PHANTOM SURFERS: ROCK STARDOM FOR DUMB SHITS
FEBRUARY 20TH, 2009 by Nathan Morse
The Phantom Surfers claim to be the worst band of the ‘90s surf revival. They are also the longest-lived and released possibly the most records, too. They speak now before noon on a Saturday about Dick Dale’s lawyer, Rudy Ray Moore’s wheelchair and Russell Quan’s groupies. This interview by Dan Collins.
How many band members have you had in the band, and how did you get Russell to join the band, seeing as how he was already in eight bands?
Maz Kattuah (guitar): We bribed him. We gave him a bunch of rare European beat records.
Mike Lucas (bass): One of the other original guitarists besides Mel left, and we decided to torture Maz by taking him off the drums that he loved so much and making him play rhythm guitar. Russell was the nearest drummer around, so we just grabbed him. Plus, he always adds a certain amount of entertaining.
You guys have been together in some form for over twenty years, right? That’s like five times the length of the original surf music craze.
Maz: What craze? I don’t know what you’re talking about! Even if you take the original surf music craze, add on the early eighties revival that never really went anywhere, and then add on the surf revival of the nineties, we’re still twice as long as that. We’re Methuselah, no doubt about it. We’re still playing over two times a year.
Have you ever had sex with a groupie younger than the actual band?
Mel Bergman (guitar): The collective age of the band is 178 years, so the answer is probably yes. But that is Russell’s department. He is the only rock star in the band. The rest of us serve at his pleasure.
Maz: If Russell was around, he’d say ‘Gabba Gabba Goo Boop!’
What’s the worst band of the nineties surf revival?
Mel: The Phantom Surfers.
Mike: We had the market cornered on being terrible. It’s very important to remember that since about 1990, we stopped caring about surf music.
But isn’t your anti-enthusiastic temperament about it kind of affected, like an existential cop-out? It’s like, ‘We’re not really responsible for choosing to make surf music for over twenty years, because we don’t really care?’
Mike: I’d go with earlier philosophical notions. I’d say a certain fatalism and stoicism. Whatever happens, all the really more musical, technical surf bands, they would say, ‘Oh, the Phantom Surfers aren’t really a surf band, because they’re too garage-y.’ But let’s face it. A lot of people who like rock don’t like rock ‘n’ roll. We’re a rock ‘n’ roll band. We play surf music as a sub-set of that.
In the same issue you’re going to be in, we’re also going to be interviewing Hal Blaine. Is there any relationship between you guys and his song, ‘The Phantom Driver?’
Mike: No, but that’s a good song! We’re named after a Tornadoes song, and there’s also another instrumental ‘Phantom Surfer’ song, not to mention several comic books have had Phantom Surfer characters. But one thing Hal Blaine definitely doesn’t have in common with us is that he’s an excellent musician. Not to mention that he’s made a living at it.
But he never made it under his own band name! Isn’t it weird that you guys may have sold more surf and car records than he did under his own moniker?
Mel: The only thing weirder than that is we have not sold as many records as Elvis Presley. Or even El Vez, for that matter.
I just interviewed the Trashwomen a couple months ago. Didn’t you guys start them off?
Mike: I’ll have to take the blame for that. I knew a couple of gal musicians, and then I figured, well, with my legendary bass skills, I could certainly teach one of their friends how to play bass. Basically, we wanted to get something special for a New Year’s show, so we got together a Trashmen tribute band, but their stuff was then about half Trashmen stuff, half-related, some originals, and it just became this Frankenstein monster that flew out of the nest, to mix metaphors. But God bless ‘em, they did the mostest with the fastest, or whatever that Confederate general said.
You guys did a single years ago where the B-side was a phone prank on Dick Dale. Did he ever find out it was you guys?
Mike: Yes and no. We got a call from someone claiming to be his lawyer who was asking about that and about the fake Crown album, The Phantom Surfers and Dick Dale. But he was so confused about both the items that nothing ever came of it. Dick Dale was under the impression that he had recorded with us on that Dick Dale Crown album, but they were public domain tracks that have been used and reused time and again.
