The Blue Hawaiians, the tribal kings of exotica noir, aren't riding the waves, they're making waves. "We're not some happy-go-lucky surf party band," says Mark Fontana, the group's singer, bassist and main songwriter. "There's a beauty to what we do but also a darkness. We're always mixing styles. When people try to describe us, they end up saying, 'The Blue Hawaiians are...kinda weird.' We take that as a compliment."
In the genre-blending cocktail shaker that is Savage Night (Coolsville/Interscope), the band's first major label album, produced by Brad Benedict and Michael Frondelli, released spring 1999, The Blue Hawaiians chart a lurid, one-way journey into the shadows of temptation. Inspired by gritty crime writer Jim Thompson's novel of the same title, Savage Night is hypnotizing, seducing, exciting, adventurous, sexy.
It's not surprising then that legend has it Quentin Tarantino used to hang out at the infamous L.A. tiki palace The Lava Lounge on Sunday nights when The Blue Hawaiians started playing there in 1994, influencing his choice of surf oddities for the soundtrack to his next film. "There was this small cool vibe," Fontana remembers. "At first there were 15 to 20 people, then every Sunday night the crowds got bigger and bigger. Seven months later, Pulp Fiction came out. Suddenly the place was packed and there was a two-hour wait to get in."
But there are no corny, cliched, novelty paper umbrellas in this Blue Hawaiian concoction of vocal and instrumental songs, from originals "Trouble Bay," "Hot Rods To Honolulu," "Flesh & Soul," "Lonely Star" "Highlife" and the title track to the rock classic "Shakin' All Over," Henry Mancini's "Experiment In Terror," Tom Waits' "Jockey Full Of Bourbon," plus "Sway" and, their first single, Lee Hazlewood's "A Cheat."
Instead of songs about the endless summer, their songs are about endless temptation. "We've all been there," says Fontana, "tempted by fame, fortune or sex. Temptation can be good or bad. It just depends on what you do with it." Instead of reprising old vinyl, The Blue Hawaiians take the familiar sounds of pop culture, from spaghetti western to spy, lounge to surf, and make them into something new to suit their own peculiar tastes.
"We've never played straight rock 'n' roll or been mainstream," says Fontana, pointing to their indie albums Live At The Lava Lounge (1995), Christmas On Big Island (1995) and Sway (1998). "There have always been musical twists. We don't fit nicely into a niche. We plotted our course whether people went with us or not. We were never part of a scene. From the beginning, we were our own scene."
Called by some critics "the best tiki/lounge band on earth," their music ventures beyond happy hour and into the moody and dramatic, with a touch of mysterioso. By combining two unlikely elements, a Hawaiian steel guitar and a Hammond B3 organ, otherwise cheery music becomes eerie, melancholy, and, okay...kinda weird. Their occasional renditions of surf classics in performance are spooky wipeouts rather than faithful sun-and-fun homages.
Their scene was launched when The Blue Hawaiians formed in March 1994 after Michelle Marini, owner of the just-opened Lava Lounge, asked Los Angeles-based Fontana to assemble a new band for her club. So he called on Mark Sproull (a classically-trained guitarist who's also a Laguna Beach lifeguard) and Tom Maxwell (a drummer and artist from Hermosa Beach who combines both talents by composing ambient music for contemporary art galleries). The three had played together over several years in bands from Drew Weaver's Vibrabeams to Johnny Monster and the Nightmares to cult legends the El Caminos.
Also recruited was steel guitarist Bron Tieman, with whom Maxwell and Fontana were in The Beautiful Losers. Tieman (who recently toured with Everlast) has since been replaced by Gary Brandin, a country music player from Pasadena, California, who is now pushing the boundaries of conventional steel guitar sounds. Completing the lineup, on the Hammond B3, is their newest member, Colorado native Eric Godal.
At the start, The Blue Hawaiians gathered just enough material for two short sets, and came up with a faux history. It was a year before neo-hipsters realized that they were not Wayne Newton's moonlighting Vegas backup band. Then attired in sharkskin suits over Hawaiian shirts�the group canned the aloha shirts once they came back in style--today their fashion ethic is to dress with the "class" of the golden age of Las Vegas.
An underground sensation, The Blue Hawaiians have played Hollywood's Palladium and The Derby, the Sunset Strip's House of Blues, Roxy, and The Viper Room, and Santa Barbara's notorious club The Wild Cat. The band has been heard on the TV series "Friends"; the compilations Pulp Surfin' and Shots In The Dark; the documentaries "History Of Rock & Roll" (BBC) and "In Search Of Da Cat" (PBS), based on the life of surf legend Mickey Dora, and several motion pictures, including Black Sheep (starring Chris Farley and David Spade) and There's No Fish Food In Heaven (starring Tea Leoni). They also scored a CLIO-winning GUESS? Jeans commercial featuring Juliette Lewis, Harry Dean Stanton, Peter Horton and Traci Lords.
Their fans tend to be music lovers whose tastes are as eclectic as the band's. "But I think the reason people really like our music," Fontana suggests, "is because it's soulful. We're not poseurs; there's a musical depth without all the gimmicks--racks of gear and effects--just Fender guitars plugged into Fender amps."
Imagine The Doors fronted by Roy Orbison. In fact, on Savage Night, The Blue Hawaiians spotlight their vocal songs more than ever. "I didn't sing a lot before because my ego didn't demand it," says Fontana, who admits growing up introverted, a wallflower. "I'm not a 'Hey, hey, let's party' kind of guy. I mean, I've left a bachelor party before the strippers arrived because I knew I'd be embarrassed."
The Blue Hawaiians are a deadly serious slice of haunting, vibrato-drenched, 50s atmospheric noir. In the truest sense of the word cool, this L.A. based group�s vision is deadpan exact.
But that's not the weirdest thing about The Blue Hawaiians, Fontana whispers. "All of us actually do surf."