So yes, a fairly interesting man. And not only interesting, but unbelievably friendly and down-to-earth. One pleasant Spring evening in 2006, he allowed me to question him for over an hour and a half! Our words follow, mine in bold and his in plain text.
[ANSWERING MACHINE] You’ve reached 481-xxxx. Please leave a message for Merrell or Kim. Wait for the beep!
[beep! Beep beep beep!]
Hey Merrell, this is Mark Prindle from the internet. I was gonna call you tonight for an interview. Um, I think I have the time right... I’ll try again—
I’m here, I’m here.
Oh! Hey, there you are.
I was in the other room and, ha, heard you from a distance.
You have a big house?
Yeah, it’s kinda long and rambling, and I’ve got a 24-track studio in one end–
–and in the other end I’ve got the tiki lounge, where I do the Tiki Lounge TV show. It’s kind of built on...
Oh, that’s in your house?
Yeah, it’s kind of built onto my patio. I enclosed my patio. Then we’ve got an editing room in another part of the house. So it rambles along.
Wow. Do you record your actual CDs in there now?
Yeah. I recorded several albums in the studio. Let’s see, I’ve had that set up here since about 1999. Yeah, I’ve actually recorded a whole lot of people. A sax player, a keyboardist that worked with U2, a classical piano album, a couple of country albums for other people... besides doing my own recordings in here.
Do you have a name for the studio?
Well, I sort of just call it Ocean Records Studio.
Oh, OK. How often do you... it seemed like when I was trying to set this up... do you play out like every day of the week or something?
Well, it varies, Mark. I have a steady gig at this beautiful place right here on the beach in this little beach town of Grover Beach on the central coast of California. It’s kind of all Hawaiian themed, you know, they’ve got bamboo and thatching and all of that kind of stuff. And it’s a big outdoor venue, it’s all glassed in to protect it from the wind and I have this thatched-roof stage in one corner that they built for me. And I’ve been doing that gig for five years now, and I do it on Saturdays and Sundays in the afternoon. In fact, I just did that just today. I do it from noon to three, my time, every Saturday and Sunday. That’s seasonal; I do it from like the first of April to the end of September, because then it starts getting cold. But then I’m always playing somewhere on Friday night, or I’m playing out of town in the middle of the week, or Thursday... It just seems like in the summertime is when it gets to be my busiest time, you know, going out and doing other concerts and clubs. And luaus are a big thing now here on the coast of California. Everybody is doing a luau.
Yeah. I have four hula girls that dance, you know, in the show when I do that, and we do a whole set of Hawaiian music and we end with “Wipe Out” and they do a Tahitian kind of dance to “Wipe Out”. And then I mix it up with originals and oldies and surf music like that. So it’s really a variety, and it goes over with a lot of age groups.
Is that where you filmed “We Love Tikis” video?
That was filmed in my set that’s attached to my house.
Oh, OK! But those would be your hula girls, right?
Yeah. So are you taping this, Mark?
Yeah, is that OK?
Yeah, that’s OK.
After it’s all typed up I’ll email it to you to make sure I didn’t get anything wrong.
So where are you going to publish this?
Well it’s going to go on my website, first of all, which actually – believe it or not – gets about 4,000 individual visitors per day.
No, I’ve been doing it for ten years. And just because my writing is so ridiculous, I guess, people enjoy it. So they’re always...
Oh, did you send me something you wrote about “Fapardokly”?
Yeah, that goofy... yeah, that thing.
Yeah, a few of my fans read that and went, “What’s the matter with this guy?!” (Laughs)
Yeah... well... (laughs)
I said, “I don’t know, I’ve never met him. He’s probably all right...”
That’s just a... people... I don’t know. It’s something different. It’s fun to write. But man, I really, really love that HMS Bounty album. I’m gonna have to review that at some point.
Yeah, people just keep raving about that album, you know?
Well, you still like it I hope.
Oh yeah, yeah. Because it was a special time for me, you know, 1968, around the time of the summer of love. I was living in Hollywood at that time so we were playing with all these groups on the Strip like Sky Saxon and the Seeds and the Doors and, oh gosh, we played with Bloomfield, Electric Flag... we played with Chicago before they were called Chicago. They were called CTA.
They opened up for the HMS Bounty at some club in Pasadena or something, you know. And the Blues Image, gosh, who else? Canned Heat, Buffalo Springfield. All those different groups. Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane. They were all playing at that time, so we’d end up on the same bills as them.
And then I read online that the album kind of died a death because of Neil Diamond?!
Yeah. The people that signed us, which was Uni Records which was owned by MCA Universal City, they signed me and the group before they signed Neil Diamond. They put out our album and they put out a single that I think made it up to about number 28 or something like that on the Billboard charts. And then they signed Neil Diamond, they bought him from this little label out of Chicago or somewhere called Bang Records. You remember that?
I remember the label from his early records, yeah.
Yeah. And so he’d already had a hit, and we were just kind of going up the charts. And all of a sudden it was obvious, after they signed him all of the promotion at the label and everything went over to him. And everybody else on the label, including the Strawberry Alarm Clock, and they had a solo album out by Mars Bonfire the guy that wrote “Born to be Wild” for Steppenwolf...
And all of our albums just plummeted after that. It’s like all of the promotion on the whole label went to promoting Neil. We just kind of got left in the dust. That’s one reason why that band broke up, because we were doing some pretty high-profile concerts and everything and it looked like we were gonna have a hit record. And then all of a sudden, as fast as it happened, it’s gone. Interesting thing, Mark, the lead guitar player with me in that band, HMS Bounty, Bill Dodd, he’s been out of the area living in Denver, Colorado, for years and he just moved back here about a year ago, and he came down to my show today at the beach.
When was the last time you spoke to him?
Well, I’ve spoken to him over the years. Every two or three years we’d talk over the phone, but he’s just been back here for almost a year and I’ve seen him three or four times.
Did he stop playing music after that?
He did. He was working at a furniture factory. He’s kind of into cabinetry and making furniture and stuff. He quit playing after the HMS Bounty and then he got divorced. That took a toll on him. And, you know, he really didn’t pick it up that much again. He’s got a guitar again, but, you know, if you stop doing something and you let 25 or 30 years go by, it’s kind of hard to get back into it again. He’s trying to play again, but he’s just very rusty.
Yeah. Also, just last night, I listened again to the MU records, and... Is it pronounced “moo” or “M-U”?
And your Maui record? Man, those are great too. And the thing is, none of those bands sound at all similar. You’ve gone through so many different styles, and you’ve done such a good job with all of them.
Well thanks. But the thing about MU was I formed that band after HMS Bounty, when HMS Bounty broke up, and actually, in the last gasps of HMS Bounty, Randy Wimer, who became the drummer for MU, played some concerts in HMS Bounty, before we formed MU, when Jeff Cotton left Captain Beefheart’s band and joined us. Oddly enough, I haven’t seen him now in about 25 years and he’s gonna come and visit me on the 18th of July.
