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Wise Words From the Opening Band

Updated: Jan 5

Surf Monster and Men Without Hats play the Guild, Menlo Park, Dec. 21, 2023. By Cheryl Alterman Photos: Cheryl Alterman Photography 2023


Instrumental surf-music trio, Surf Monster took the stage at The Guild Theatre in Menlo Park on the Thursday before Christmas, opening for '80s band Men Without Hats.

I was hired to shoot that night for Surf Monster and had a chat with Michael, Steve and Desmond, (the band members), about their experience opening for Men Without Hats.


Here's the scary part of that seemingly wonderful scenario...


It's always difficult for an opening act to make a significant impact on a headliner's fans—especially a local opening act mostly unknown to an audience primed and thrilled to "Safety Dance" with a band that scored two international mega-hits that continue to be licensed for television ads, film soundtracks, and other media to this day. But a couple of critical factors merged together to help Surf Monster energize the near-sellout crowd from start to finish—making it a great gig for them, a beneficial warm-up for the Men Without Hats set, and super fun for a holiday audience looking to enjoy a complete evening of music.



The Awesomeness of The Guild Theatre Staff: A professional and supportive staff is essential for helping an opening act deliver their best performance. Surf Monster received nothing but "rock star" treatment from the moment Guild Theatre production manager DB helped drummer Michael Molenda back into a tight parking spot in front of the venue.


Furthermore, Surf Monster was given explicit advancing with times for all of the evening's events notated, was provided its own dressing room with bathroom/shower, received ample time to set up their gear on stage, got a complete and thorough soundcheck, and was collected by the production manager and positioned in the wings of the stage five minutes before showtime.



The sound crew downloaded the band's logo themselves and projected it on the venue's massive video screen, and, even more incredible, when bassist Desmonde Mulcahy announced that "Shark!" was going to be the next song played, the soundperson instantly (in real time) found a video of sharks swimming to play on the screen during the performance of the song. Talk about a heads-up reaction—and this was for an opening band! Incredible.


After the band played its last song, the production team helped move all of the drums, amps, and other music gear out to the locked and protected alley at the side of the theatre. That was super helpful and appreciated for a band with no road crew.


In short, the Guild ensured Surf Monster felt empowered and rev'd up to deliver a stress-free and exciting performance. This level of fabulous treatment does not happen all the time and in every venue, so the Guild Theatre staff should be commended—and perhaps even awarded a six-foot-high trophy—for being so accommodating to an opening act. Miracles do happen!


Understand the Audience: An opening act's main job is to get the crowd warmed up and excited for the headliner. That's just the way it is, but it's an important gig, and it shouldn't be underestimated or downplayed. To that end, Surf Monster made a plan for what the audience would see and hear during their opening set.


Look Good (or at least interesting): Headliners seldom show up in the same clothes they wear to do the gardening, clean the house, or hang out with friends. It's called "show business," so many headliners dress for the show. A lot of opening acts—not so much.


"Oh, only the music matters." Yeah. That's why huge acts spend lots of money on video content and choreography and staging and so on. But, hey, perhaps these successful artists are deluded. They could show up in overalls and Birkenstocks with no lights, no videos, no dancers, no staging, and simply rely on the music alone.


However, in the time of the now, the audience typically dictates how it wants to experience a big concert. You can ignore that fact at your own peril.


Early on, Surf Monster decided they wanted to "look different"—and hopefully stand out—from other bands in the surf community, so they choose to wear bright suits. Are they the only surf band to wear suits onstage? Of course not. But the look is unique, and it definitely helped the band catch some eyeballs when they walked onstage at the Guild. Especially with the finishing touch of their flashing lighted shoes!



"Johnny Ramone [of the Ramones] always said the most important part of a band's set was how it walked onstage," said Molenda. "That may sound kind of silly, but, if so, why do so many successful artists ensure their entrance is a big moment?"


The Surf Monster look worked, as you could feel the atmosphere in the venue change from distracted waiting/drinking/texting to anticipation—a kind of, "Okay, what is this band gonna do next?"


