Surf Guitarist Jason Lee Suits Up to Start His Own Orchestra
… and discusses the risks and rewards of taking chances!
As I’m writing this one year after our orchestra’s sold-out debut performance in Huntington Beach, CA, I can’t help but reflect on how important Brian Setzer’s choices were in starting the BSO and inspiring a whole new generation of music and players. Growing up in the VH1 era of the ’90s, I repeatedly watched “Behind the Music” and was astounded to learn how much it took to get the Brian Setzer Orchestra off the ground–and at any cost–for the sake of the music and the project.
This is exactly what hit me blunt in the face when I had the insane idea of gathering an orchestra together to expand on what our surf band worked on for more than 13 years. As we added to our lineup during the writing process of our new concept album Monsters and Mai Tais, I started calling up old friends with professional string and horn backgrounds to add a whole new dimension to the project.
We kept pushing the envelope further and taking more risks. Bigger budgets, more tracks, new instruments, and before long, we were in the middle of starting an orchestra and I didn’t even know it! And then it hit me: we need to go ALL IN! A surf guitar-based orchestra!!
So, I proceeded to work backwards. Find the right venue and the players will come, right? Let’s hope! Inform the band to trust me and that everything will be ok and that the risks are worth it. But inside I was scared to death, ha ha. So we picked a date at the most historical Tiki establishment in California: Don the Beachcomber*.
Soon enough we finally had our orchestra members after months of searching for the right players. Tickets were selling fast and all the funds I had fronted for rehearsals, equipment, food, etc., had become a little less scary. Phew! I started working crazy hours to get new arrangements written and new song ideas out. Huge props to our team for helping on the arrangements and line-up of the music! You can’t do everything yourself and having members involved with the right intentions means the world! We had to constantly remind ourselves of what Brian did back then when he knew there was an audience that would appreciate the blend of ramped up guitar with the full sound of an orchestra filling up the entire room.
Dubbed as the formal Tiki event of the year, Don’s opened its doors to presale tables and additional walk-ins that filled the entire venue. We held a 25-person band dinner in the back of the restaurant to prepare and sign charts to leave at the tables for attendees. Something just felt so special that we were about to perform something that fans had waited years for. We all had that nervous energy. You know, that nervous energy when your future wife is in the crowd, or having a song you haven’t perfected yet but you throw it to the crowd on a whim!
As we started playing that night, all the months of hard work seemed to fly by, song by song, and everything started to click. Our team suddenly came together on the first song. Our artists, directors, and musicians involved all knew the hard work had been worth it! Dripping reverb on a Gretsch White Falcon, Tiki drinks flowing, and an entire orchestra playing 60’s exotic surf…it’s an experience that anyone inside Don the Beachcomber that night will never forget!
We can’t wait for listeners to see what we’re working on next as we perform in 2019 in California again !
Here are my 3 basic tips for starting your new original project:
1. Find members that you click with. You’re a team, after all, and if you have four leaders in your band it will show on stage very quickly. Learn how to compromise and work together.
2. Worry about the music first, and leave out other intentions. You’re starting something new and it takes time to get your project off the ground.
3. You Do You. No one can take away originality and the risk of putting yourself out there where others might follow a repeated path.
— Jason Lee
(Gretsch guest blogger)
See below as Jason Lee and the Black Tides Orchestra play live for the very first time!
*Don the Beachcomber sadly closed its doors after 82 years in business as one of California’s most sought-after Tiki destinations.
Photos by Scott Evanskey.