He lives in northern California. But the music styles, you know, when we all got together we were kind of into that spacey sort of blues-rock thing that we were doing, which they still haven’t kind of coined a title for what MU was really doing. And we did that in LA, playing a lot, and then when we moved to Maui... I don’t know, do you have the Sundazed double-disc thing?
OK, well that second disc was the stuff, it wasn’t really recorded in a professional studio, it was recorded on makeshift equipment in our house on Maui that Quicksilver’s engineer brought over. He just recorded us, and we didn’t have as many tracks or microphones or anything to work with, but we recorded this stuff and you can hear the difference in the LA recordings... the LA recordings had a better sound, but the music on the second disc got more into that tropical, Maui, I don’t know, psych-folk-rock-spiritual-whatever... something, you know? So we all kind of went through a musical change there, and I think I was more getting into that kind of acoustic sound, and that’s when I met Mary Lee, the violinist. So after MU broke up, it was just Mary and I and I ended up getting a deal and these studio musicians to play on it. So I just went more into that acoustical kind of sound. So that again changed my style. But if you listen to the Impacts’ “Wipe Out” album and then you think that the next album I recorded after that was the “Fapardokly”... (laughs) It’s quite a stretch.
So I have been through a lot of musical changes, and now I think the album I produced with William McEuen, “The Return to MU”... have you heard that one?
No, I still haven’t picked it up. I need to.
Oh, OK. Well, that’ll complete the whole picture on my journey. If you hear that, it’s got a little bit of surf, it’s got the kind of esoteric spiritual psych stuff, maybe not as much blues as there was in MU, but it sounds like the continuation of that Maui album and the second MU disc, if I would’ve just kept going. That’s what “Return to MU” sounds like. And Bill McEuen, who produced the first Allman Brothers Band, and all the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band stuff...
I recognize his name from my Steve Martin albums.
Yeah, Steve Martin, he did all of Steve Martin’s movies and those comedy records. When he heard me, he just thought he’d heard the greatest undiscovered talent in the world, you know, and he took me into his four-million-dollar studio in Santa Barbara, but he got so carried away, Mark, it took us almost seven years.
Oh, this, I read that he started putting too much strings on it, and...
That you had to take strings off of it because...
Yeah, we actually had to take stuff off. He was experimenting, and he said, “Oh, man, this is beyond the Moody Blues!” But he listened to all my albums and he did know some of my history and everything, and I didn’t know what to call this album. I was just writing and writing. He said, “Well, let’s make it a trilogy and do three albums’ worth.” So I just kept writing and writing, and I wrote enough for about two-and-a-half albums’ worth and he came up with the title of “Return to MU” because he said, “This has elements of your ‘Maui’ album and the MU album in it.” And I thought that was a good idea. So it’s kind of a concept album, and in a way it sort of tells the story of what I went through in some of the songs.
Yeah. I think it’s my best-recorded and best-produced work to date, “Return to MU.” Undoubtedly. Because so much time was spent on it, and members of Spirit and Jo Jo Gunn, and Nicky Hopkins who played with the Beatles and the Stones, they all played on it. We hand-picked them for special songs and stuff. Jay Ferguson, who also had a solo career after Spirit and Jo Jo Gunn, he’s all over it playing keyboard. And Dean, from Jan and Dean, is singing a lot of harmony on it with me. And it’s got one of the last things that John Cipollina recorded before he died.
He’s on it also. You oughta listen to that one.
Yeah, that sounds... OK, I’ll pick that up. I didn’t realize it was such a...
Yeah. Well that’s the thing that kind of bummed me out, Mark. I had great expectations for that album really selling, and with Bill McEuen’s reputation and the fact that he had over twenty million-sellers with all of the Steve Martin and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band stuff, I thought, “Wow, he’ll get it on a good label and he’ll really promote it.” Well, we were gonna get it on Warner Brothers, because that was the label he had worked with for 28 years, and right as we got the thing finally finished, Lenny Waronker and Mo Ostin – the two geniuses on Warner Brothers that had signed all of the great groups that were ever on Warner Brothers – left the label. They were forcing them to put out rap stuff, and they didn’t want to do it. So there he lost his two comrades at the label, and we would have gotten it out on Warner Brothers and probably had a really big promotion. And then Geffen Records offered to put it out, and they only wanted a one-record deal and Bill was trying to go for a three-record deal. So he held off on that, and it’s probably a good thing he did, because Geffen sold out and all of the groups that were on that label, most of them just fell by the wayside. So there we were without a label, and then I had this Japanese label that had put out some surf stuff, and they really liked what I was doing. And I sent it to them, and when they heard it they immediately wanted to put it out. So I let the Japanese label just put it out for Japan. And then there was this German label that had put some of my older sixties stuff out, and they heard it and thought it was great, so they wanted to release it in Europe and I let them do that. And then Sundazed, who put out, you know, Fapardokly, HMS Bounty, and MU, they put it out. But the problem was, and this is still unbelievable to me, we sent them the artwork and everything -- finished and all of the titles – and somebody in the label thought that it was an unreleased MU album from the seventies.
Oh my God!
Yeah. I couldn’t believe that that happened. And so, instead of my name being on the spine of the CD, they put “MU: Return to MU.” And on the inside somewhere it says, “Featuring Merrell Fankhauser.” Well, MU – the band – had nothing to do with it. So what that did, it made it get reviewed as an unreleased MU album. Two of the guys from MU – Jeff Cotton and Randy – were calling me going, “What’s up with this? Are you guys hard-up for promotion? Why is this big lie being perpetrated?” And I said, “Well, I had nothing to do with this. It was a slip-up at the label.” And here it is at Wal-Mart and Kmart, and it’s listed under MU. So I really didn’t even get any credit for my own solo album. And I talked to the president of the label, Bob Irwin, and he says, “Well, we’ve printed up 15,000 of those and we’ve gotta sell all of those because we’ve got all of these jackets printed. When that’s sold, we’ll reprint new jackets and we’ll correct that.” Needless to say, the CD has never sold the 15,000, and it really was just totally messed up because of that. I tried to e-mail people like Rolling Stone magazine and all kinds of magazines that they sent it to, and they were all thinking that it was a MU album. And I did get people like Richie Unterberger, I don’t know if you’ve read...
Yeah, that’s where I heard of you!
Yeah, that’s why I started looking up your stuff. That guy’s a great writer.
Yeah, and he’s put me in several of his books that he’s written. So he sort of straightened it out for me, and then people started contacting me going, “Oh, this is a solo album, this isn’t a MU album!” I went, “Duh!” you know?
