THE KINGS OF SPOOKY SURF:
PHANTOM SURFERS UNMASKED!
John Wisniewski Catches Up With Everyone's Fave Masked Surf Band
The Phantom Surfers wear masks and often pay twangy homage to classic B-movies and horror films. The band, formed in 1988, is credited by some sources as a starting point for the early '90s surf revival, which exploded once theater-goers heard Dick Dale's "Misirlou" while watching Pulp Fiction. Bassist Mike Lucas and guitarist/drummer Maz Kattuah discussed mummies, tigers and their new book.
Horror Garage: How did the Phantom Surfers get together?
Mike Lucas: I'd known [original drummer] Danny Seelig since we were teens. He'd gone off to college in Humboldt -- as I recall -- then moved to San Francisco a few years later. I visited his place and we were listening to records he'd gotten at thrift stores and garage sales, and we thought it would be a ridiculous idea to start a surf band, which was reason enough to do it. I'd known Johnny Bartlett [guitar], who was going to college at UC Santa Cruz at the time, for a number of years and played music with him and knew that he was into surf music, and he turned out to be interested. Mel Bergman [guitar] had had a surf band in San Diego, but wasn't playing any music since moving to the San Francisco area; he turned up after we over-optimistically advertised our availability for parties, etc. The only other calls we got were from a saxophone player wanting to join, and from someone asking us to play a scam charity event, "Kids Against Drugs." We didn't know it was a scam until we got there and found that there were no kids, despite the fact that they'd been getting people to donate money so that kids could attend this event and get a "positive, anti-drug message." A lot of the money raised was spent on heroin, incidentally -- not for us, though -- we were paid in hugs.
HG: How did you come up with the band name?
Mike Lucas: We wanted to have "surf" in the name for the benefit of the few people who knew what instrumental surf music was. "Phantom Surfer" seemed a natural, since there had been a few songs of that title, as well as comic stories and other pop culture detritus that we were inspired by.
HG: How'd you originally come up with the idea of wearing masks... and why?
Mike Lucas: Just a natural outgrowth of the "Phantom" aspect of the name. We were into matching outfits pretty much from the get-go, but Johnny actually making the leather masks made things seem to fall together.
HG: The formation of the Phantom Surfers seemed to rekindle an interest in surf music that became most obvious with "Miserlou" used in Pulp Fiction. Were you surprised by the response the band was getting in its early days?
Mike Lucas: Before Pulp Fiction, we were just surprised that anybody liked us without having an idea of the tradition that we were abusing... I mean... working in. "You guys are good, but how come your songs don't have any lyrics?" was a not infrequent question.
HG: How has the band kept it going for so long through so many lineup changes?
Mike Lucas: Because we're a bunch of goofs. The core has been pretty stable for most of the history: Maz has been in since the second album, so it's generally been a matter of whether it's Johnny or Russell [Quan, drums] as the fourth wheel. Then again, we did our last Spanish tour with Russell on drums and Johnny on guitar, so now it seems it's a matter of drawing four out of "talent" pool of five, which is still pretty stable for a 20 year old band.
Maz Kattuah: You're using "talent" a little loosely there, Mike.
HG: The band seems to have a fascination with horror films, and B-movies in general. Why do you feel horror and surf music seem to work so well together? What are some of your favorite horror films?
Mike Lucas: Because it's all junk that's not generally meant to have any shelf life. Mel's favorite movie is Neighbors , which is kind of a horror film. I think Maz's is Candyman , because he used to work as a banquet waiter with a bunch of guys who pointed at stuff with their chins, which is referenced in a bit of dialogue.
In a more vintage vein, Monster From the Surf/Beach Girls and the Monster and Horror of Party Beach are big with everyone who's ever been in the band, I think I can guarantee. "Monster From the Surf" was my second exposure to surf music -- the Surfari's "Scatter Shield" 45 was the first.
Rat Pfink A Boo Boo isn't exactly a horror film, but it's one of the best films ever. All the obvious suspects: 2000 Maniacs , Glen or Glenda , -- it's got enough horror elements to count, doesn't it? -- the Val Lewton horror movies, Japanese ghost movies, Jigoku -- the 1960 Jigoku ... the Ze Do Caixao, please, NOT Coffin Joe -- it sounds so prosaic -- movies... anything black and white that you watch at 3 AM.
Maz Kattuah: I'm not sure why, but when we're playing a live show, I always think of Smash-Up On Interstate 5 , a great made for TV movie. There's the 75-car pile-up at the beginning, and then the film flashes back the entire week of every person involved in the crash. In the end, each of their ridiculous stories crosses paths at that one fatal moment. Ka-blam-o!, the accident is played out all over again.
HG: Davie Allan's appearance on 1998's Skaterhater LP, is credited as being one of the reasons there was renewed interest in him and the Arrows. Did Allan seek you out, or did you seek him out? Did he share any war stories about scoring biker films?
Mike Lucas: Mel met Davie and suggested working together. I think the collaboration might have set Davie's career back a few decades, but I thought it was a good piece of work. Davie had some great stories, but he told them in confidence -- you'll have to try to pry them out of him. Sorry!
HG: Trent Ruane of The Mummies appears on the Phantom Surfers Play the Songs Off the Big Screen Spectaculars LP. How did that come about? What did you feel that Ruane contributed to that record no one else could?
Mike Lucas: When Mel moved back to Southern California, Trent was kind enough to fill in. There were shows that Mel came up for where we had three guitars, but not all the tracks on the album have three guitars. What Trent contributed to that record that no one else could was cookies: he makes the most amazing coconut chocolate chip cookies.
HG: You've also worked with Blowfly and Rudy Ray Moore on the XXX Party record. How did that collaboration come about?
Mike Lucas: We just used our "show business connections" to contact them and managed to frame our propositions in such a way that it seemed a good idea to them -- hint: money helped. Blowfly said of our rendition of "Business Deal": "You know, I'd never thought to make a hard rock version of that song!" He was as much fun to meet as you'd case. We also did a few shows with Rudy, who was also great, of course.
HG: What's the story behind the ...and Dick Dale LP?
Mike Lucas: We brought Dick Dale out for his first Bay Area shows in decades at the Paradise Lounge. He brought one of his tiger cubs, but it was spooked by an elephant -- that we'd hired to ride up to the club on -- and ran off. Dick was so worried about it being missing that he couldn't play: after the show it turned out that he was under the stage. Dick asked us to do an album with him, but his scheduling made it too hard to arrange, so he told us to just use the demo tracks that he'd recorded with Bo Troy and His Hot Rod Wails.
HG: When are we going to hear a new album from the Phantom Surfers?
Mike Lucas: We were sparing the world any more "music" until we finished our book project. Now that the book -- Rock Stardom For Dumbshits -- is done [official release date is February 15,2010, but pre-release copies are available through the website www.rudosandrubes.com], we're thinking of inflicting yet another album on our fans.
HG: Anything in closing?
Mike Lucas: Last one out turn off the lights!