Long Beach’s Tijuana Panthers are heirs to the Beach Blvd. bands like the Crowd and the Simpletones—the guys that were punk at the core but pop around the edges. Admired by the Soft Pack for their song ‘Red-Headed Girl’ and admired by L.A. RECORD for the awesome ‘Creatures,’ they speak now about the foot aficionados you can meet at bowling alleys and what sport they’d never ever inflict upon a kitten. This interview by Desi Ambrozak.
What’s the most profound moment that you ever shared with a stranger in a bowling alley?
Phil Shaheen (drums): This is kinda weird but … at Java Lanes, when we were younger, there was this guy that was watching us change our shoes from the tables above the lanes and he came up to my friend and said, ‘I like your feet.’ My friend was like, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘I like surfer’s feet.’
Chad Wachtel (guitar): This was thought-provoking. Like … what could that possibly mean? ‘Does he mean that literally?’ We all thought it was strange. Well, he was around for a while and then we stopped seeing him around for a few months. Then I saw his name and face on the news. He was arrested for impersonating a photographer on the beach. He would convince young men on the beach that he was a photographer and that he was going to pay them to take their picture. This was his way to lure them to where he could proceed to kiss and lick their feet. Pretty interesting.
I think that’s the actually the most interesting bowling story I’ve ever heard.
CW: Yeah—I saw him on TV and was like, ‘Oh my god! He wasn’t lying—he really did kiss surfers’ feet!’
Tell me about Max Baker—the guy you named your last album after.
PS: He was my neighbor who lived across the street from the house I grew up in. I used to talk to him almost every day, mostly in passing, about what he was up to and how his day was going. He was kinda quiet at first but as time went on he started telling me stories about when he was younger and the trouble he would get into going down to Tijuana. He has a hole in his throat now from smoking. He worked in a liquor store on the peninsula in Long Beach and we named the band after this panther he gave me from Tijuana that I still have to this day. It’s a black porcelain panther from the 60s. I have it on my mantle.
If Max wrote a song for you, what would it be about?
PS: I think he’d write a song about smoking cigarettes and the hole in his throat. You know—having to talk with one of those machines. It wouldn’t be anti-smoking, though—more like a ‘cigarette blues’ type of song. He might write about recycling bottles and cans because he does that a lot, too. He would definitely write a song about his truck. He’s had a Chevy S10 for a long time. He’s very into that truck. It’s black with a gold and red stripe around it. He’s really into it. I still see him walking his dog around the neighborhood when I go back to visit my parents.
You have your new album almost finished—what’s the sequel to Max Baker like?
CW: I wanted to do a ‘Best Of’ album but since we only have one album I guess it didn’t really make sense. The new album is called Semi Sweet and it’s our second album—it’s got eleven tracks. It’s the same formula in that there’s a guitar, bass, drums and people singing, but as a whole the new album is less ‘surfy’ so it’s a bit of a departure. We do two or three songs with the new sound guy, Matt Vasquez, and there’s a noticeable difference in the way those songs sound that people are going to like. Some of the songs are darker in terms of material and subject matter, though there’s still some playful stuff and it’s still cute overall. We’re still sticking with our roots. It’s not a complete departure but it’s definitely on a different end of the Tijuana Panthers spectrum. We’ll be finishing it up this month, and it will be coming out shortly afterwards … depending on how long it takes to master and everything else.
Do you still do all your own production?
PS: Yes, it’s just us and Victor Orlando Nieto, the recording engineer at Toy Records. He’s been with us the beginning. He does sound for us and works for nothing but to be able walk around backstage and go to Coachella. He’s been involved on every single recording we’ve ever released and has worked on some of the tracks that will be on the upcoming album.
CW: This album displays more the eclectic nature of our minds than the previous one. The first album, most of the songs were more primarily my writing and my ideas with Dan [Michicoff, bassist] and Phil contributing. Tijuana Panthers have never been a one-man show—it’s always been a collaboration, but this new one is more collective and you see a lot more of Dan and Phil doing their ideas and me contributing. This was a growing experience for me as musician. It was hard for me to let go and recognize the value of other people’s work. Not that I completely let go, but it’s less hands on the reins. In a practical sense it’s good because I’m older now—I’ve got a family and a lot of other stuff going on and I can’t spend as much time as I used to with the band. Also it takes pressure off of me because I’m not the type of guy that just pumps out songs so much as they just come to me gradually. God gives everyone different abilities and he gave me this ability but there’s limitations to it. If someone came to me and said, ‘I’ll give you one million dollars a year to be a songwriter,’ I’d poop my pants because I can’t do that and I know that the quality would not be as good. I’d rather just be patient and let the creative inspiration come when it comes and not try to force it.
Do you still feel like a ‘Long Beach band’ or have you decided to be from L.A.?