Yeah, I was pretty depressed about it for over a year, and there wasn’t anything Bill McEuen or I could do. Bob Irwin, who used to seem like a nice guy, all of a sudden wouldn’t even speak to us. That’s the story of that. I’ve had a few other things come out since that. Probably one of the best is I did another instrumental surf CD called “Rockin’ and Surfin’.” And it’s just because all of these disc jockeys all over said, “Oh, you’ve gotta do another instrumental surf album.” I really didn’t want to do it, because most of the guys in my old surf band, the Impacts, have died now and I’m the only one – just me and the sax player – that are left alive. And, you know, I kind of just went, “Ahh, I don’t know if I want to do that.” But little by little I started writing some instrumental surf, and then I covered a couple of standards like “Pipeline” and “Baja” and put those on there. And this Japanese label, again, same label, Captain Trip, put that out and it sold really good for them. But it didn’t come out in the United States, and even though they import it and they have a distributor in Europe, it really didn’t get the big splash that it needed in the United States. But the one good thing that it did get, I covered “All Along the Watchtower” in an instrumental way, and did it with this really spooky surf guitar playing what Jimi Hendrix sang on the lead vocal. And I couldn’t believe it, I got an e-mail from Dick Clark Productions and they played it on the air on 1,500 stations one day. But there, again, because it’s an import and would only be in specialized music stores, it really didn’t sell that much. Had that been out on a label in the United States, I think it really would have sold good. And that’s probably one of the things I should try to do, is get a US label to put it out.
What has been your best-selling ever?
Best-selling ever... Well, probably I would say the HMS Bounty and MU albums have sold the most, only because they’ve been put out on so many labels. Even unbeknownst to me. For instance, the HMS Bounty album, the producers that produced it also produced Bad Company and the Doobie Brothers. Jack Hoffman and Norm Malkin. They made a deal with EMI Records in London, England, and they didn’t even let anybody in the band know that. And a year after it came out in the United States it came out in England and sold a lot. Then I found out it was on a Greek label, and it was also out in Australia. So they farmed it out to these other labels and didn’t let us know about it, and then it got re-released in the eighties, again, on a British label. Let’s see... then, I guess after that sometime, Sundazed put it out. So I think it’s been out on about seven different labels. And then the MU album, I counted that up a couple years ago and I think, counting the Italian releases and everything, it’s been on nine labels.
Yeah. It was on a Greek label and a German label, too, that I didn’t even know about.
So you weren’t getting royalties from it or anything?
It came out on United Artists, after it was released in the United States in 1971 it came out in ‘74 on United Artists Records in London. So I would say probably those two albums and the Impacts’ album. The Impacts’ “Wipe Out” album probably sold more than both of those albums put together, but when Del-Fi Records – and I don’t know if you’re all that familiar with Del-Fi...
I only know the name...
They put out a lot of surf bands, they put out Richie Valens, you know. The guy, Bob Keane, that ran the label, he was famous – and all of the people that produced for the label – for just not quite telling you what your product really sold. It was difficult to get anything out of him. And then he went back into business in 1994 and I got hold of him because he re-released the CD. Then he sold it to other foreign labels, and nobody knew about that. Japan and England and everything. And then I heard he sold the whole catalog to Warner Brothers, and they sold some of the surf stuff off to that Collectors’ Choice.
Yeah, I know that label.
So, you know, that album has really sold a lot. But try to get all of the royalties out of it...
Man. I was gonna say, you wrote “Wipe Out”!
Well, I wrote the original version, Mark, and it is slightly different than the Surfaris’ version, but I recorded it before they did. And the interesting thing was that Richard Delvy, who was working with the Surfaris as a producer and sometimes as a drummer, was in the studio when we recorded our version of “Wipe Out.” And what a lot of people don’t know is that we recorded the first version that came out on the Del-Fi album, and it only had one drum solo at the beginning of the album, and the words “wipe out” were screamed. Then they had us come back in to try to make it a single about four months later, and had us do three more versions of it with drum solos in it. And, you know, we always knew that the guy that was from the Surfaris that was in the studio heard our version, and the same producer that produced us produced them, and he just got them to learn it and they just changed the song. Our version had a sax in it and they took the sax out and brought my [sings riff] guitar part more out to the front and put the drum solos in it, and they had a big hit with it. Ours never got put out on a single. So that was another kind of a thing where you’re real close to grabbing the brass ring but just didn’t quite get it.
This must be where your Buddhism comes in (laughs), to deal with all this.
Yeah. Try and stay mellow through all of these ripoffs. And then I got so smart about contracts and everything that I think I actually could be a music attorney now because I’ve learned how to read those things (chuckles). But the weird thing was, when I got back together with the guy from Del-Fi in ‘94, he found the old contracts that we had signed. Because I was asking him, “Do you still even have the rights to this?” He pulled out this contract that this crooked producer, who took off with all of our money – Tony Hilder – signed with him, and he signed it to him for 52 years. And I never in my life heard of anybody, even from the Beatles or the Stones or anybody that you could think of, nobody in their right mind ever signed a contract for that long. But there it was.
Did it look genuine? Did it look real?
Yeah, yeah it did look real. We had it all checked out by an attorney and everything. And they had it on that microfilm stuff that they used to store stuff on. So the original microfilm was there and they could prove that it hadn’t been altered. But the guy, I don’t know, he got a couple thousand dollars back in 1962 for it, which would be a lot. That could darn near buy you a new car or something in 1962. He just signed it for 52 years thinking that he would get those royalties for all those years. And the thing that we didn’t know, because we never signed any songwriting contracts or artists’ royalty contracts, we never got a penny off of anything it sold and this guy even was collecting our songwriting royalties. So in 1994 I investigated all of this and I found out there was a 28-year copyright clause that had expired, and he didn’t know it. So I got all of the Impacts back together and we went and re-copyrighted all of the tunes that we cowrote and that I wrote by myself, and we got them all back.
Yeah. We got them all back. So we started getting little dribbles of money from 1994 to now, and that’s really what it is. You get the crumbs, actually. It might amount to six or seven hundred dollars a year, or something like that.
How do all of these people with no morals end up in the record industry?! How do you just rip people off like that? That’s unbelievable to me.
Yeah. Yeah. It used to happen all the time. And it happened to so many black groups. I ended up backing up a lot of black groups, like Little Anthony and the Imperials and the Coasters and the Isley Brothers. They would have these enormous hit records that would be in the Top Ten, and when I’d play with them they were driving old beat-up station wagons and everything. Here they’re the big stars and they’ve come to town and they drive up in this old station wagon and they’re barely getting their clothes together. And you’re thinking, “Oh these guys have gotta be rich.” They all had the same story. These managers would put them out on the road to go do all of these gigs, and meanwhile they’d be collecting all of their royalties and just feeding them little crumbs, just enough to keep them going.
Yup. That’s the story of the music business. There are several books written about that very thing. In fact, I don’t know if you’ve heard the story about Chuck Berry. One of his big tunes, I don’t know if it was “Maybelline” or something, he gets the record – he was on Chess Records – and he gets the record and he goes, “Well... who’s this other guy’s name on there as a songwriter? That’s gotta be a mistake; I didn’t co-write this song with anybody.” And the guy at the label tells him, “Oh, don’t worry. It’s the guy that does all my printing for my stationery and everything. I owe him a big bill, so I just gave him part of the song.” (Laughs)
Yeah! And that’s the truth.