Tailor the Set: Surf music and synth pop doesn't sound like a match made in musical heaven, and Surf Monster's assumption was that 99.85% of the people attending probably had limited knowledge of surf music, and were there to enjoy the groovy dance-pop of Men Without Hats.


"Playing all of the original surf songs from our debut album on Sharawaji Records was not going to be the best way to engage this particular crowd," said Surf Monster guitarist Steve Walton. "They wouldn't know our songs, after all, and the lack of recognition could be compounded by a style of music they aren't familiar with. So, we decided to bridge the musical gap by 'surfin up' songs they might know, such as 'Secret Agent Man,' 'Hawaii Five-O,' 'Eighteen,' 'Paranoid,' 'I Want Candy,' and 'White Wedding,' and mix them in with some of our own songs."


The plan seemed to work. When Surf Monster opened their set with "Secret Agent Man," the audience was immediately engaged and grooving to the band.



Make Show: When the Beatles played their tentative early shows in Hamburg, Germany, the promoters famously urged them to "Make Show!" Since then, celebrity artists from Paul McCartney to Beyonce to Taylor Swift and beyond have devised ways to provide an intensely entertaining experience for their legions of fans.


Surf Monster doesn't have the resources or the crew to drop cinematic staging on their performances—especially in the small clubs in which they normally perform—but they also knew they couldn't step into a big-time, professional venue with a band that really knows how to put on a show and "play small."


So, they practiced audience engagement tactics, such as looking straight ahead at the audience, being present, not looking at their fretting hands all the time, not tinkering with amp and guitar settings in the middle of songs, not standing frozen to one spot on stage, and so on.



"We knew that Men Without Hats' frontperson Ivan Doroschuk is great at involving the crowd and dancing around, guitarist Sho Murray is an excellent foil for Ivan, drummer Colin Doroschuk is energetic, and keyboardist/vocalist Sahara Sloan is lovely and a fantastic background singer," said Mulcahy. "So, we also knew we'd be in big trouble if we didn't try to match that energy and engagement as best as we could. We did fun things like toss out candy during 'I Want Candy,' throw out little plush sharks before 'Shark!', as well as have me lead audience cheers to yell "Shark" during a breakdown section. Mike made immediate friends by handing out drumsticks to some young people in the front row before he even sat down at his kit. In fact, one of the parents later made a video about how jazzed their daughter was to get those sticks. Steve even walked into the crowd—thanks to his wireless guitar setup. We really wanted to reach out beyond the edge of the stage, excite people as much as we could, and hopefully have them remember Surf Monster after the show."


As I was standing next to that girl when Mike gave her the sticks, I can tell you that it may be one of the best memories she will carry with her into adulthood.


Honor the Opportunity and Be Professional: "Listen, neither the Guild nor Men Without Hats needed Surf Monster to open this show," said Molenda. "The fact they asked us to do the gig triggered vast feelings of gratitude in all three of us. So, we certainly did not show up arrogant or needy. We knew our place and stayed in our lane. We were prepared. We were not going to disrespect the wonderful opportunity the Guild gave us by not being ready to give our absolute best. We engaged and thanked everyone on the staff that came in contact with us. We thanked the sound crew, the venue, and Men Without Hats from the stage. And we meant everything. This was an incredible evening for us. So much joy. It was not the time to cause problems or strut any kind of entitled ya-ya in the building."



The band acted professionally, and it was obvious that they had also played enough shows to know what was expected of them, seemed to have an affect on the entire evening—beyond even the performance of the music itself. After all, you can stand amongst an audience and feel if the energy is good, bad, or indifferent, and upon looking around the room, it was obvious the majority of the crowd was having a great time during both Surf Monster and Men Without Hats performances. And what made it even sweeter for me - from a drum and music lovers' point of view...both bands had super solid drummers!


"Everyone and everything needs to work together to please that lovely and frightening entity we can an 'audience'," said Walton. "And, as expected, Men Without Hats totally kicked ass that night, so I was really happy Surf Monster did its homework and managed to put on a good show."

© Cheryl Alterman Photography 2023

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