Jason Brewer's mother liked the Beatles just fine, but she didn't want to listen to them in her car. "We got this Beach Boys cassette, Endless Summer," Brewer says. "And when she put it on in the car, she told me, 'This is what we're listening to in my car. With your dad, you can listen to McCartney, but this is what gets played in my car.'"
And that was how little Jason Brewer got Beach Boys fever, a malady that continues to afflict him. It's also one that he and his band of five-part-harmonizers the Explorers Club embrace. Everywhere Brewer went with his mom, he absorbed a little more Beach Boys, their music, their story, and their breezy, beachy vibes. And it didn't hurt that he grew up in Charleston, where he could relate to the sunny vibes that Brian Wilson and company captured.
"My mom grew up in Miami Beach, so that was what people listened to where she grew up," Brewer says. "And when I found out there were three brothers in the Beach Boys, that connected with my family and my dad and his brothers playing together and my whole family singing together."
Oh yeah, we forgot to mention, Brewer's father grew up singing in his family's traveling gospel group. And his parents met in a gospel singing group at Baptist University (now Charleston Southern). The elder Brewer grew up in a virtual musical academy, with both parents playing piano and singing and his uncles and cousins and grandparents always singing together. And that was just at home. He also sang at church and, of course, with his mom in the car.
"When my dad was a kid," Brewer says, "his dad was a traveling evangelist and would preach and then sing with his wife and their three children at old tent revivals and places like that. So gospel music was always around, but what really struck me was the Beatles and Chuck Berry and Elvis when I was four or five. And I knew that's what I wanted to do. My mom actually has a picture of me running around the house with sunglasses on being a rock star." Perhaps this is when Brewer's mother knew she had to turn him into a modern-day Brian Wilson. But more likely, he got there on his own.
These days, Brewer plays guitar and is the main songwriter for Explorers Club, which he founded, but as he likes to say, they actually have five lead singers. He's joined by Justin James on guitar, lap steel, and vocals; Wally Reddington III on bass and vocals; Dave Ellis on vocals and "several instruments including, but not limited to, guitar, mandolin, and accordion;" and Paul Runyon on keys and vocals. Drummer Kyle Polk is the only one who doesn't sing.
Not surprisingly, since they play at the Windjammer quite frequently — and because, well, they sound an awful lot like the Beach Boys — they are all beach people who grew up in the Lowcountry. Well, technically Ellis is from Greenville, but according to Brewer, "He's lived here for about 10 years, and he's actually the most outdoorsy one of all of us, the biggest surfer and all that." Brewer then says, laughing at himself, "I tried surfing once and almost killed myself. I tried to skateboard once and I failed so miserably I never did it again, but the beach still hooked me."
As if the band weren't big enough, they are often joined by friends, including another local, Clay White, who adds trumpet and sometimes even xylophone. And Brewer can't speak highly enough of White, saying, "I wish he played more with us. Right now he's at Furman, but he did a couple tours with us, and when he's in town, he plays with us."
For his honeymoon a few years ago, Brewer headed south of the border to one of Mexico's beaches. There he wrote material for the band's new album, Grand Hotel. "We named the album that because it's like checking into a grand hotel on the beach. It's very tropical," explains Brewer, who is 30 but looks 18, with a scruffy baby face and a laid-back, almost innocent air. "We wanted it to have that ocean feeling, sunshine mixed with a little bit of soul. It feels like Mexico."
The new record comes on the heels of some serious national recognition. In the last few years, their music has been featured on The O.C., How I Met Your Mother, and the HBO show Bored to Death, along with "some other movies that went straight to DVD." That exposure was the result of lots of touring to support their 2008 debut album, Freedom Wind, a modern surf music classic.
"The band really started when my friend and I had booked a recording session and had a little bit of time left," says Brewer. "And we were like, 'Let's try that fun, beachy thing we wrote awhile back, and let's see if we can get the Beach Boys sound.' And we got it. And I brought those recordings home and asked which song people liked the most and everyone said that one, 'Forever,' the 'Beach Boys song.' So we made a whole album like that and that was our first CD."
With all their recent success, Brewer says the band has started to understand where it wants to fit in the music scene, or as he puts it, "We've learned that our audience isn't necessarily hipsters." In fact, their music appeals to such a wide age range that their manager, Mark Nathan, likes to say, "Your audience is grandparents, who are attached to parents, who are attached to kids, and sometimes their college-age siblings like it too."
Brewer acknowledges as much. "The goal of the band is family-friendly music," he says. "Love songs, you know, happy songs. Nobody in the band is a serious 'I'm in pain' artist. Everyone's pretty happy, and it's cool because we've been able to tour with cool indie rock bands, we've been to South by Southwest and played with the cool bands, and I've said this before, but I'm so unhip that some time it's going to come back around. We're so not punk, we are punk. In fact, we did a record store show awhile ago, and two kids who had clearly gone in there to buy death metal CDs really liked us and told us they were buying our CD instead because they liked us so much."
But for Brewer, it always comes back to the allure of the beach. And, for all his musical influences, it is probably the one that affects him most as a songwriter. "When I was writing both records," he remembers, "I took my guitar to the beach and played and got so many ideas from the beach and the waves. I don't think I could make the music I do if I lived upstate or in New York City. It's really hard to write depressing music in such a beautiful place."