MAN! That’s pretty sleazy.
So one of the other interviews that I read with you, in 1999 I think, said that you would prefer to move back to Hawaii. Is that still the case? You sound like you’re pretty established in California.
Well, I am. I would never... I actually made enough money to buy this house in ‘98, and it’s in a real nice neighborhood, and it’s close to the ocean and everything. It’s where I lived, in my hometown, you know, when I went to high school and everything, I moved here in my sophomore year of high school. I really have roots here, and my sister still lives here. So I don’t think I would ever get rid of this house, but kind of my dream is if I could make enough money I would like to buy some place in Hawaii and be able to go back and forth. Maybe play over there in the wintertime or something when it’s colder here, and then come back here for the summer seasons.
I’ve been reading all this about how you lived in the jungle for a long time. How isolated was that?
Well, it was pretty isolated, Mark. I was 23 miles from the nearest town, and it’s out a winding road through the jungle, and it’s beautiful. As you go out on the eastern side of Maui, going towards Hana, it’s 45 miles of jungle until you get to the little village of Hana. And then the little village of Hana’s only got a few thousand people in it. But it’s like in the middle of the jungle. Well, not in the middle of the jungle, it’s situated along the coastline. And I had to drive down two miles of dirt road to get to my house, and then I parked and I had to walk another quarter of a mile through a jungle trail, across two footbridges across the stream, to get to my house, which was kind of like a Tarzan-type...
You built it, right?
It was a two-story house that I built next to this stream, and it had a little waterfall up from it and everything. It was just an idyllic place, and if I could have bought that I would have bought it. But I was leasing it. 200 a month, but it had no electricity. When I went there there was no electricity, no running water, nothing. And I put up a small hot-water heater and a gas stove, and I would carry propane tanks. I eventually got a solar panel and hooked it up to a car battery, so I had a little bit of juice. Then I built this deck over the edge of the stream and I moved a bunch of rocks and made myself a little pool, because it was only probably three or four feet deep, but when I moved this rocks then I had a pool that was over five feet deep. So I made myself like a swimming pool right there and it always had flowing water flowing through it. I could just get up in the morning and dive off my deck into this pool.
But that’s no way to be a pop star!
This was just you and Mary?
Yeah, well, when I first built it, she wasn’t even there. Then she moved in there with me. It was kind of difficult coming home from gigs late at night. We’d have to drive to the other side of the island, about 45 miles to Lahaina, to do a gig that we would maybe get $150 for for the two of us. Then we’d have to drive all the way back, and sometimes the battery in the flashlight would go out, and you’re going down this trail with your guitar and violin trying to get back to the house, and you’d either get caught in a rainstorm or you’d be feeling around lost in the jungle in the dark trying to get home. And one night, she had had a little too much to drink somewhere we’d played, and it was in the winter so the stream was up high and it was rushing pretty good. We went across the bridge and I was holding her hand, and it was a moonlit night so you could see, and she lost her balance and pulled us both into this roaring stream. I had this real expensive Martin acoustic guitar and she had this $4,000 violin, and both of our arms went up in the air to try to save our instruments even though we were about to be swept under this bridge and swept away. We threw our instruments up on the bridge and I got up and pulled her out, and I was pretty mad at her and saying, “Why did you have to drink that much?” and, you know, getting on her case, and then all of a sudden the whole thing just seemed ridiculously funny and we just both sat there and laughed about it for a while.
How long were you out there?
I lived in that house that I built for seven-and-a-half years.
Wow. And what was your day-to-day life? I mean, were there a lot of animals there in the jungle?
Well, you’ve got these geckos that are these beautiful green lizards that eat bugs and mosquitos and stuff, you’ve got those running all over and they come in the house. Even with screen doors and whatnot they still find a way to sneak in. So you’re living with all these lizards all the time. And then there’s mongoose out there, and they brought them over to try to get rid of the rats. But the problem was that...
There’s no predators for the mongoose?
...the rats are kind of like more nocturnal and the mongoose weren’t. So their cycles didn’t get together, though they probably did help cut some of the rat population down. But the mongoose would come and try to, you know, they’re like a big beaver or a squirrel kind of thing, and they’d try to come through and they’d chew right through your screen door to get in the house and try to get food and stuff. So did the rats. So that part of it wasn’t that good. And the other thing that you’d have to watch out for was centipedes and scorpions. I got bit by a centipede. I’ve only been bit twice in all the 17 years I lived in the islands, and I never got bit by a scorpion, but man, I saw some pretty spooky ones over there.
Yeah, I saw a couple when my wife and I went to Hawaii on our honeymoon. We ran into a scorpion in our room. That was a little frightening.
Wow, what island was that?
I think it was on Kaua’i.
Yeah, we went to Kaua’i and the Big Island.
Really nice. Big Island was weird. I didn’t realize all the volcanoes, you know, it’s just...
Yeah. But then way up in the jungle, in the high rain forest, you have wild boar.
It’s almost like that TV show “Lost,” I don’t know if you’ve seen any of those.
I’ve heard a lot about it but I don’t watch...
Boars had chased them and gored one guy. I got into growing marijuana (laughs), “Maui wowee,” and one time I was walking through the jungle just singing some tune and all of a sudden I heard this snorting and this huge, 300-pound pig with these big tusks started chasing me. So I threw down my seedlings and climbed up this tree and this darn thing had kind of stomped all of my little plants into the ground. He butted the tree and I was throwing sticks and everything and it finally went away. But the Hawaiians would take bayonets, old World War II bayonets, and for sport they would jump on the back of a wild boar and slit its throat.
‘Cause, you know, they like pig, so... But they did it in a real macho way to kill these things. Some people would shoot them and stuff...
That must have been charming.
(laughs) Charming. But if you went for a walk way high up in the rain forest, that was one thing you had to be careful about. Wild boar. And there’s no snakes on the island. But what my day would be like, I was writing a lot of songs and stuff then and I would buy these little cheap Radio Shack tape recorders that you can get – because the cassette machines had come out by then – and I’d put batteries in them. When I wrote the song “Waterfall,” my batteries had gone dead in my tape recorder and I woke up in the middle of the night because I heard the waterfall and the stream trickling by my house, and it sent me into this [sings rhythm] kind of rhythm. And I woke straight up in bed, didn’t have any paper, we had a pen and I found an old grocery sack, just a brown paper bag, and I wrote the whole song on there. But I was afraid to go to sleep because I was afraid I’d lose the melody and everything. So I stayed up until about dawn, jumped in my car and ran into town to a friend’s house that I knew had a tape recorder, and I slapped a tape in there and sang it into the tape recorder so I wouldn’t lose it. (Laughs) But I would write songs and then most of my gigs would end up being on the weekends. And sometimes I would get up and there was a Tibetan meditation center near my house that had been built. When I built my place, there was probably only three or four other houses on this whole two-mile road that went down toward the ocean in the jungle. By the time I moved out of there, there was probably about a dozen houses. But it was still real separated. Apart from each person was probably about an eighth of a mile or so. So that’s where I took refuge with the High Lama from Tibet when he came over and I got into the Tibetan Buddhism and everything. So I spent a lot of time doing that, and then I’d have to go into town and go shopping. But back then, I could rent on the two-and-a-half acres I lived on with only 200 a month. And I had no utility bills. Back then you could fill up a five-gallon propane tank for eight dollars. I grew a lot of food, too, and I had bananas and papayas and all of that kind of stuff. So a person could live pretty cheap.