CW: Long Beach influenced us as a setting in which we grew up. The blue-collar suburban upbringing is part of the attitude that comes out in our music and it’s different than it would have been if we were from a city surrounded by buildings and fancy cars.
Dan Michicoff (bass): ‘You’re like a garage band,’ to quote Chad’s daughter—who meant the term as an insult and said it as if it was a bad thing …
CW: To which I responded, ‘Yes, that’s exactly what we are. Thank you.’ I feel like I can be proud to play that way because it’s not contrived. I didn’t make a decision to play this way—this is just the sound that comes out of me and I can be proud of that. I grew up listening to a lot of old stuff from Beach Boys to doo-wop to power pop and I feel like it all just comes out of me. I know musicians that are doing stuff that they themselves really don’t like, but there’s a paycheck in it and I respect that—but I can be proud that with me it’s not a façade or scheme to get chicks or be rich or something.
PS: Long Beach used to be a lot different in my dad’s time. I was just talking to Keith Morris about what it was like back then. All the big names came through here and played in places like Bogart’s and some of the other clubs. It brought back memories for me as well. Long Beach has always had its own scene—not just Snoop and Sublime but people like TSOL and Suburban Lawns. When I was in punk bands I would play in places like Java Lanes and I would see shows at the Foothill and PCH Club and Koo’s Café in Santa Ana which was really cheap. I remember going to see the Lords of Altamont at the Foothill and the White Stripes opened it up. There was almost no one there and though I really liked them, I didn’t think they were going anywhere because they were a two-piece. The Foothill closed shortly afterward and the White Stripes blew up and got huge. It gave me hope to see them get big like that. There’s so much work that goes into what we do as an independent band—I think it would be great to be able to make a living off of it.
CW: We only started with surf music because we had sort of a surf-style guitar and we just went with it. We never picked to play that way. There’s a lot of bands now that are playing surf music—and they chose to play a surf style—that weren’t around five years ago. It wasn’t cool then and there was no niche for it, whereas now it’s considered more of an indie thing and is embraced in the indie world. There was no place for us at first. We did get invited to do a lot of luau and tiki parties, which I would have gladly done—but it was not lucrative because the money was not there.
DM: I think that living next to the beach absolutely had an influence though because in an abstract way—the ocean is so grand and vast and it helps put perspective in your consciousness that you need to slow down and focus on the bigger picture as opposed to being from the big city where you feel hurried, which could speed up your process and imagination in a helpful way … for a band that after six years is barely finishing our first album. In a good way, though—a good way.
You mentioned in another interview that the song ‘Summer Fun’ is about how you’re not a beachy, summery band.
PS: Because we have a surf-style guitar sound people like to put us in that category and rightfully so, but none of our songs have ever been about the beach or summery things. Most of them are not that happy. But the guitar riffs and licks are ‘summer fun’ so we did that more as a rag or as a joke.
DM: We’re not trying to be that. We wrote that song as a satire.
So how would you describe your own perception of Tijuana Panthers?
CW: I don’t really know how to describe it. That’s a tough one to answer—WHY DON’T YOU ASK ME SOMETHING I CAN ANSWER? That’s my Lee Ving response. After they played ‘New York’s Alright’ on the New Wave Theater show, the host asked him, ‘Is Fear a rich man’s pleasure?’ And he said ‘Ask me something I can F****** answer.’ You should put that in the interview, but leave out the f-word though. [F-word removed due to irresistible politeness of request—ed.]
DM: Are you going to talk about when we were in Colorado together?
I will say that neither Colorado nor Vancouver is the same without the Tijuana Panthers. I hadn’t seen Chad in years. I was in Vancouver and saw a flyer for Tijuana Panthers with Hanni El Khatib on a telephone pole. I didn’t even think he’d have the same number but I called and sure enough it was him. What did you think when you answered?
DM: You knew who it was—you saw the number and ran away from us. Then came back and was like, ‘It was this guy I used to ride scooters with.’
CW: It was an important phone call because you were like a remnant from my childhood. Even though you’re not mod anymore, it brings back good memories of an important time in my life of innocence and exploration. Exploring the roads, my first cigarette—even though I don’t smoke. A lot’s happened since then.
Yes—I’m lucky enough to know the younger Chad and the emerging adult—and maybe a little jaded—Chad.
CW: You mean oblivious, right?
PS: Is that how you want to be perceived? I think what he means is certain things don’t excite Chad the way they excite other people.
DM: It’s like if someone says to you, ‘I’m falling in love with this girl—she’s awesome and she’s gonna be my future,’ Chad will be like, ‘That’s cool, I guess. Love’s hard.’
PS: It comes off jaded—but it’s not.
CW: No, that’s cool—I’ll take it.
DM: I’m more cynical than jaded. I say the dark shit.
PS: I’m just like a baby—it’s all new to me. I just take it all in and it’s wonderful.
