Merrell in studio session for "Calling From A Star" (Photo Charlie Booth)
What can you say about a person like Merrell Fankhauser? Actually an awful lot! He is just amazing! His output of music over the past 30 some odd years is nothing short of monumental by industry standards. How many people have the staying power to keep on keeping on like Merrell has? Well, maybe the Beatles and Elvis, but the Beatles broke up in 1970, and Elvis has been gone for a long time now. Merrell is still very active, big difference!
This interview has been one of the most enjoyable experiences for me since I have been involved in this business, which hasn't been all that long so it makes me feel all that much more fortunate and blessed to have an opportunity like this. I have found a friend that I didn't even know I had! What an interesting and informative person this man is. I am awestruck at his humbleness and graciousness. Merrell, you have class.
I talked to Merrell at length via the conventional method, phone lines. I learned quite a bit about his life and career by having a few nice conversations with him, hence the necessity to make this into two parts! Lot's of good stuff! Then I E mailed him some questions and he answered all of them by sitting down and typing them out, then he mailed them to me, amazing.
This is an event for the both of us as I have been an admirer of his work for many years. And for Merrell this is his first cyberspace interview! So welcome to the world of the Internet my friend! It's a vast expanse of information and it's been really good for music, well some of us feel that way.
So without further adieu I give you Merrell Fankhauser-music legend, father, friend and cyber neighbor. Enjoy!
The B/W shot was taken around 1979 for the 45 release of "Calling From A Star" by Bill Scott in his studio in L.A.
MuzikMan: What are your thoughts and feelings on the new album Sex Wax & Surf? What prompted you to come up with the title for it? Has it been received well thus far by the various forms of media?
Merrell: Sex Wax & Surf came about after our return from playing in Hawaii. We still had that tropical inspiration intact. One of the songs "Peahi Jaws" was recorded live on Maui, its about a surf spot "Jaws" that is known for regular 20 to 40 ft. surf where surfers are towed into these gigantic waves on jet skis. We tried to get some of that wild abandonment energy into that song!.
Sex wax is of course a wax product you put on your board, and the title just seemed natural. And I know Mr. Zogg who came up with the product. The CD has only been out a few weeks and is already getting a lot of attention from reviewers and airplay from San Francisco to Boston. We are also getting play on two shows on WMWM, Timothy Culiens Show "Alternative Granola" & Todd Wimpheimer's "Surf Rt. 128" show in Salem, MA.
MuzikMan: You have been around for many years and tried so many different things in the music industry. What is the one thing that you always wanted to do but haven't had the time for?
Merrell: I've done just about every style and helped invent a few from Instro/Surf to Psychedelic folk rock. With H.M.S. Bounty and later with MU I got into more Blues & Jazz, in later years on my solo Dr. Fankhauser LP/CD. I even got into a little Country and there is some of that and Bluegrass on a new project I just finished with Ed Cassidy, Pete Sears and John McEuen. I think I've done almost everything except Classical guitar and Flamenco style, which I would like to try.MuzikMan: Do you still play "Wipe Out" live? That is one of the greatest Surf/Instro songs ever recorded!. How do you feel it has been represented by artists that have done covers of it? Any favorites?
Merrell Fankhauser 1965 (Photo Bob Trehurne)Merrell: We still play "Wipe Out" live, and there are versions on "California Live" and on the radio concert "The Mystery Ballroom". I feel it's great that it and so many of the other Impact songs have been re-recorded by new groups and used in TV and Movies. The Ventures did several good versions of it. Also there is the original Surfaris version.MuzikMan: Who do you feel epitomizes excellence in guitar playing? Anyone in particular or can you think of several? Who was the best you ever jammed with?
Merrell: There are many excellent guitar players but I have to say Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton are still at the top! There are many imitators but very few genuine articles. There is so much more to playing than a fast blur of notes, like feeling and emotion from the soul. It's like punctuating a sentence and knowing when to lay back and not fill up all the space. Those are the things I tried to teach my son Tim when he began playing.
I think the best I ever jammed and played with was one of my students, Jeff Cotton. Who I think went on to be one of the best slide players. Then later John Cipolinna of "Quicksilver Messenger Service", he did the Dr. Fankhauser album with me on Maui in the early 80's. Both of these guys were very spontaneous and just incredibly hot!
MuzikMan: How has your son come along in development as a guitarist? Do you feel that he will delve into many other genres as you have and start a solo recording anytime soon?
Merrell: My son Tim is doing very well and I think he is developing into a fine guitar player. That is very evident on some of his songs and solos on "Sex Wax & Surf". He is also an incredible guitar painter and has painted guitars for Eddie Van Halen and John Fogerty just to name two!
He is the head of the paint Department at Ernie Balls Music Man Guitar factory and has done most of the finishes on those guitars for 10 years. Tim's first solo song is "Peace On A Different Planet" that came out on the 1990 compilation LP release "Best Of The California Coast". He grew up listening to MU record and rehearse so I think he could branch off to almost anywhere having already done Blues, Rockabilly and Instro/Surf!
MuzikMan: How do you feel about this "resurgence" in Surf/Instro that has been taking place? Is it comparable to what the Southern Ca. scene was in the 60's? If different or comparable, in what ways?
