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23 May 2017

Surf-Inspired Rock: Long Beach's Tijuana Panthers return to Pappy and Harriet's

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With a band name like the Tijuana Panthers, there has to be a great story behind it … right?

The Long Beach garage-punk trio will be hitting the stage at Pappy and Harriet’s on Friday, June 2.

During a recent phone interview, guitarist Chad Wachtel told me the story behind that infamous name.

“The album we did a long time ago, called Max Baker, is actually named after someone with that name,” Wachtel said. “He used to own a liquor store. He lived across the street from Phil (Shaheen), and Phil grew up with this guy. He was pretty rough; he smoked a lot of cigarettes and drank mostly hard stuff. He unfortunately passed away a few years ago, but he used to take trips to Mexico, and one time, he got a porcelain panther in Tijuana and ended up in a knife fight. He came out of it and got home. Phil sees him, and he said, ‘Hey, Max!’ waving at him, and Max was like, ‘Here, have this!’ and gives him the panther and walks away—so that’s where it comes from. True story and actual story! Jamie, Phil’s wife, said to us, ‘You guys should be the Tijuana Panthers!’”

The Tijuana Panthers met each other in a church camp while they were growing up and later decided to form a band. At first, Wachtel was hesitant, given he didn’t enjoy performing in front of audiences.

“We didn’t form at the camp, but it is sort of an unlikely story, isn’t it?” Wachtel said. “That’s where I met the other guys in the band, Dan (Michicoff) and Phil (Shaheen). I grew up in the church my whole life. My parents served in the youth department, and my dad drove the buses for the youth department. They dedicated their lives to serving in the church. We didn’t form a band until we were out of high school, and it was during college. It was just me and Phil at first, and he and Dan had been in a band called the Fancy Lads. That band broke up, and Phil wanted to play music. He asked me to jam, and I was reluctant to do that, but Phil said, ‘Let’s make solidified songs, and let’s play a show.’ Phil got me up there, and here we are.”

When Wachtel tells the story of the Panthers’ Semi-Sweet, released in 2013, it seems amazing the album was ever released at all, even though the album is now considered an underground gem by music-lovers.

“When we made those recordings, we had no idea what we were doing in the studio,” he said. “Orlando, the guy who recorded it, he had gone to recording school and was just starting out with his own home studio. He wasn’t into anything surf-rock-inspired. He recorded a few bands, and no one like ours at all. He’d be like, ‘So, what do you guys want?’ and we’d be like, ‘Uhhh, we don’t know. Just plug the guitar in, and some drums.’ We were all pretty green, and that was the main challenge—trying to get that sound we wanted. That album is really not the sound that we wanted. It’s not Orlando’s fault; it was us not knowing how to record. People still love those recordings.”

In 2015, the band released Poster.

“The recordings on that are really dialed in,” Wachtel said. “That album has a nice balance. Richard Swift recorded that album with us, and he said, ‘I want to do something more high-fi.’ The previous album we did, Wayne Interest, was super lo-fi. It was straight analog and super-blown-out.”

The term “surf rock” is being applied to a lot of garage bands today—even though the elements of true surf rock are not present in the music. While Tijuana Panthers are certainly a great rock ’n’ roll band, they aren’t necessarily a surf-rock band, even though Wachtel said the genre is present in their influences.

“I was inspired a lot by surf music, including pop stuff by the Beach Boys,” he said. “If people said, ‘Hey, you sound like the Beach Boys,’ I’d be like, ‘Oh, cool.’ … Sometimes the general population doesn’t hear our non-surf influences, and I’m not too offended by that. I don’t expect them to pick up on little subtleties here or there. I think that’s one of the fundamental elements of what we do, but I don’t consider us a ‘surf-band,’ and I’d be real self-conscious if we found ourselves on a bill with a traditional surf band and thought, ‘I hope these guys don’t think we’re traditional surf.’”

Wachtel told me an amusing story about the first time the band played at Pappy and Harriet’s.

“We went and stayed at this hotel that was down the hill. I don’t remember what it was called, but it had this really cool vintage sign out front,” he said. “The place was kind of creepy. We found what we thought was blood on the sheets, which was kind of a bummer, and we decided we weren’t going to stay there again. This guy named Roger was the manager, and he was really friendly, and he was like, ‘Oh, you guys are a band?’ We tried to talk him into coming to the show. The night was cool, though, and there was a lightning storm, and I remember going out of the venue before we played and watching the lightning off in the desert.”

The Tijuana Panthers will perform with Matt Lamkin at 9 p.m., Friday, June 2, at Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, 53688 Pioneertown Road, in Pioneertown. Tickets are $15. For tickets or more information, call 760-365-5956, or visit pappyandharriets.com.

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