The Chop Tops rock the Austin crowd at Revival Fest in May 2011. (Jay West Photography)
It’s Thursday night, and Gary Marsh is waiting inside his band’s favorite bar, the Asti, rocking slicked-back hair and a gray collared shirt he could have borrowed off a car mechanic. Having just bought a Red Bull, Marsh—who goes by “Sinner” in the rockabilly-blasting Chop Tops—is sipping his nonalcoholic drink, ignoring my questions and gazing over my left shoulder at the bar’s front door. Now he’s just buying time.
“The band will be here in a bit!” Marsh yells over the sounds of the post–happy-hour crowd getting drunk around him. “We really like to do everything together. It’s not ‘Sinner and the Chop Tops’ or ‘Shelby and the Chop Tops’ or ‘Brett and the Chop Tops.’ There’s a lot of bands like that. We’re not one of ‘em.”
Marsh isn’t the front man for the Santa Cruz-based group he helped found in 1995. He just happens to be the person who showed up on time and is also maybe its most talkative member. As the Chop Tops gear up for a tour of more than 11,000 miles in seven weeks with only five days off, Marsh assures me the band usually holds up just fine.
“We do pretty damn good for how old we are,” the 38-year-old drummer says as he and his two band mates, who’ve both just walked in, howl with laughter. “We survive pretty well on the road. We’re not spring chickens.”
Marsh, along with upright bassist Brett Williams (stage name Brett Black), 34, and guitarist Shelby Legnon, who doesn’t want to give his age, kicks off the new tour with a show Thursday at the Catalyst Atrium. It comes on the heels of a quick but very successful tour of Australia’s three biggest cities.
The Chop Tops sold out their merchandise early on the tour. The Aussies went wild for the band’s blend of old-school rock, punk and surf music (or, as Marsh calls it, “a Santa Cruz home-brewed mix of these rebel music genres”). They have a driving, don’t-look-back style with song titles like “Chicks, Smicks, Food, Smood, Beer YEAH!”—literally the only lyrics in that particular song.
Australian promoters covered the cost of the entire trip: international flights, hotel rooms, flights from show to show, merchandise shipping, even a daily allowance. The only thing in short supply was sleep. “It was so fast-paced it was almost a blur,” Legnon says.
Marsh notes that many bands fly to European countries in order to schedule tours on their own dime. But Marsh prefers the way the Chop Tops did it—waiting until they’d actually made it and were popular enough to have their costs covered.
“That’s how you tour. If you ask me, that’s being able to call yourself internationally recognized, instead of just having a musical vacation,” Marsh says, before acknowledging that every band is different. “And I respect that too,” he adds quickly.
It’s a classic Chop Tops moment. They’re constantly pushing the punk rock envelope and challenging people to stay true instead of trying to be what they’re not—whether they’re chasing trends or claiming premature international rock star status. At the same time, they have a habit of retreating from bold statements, wary of appearing, as Legnon puts it, “all militant,” or as Marsh says, “the two old men in the balcony at the Muppets shows.”
Most rants boil down to one thing: authenticity. Marsh says a true music fan should be able to walk into a show with eyes closed and keep them that way for the first two songs before deciding how he or she feels about the music. The Chop Tops, he says, are different from bands that chase fame or put too much emphasis on their look with “manscara” and “guyliner.”
Legnon, too, says the important thing is the sound waves. “We don’t mean to come off as militant,” Legnon reiterates, “but we believe in the music.”
Still, for a band that doesn’t focus on aesthetics, the Chop Tops do put on quite a visual show. Stage presence is one of the band’s many strong points: Williams has been known to twirl his upright bass in air mid-song, Legnon jumps around the stage like a psychobilly version of a young Bruce Springsteen, and Marsh's confident stance at the drums and microphone is a hallmark of the show.
Performance has always been key for the band, as longtime local fans know. And the Chop Tops still love Santa Cruz, even if they don’t play here as much as they used to. Before they started touring nationwide, the band used to book 40 shows a year in Santa Cruz and the Bay Area. This year, they’ll do two or three.
Rock & Roll Priorities
The transition from hardworking hometown band to touring pros came in 2006, when Marsh kicked alcohol and got sober. The band hit the road, traveling 30,000 miles per year and more and booking more than 200 shows annually. It hasn’t looked back since. Over the years the Chop Tops have opened for bands like Dead Kennedys, Chuck Berry, Dick Dale, Agent Orange and John Lee Hooker—some of their biggest idols.
And although they have a more modern, darker sound than they did in their early days, the Chop Tops haven’t forgotten the pre-Beatles rock & roll music that inspired them in the beginning—artists like Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps.
“They were the punk of their generation, particularly rockabilly,” Marsh says. “Preachers all throughout the South were saying, ‘It’s the devil’s music. It’s black meets white. It’s an abomination.’ They were snapping the records over their knees. I haven’t seen that happen in a modern record release or scene. That’s more punk than punk. That’s the holy war against the music you’re making.”
Having partied hard in their younger years, the members of the Chop Tops have since cut back. Williams and Legnon say it was largely their desire to perform better that led them to make the change. “People are paying good money to come out and see us,” Williams says. “They don’t want to see a bunch of drunks on stage screwing up our music.”
In years past, the band members enjoyed their share of partying and are full of stories, some of which involve free Jack Daniels, falling on (or off the) stage and releasing bodily fluids—including a projectile loogie hawked into the crowd.
“We’re laughing about it now,” Legnon says. “But when it goes on, and the next day, it’s not funny.”
In regards to partying, Marsh says each band has to decide for itself what its priorities are.
“Are your priorities getting laid all the time and banging a bunch of groupies? Are your priorities doing as many drugs as you can get for free from whoever’s got them at a show?” Marsh asks.
Marsh thinks some bands lose sight of the best music mantras. They start focusing on “sex, drugs and drugs” instead of “rock & roll, rock & roll and rock & roll.” But Marsh catches himself before going any further.
“All this being said, to each their own,” he says. “I’m just saying how it applies to us.”
The Chop Tops with Danny B Harvey, the Strikers and Radio Threat