Merrell: I think the current resurgence of Instro/Surf is just great! Tim and I were playing with The Revels from 1991 to 1993. We cut some good stuff- "Wipe Out", "Lucille", "Tequilla" and an original "Goin South" that's on the "California Live" CD. Then their song "Commanche" was used in the movie Pulp Fiction in '94. I played with them back in 1961 before the Impacts. Their first hit was "Church Key" in 1960. The scene is different now than in the 60's. Many more bands have incorporated many styles into a Instro/Surf style. I like the vintage sounding new bands but also the ones with the 90's edge.
Merrell Fankhauser and The Revels 1992Left to right: Sam Eddy-piano, Jerry Sagouspe-drums, Jim Macrae-bass, Dean Sorenson-sax (kneeling), Normon Knowles-sax (back row), Merrell Fankhauser-guitar, Tim Fankhauser-guitar. (photo Kathy Lambert)
MuzikMan: How has the response been to your website? Is your product moving better since it's inception?
Merrell: Things are definitely expanding since I've got the website up. It's been only a few months now. Product is moving and I am making a lot of contacts with radio and reviewers and a more personal link to fans which is nice. We have won several awards for the site as well.
MuzikMan: I waited a long time for your site to get online and I think it's wonderful, informative and colorful. Were you involved in a "hands on" fashion or did you serve as a guiding force for the overall design?
Merrell: I worked closely with Mike Pritchard who built the site, he's a genius. We sort of designed it together. I had some ideas and he knew what to do to make them work.
MuzikMan: Who do you feel are the best Surf/Instro groups right now? Who has the most potential to branch out into different areas or actually create an entirely "new" sound?
Merrell: I think there are quite a few new Instro/Surf groups that are really great. The Mermen are good and there doing something different. The Space Cossacks, Penetrators, The Fathoms, I really like The Falcons from Canada, Mike Beddoes is a really fine guitar player. I like Nokie Edwards of The Ventures, who gave me a guitar lesson once when we were playing opposite them in 1962 at The Rose Garden Ballroom in Pismo Beach. That's were The Impacts started and got signed to Del Fi in 1962.
Merrell Fankhauser and "The Impacts" 1963 At the Rose Garden Ballroom, Pismo Beach, Ca. From left to right, front row: John Oliver-Bass, Merrell Fankhauser-Guitar, Steve Evans-Guitar, Joel Rose-Sax, back row: Martin Brown-Steel Guitar, Steve Metz-Drums, Jack Metz-Vocals
MuzikMan: Have you enjoyed the lifestyle of being a musician? Do you get out on the road much anymore?
Merrell: For the most part I have enjoyed being a musician. My lifestyle has been a bit different than most. After spending 10 years in L.A. recording and playing clubs and concerts I moved to Maui in 1973 with my group MU. At the time our first LP was selling well and we were on the radio and TV quite a bit and making pretty good money...Then we told our agent and record label we were moving to Maui, and they said what? You can't do that! We did and it led to an entirely new world of song writing inspiration for me, which was good. By the time the late 70's rolled around things were much different in L.A. and MU broke up and I went solo. There's a lot of ups and downs, good deals and bad, you just have to learn to roll with the punches. I still get out and play a few clubs and concerts every month, not as frequently lately.
MuzikMan: How do you enjoy doing the "Surf Talk" radio show? Is it interesting interviewing other like artists?
Merrell: Surf Music News radio segments are fun to do. I've interviewed so many bands and artists I've lost track. I started out back in 1991 doing a satellite TV show called "California Music" that was on national to 150 stations for 3 1/2 years. Then I did another show called "Route 66 TV Live" for another 2 years. Around that time Surf music really came back and most of the Impacts decided to reform. We did some concerts and ''Surf 101", "Eternal Surf" (which is outstanding!- muzikman) and I started interviewing nothing but Surf related bands. I started doing it on the radio for a year and it just took off! Then Marc Kent asked me to do Surf Music News segments for his "Let's Talk Surfing" show and now I am on almost 50 stations weekly.
MuzikMan: Has anyone like Mobile Fidelity or Sony ever approached you about making any of your releases special "Gold" disc with bonus tracks? Any thoughts of doing a boxed set?
Merrell: No label has ever approached me about doing a Gold Disc, Mobile Fidelity style, but there are many releases with bonus tracks etc. There has been some talk of doing an Anthology Box Set. I have counting compilations about 30 CDs out and around 250 songs released, plenty of material!
MuzikMan: Do you feel that you have had adequate support and representation over the years or do you feel things could have been much better?
Merrell: I have had good and bad support and representation over the years. Got ripped off more in the beginning than now. Things could always be better, it's the music biz!
MuzikMan: Do you feel the music industry is unfair, political and commercially oriented? If so, what has to be done to change the prevailing attitudes?
Merrell: The music business has always been unfair and political. They try to set the standard for what is commercial, but a lot of the time they really don't know, it's luck, timing and PR. Labels big and small need to be honest and pay royalties, the right amount and when they are due. When you are on as many labels in different countries as I am you spend half the time phoning, faxing, writing letters reminding them to pay you, no fun!