Mel: I actually have a video of him signing that LP with me, and he didn’t notice!
Did you ever play with him on the same stage after that?
Mel: I played with Dick in Anaheim with Nokie Edwards of the Ventures in 2003. It was the first time they had met, and it was pretty great. Funny and great. He brought one of his tiger cubs, and you should have seen the audience’s reaction. When he played the intro to Survivor’s ‘Eye of The Tiger,’ the place went wild!
Now I think I’m the one being phone pranked!
Mike: About the funny phone call, we said ‘Oh, you have to contact Planet Pimp Records.’ I told the lawyer it was an actor we hired to portray Dick Dale. I’m certain that being Dick Dale’s lawyer, he was already sufficiently confused that it wasn’t too hard for him to just say, ‘Fuck it.’ It’s an abject lesson in the nature of reality. Who knows what is real?
Do you think putting this in print now is going to get you guys in legal tangles all over again?
Mike: Absolutely. We’re looking forward to it.
Mayuzzz: Just be sure you spell our names right!
Miiiiicke: We actually got a book coming out called Rock Stardom for Dumb Shits. It’s a humor book, but it’s also about everything anyone need to know about the rock industry. And we have a wonderful appendix in it about our legal struggles with Lookout! Records.
Do you find yourselves being oddly chummy with bands that kind of suck? Like, you ever see the Queers around, and you’re like, ‘Man, we both got jerked around by Lookout!’
Mike: Absolutely. In fact, for years before that came about, we wanted to see the statements, because what they said was on the statements didn’t make sense. But every time we’d mention it to Lookout!, they’d say, ‘You know, you’re the only band that has this trouble. Everybody else is satisfied with their statements.’ Every time we’d be at shows with other Lookout! bands, we’d be told that not only were they having the same problems, but they were also told that they were the only band that had that problem. The first time I found that out was talking with B-Face of the Queers, and he was like ‘That’s what they always tell us!’
Divide and conquer, I guess.
Mike: It just goes to show the world of homemade labels is no less disgusting and unethical than major labels.
Mel: Billie Joe of Green Day called and asked for advice on how to get out from under the jackboot that was Lookout! We gave him some pointers, and that was that for those crooks. I wish we would have thought harder about what their name meant when we ‘signed’ with them.
I was going to ask you about Planet Pimp Records. Back in college, I got a discount by sending Sven-Erik Geddes, the label head, a photo of a topless girl holding the Fuck You, Spaceman! EP. Is that label still in operation?
Mike: No. He got tired of having records all over his place, so he took them to his work and threw him in the dumpster.
Maz: I worked at the same place he did, and I parked my car in the parking lot next to the dumpster one day. The whole dumpster was full of, like Los Kogars LPs and wacky stuff like that. He dumped it all.
Do you think there’s some place in Skid Row in San Francisco where there’s like a homeless guy whose house is made out of records?
Maz: I’d like to think so! ‘This is the house that Sven-Erik Geddes built!’
You guys haven’t put out a record since 2000. Do you have any inclination to put out another one before you’re dead?
Mike: Well, we had the notion of writing this book. It’s been our number one priority, and not doing more recording until the book is finished. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult doing a collaboration of four people. I guess that’s why there aren’t more books that are written by bands. Not to mention most rock bands are illiterate.
Maz: We had started working on the next album already. The Phantom Surfers Remember the Golden Sounds of the Eighties’ Revival of Sixties’ Surf Music.
Maz: That’s why we keep coming up with more comp stuff. Like slot car music—it breathes new life into things. People don’t realize that it’s just the same garbage.
On the last album you put out, which was already nine years ago, you covered X-rated comedians such as Rudy Ray Moore and Blowfly. How did you get Blowfly to help you?
Mel: Charm, persistence, and cold hard cash.
