Ben Horvath and the search for surf music
“I’m just a frustrated rock promoter,” says a grinning Ben Horvath, and considering his visage it’s hard to argue. Sitting in his Cronulla office he’s looking every part the role: five day growth on his chin, a head of dishevelled hair, and on the wall opposite is a bunch of framed festival posters. Events that Ben has promoted over the years.
On the wall behind him, however, are surf posters, exotic travel shots, empty waves, and therein lies the tension. The source of his frustration. Music and surf may sound like easy bedfellows: the sun goes down so crank up the amps, but it’s not so simple for promoters. Call it a clash of lifestyles. Night and day. East and west, and never the twain shall meet. Yet over the course of his career Ben has done an admirable job of bringing those opposing elements together, most recently with his Surf Music in Paradise series, but the genesis of the idea stretches way back in time. Way back to the 1980s…
It was then that Ben was competing on the APSA circuit with modest success, writing the odd column for Line Up magazine, and by night slipping into the din of Sydney’s underground music scene. If you recall the 80s as big hair and bright shirts, well, it wasn’t the same for everyone. Bands such as Box of Fish, The Hellmenn, Thug - Tex Perkins’ early aural assault vehicle - not only pushed an ominous aesthetic, they also pushed a tempo that thoroughly agreed with Ben’s constitution - head down and fast.
Ben, urban cowboy at the first Big Day Out (Mike Newling)
“My friends and I were always drawn to guitar-driven rock,” says Ben. “For me, it seemed an easy fit with surfing.” His dreams of becoming a lead singer or guitarist were dashed for the same reasons as most of us - he can’t sing, can’t play. But then again, Ben was never happy just being a punter in the crowd. Gotta write, gotta organise, gotta promote.
In 1994, the first issue of Underground Surf hit the shelves and Ben’s rock and surf planets finally aligned. Rather than shoving a couple of record reviews down the back. Underground Surf devoted equal space to bands and surf, and it quickly found a readership. It was during this period that Ben released the rock promoter within.
“At that time, we often teamed up to co-sponsor and co-present a bunch of pretty epic music tours,” says Ben, “including Agent Orange, Bad Religion’s first Australian tour, and The Vans Warped Tour, amongst many others.” He’d always had a handle on the surf world, but now he could indulge his musical side too.
Signed, framed, and hanging proudly on the office wall: poster for Bad Religion's 1997 tour sponsored by Underground Surf
While on the first Warped Tour Ben had a chance meeting with Donavon Frankenreiter that’d pay dividends down the track. “During the Manly gig, I was kicking back in the bus and Donny swung by for a magic cigarette or three,” recalls Ben with a fiendish grin of recollection. “He struck me as a friendly, down-to-earth kinda dude who just dug going surfing and playing music.”
Afterwards they went their separate ways, Donny back on the road, Ben back to the office making Underground Surf. It lasted until 2003 - ten years of production - before Pacific Publications bought the masthead and plonked Ben in an office in landlocked North Sydney where he promptly walked out on the gig. Without Ben behind the wheel, the mag was no more.
The next decade was spent developing and selling 'Label Slave', his rock-inspired clothing company, and then assuming the editor's chair at Coastalwatch where the closest he came to rock promotion was lyrical references on the Line Up of the Day photo. Frustrated? “Oh yeah!” And when that job dissolved he turned his marketing and promotion whirl into a gig at the Perfect Wave Travel Company. Back to full-time surf again…
...except you should never count out a frustrated rock promoter. After ten years in the wilderness he’d developed an itch that needed to be scratched. The underground scene of the 80s had blown wide open, and a festival circuit had sprung up in the 90s, but both the live music scene and the festivals were beset with problems, from noise complaints, limited venues, to heavy-handed security. There was also the inevitability of age and the, for want of a better word, ‘refinements’ that come with it, few of which were addressed by promoters. There had to be a better way.
In summer 2013, the kernel of an idea started taking root; a concept that would once again align planet surf and planet rock. The first stop was a Donavon Frankenreiter gig where he lobbed backstage to talk about old times.
“Ah, Donavon, you probably won’t remember me from twenty years ago on the Warped Tour, but... um, do you want to do a bunch of gigs in the Maldives?”
“How are the waves?” Replied Donny.
“Erm, yeah sick!” And after scrolling through a few photos on his old iPhone the deal was done, Surf Music in Paradise was born.
Donavon, in between gigs (Murray Fraser)
In the audience of the first trip were Jamie and Marie Gray, and Rhonda Burton, owners of the Perfect Wave Travel Company, all enjoying the music and casting a discerning eye over the spectacle. Their company had offered celebrity surf trips for a few years, yet what was a point of difference was now being jumped on by other operators. But music was a very different matter. Was there even a market for it?
That first trip convinced them there was and they gave Ben the thumbs up to continue. Since then he’s booked Phil Jameison, Pete Murray, Barnesy, and even Tex Perkins who was more sedate, though no less swinging, then when Ben first saw him thirty years earlier. Some trips are a week-long stay at Kandooma in the central Maldives with two or three evening gigs spread over the stay, others are shorter trips on Bali.
Ably backed by Murray Patterson, Tex Perkins the Central Atolls
“It’s music so you’re gonna get people who love it or who hate it,” says Ben. “But we’re trying to widen the range of acts. I’m also looking around at bands that do actually surf so they can get the best out of the Surf Music in Paradise concept.”
At this point our conversation turns towards bands that play ‘surf music’ but don’t actually surf. There’s a few on the list, imposters the lot of them including some of our most beloved bands. But surf culture is now broad enough to also include many authentic surf bands and Ben is eyeing them all off, plus some select older ones who pass the test.
The Kandooma overview: surf up top, music down below
Next up on Ben's roster are bands from both categories. It's unlikely you'll see Dave Faulkner, lead singer of the Hoodoo Gurus, jostling for sets in between gigs during their trip, however Ocean Alley wear the 'surf music' badge with ease. Both bands have been booked by Ben to play next year. There are many other bands in his sights also, plus new twists on the concept, ideas that he'd soon like to implement, all of which are described to me off-record.
Suffice to say, the frustrated rock promoter has found another way to indulge his surf/music obsessions.