San Francisco elementary school teacher John Ashfield’s giant stuffed teddy bear once was just an adorable fuzzy prop he used in music class. It became the inspiration for a surf-rock strumming guitarist called Chillingsworth Surfingham who’s pushing a newly released self-titled debut album of Ventures-booming instrumentals.
At first the bear had no purpose other than a role in curriculum folk-dance lessons, since it was roughly the same size as a sixth grader and situated in a chair on wheels.
“If I had an odd-numbered class, he would be the dance partner for the kid that didn’t have a partner,” says the witty Ashfield, 52, a guitarist who for nearly a decade has anchored local indie-rock outfit The Bobbleheads. “The kids always laugh, because he’s always falling out of his chair — he is the worst dancer — but they can still practice where to put their hands and stuff.”
Gradually, as Ashfield’s students took increased interest in this ursine mascot, an identity began to emerge: a Rayban-sporting, striped-shirted wave enthusiast who undertook zany quests and acted out live in school or in Zoom classes during 2020.
“Usually, they’re just musical adventures, like ‘Chillingsworth goes and finds a xylophone,’ which he then brings back for the kids to play,” he says.
Once Ashfield gave the bear and name a personality, it was easy to bring it to life playing concerts with a custom-made, human-sized bear head replica. Now he can become Chillingsworth whenever he feels the scholarly need.
Doing so became a prime source of escapism for him during the pandemic.
“Because there were no concerts over the last year and a half, and I had no ability to play with my band or even other musicians, the Chillingsworth thing started just to play music by myself, and to work up a bunch of songs and not really think about how they’d work in a live setting,” says Ashfield, who’s curating a potential empire that currently includes stickers, CDs, vinyl and a T-shirt line, plus possible graphic novels or animated shorts based on the campy cartoon-bear cover art.
You’ve got to hand it to the guy — he thinks big.
Chillingsworth’s first video, for the tune “Coronado,” already has surfaced. It has a noir setting wherein the bear-headed axman serenades a dancing couple on local beaches. One of the dancers is Bay Area actor-singer Leigh Crow, aka female Elvis impersonator Elvis Herselvis, with whom Ashfield played guitar in the Whoa Nellies.
A video for “Surfer’s Ennui” will be washing ashore soon.
Even in San Francisco, where anything goes, a guitar-wielding bear can still raise a few eyebrows.
“Chillingsworth? Everybody notices him,” Ashfield says, laughing. “When we were filming the ‘Coronado’ video, people would just stop and start taking pictures. But everybody thought we were doing wedding photos, which I thought was kind of funny. Like, ‘Wedding photos with a bear person playing guitar?’ Um, OK.”
To replicate the album live, another cub has emerged from the family den — Percy Surfingham, Chillingsworth’s toff uptown brother on slamming skins, played by Ashfield’s longtime Bobbleheads drummer, Rob Jacobs.
Given the heat the job generates, Percy performs without a bear head onstage.
Ashfield — who had special visors installed in the head to facilitate view and breathing—has had some dicey masked moments.
At the band’s first live gig at Winters Tavern during summer in Pacifica, windows on the stage made for some difficulties. “I was backlit, and it was really hard to see my guitar because it was so bright,” says Ashfield, who had to wing it until it got dark outside.
Ashfield, clearly not an ordinary music instructor, is routinely amazed by how quickly a new generation of kids picks up what he’s putting down.
“One year for the fifth grade graduation concert, I had them do ‘(Keep Feeling) Fascination’ by The Human League, and they were playing it really well,” he says, proudly. He was even more impressed, when, later, they went on YouTube, listened to a bunch of their songs and worked them up. The kids also did it for Kraftwerk music: “They got really in it and made up dances for ‘Hall of Mirrors,’ ‘Trans-Europe Express’ and ‘We Are the Robots,’” he says.
One thing Chillingsworth won’t do is hang ten, Ashfield says: “He’s more of a surfing enthusiast than an actually-in-the-water surfer himself. But the thing is, he provides the soundtrack!”
For more, visit chillingsworthsurfingham.com.