Mike: We got to play in Vegas with Rudy Ray Moore at the first Las Vegas Shakedown, and in San Francisco. He was kind of high maintenance the way a lot of grandparents are. He had a wheelchair that he didn’t seem to really need, but he liked to be pushed around in it. I’d take him to his hotel, and he was waving his cane around even though there was nobody in the way, going ‘Wheelchair! Wheelchair coming through!’ He was unfailingly polite, but he’d be like, ‘Young man, my toast is cold. Can you pleeeeease bring me some warm toast?’
Maz: You can’t talk about Rudy Ray Moore in San Francisco without telling the story about pushing him in his wheelchair and running into the Ventures.
Mike: We got to the elevator, and I can’t remember what the Ventures were doing in town that night, I don’t think they were playing, but two of the Ventures were in the elevator! I forgot that it really happened. I thought it was in a dream. Rudy Ray Moore in a wheelchair with me and two of the Ventures in an elevator.
Of the superstars of the original surf/instrumental era, who have you played on the same stage with?
Mike: Link Wray. We did a three-show tour in Spain with him, and the first night his wife was somehow convinced that their son had some of our records, which I can’t believe. So the second night, Link called for Mel to get up on stage. Deke Dickerson was also on that tour, so Deke got on stage as well, so it became sort of a monster jam. So then we determined that the last night was going to be the monster jam to end all monster jams, and we just got everybody from the other band the Church Keys, and we had somebody out there pouring a bottle of rum down backstage people’s throats. I had a Spanish devil mask on and was kind of capering around the stage. Somebody had a tambourine, a harmonica, we had about fifteen people on stage. And Link, bless his heart, Link has gotta be one of the sweetest guys I’ve ever met. He’d keep yelling out songs, but with instrumental songs, nobody can remember the titles, and even he couldn’t keep the songs straight. He’d yell out ‘Ace of Spades’ and play ‘Jack the Ripper.’
Do you think if the Beatles hadn’t happened, do you think surf music might have grown into its own thing?
Mike: No. It’s fairly limited what you can do with it while it’s still surf music. That’s one of the things we’ve constantly been playing with. I think one of the things that often gets overlooked is that there is a lot of surf influence after everybody was aping the Beatles. All those people who had bands in the ‘60s started off playing instrumental music if they were the right age. Do you know Randy Holden? He’s best known as one of the later guitarists for Blue Cheer, but he was in a band called the Fender Four that did some classic singles, like ‘Margaya.’ He was in a band called the Sons of Adam that were on the L.A. scene, and you can hear the roots of what became psychedelic. He was on the short list of people that the Yardbirds were considering after Jeff Beck quit at the end of their U.S. tour, since they were in L.A. The Yardbirds opened the door to a lot of stuff. I think they were a lot more innovative and a lot more tasteful than the Beatles. But even though there’s a lot of surf influence that’s gone unnoticed, I don’t know if surf music in its most basic form could have really gone must longer. Surf music had a good run back then, and we do what we can with it as a ‘folk art,’ as it were. As good as instrumental music is, people have a limited capacity to take it in. You reach a point of saturation with people. It’s like, ‘Oh, I’ll put this on while I clean the house.’ The rock historians gave a short shrift to it, but it served its purpose. In the immortal words of Babe, ‘That’ll do, pig.’
THE PHANTOM SURFERS WITH MARK AND THE ESCORTS, THE AMBERTONES, THE ROCK ‘N’ ROLL ADVENTURE KIDS, TUFF TITTIES AND MORE ON SAT., FEB. 21, AT THE REAL BOSS HOSS BLOW OUT AT THE ELKS LODGE, 14440 FRIAR ST., VAN NUYS. 3:30 PM / $15 / 18+. REALBOSSHOSS.BLOGSPOT.COM. PRE-PARTY WITH THE JINXES AND THE TEUTONICS ON FRI., FEB. 20, AT MR. T’S BOWL, 5621 N. FIGUEROA, HIGHLAND PARK. 9 PM / CONTACT VENUE FOR COST / 21+. VISIT THE PHANTOM SURFERS AT PHANTOMSURFERS.COM OR MYSPACE.COM/PHANTOMSURFERS.