The Making Of Surf Zombies!

Surf Zombies! was originally a project that I hoped to complete in Los Angeles, while I lived there. It was called “Surf’s Up!” and I planned to record it at Timewarp Studios, playing all the instruments myself. I took to the internet to raise some funds for recording time, and quickly raised two hundred and fifty dollars, which I set aside. It was around this time that things started to fall apart for me in a myriad of ways: my relationship with my girlfriend was rapidly deteriorating in a fury of alcohol and drug use, I was broke, and I had to leave LA in a hurry. Using the money that I had raised, I hightailed it up to Nor Cal to relax for a few weeks, which would eventually become a permanent change of location. During this time, I was seriously addicted to pills, both opiates and head pills; I was drinking and smoking, and as I struggled with this addiction, I tried to figure out how I was going to record this surf song.

There is a live version of Surf Zombies! taken from my live album “Casey Wickstrom: Live @ The Pocket, Santa Cruz.” It had been titled “Surf’s Up!” which was also the name of a song by the Beach Boys. Although I liked the energy of the track, it was obvious to me that I needed to record a studio version, which would be much more controlled and professional sounding. It was interesting for me to have a live track prior to a recorded one — usually it’s the other way around: studio song, then a live track.

In Nor Cal, I quickly fell into a routine of drinking and popping an enormous amount of pills, hanging out with close friends, and playing music very seriously and consistently, setting up live shows all over and learning new songs for my sets. I had not forgotten about the surf track; rather, it dominated my thoughts every day. I couldn’t fall asleep without my feet tapping to the beats that I heard in my head. I also felt that I owed it to the financial backers — I felt responsible to record the song, and as soon as possible, but I also felt obliged to produce a strong track that I could market and grow, and stand behind. A single to add to my growing song list.

Eventually, I was introduced to Leo Fernando, a producer at Freestyle Studios in Mtn View, at the high school. We met through a mutual friend who is a fan of my music, and we set a goal to record the single in the summer. I practiced the song by looping the bass line with my loop pedal; trying to figure out what parts to put where. I quickly set up some practice times with my bassist Bob Lanz, whom I’ve recorded and played numerous live shows with, and we began to figure out how we wanted to lay down the track. Bob would be a very crucial part of the process: because of my constant and heavy drug use, I would fall into deep depressions, become dangerously overwhelmed, and come very close to scrapping the whole project. Bob helped to keep me accountable to the song, and during the actual recording, he was a grounding force that allowed me to think clearly and move smoothly through the recording process.

For drums on the track, I had hoped to use Josh Gardner, of local band Sweet Hayah fame, who was also the drummer on my live Santa Cruz album. Josh is an amazing drummer, but he was never reliable, and I could never get him to commit to the recording date. When Bob and I went into the studio, I had to lay down the drum tracks myself, which was a little stressful, but I knew exactly what to do, and how I wanted the parts to fit together. The drums tracks were done within three takes.

The night before the recording session, I drank my ass off and really got down with the song, looping the fuck out of it, going over each solo section meticulously, really defining what I wanted. This was at my friend Tony’s house in Sunnyvale, where I had spent a considerable amount of time since I’d been back up from LA. During that night, in a flash of insight, I decided to call the song “Surf Zombies!” which was a better title, and much more suitable for me, since I love horror films, zombies and cannibals, violence, etc. Bob and I went over the vocal tracks together in the studio, screaming “Surf Zombies!” and everything. The evil laugh that you hear in the track is me, which was a spur of the moment thing. The crash, or the explosion that you hear in the beginning at the end with the “Woo!” is me cracking my tube amp: I angled it up and dropped it back on the floor (which is awful for the amp). I wanted this sound, like a crack or burst; it was reminiscent of the Pixies for me, and also reminded me of a breaking wave.

The studio time was good. We had finished, and Leo went on to mix the track down in Japan, where he was spending the summer. It was now near my twenty seventh birthday. The drugs were really controlling my life, and bad, so I decided that I would kill myself after the release of Surf Zombies! and just get it over with. After emailing a little back and forth with Leo about the mixing quality and the drum tracks, I had a pretty solid track. I got the artwork done by my friend Micah, who does nearly all of my artwork for the site and for my albums, using the main image from Lucio Fulci’s film “Zombie,” with the tagline “We Are Going To Eat You!” I had been looking for other images before Bob and I settled on Fulci’s. I put the single online for all to hear, making sure that all the financial backers got their credit. Then, I took all the pills that I had saved and fell asleep, hoping that I would never wake up, and it would finally be over.

