BY MAT WEIR
I’ll be the first to admit I’m a bit of a music freak. Some might even say I have a bit of a problem as my record collection (or “vinyls” for all you new collectors changing the lingo, no judgement) currently stands at a little over 1,600 LPs, EPs and 7-inch singles. I’ve lived in Santa Cruz for two decades and for at least 16 of those years I’ve been actively involved in the music scene in one form or another. Supervisor at Streetlight Records, music journalist, roadie/merch guy for local bands, show promoter, bartender, you name it, I’ve done it.
So it’s a complete and utter tragedy that I’ve never worked with, or even met, Neil Pearlberg until now.
Because whenever people talk about the Santa Cruz Music Scene or the local surf culture, Pearlberg is bound to come up. The man is a cornerstone in both scenes and is possibly even busier than I am, which is quite an amazing feat.
He once was a print journalist, way back in the dark days of 2009, and wrote over 200 articles for the Sentinel and Santa Cruz Waves on everything from music and surf to skateboarding and soccer.
Today he is better known as the host of Off the Lip Radio, the surf, skate and music program on KSCO and streaming online as a podcast.
“Doing a podcast is much easier than writing,” he informs me with a chuckle (and maybe a hint?).
“It would take me a week to write an article,” Pearlberg continues. “I used to procrastinate and my editor would always yell at me. But with a podcast I can get an hour of information straight from the horse’s mouth.”
Billed as “The world’s only radio show dedicated to surfing and skateboarding” he started Off The Lip with co-host Terry Campion in 2013. At the time they broadcasted out of the KSCO station but in 2019 decided to move their homebase to an equally appropriate venue, the Santa Cruz Boardroom in Pleasure Point, owned by Campion.
Over the last eight years, Off the Lip Radio has-incredibly-done close to 600 shows. They’ve featured musical guests like James Durbin, Ancestree, Pacific Roots, Fulminante and more as well as major icons in the alternative sports world such as skate and bike icon Rob Roskopp, Mavericks surf legend Mark Alfaro, and the late Shawn “Barney” Barron.
Pearberg says while it’s impossible to have a favorite, there are a few shows that stand out in his mind, like The Expendables.
“The first time they came they asked if they could warm up in the parking lot and I said I didn’t care,” he remembers. “So they warmed up in the parking lot of KSCO and people driving by would stop in the middle of Portola Drive just to watch.”
He traces his love for music and surf culture all the way back to his days growing up as a teenager in England. His dad had an 8-track player in the family car and would drive around playing mostly old crooner tunes of Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra. But Pearlberg says it all changed when his dad picked up a Beach Boys album.
“I forget which album it was but that was the reason I ended up coming to California,” he recalls. “When you’re in England, freezing your ass off and the wind is coming down sideways, you listen to a Beach Boys album and it’s mesmerizing. I thought, ‘I don’t give a shit where that is, I’m going!’”
He landed in Santa Cruz in 1982 and never looked back. Or, as he likes to say:
“It’s like that Eagles song, you can check out but you can never leave.”
Given Pearlberg’s journalist background, it’s no surprise Off The Lip has also featured a wide array of non-music or surf and skate guests. Santa Cruz Police Chief Andy Mills, Santa Cruz County District Supervisor Manu Koenig and Santa Cruz County Health Officer Dr. Gail Newel have all appeared on the show with Newel making several appearances during the Covdi-19 pandemic.
Speaking of the pandemic, Pearlberg used his unique talents and position in the local scene to keep live music alive while everyone was locked down. Throughout 2020 he hosted live stream shows on Facebook, first from the Boardroom and eventually spreading to other locations throughout town.
He says the inspiration came to him from watching videos by fellow Brit rockers, The Beatles.
“I saw them singing ‘Get Back’ on the rooftop of Abbey Studios and thought ‘I’ve got to do that,’” he says. “Nothing was going on in Santa Cruz. It was like the town was asleep and I thought I could do something to change that.”
And change it he did.
Throughout 2020 Pearlberg live streamed 150 different shows, taking a page from The Beatles’ playbook for the first few.
“So I asked Terry [Campion] if we could put a band on the roof of the Boardroom,” he explains. “I told T.C., ‘No fanfare, no Facebook, no Instagram. Let’s just put a band on the roof, have them start playing and we’ll see what happens.’ And we did.”
That first band was local tribute rockers, Locomotive Breath, who cover classic rock hits from 1967 to 1976. That first show went so well, Pearlberg says they continued with two more rooftop shows before deciding to transfer back inside the studio and other venues.
Surprisingly–or maybe not–those livestream shows were such a hit that bands everywhere from Portland to Southern California were flooding Pearlberg’s inbox with requests to play.
“I got one guy from Orange County and told him, ‘Dude, do you know where we’re at?’ I’m seven hours away” he remembers with a laugh. “He was like, ‘Roadtrip! We’re coming!’ and I’m like ‘No, no, no. No you’re not.”
As things reopened in 2021, he switched from live streaming on Facebook to booking musicians for the Midtown Fridays! weekly block parties located at 1111 Soquel Ave.
Hosted by Event Santa Cruz and the City of Santa Cruz, each week Pearlberg showcases one or two local acts ranging from acoustic folk and reggae to hard rock. The Dylan Rose Band, The Joint Chiefs, and Anthony Arya are just a few of the names who have rocked the lot to Santa Cruzans’ delight.
He says ever since the first event at the end of May bands have been clamouring to play it to the point where he’s already booked up through Midtown Fridays’ finale in October.
“I still get people calling me today,” he says. “It’s a great spot and the public love it. [Matthew Swinerton] and the city did a really great job.”
Despite the success of the Midtown Friday events, Pearlberg jokes he still starts every Friday the same.
“Each week Matthew freaks out and asks, ‘Neil, do you think anyone is going to show?’” he laughs. “I say ‘Matthew, the Joint Chiefs are playing. They have a huge following. There’s going to be like 500 people here.’ Low and behold, here comes 500 people. Every week!”