The Semis: St. Pete's Boys of Summer get sunny
(All this week, we're spotlighting tbt*'s 2010 Ultimate Local Artists on Soundcheck. Today: The Semis.)
He might be staring down 40, but Billy Summer has just begun.
Summer, 38, the founder, frontman, id and superego of St. Pete’s the Semis, has wakened to his season in the sun with the 2010 album Back to the Beach — a shiny, career-defining and soul-searching nugget of pop-rock majesty.
For the past couple of years the musician with an uncanny last name lived out the fantasy of millions by immersing himself in beach bum living. Back to the Beach is a culmination of that period.
“I swam every day and surfed during hurricanes and rode my bike all over Pass-a-Grille,” Summer said. “I drank at Shadrack’s and tried to embrace the pirate lifestyle to the best of my ability. For the most part, the songs, both musically and lyrically, reflect the influence of those times. … The sun and the beach both became very real for me.”
The singer-guitarist got out from behind his mischievous persona. He matured and began scripting humorous and soul-searching narratives, anecdotes about lost weekends in “the 727,” cautionary tales of self-destruction and confessions of sought-after redemption.
“It was at moments heavy, but ultimately very cleansing,” he said. “Metaphorically, those things represented a state of being that I didn’t even see coming when I wrote the album. It’s funny how that kinda stuff has a way of festering in the unconscious. Let’s say I grew into the symbolism.”
His band grew into it too. As the singer-guitarist mellowed out and became more focused, the Semis’ current lineup —Matt Simmons on guitar, Jay Schultz on bass and Kyle Lovell on drums — showed itself off as the best yet. While the absence of founding member and drummer Christian Ripoll can still be felt, the Semis today sound fully charged — a stark contrast to previous incarnations, when Summer went off half-cocked in self-described “flounder fests.”
Episodes from Summer’s life read like pages from a James Dean script. The son of University of South Florida music professors, a prodigy in his own right, he refused to become a proper musician. He grew up in a pristine suburban home around recitals and erudite dinner parties but often opted for motel all-nighters with questionable characters. He almost took himself down with his shenanigans and checked himself into rehab four years ago.
“I’ve been battling demons for as far back as I can remember,” Summer said. “(The songs) Popov and Suck it Dry really put my troubles on the forefront.”
Summer is more than the sum of his sins. There’s a sensitive side to the mad genius: he’s known to serenade with Elliott Smith ballads and lend friends an ear and helping hand. We get more of that Billy on Back to the Beach.
Compositionally, the songs shine as intensely as his lyrics, paralleling his introspection with shimmering textures — a departure from the Semis’ louder and more raucous White Powder, Black Power (2007) and Jct. 666 (2003). “The live experience is much more rawk, but in the studio, for this record, I opted for a much more lush approach,” he said.
While he’s satisfied with the end result of the CD, Summer isn’t exactly thrilled with the title.
“ Back to the Beach is also the name of some crappy Annette Funicello movie,” he said. “I never should have changed it and will probably change it back to Year in the Sun. My mistake.”
-- Julie Garisto, tbt*. Photo: Luis Santana, tbt*.