Was that when you first became interested in Buddhism? Or was it before you moved there?
Well, Jeff and Randy had studied everything from the Rosicrucians to all kinds of Christian philosophy, and they were always trying to get me into whatever they were into. We went to the yoga fellowship place in Santa Monica and meditated back when the meditation stuff was happening a lot. So I sort of got interested in Buddhism then, but the people that I leased my land and the house from were really into the Buddhism, and especially the Tibetan Buddhism. They got a bunch of people together to pay to have all the Lamas come over there and to have this week-long retreat. I got to play the first music from this hemisphere… those Lamas had never heard anything close to American music, or rock n roll, or anything. So I was like the first person to play that kind of music for the High Lama from Tibet.
How did he respond to it?
He loved it, and he asked me, “Where does the music come from?” I said, “Everywhere.” And he said, “Very good answer. You’re very smart.” And then he gave me the name Lodro Jantsao, which means “Oceans of Intelligence.”
And I wrote a song about that. So I don’t know if he gave me that name because I had to go look for oceans of intelligence, or he felt that I had that in me (laughter). I still don’t know, but it was a great experience.
Wow! And you’re actually a Buddhist monk?
Yeah, they ordained me as a Buddhist monk and I have papers for it and everything under that name. I went through the whole ceremony.
Do you still practice Buddhism or the meditation?
I meditate. Sometimes I don’t get a chance to meditate every day, but I do try to meditate in the morning if I can. Or before I’m going to go to a gig I’ll sit down in my easy chair in the living room and just go back to my Tibetan meditation and clear my mind. Just try to be real centered for what I’m gonna do. I don’t think… two or three days is the most that goes by where I don’t have a chance for a little meditation. It really does seem to recharge me and keep me going.
Now, I’m checking online… the ones I have by you are the MU, the “Maui,” “Fapardokly,” HMS Bounty, and then I also have “Dr. Fankhauser” and “California Live.” Those are the other two I have.
Oh, wow. Did you have those on the French CDs, those two, “California Live” and “Dr. Fankhauser”?
Yes. Yeah, “California Live” I have on Legend Music.
Yeah. And the “Maui” album, what label is that on?
I have that one on… Subliminal Sounds?
Subliminal Sounds. OK. That’s a guy from Sweden.
And he wants to re-release that worldwide now.
Oh, this copy that I have is only from Sweden?
Yeah. It’s not released in the United States. It’s like I’ve become a legend in the United States and most of my music is really available on European or Japanese records (laughter). I do have a bunch in the United States, but I think I have probably more foreign releases now than I do US.
Is that because the US industry is all about money, money, money, or…?
Well, I think, Mark, it actually is that the kind of music that I do, they probably can’t put it into what they would say is a commercial bag, you know? To market it. And I find that with so many people that I know still from the sixties. All they want to hear is what they did in the past. And so my newer music, it’s harder to get it out on American labels. Whereas the Europeans, gosh, they come over and they visit me and they treat me like I’m Elvis Presley or something, you know? It’s really strange. Like this Swedish group I interviewed for the TV show, they came here about a month ago and I opened the door and the guy just stood there looking at me going, [Swedish accent] “Wow! It really is you!” (laughs)
It’s kind of a funny feeling, you know? But everybody says the same thing. It’s so hard to get anything out on American labels. And the music business has changed so much. All of the old guys at the record labels that knew me and William McEuen and other people, they’ve all moved on or passed away now. So it’s younger people that are into hip-hop and rap and stuff that are in the labels now. It’s really a sad commentary, because what they call rock n roll on these awards shows, most of it, we call each other up and just want to puke. They’re going, “They’re calling THAT rock n roll?! They don’t even know what they’re talking about!”
Yeah. You know, I’m still interested in hearing new music, and occasionally people will send me things that I really like, but none of them get radio play. You cannot find anything worth hearing on a major label or on the radio.
Yeah. The other thing about that, Mark, is that Clear Channel bought up so many radio stations, and they’re totally bought off by these big conglomerates and labels. They are paying them to play their stuff. They might mask it as advertising money or something, but it’s so bought-off that any of these other “specialty musics” – as we’d call them – or musics that are different genres, they may never have a chance to be heard. I’ve got a list of about maybe 50 to 100 stations across the United States, most of them are small little FM stations here and there, that still all play my music and they’re real loyal to DJs. In fact, I just talked to this guy Rockin’ Robert Hutchinson in Cincinnati. He’s on a station called WAIF, and he’s been playing my music for 25 years and he had his 25th anniversary on the air the other day. So there’s a lot of little stations like that, and I’m thankful to those guys for playing my music. And whenever a label puts something out by me, I try to get them to give me a certain amount for free that I can send to these DJs, because I know the labels aren’t going to do it.
It’s good to know that there are still radio stations out there that do that.
Yeah. With real DJs.
Just out of curiosity one time I looked at Clear Channel’s website, and they say right out that they’re an advertising company. That’s all that they’re concerned about.
I mean, I’m only 32, but I at least grew up in the seventies and early eighties so I could still hear good music on the radio. If I were young now, I think I would just hate music. It’s so bad.
Yeah. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Georgia.
Oh wow. And you’re, what, in New York?
That’s why you don’t have a New York accent. See, I was born in Louisville, Kentucky. I don’t know if you ever read that.
Yeah, I saw that. How long were you there?
I was there until I was twelve years old, and my dad said he’d had it with the snow and the cold. He was a racecar driver and a pilot – he even raced at Indianapolis a couple of years – and it was always his dream to move out to California. And I’m so glad he did, because he got us all out here. I’ve been living in this same area that I’m in right now since 1958.
Yeah. So how long have you been in New York?
Yeah, I still like it. I like the convenience of it.
Yeah. Yeah, that’s good. What part of New York?
I’m in Manhattan.
Oh, you live in Manhattan! Yeah, there are several stations that play me there.
Yeah. This one guy, I don’t know the call letters of the station, but his name is Arnie and he has this radio show at night called “Plastic Tales.” He loves the HMS Bounty album; he plays it all the time. And then I was on that WFMU from New Jersey. And they’ve, over the years, played me a lot.
Oh, that’s a good station.
Yeah. They’ve played me a lot. What were the other ones…? WFIA or something…?