DM: Something to know about Chad is that whenever and wherever he sleeps, no matter what the temperature, he has to be in his underwear. Whether it’s in the van or someone’s house and there’s wives and people around.
CW: Yeah, but it’s not an exhibition—I’m in a sleeping bag, or under the blanket.
DM: I have pictures that prove otherwise.
PS: L.A. RECORD does not want to hear about this.
Don’t worry—this is all going in. What bands are you into now?
PS: Wounded Lion. Dante Vs Zombies.
DM: I’ve always had a good time seeing Pangea. Phil and I have recently been influenced by Orange Juice and I’m on a big David Byrne kick. Whenever I listen to the Buzzcocks, it reminds me of our intention—not that we meet their standards but like it’s just good and fun. Jonathan Richman, who I just saw in L.A., is someone I feel I can really relate to on some level.
CW: 80s Christian alternative is definitely an influence. Like Altar Boys. Undercover.
PS: That’s not a joke, by the way. I thought it was when I first heard Chad say that but then I looked up the stuff he was talking about. There’s some really interesting stuff going on there—much more interesting than a lot of the other shit that was going on at the time. Some of it is pretty crappy, but some of it is a lot cooler than other stuff from that era.
What exactly is so interesting about 80s Christian alternative?
CW: I lost a lot of my cassettes so it’s hard because it’s from my childhood and I don’t remember it all. A lot of it was trying to emulate secular bands but they do it in a way that it sounds like something different. But some of the adult contemporary stuff is really interesting to me because it doesn’t sound like anything else—it’s like they just came up with this sound completely on their own. Michael W. Smith is an example. It brings me back to my childhood.
What made it different?
CW: It had its own vibe. One song ‘Ba Ba Ba Ba’ by a band called the 77s that I like—it’s a cool video, too. It’s a gem because they have a lot of stuff and not all of it’s that good so this one thing they did really stands out. A band called Undercover—they were kind of a quasi-punk band but I don’t think they would classify themselves as punk. But I think it borrows from that and I don’t think that’s what they intended … but what they came up with was very interesting. It was really weird the way they sounded and the way they dressed and everything. Even though I grew up in the church and as a Christian, I’m always amazed by people who boldly make all these praise songs in the face of society. I guess I’m a fan of the underdog and usually things that people passionately hate and think are really stupid—not anything bad of course, but I appreciate that it’s kind of ironic when you have these bands that are playing punk music but the message is completely the opposite. It’s funny in a way. It’s interesting to hear those kinds of words praising God being sung to music that in its own way says the opposite. I find it ironic, funny and interesting all at the same time.
DM: I’m not interested in 80s Christian alternative. I’m not influenced by it. However, the church where we all met—Grace Church in Cypress where Chad’s dad worked—used to have hardcore shows and people would beat each other up. Maybe I had a lot of anger or angst but I liked hardcore culture. And maybe it was a trend and maybe I grew out of it but it made me appreciate bands like Minor Threat and later, Fugazi. I moved into a new town and church was a cool thing to do in seventh grade that transformed my thoughts later on. But there was a lot of skating, culture, abstract thinking and really cool people involved in our church. A lot of musically driven people, artists and their families. I came from a broken divorced home—I’d go home and watch HBO like a latchkey kid and then I was exposed to this diverse group of people like Pete Deeble, who gave me my first record player, and Matt Wignall, who everyone looked up to for his photography. Phil’s dad surfed and listened to cool music, Chad’s dad was a manager for surf bands—everyone skated or surfed. Our context was rich and I’m thankful for that because everyone had something to offer and came together and were themselves. It’s less than just a hardcore scene that originally attracted me and eventually exposed me to this gold group of people. It wasn’t so much the content as it was the people involved.
What cool experiences have you had touring, besides me showing up?
DM: Sleeping in the van was actually pretty fun our last tour. We didn’t think it would be but … Oh, lighting fireworks in a graveyard in Austin with the Growlers was fun. We can’t really afford the luxury of partying a lot. We mostly just sleep in the van and bowl.
I know Chad likes to take time out to play with cats whenever possible. Lifetime total, do you play with kittens more or go bowling more on tour?
DM: Bowling is kind of a tradition on tour.
PS: That’s a tough question because on the last tour with Delta Spirit we crashed at a lot of different people’s pads and a lot of them had cats for Chad to play with. Bowling happens when we have some time before a show. It’s a thing that we do to relax when we get to a town and have some time to kill.
Would the ultimate Tijuana Panthers party somehow combine bowling and kittens?
CW: No, because I’m not a real good multi-tasker. I like to focus on one thing at a time. And if kitties are there, it’d be too hard to align the necessary bodily coordination involved in bowling. I’d rather do those tasks separately and just have one or the other.
DM: We love kittens—we would never bowl at them.
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