John Surge and the Haymakers mix California country with Texas twang on second album "Almost Time"
A longtime member of Los Angeles' roots-rock community, John Surge has spent countless nights onstage, filling the room with a blend of roadhouse country and rocking honky tonk. Between songs, snatches of unfiltered conversation from the audience will make their way to his ears. Almost Time, his second album as frontman of John Surge and the Haymakers, is filled with those barroom tales.
"These are songs about people sharing their troubles, bragging, pontificating, and showing their vulnerability," he says. "As a working band, we spend a lot of time in nightspots. I had my antenna up, and those moments got captured and expanded into the songs I wrote for the album."
Years before recording Almost Time in Floresville, Texas, Surge saluted the West Coast with 2019's Your Wonderful Life. LA wasn't just his home back then; it was his muse, too, inspiring the album's blend of California country twang and heartland rock & roll bang. With Almost Time, he and longtime collaborator Randy Volin wanted to do something different. Packing his car full of guitars, amplifiers, and Modelo beer, they drove 1,400 miles east to the outskirts of San Antonio, where Surge found a new champion in producer Tommy Detamore. "I'd heard some of his records," Surge says of Detamore, whose production credits include albums by Jesse Daniel, Jim Lauderdale, Sunny Sweeney, Doug Sahm, and Bill Kirchen. "Those songs would pop out of the speakers. They really grabbed my attention, and I knew I wanted my band to sound like that."
Almost Time presents a revised version of the live John Surge and the Haymakers lineup. Joined by Volin on guitar, western-swing darling Brennen Leigh on harmony vocals, and Texas-based musicians like bassist Brad Fordham (Dave Alvin, Hayes Carll), drummer Tom Lewis (Junior Brown, Heybale), and piano legend Floyd Domino (Asleep at the Wheel, Merle Haggard), Surge recorded the majority of the album's 10 tracks in two inspired days. The group worked fast, arranging the songs together in real-time, capturing a sound that matched the craft of Surge's writing with the spontaneity of a live band. "In the past, I always rehearsed with my band to workshop the songs before going into the studio," Surge notes. "But this time, I wanted to explore a different way to make music. We let things take shape in the studio. Hearing these songs with a band for the first time was like watching something go from black-and-white to Technicolor."
Despite being recorded amidst the live oak trees of southern Texas and featuring some of the state's best-known instrumentalists, Almost Time isn't a “Texas country” record. It isn't a tribute to LA, either. Instead, the album creates its own geography, blending the saloon-styled shuffle of "You're So Right" — a song built for dancehalls, with a thumping Telecaster hook line and shot full of pedal steel guitar and a singalong chorus — with the barn-burning bluegrass of "All You Gotta Do," the country-rock stomp of "Lesson I Never Learned," and rootsy rave-ups like "Tricks of the Trade" and "Rattle Me." Some gorgeous acoustic moments are scattered throughout the album, too.
"Almost Time doesn't sound like a particular place," Surge explains. "It sounds like me getting out of my comfort zone and exploring something new."
Even so, some traditions never die. Surge, who covered the Beat Farmers' "Gun Sale at the Church" on Your Wonderful Life, remains a fan of the genre-bending songwriters who came before him. Almost Time features a countrified version of "Big Train" by Chip Kinman and Tony Kinman, two brothers who helped pioneer Southern California's cowpunk scene with Rank And File before regrouping as the electronic outfit Blackbird. In Surge's hands, "Big Train" is reborn as a country-western classic with harmonica, guitar, and guest vocals from Chip Kinman himself. "Rank and File is one of my all-time faves," Surge says, "and I love honoring bands that have meant so much to me."
From his early days attending seminal shows by The Blasters to his years playing with power-pop bands, harmony duos, and rock groups, John Surge has never been afraid to explore the full range of his musical influences. He emphasizes his country leanings with Almost Time. It's a collection of stories from the bar — a place where relationships start, stop, fire, and fizzle — delivered by a singer/songwriter who's logged plenty of time in the country's watering holes. Surge remains a loyal citizen of Los Angeles, but Almost Time widens his horizons, offering up a version of raw, rootsy country music that's informed not by the city in which it was created, but by the songwriter himself.