Now, it’s really interesting to me that you’re one of these guys who clearly has two completely different audiences. I was thinking about another band that had that the other day and I’m kind of blanking on it now, but it’s almost like… Oh, it’s the Beach Boys, they also have two different types of audiences. They have the people—
How would you, just of curiosity, categorize or explain these two different audiences?
One is the people who were around at the time, I would say, who are older now and still really love the hits. You know, really want to “Wipe Out.” Then there’s the younger – and I know there’s an audience between here – but there’s so many younger people who are into your stuff.
You’re exactly right.
They’re into when you kind of started folk rock, and the MU stuff that’s so strange.
That’s exactly… I get letters and stuff from 18, 19, 20 year-olds, like, “My God, I just found the HMS Bounty album!” or, “The ‘Fapardokly’!” or, “The MU!” And they’re just ranting and raving. And some of them are guitar players, you know? And a lot of them aren’t from the east coast. They’re asking me, “What chords did you play here?” and, “Do you have music for this?” That comes up almost every week, there’s some young person. And then, when instrumental surf came back really strong, like—
With “Pulp Fiction”?
Yeah, the late eighties and the nineties. ’94 after “Pulp Fiction.” There were all these young bands writing me, e-mailing me, calling me if they could find me, and going, “Oh my God, I’ve learned every song on that Impact album,” and, “You’re my hero!” and that kind of stuff. (Chuckles) I was just going, that’s pretty neat to know that young people like this stuff and are trying to play it. And I was playing in ’92, ’93, with the Revels – that was also a surf band from around here that had a hit song called “Church Key”; it wasn’t a big hit back then, an instrumental song. But unbeknownst to them and to me, a song that I had recorded with them, I think it was about 35 years previous, ended up in “Pulp Fiction.” Did you see the movie?
In that scene where they took Bruce Willis and that black guy down in that—
To the Gimp?
Your song is in that scene? (laughs)
Yeah, I’m playing the guitar that goes [sings guitar part].
And it’s “Comanche” with this… Our sax player didn’t play the riff on it, a famous sax session man named Plas Johnson played this wailing sax on that. Well, to make a long story short, we could not believe that the song made it into the movie, and about six months later the first check that the band got for artist royalties was $380,000.
[whispers in awe] Oh my God!
Yeah. We had to split it up amongst about ten people, but I still ended up getting a little piece of that, and I think that was the single biggest royalty check I ever got in my life.
So I’ve had a few songs in surf movies, and I’ve had one in this kind of, now it’s like a cult movie, called “Shadows in the Storm.” Michael Madsen and… oh, what was the guy who was in “Deliverance”?
Ned Beatty. And Mia Sara, this sort of Indian actress. It was called “Shadows in the Storm,” and I had a song in that one. I had a bunch of stuff in surf movies, but none of them were big blockbusters like “Pulp Fiction.”
Like I said, I’m really grateful to Richie Unterberger for writing all those books because he got me into so many bands I never would have heard of. Now, was your stuff already unavailable on CD when he started writing about you? Or he did play a role in that?
No, I think most of my stuff was out on CD.
OK. Then was there a point when… I mean, have you always had this younger audience, or did this just start in the nineties? I mean, obviously you did in the sixties?
Well, no, I started communicating with young people in the eighties, actually, them writing me letters and stuff. Because instrumental surf music sort of started bubbling back into existence in the late to mid eighties, and then a lot of young bands and stuff that heard the older stuff – maybe because their parents had some of it – started going, “Wow, that’s really neat,” and they all started forming these little combos again and playing that kind of music. I couldn’t believe it. People would walk up to me after concerts and stuff and say, “Yeah, I’m 15 years old, and can you show me how to play this?” So I think it’s been happening for a while, but there was just no way to get in touch with me for people to know anything. When I lived on Maui for years, I didn’t even have a phone. And it frustrated all these record companies and agents in California that wanted to book me, because the only way they could get hold of me was by writing a letter to my post office box.
When did you finally move out of the jungle? Or why, why did you decide to?
Well, I started feeling that I needed to record. I just felt that I’d written all these songs there and everything. Actually, when MU broke up I wanted to move back to the mainland then. But I’d started putting roots down in Maui and playing a lot of gigs and stuff, doing the opening act for the concerts that, whatever, happened every three or four months. But I just was frustrated that I wrote all these songs and I couldn’t get them recorded. That was always my dream, that I could have built a studio on Maui. When I saw that that just wasn’t going to happen and I was just going to stay in the jungle and people would forget about me, I ended up flying back and forth to the mainland about six times a year. I’d fly over here, do a bunch of clubs and concerts, and make enough money to go back over there. And I’d do some recordings here. But then all these labels would get frustrated because I wouldn’t be around to promote the music. I’d go back to Maui. So around 1986 things got pretty rocky with Mary and I. It looked like we were going to split up, and I just decided, well, now’s the time to make the move. It was just time to leave the island, come over here and try to get something going. So I ended up being friends with a record producer in Hollywood that had a studio, Joe Klein, and ended up recording “Calling From a Star,” “Dharmic Connection,” and “The Mothership” in his studio with parts of Steve Miller’s band. Gary Malabar, the drummer, and some other well- known studio musicians. Peter Noone from Herman’s Hermits came in and sang a little harmony with me. So that was in the late seventies, and I was already deciding that I’d better move back over here. So by 1986, that was it. I just decided to move back over here and go for it.
And you’d been with Mary for about 15 years, right?
I think around 12. Yeah, around 12 years.
Man, that’s depressing.
I’ve gone through so many changes now, and now I’m with a really nice lady, her name’s Kim. She sings, dances the hula, and she performs with me at all the shows I’m doing now with all the other hula girls and everything.
Oh! Where’d you meet her? When you were playing?
Yeah. And we’ve been together for about a year-and-a-half now, and we just got engaged.
Yeah! We’re having a great time performing and everything, and the show is just going over really good. What you were talking to me about before, about how you knew some of that older music and everything, I’m finding that there’s still a huge audience for that music out there. You know, the stuff that started in the sixties, and even in the fifties. So this variety of music that we do, from fifties, to sixties, to seventies, to my newer originals – and then I do a bunch of Hawaiian standards – it just seems like I’ve really found a niche. I’d say that all over California there isn’t anybody doing what I’m doing, and that’s what people say and what makes people keep wanting to hire me. I’m just glad I’m still working and I can still find some label somewhere, even if it is in Europe, that’ll put out the music.
You might still play a MU track or an HMS Bounty track every once in a while?
Oh, wow. I thought it was just surf music you played live.
No, I play psychedelic sixties stuff, I play blues, I play a little country, I play oldies – we have a whole medley of doo-wop songs from the fifties and Kim sings harmony with me on all of that. I play with a band, and what I also do, and what we do a lot down here, is I make a bass and drum backup track in my studio for these songs and then we play to that. So if I’ve got the bass and drums – and sometimes I’ll put a little keyboard part on it or something too – and then there’s two of us singing and the guitar playing, it sounds like you’re listening to a whole band, you know?
