Chillingsworth Surfingham is a giant teddy bear who plays upbeat surf music to help us glide over the waves of trepidation generated by the ongoing Covid lockdown. Surfingham’s self-titled debut hit the streets last month and provides an uplifting jolt of energy to lighten the current malaise.
“Coronado,” the first single from the album, opens with a glissando that brings to mind legendary surf-guitarist Dick Dale, as well as any number of ’60s surf hits. The beats supplied by drummer Percy Surfingham create a foundation for Chillingsworth’s shimmering electric-guitar runs and funky bass lines. The other songs on the record are just as catchy, cleverly working subtle variations on the surf template. “Fly Banana” is a surf-meets-grunge track, blending chiming lead lines with a wall of distorted rhythm guitars. “Cowboy A-Go-Go” rides a galloping country rhythm that brings to mind “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” complemented by a twang-heavy solo that lifts the tune into outer space.
“Adrift Amongst the Aisles” is a slow R&B-flavored ballad; “Citronella” has a mellow reggae backbeat, and “Sommersong (Svenskar Surfar Inte!)”—translation “Swedes Don’t Surf”—has a funky rock beat to complement the twang of the guitar and the zooming bass line.
The man inside the giant bear head is John Ashfield, lead guitarist and songwriter for San Francisco’s power-pop favorites the Bobbleheads. “When I play with the Bobbleheads, as myself, I often see people looking away, or concentrating on their drinks or their friends,” Ashfield says. “When I put on the bear’s head, everybody’s looking at me on stage. As a large man, if I wear my jeans and a t-shirt, I look like the guy that’s showed up to do your plumbing, so I thought I’d try playing incognito. It was fun to think of myself as Chillingsworth Surfingham.”
The Chillingsworth name dates back to his high school days.
“My choir director had a hound called Chillingsworth. He was a cool animal and liked me quite a bit. When I got out of college, I became a music teacher for K-through-fifth-grade kids,” Ashfield says. “I always had a mascot in my room, a giant blue dog or a big stuffed bear. I called them Chillingsworth. If I’m teaching a folk dance, and there’s an odd number of kids in the class, Chillingsworth will be their partner, but he’s the worst dancer. All he ever does is fall over. When I started recording the album during the shutdown, I thought it would be fun to do it as someone else. Chillingsworth became that person.
“I’ve always loved surf music, and my guitar sound has always been kind of surfy. During the shutdown, I had a lot of time on my hands. There were no gigs and no rehearsals, but I wanted to play music. When I started making the album and writing melodies, the pop sound and lyrics I’d normally write for the Bobbleheads didn’t fit. I could have written songs, but so many bad things were happening, it was just natural to let them become instrumentals. I couldn’t play with other people, so I was recording with myself, playing guitars, bass and keyboards to programmed drum tracks.
“As they took shape, I asked [Bobbleheads drummer] Rob Jacobs to become Percy Surfingham and add live drum tracks. I sent him the demos, and we finished it up, just the two of us. The music became so much cooler with real drums and all of the percussion instruments he added.”
“Some were partially written from before Covid, and I finished them during the process. Some were brand new. Some things came as I was noodling on the guitar, making stuff up. I’d never done an instrumental album before; it was a musical challenge. I didn’t have to write for my own voice, so it was liberating. My voice is a bass baritone, but I aspire to sing like Brian Wilson. I can’t sing that high, but I can play that high. Some would pop in my head at odd moments, like when I’m walking my dogs in the dog park. I’d sing to myself and, if I got an idea, I’d make a voice memo of it on the phone. There’s no set process. If you’re in the mood, songs pop up into your head, and one part will lead to the next.”
Ashfield has been interested in music for as long as he can remember. “Back in New Jersey, my dad sold Steinway Pianos,” he says. “When I was little, I wanted to be Keith Partridge. My sister had a record collection. I listened to everything and sang along. I could barely sing, but catchy is catchy.
“I got a guitar when I was seven, joined a band in high school and I’ve been at it ever since. I got a scholarship to study music at St. Leo University, in Florida, and moved to San Francisco after graduation. The Bobbleheads started in 2003. We’ve made three albums and two EPs. We’ve been played on radio stations in England, Germany, Japan and Sweden, but we still have day jobs. We release our music online and make CDs, but anybody can make an album these days. The challenge is getting people to pay attention to it.”