $29.50. Learn more at www.birchmere.com.
The Birchmere: 3701 Mt. Vernon Ave. Alexandria, VA; 703-549-7500; www.birchmere.com