That way there’s still a beat there and people can get up and dance and stuff. And then I have several drummers I work with, and whenever there was a gig… In fact, in the nineties, I was playing in three different bands. I was playing in a band with Ed Cassidy from Spirit. I Don’t know if you’ve heard any of that; we did an album called “On the Blue Road.”
I’ve read about that, no.
It’s kind of a blues rock album. And Cass, Ed Cassidy, lives right around the corner from me. He’s 83 now. He doesn’t go out and do gigs, but he still plays and I occasionally get him here in the studio to record something or be on television with me. And I hadn’t seen the drummer from Canned Heat since 1968, and unbeknownst to me he was living about 20 miles south of me here, and for several years he was a fan of my show, “Tiki Lounge.” And one day he happened to meet a mutual friend of mine, and he says, “Yeah, Merrell lives right up here in Arroyo Grande.” “No kidding!” He brought him over, we got back together, and I did a whole special on Canned Heat. He gave me footage from Woodstock that had never been seen before, never in the film, and I got to put it on my TV show. Now that was kind of neat.
I had a birthday party here on my 60th birthday. I had Fito, the drummer from Canned Heat; I had Ed Cassidy; I had the harmonica player from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band; I had Mary Ramsey, from 10,000 Maniacs, the singer and violinist; let’s see, who else was here? Dick Van Dyke’s son. I had about 65 people here, we taped the whole thing and I made a TV show about that. And we made a DVD that we’ve been selling called “The Best of Tiki Lounge.” I oughta send you that; you’d probably get a kick out of it.
Neat, OK. Yeah, I saw that, and I don’t know if this is up to date or not, but I saw something saying that “Tiki Lounge” airs on a lot of stations in California, Hawaii, and then Michigan somehow?
Oooh – Actually, I know it’s getting to be a real long time, but if I could just have you for another ten minutes…
I have all these questions, and I didn’t even get to them! Like, did you really have an out- of-body experience when you had your heart attack?
I came back over here, it was after I moved back from Maui, and I was really just so gung-ho to get back to work and really get something going… because I would come over here, get something going in the past, and then just go back to Maui again. And the same thing happened with the “Maui Album.” I came over first, then I brought Mary over, and this well- known producer – Dino Airali, that produced Phoebe Snow and a bunch of other people, he’s the one that produced “Poetry Man,” her big hit – he just thought that my music was heaven sent and he took me into the big studio at MCA Records and recorded most of the songs that were on the “Maui Album.” Then he set me up with some studio time in San Francisco to record the rest of it, because back in those days that was always the problem, trying to get your music recorded. Because it takes thousands of dollars to get it recorded. You’d have to find some producer that was willing to either put the money up to take you in the studio, or take a rough demo to a label and get the label interested in putting money up for you. So… oh, I forgot what the question was now! I spaced out.
Oh, about when you had your heart attack.
OK, yeah. So what I was going to say was when I came back over I was just so gung-ho, I was doing an album and I was doing a tour at the same time. And when I would get done with a date, I would run back down to Hollywood to this studio where I had this producer setting this stuff up for me, and I’d record. I think I worked, I don’t know, it was over a month- and-a-half straight, seven days a week without a day off. And I had no idea I had anything wrong with my heart, because when I had left Maui a few months earlier I had hiked through the crater at 10,000 feet. You know, I was a little short of breath, but there were some 28 year- olds walking along with me and they were just as out of breath as I was. And I went wind- surfing the day before I left. I thought I was in good shape. After coming over here and just working for over a month straight, the first thing that happened one night in the studio was I kind of got this pain right straight in my chest and I felt like I couldn’t breathe good. I noticed that my left arm was tingling, and I’d been playing guitar for about three hours straight and I just thought, well, I’m just over-exerted. So I went out in the lobby, there was an air conditioning vent there, and I laid down on the couch and cold, cool air came in. It was in the summer. And all of a sudden the pain went away and I could breathe all right. The engineer said, “Aw, that happens to all you guys that come here to LA from some clean-air climate. You’re not acclimated to the smog yet!” And I went and did this next concert about a week afterwards, and bam, that was it. About eight songs into it the same thing happened, only twice as bad. I went into the bathroom and there was a stagehand back there. He saw what I was going through and I explained my symptoms, and said, “Well, I’ve had a heart attack,” – he was an older guy – “and it sounds like you’re ready to have a heart attack. I’d better call an ambulance just to be sure.” And I couldn’t believe it. I went over to this office, and there were probably 1,500 people there and they wondered why we stopped the show. Soon as I got in this office, that was all I remembered. I just fell over, I quit breathing. It’s lucky they had called the ambulance and they were right around the corner at a 7-11 getting coffee. They got there – they were only about three minutes away – and I had quit breathing and everything and I was dead, I was lying there on the floor. They came in and shocked me. And it was weird. I was up on the ceiling, looking down on them working on me, and I remember what really freaked me out was my whole face and arms and everything looked totally blue.
And I knew I was dead. Then it black, everything went black, and I saw this white light on the horizon getting closer and closer to me. And every time that white light got closer to me, I felt the most blissful feeling, it was like complete heaven. I just wanted to go into that light. They had to keep shocking me, I forget how many times they said they shocked me before they finally got me going and got a pulse. Then they got me to the hospital. But then I kept crashing in the emergency room and they had to keep shocking me. And it happened again a couple of times when they got me in the ER, I mean in the intensive care, and then they gave me this new drug that they had out that they hadn’t developed very long called Streptokinase. It’s this stuff that thins your blood way down so that your heart doesn’t have to pump so much. But the problem is, if you have ulcers in your stomach or anything, or just prone to nosebleeds, you’ll start bleeding out in different places. And that’s kind of what happened to me. My nose started bleeding a little bit and then I just started vomiting blood. And I remember I filled up about six of these little basins with blood and I thought it was all over, you know, I was gonna die. And my mom was alive at that time, and my sister, and they’d all followed the ambulance from the concert. The nurse wanted to know if I wanted to bring them in, and I knew that they would just totally freak out. So I said, “No, wait until I’ve died, clean me up, and then bring them in.” Because I was sure that that was it. And then, all of a sudden, this nurse came over and she kept saying, “Think you’re going to make it, think you’re going to make it.” And I went, “All right.” I’d realized from meditating and everything that you kind of will yourself into this meditative space… I was doing that when I was dying; I was just going with it instead of fighting to stay here! I was like projecting myself out there! (laughter) “OK, this is quite a roller coaster, let’s just go with it!” And I really should’ve been trying to stay here harder. So when she started telling me that, that started going over and over in my mind like a mantra, “Think you’re going to make it, think you’re going to make it,” so I started thinking I was gonna make it. By golly, it worked. I started breathing better, and it quit hitting me. The weird thing, Mark, was these pains felt like they started somewhere across the room and I could actually feel this compression of air coming at me, like it was going [makes rushing noise] from across the room and, WHAM, it hit me in the chest and it knocked me out. So they had me on full oxygen and everything, but it just wasn’t enough. All these tubes in me and everything. But after they gave me that Streptokinase, I started coming out of it. And I’d say probably about 11:30 or so at night, then they all had hopes that I was gonna make it. The next day, he came in and said, “We’re going to take you up to San Luis Obispo to a heart unit up there, and they’re going to do an angiogram.” That’s where they cut you in your main artery and send a wire in there to see what the occlusion is. And I just thought, man, I’m just not strong enough to do that. If they do that, I’m probably gonna kick. So I propped myself up in bed and started doing my Tibetan meditation and praying for healing energy. And before that, my heart was missing all the time, it was just skipping beats like mad. And I could feel it; it felt like an eight-cylinder running on four or something. And he came in after I’d meditated, and it’d smoothed out and my blood pressure came up to normal and everything. He said, “Wow, in the last half-hour you’ve made a complete turnaround, and maybe we’ll just keep you in here for a while before we send you up to have that test that might kill you.” You have to sign a thing, too, that if they kill you it’s not their fault (laughter). So I stayed in the hospital for ten days, and then about three weeks later they took me up and did that test. That’s where they could see what happened to me. It appeared that in my left descending artery I had this blockage in there that was a growth. Almost like a birth defect or something. He said, “That’s been growing in there for over 30 years.” I didn’t have high cholesterol or anything; I’d been a vegetarian for all those years. But apparently my dad died of a heart attack, and my mom had some heart problems before she died. She died of cancer, but she had some heart problems. So if it’s in your genes, you know, you gotta be extra careful. I think I just pushed it too far in working too hard, going through a lot of stressful things. And that growth in there in the artery just decided to shut down. Boy, it shut me right off. Then they did another angioplasty on me a year later, and they had done no operation or anything, and unbelievably I had grown other arteries around that occluded area. I bypassed myself.