MuzikMan: Do you think that the record companies and their executives are squirming in their collective pants right now because of the Internet, MP3's and all the free downloadable music that has become available?
Merrell: I do think Record Labels are squirming a bit now because of the Internet, MP3 and all the other companies that offer downloadable music are part of the problem too...If you look at it, they are just like the big labels, they're getting piece of the action too, and they don't have to promote each release as extensive and in costly ways the way a label does! It's still not that great for the band or artist and you can lose a lot with free downloads, copying and bootlegs etc.
MuzikMan: How do you like the way Independent Artist have been representing themselves on the Internet? The D.I.Y. attitude, like you have has really given the Independents the confidence and freedom to market their music as they see fit, your thoughts and ideas regarding this?
Merrell: I think Independent artists representing themselves and getting a site that they can sell their music at in downloadable or finished CDs is great. The only thing is you have to do it all yourself, promotion, adds, marketing, distributing and then hopefully shipping! And finally keep books and hopefully showing a profit. It's a lot of work. I still prefer having a strong label, independent or major do all this so I can concentrate on writing. I've been lucky to keep making deals and releasing my old and new material.
MuzikMan: Any closing thoughts that you would like to express?
Merrell: I started Ocean Records back in 1988 primarily to get some of my old music and unreleased rarities out. I was lucky, the collectors and fans around the world responded and it's because of them and my small mail-order business that I've been able to keep going. And I thank all of you, the writers of the books I am in, the reviewers and all those late night DJs that break the mold and say, tonight I am going to play that far out Merrell Fankhauser song! Mahalo and Aloha.
This is a sneak preview of what is to come in Part II!
Merrell and "Mu" 1972 At the Aquarius, Hollywood, Ca. (Photo Ken Banks )
MuzikMan: The goup Mu got it's name from the Lost Continent, how did that come about? You also have had some experiences with UFOs?
Merrell: We first found out about MU or Lemuria the Lost Continent around 1969. My band and I had moved to an old house up in the canyons of Woodland Hills near Topanga outside of L.A., a woodsy area. One day we found this very old book under some old papers in the log bin next to the fireplace, The Lost Continent Of MU by James Churchward... We were entranced as we had been into mystical and ancient Indian history for years.
At the time Jeff Cotton had just left Beefheart and we were looking for a name for the band. After reading the book we decided MU was perfect as we felt a kinship with the ideals of the ancient MU. Around this same time A musician friend from our days in the desert, Jeff Parker, wrote us from Maui that he had moved there and an old Hawaiian man had showed him some ruins near the ocean in the jungle and that they were rumored to be remnants of The Lost Continent of MU ! (Maui Pillar right. Remnants of MU?) He then sent us a book "Children Of The Rainbow" written about pre Christian Hawaii and the descendants of the people of MU... We were very excited and started saving our gig money and decided when we got our next record advance or royalties we were moving to Maui. We said goodbye to our agent and friends at the airport in L.A. and flew into the friendly skies for Maui on Feb. 28, 1973. This was the beginning of the most fascinating 15 years of my life ! I immediately went on a search for ruins and found many unexplained structures in the rain forest. High atop Haleakala Crater on Maui I found what appeared to be a pyramid! (Pyramid left)This was written up in the Maui News and I was besieged by people at concerts in the Islands looking for answers. Most scientists don't believe in The Lost Continent Of Mu, but it is in both Hawaiian & North and South American Indian Legend. Also there was an ocean in the Calif. deserts. The Pacific plate could have gone up and down several times and the Hawaiian Islands are mountain peaks on the plate, anything is possible. I do know for a fact there was a race of people living in Hawaii before the Hawaiians. I guess you could say I was doing Indiana Jones before the character was written. I got into some hairy areas in ancient caves and lava flows, but that's another story.
Regarding UFOs-We found a UFO cult also on Maui led by a man named Omar. He put out a paper once a month that chronicled sightings in the Islands going back into the 1800s. One night myself and the band MU went to the top of the crater to watch the sun go down. Just after dark a light appeared hovering in the darkness of the crater, it was sort of pulsating. We listened but could hear no sound in the dark silence at over 10,000 ft. It couldn't be a Helicopter, what was it? All of a sudden two more lights appeared zooming in from either side and they formed a glowing beam like a pyramid from each other. This lasted for nearly 10 minutes. An old gentleman who was in the navy in WW II, and his wife watched this spectacle with us and he said he never saw anything like that in his life! We left the crater that night silent believers that something is out there! When the objects left they formed one blue orb and went straight up and disappeared in an instant. And no we were not on Maui Wowie. I later wrote the song "Calling From A Star" from this experience. There's a story about the cast and crew with Jimi Hendrix seeing a UFO in the crater during the filming of "Rainbow Bridge", yet another story. (Photos by Merrell Fankhauser)
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© 1999 MuzikMan Productions, All rights reserved
Merrell Fankhauser was interviewed on November 14, 1999 by MuzikMan for MuzikMan's Sound Scripts Zine. Interview published with permission of the artist. Photos are the property of Merrell Fankhauser. Photos used with permission of the artist.