I didn’t have enough pills to do me in, and after my attempt, there were no more pills for a while, so I had to continue living. I was happy with the song, although I wasn’t happy with my life, and what I had become. My depression and drug use would come to a head when I overdosed on prescription pain killers, and I had to quit the pills cold turkey. After nearly four months of no pills (although I still drank and smoked and did a little coke), I had become so suicidal that now ending my own life seemed like the only option. In a final act of desperation, I admitted myself to the psychiatric ward at Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto, where I was placed on suicide watch for nearly a week. There, I was put back on anti-depressant medicine, and an anti-psychotic for bi-polar and major depression. After I left, I completely changed my lifestyle, maintaining a life of complete sobriety, taking up yoga four to five times a week, and taking care of myself.  Within months, I began to change into a healthy human being, something I had not been for years and years. I finally felt alright, and I decided to invest in a home music studio.

After purchasing an interface and compatible recording software, and learning (at least a little) about how to work it, I decided to change a few things with Surf Zombies! For instance, the crash in the beginning was extended and the vocals were echoed. The biggest change was that I extended the bridge to four measures in order to add a saxophone solo. Unfortunately, the recording session for the sax didn’t come out sounding too hot, so I had to put it on hold, but the song was longer, and in my mind, more complete. I also altered the drum line in the introduction for the drums, which had a little hiccup previously. So now, when the drums kick, it goes straight into a punk rock surf beat, no disconnect.

I had wanted to make a video for some time after the recording, long before my stay at Stanford, and even prior to my suicide attempt. I had wanted to use images from some of my favorite zombie movies, preferably Italian gore films with poor editing and awful dubbing, made just for tasteless enjoyment. However, I didn’t want to get sued, and I wasn’t even sure how I could go about making and editing a music video. I had put together a film crew for another music video, for my song Pasadena, which was filmed in a day around the foothills of Silicon Valley. This was an excellent learning process for me, and I was able to make friends with people who knew much more about the technical side of film than I did. The cinematographer for the Pasadena project, Ali, really enjoyed working with me, and I with him, so we kept in touch after the Pasadena video shoot. I had expressed my interest in editing and making music videos by myself, and I had explained how, when I lived in LA, a friend had given me some film editing software called Final Cut Pro. It was installed on my laptop, but I had never used it. I wasn’t even sure if it worked.

Ali opened the software and was surprised that I had it. Final Cut Pro is a very expensive professional film editing program, and I had gotten it installed on my laptop for free. Ali showed me the basics of how to transfer and convert films and videos onto the software, and how to edit and cut, and I began getting into some projects on my own. I was working on a video for my song “Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax,” which gave me practice on using the program and putting it to good use. It was fun and also infuriating at the same time: cutting and pasting different clips to fit together with music was certainly a challenge, but very rewarding when done right.

I talked to my uncle about my idea for Surf Zombies! and how I wanted to go about it. The thing was, I told him, I didn’t want to get sued. “Just use free-domain films,” he told me, and a light went off in my head. I hadn’t even thought of that! I searched the web looking for free domain zombie movies and I came across one from 1974 called “Horror Of The Zombies.” It looked perfect, and although I couldn’t download it from the web, I knew that I had to use it. It took a little searching to find a DVD of the film, because with a lot of these shitty Italian movies, they were distributed under a variety of names. “Horror Of The Zombies” was also known as “The Ghost Galleon,” so that’s what I purchased from Amazon (where most of my horror movie collection stems from). I put the film onto my laptop, and went to work cutting the scenes up to fit with the song. It took me two days, probably six to eight hours of staring at my computer screen, listening to the same fragments of the same song for hours at a time, over and over and over again, trying to fit each piece of the puzzle together. I had to walk away a few times to cool down, so I wouldn’t completely destroy my laptop in a fit of rage. At the end of the project, I felt very happy with it. I was able to incorporate some cool techniques in the editing, like slow motion and cut aways to the cues in the music. A lot of this work was done at the Starbuck’s near my house in Cupertino.

I had wanted to release the film on or around Halloween, Halloween being the preferred date. However, I didn’t want to put up anything that I wasn’t completely satisfied with, so I was ready to release the video whenever I felt it was ready; I didn’t want to put too much energy into a due date. One of the biggest changes that I’ve had to implement in my life since leaving Stanford was actually taking my time with things. So, I tried not to emphasize a finish time, and one day I woke up, did some final edits, and after a few run throughs, I was happy with the whole thing, and I put the video on youtube. This was the day before Halloween.

To me, Surf Zombies! is a very special project, one that has stayed with me through some very dark and intense times. No one really listens to surf music anymore — at least I don’t know of anyone personally who is really into it, so it felt good to create an homage to the music style of surf, and also incorporate some seventies Italian horror in there. This project was very fulfilling to me, and after its completion, I know that there will be many more projects to come.

Fuck yeah.

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