I didn’t even know the body could do that!
Yeah. They said there’s only a few cases on record. In fact, some nurse that was writing a paper on it came in and interviewed me about the whole thing. So I think I’m in some medical journal or something.
Wow. And when was that, 15 years ago?
It’s about 17 now, I think. This September, I think, it’ll be 18 years or something like that. 18 or 19 years. ’86.
Wow. That’s probably good that you fought it, huh?
Yeah. So I’m glad that I’m still here and can continue on doing music, doing what I love. I’m just so grateful for all the fans everywhere that continue to buy my music and like it and everything, and all the people that come to my shows here in California. And then meeting and playing with Willie Nelson in 2000 is really a highlight for me. We did a version of “Wipe Out” together. He played an electric guitar in honor of me, which I never saw him do before. We did this big concert in front of 6,000 people in Maui, and after going through everything I went through and then going back to Maui and doing a big concert with Willie Nelson, that was pretty incredible.
Well, thank you so much for all the time you’ve given me; I really appreciate it.
Sure. Sure. I’ll send you the “Best of the Tiki Lounge.” You can kind of get an idea of what the TV show looks like. I’ve had so many incredible people on there. From Willie Nelson, to Mike Love of the Beach Boys…
You yourself called them up…?
Tom Petty, Roger McGuinn, Sky Saxon, all of Spirit, the Doobie Brothers.
Believe it or not, a lot of those people kind of admire me, you know? And I even found out through Jay Ferguson that John Travolta’s a big fan of mine. He was over at his house in Santa Barbara one night going through a vinyl album collection he had, and there was my “Maui Album” in there. And he says, “Oh yeah, you know this guy Merrell Fankhauser?” And he goes, “Yeah, yeah, I’m recording with him.” And he went, “No kidding! This is great stuff.”
So there’s people like that that I don’t even know of that know about me.
Well, it’s just good music. So if people hear it…
I did a satellite show in 1991 called “California Music,” and it was on 150 stations. And a local channel here put me on it and I did a half-an-hour show, I forget who my first guests even were, but they went, “Gee, we think we can get this on this network.” So they sent it back to New York to Channel America, it was called. And they uplinked to 150 stations across the United States and I did that for three-and-a-half years. I was getting fan mail from all over the place. That actually caused a lot of people, people that were in their forties and fifties, that knew me and bought my records in the past, they found a way to get hold of me. I didn’t get on the internet until, gosh, what was it… 1998 or something. Then it all started, you know, a flood of people being able to get hold of me. So it’s been quite a ride, and it keeps going (laughs). But those people just sometimes call me up. Mike Love heard that I had a TV show, and this friend of mine that knew him said, “Oh, Merrell’s got a TV show now.” “Oh, OK. When am I gonna be on?” (laughter) So I drive down to his house in Santa Barbara and interviewed him. It happens like that… A lot of those old guys from the 70s have trouble getting booked on TV now, so it’s really helpful for them to have a show that will play them and have htem on as guests. Oh, did you watch that YouTube video I sent you?
Yeah! What is that?
Well, we’ve been working on a show for about four years. Kim works on it with me. And we’ve been working on a special show for about four months, and I wrote “We Love Tikis” for that. William McEuen recommended YouTube to us, so Kim worked all day long on the thing trying to switch it over to an MPEG file, and she finally got it up there. It’s only been up for 2 ½ days and we’ve had 250 viewings already! So that song will be on an album that isn’t finished yet. A bunch of DJs that have seen the video are requesting copies. One guy even said, “This is a surf/tiki culture hit!” So my little FM stations, I’ll probably get it on those. Maybe it’ll help the new album when it comes out.
I was wondering because I got the video and was looking for “We Love Tikis” on the song lists of your most recent albums, and it’s not on any of them.
Yeah, it’s totally new.
Is your son playing on the new record?
Yeah, he’s playing guitar.
How old is he now?
Tim is now 39. I can’t believe it. He used to have long blonde hair like mine, but then he moved to Oregon and cut his hair and it all turned kind of a brownish-blonde color. This is interesting; let me tell you about this -- he met Nokie Edwards in Oregon, and him and Nokie decided to go in as partners on this Rock Creek Guitar Company. He has a little factory near Medford, Oregon now he’s making this special Nokie Edwards model guitar. And they’re going to do a Merrell Fankhauser guitar! So I’ve designed it, and within a month I should have a finished product. It’s a metallic metal flake blue kinda surf guitar that I designed, and they’re gonna sell it all over. It’s pretty neat! My son was talking to Nokie about me; Nokie actually once gave me a guitar lesson in 1962 in Pismo Beach when the Impacts were opening for them. And he remembered me! I couldn’t believe it! I’d met the other Ventures – in fact, Mel Taylor sent me lots of Ventures footage to play on my show. But somehow Nokie remembered.
I actually saw the Ventures live about 8 years ago, and they still sounded great!
Well, thank you again for your time. It was great talking with you.
You too, Mark. I’ll look for your email!
Okay, take care.
I just wanted to tell that you've done a very interesting interview with Mr. Fankhauser, I really could not stop reading though it was pretty long! You seem to be the only one on the web who can tell anything worthy about this man & The Revels!
Thanks a lot for writing down this interview!
Best regards from Russia =)
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