San Francisco’s longest surviving (and only masked!) instrumental surf band, The Phantom Surfers, have been riding the various musical waves since 1988, in that time amassing an international following while carrying the torch for surf music. They name check Dick Dale on one of their multiple albums but they also channel the likes of the Ventures, the Trashmen, the Astronauts and others while carving out their own unique sound. PKM’s Anthony Petkovich caught up with the Phantom Surfers’ “guitar sultan” Johnny Bartlett.
The first time I saw the Phantom Surfers perform live was at San Francisco’s (now defunct) Paradise Lounge—located south of Market Street, in the Folsom ‘leather’ district. It was the summer of ’89 and the Phantoms were opening for their brother band, the Mummies, a garage punk group featuring four young dudes living up to their moniker by being swathed from head to toe in rolls of bandages.
The Phantoms, still in their twenties, were terrific. (And the Mummies kicked ass, too.) Officially founded the previous year in Jan. ’88, the Phantoms were typically a four-piece instrumental surf group, but only a three-piece that night (Michael Lucas on bass, Johnny Bartlett on guitar, and Danny Seelig on drums), since their other guitarist, Mel Bergman, had to work a night job. The Phantoms played such covers as the joyous “Monster from the Surf” (written by Frank Sinatra, Jr. for the cheesy ’65 horror movie Beach Girls and the Monster),
“Beach Girls and the Monster”-The Phantom Surfers:
They also delivered upbeat, original, non-vocal tunes Johnny had written—all, basically, surf-inspired—including “San Onofre”, “Horror Beach”, “Jalama Burger” and “Sewer Peak”; high-energy stuff, with the boys playing their hearts out; Bartlett unleashing potent, echo-drenched, Dick Dale-esque leads on his homemade, rectangular, “Bo Diddley” guitar. And, yes, the torrid trio wore those little masks—hence the whole ‘phantom’ image.
“San Onofre”-The Phantom Surfers:
After that night, Phantom bassist Michael Lucas and I worked on a few projects together. I’d gone to the Paradise that evening with John Bassett (aka “Johnny Strike”, ex-Crime guitarist/vocalist/founder) who knew the Phantoms and introduced me to them after their gig, including Michael, whom John mentioned was a pretty good writer. So, a few months later, I invited Michael to help me co-investigate/co-write a real-horror article on the centuries-old trade of embalming for my short-lived magazine of pulp fiction, Liquidator. He jumped at the opportunity to tackle such a bizarre project.
Michael returned the ‘favor’ a few weeks later—while in the midst of our interviewing various Bay Area morticians—by inviting me to play trumpet on the Phantom Surfers’ first album, despite the fact that my horn-playing (both in high school and a college classical-music band) sucked. Nonetheless, somehow a Mexican-bullfight riff I blasted out several nights later (the only other soul present being Michael, operating the tape recorder) in the cold, near-desolate garage of “The Complex”—a seven-story S.F. loft owned by Henry Rosenthal (aka Hank Rank, former drummer of Crime) sporadically used for band rehearsals and recordings—wound up on a Lucas-penned tune entitled “Theme from Dead West” on the Phantoms’ 18 Deadly Ones (1991).
“Theme From Dead West”-The Phantom Surfers:
After I moved down to LA in the early 2000’s, I lost contact with both Michael and the Phantoms, though I did buy the group’s instrumental albums over the years; discs augmented with the occasional, humorous vocal number; their always-entertaining LPs including—along with 18 Deadly Ones—The Phantom Surfers Play the Big Screen Spectaculars (1992); The Exciting Sounds of Model Road Racing (1994); The Phantom Surfers and Dick Dale (1995); The Great Surf Crash of ’97 (1996); Skaterhater (1998); XXX Party (2000), and 10 Years of Quality Control (2000) the latter platter, according to Johnny Bartlett, being “not entirely all singles, but more of a best of/worst of collection.”
What I’ve loved about the Phantom Surfers over the years is that the guys always seemed to have a ball playing/making their music while, refreshingly, never taking themselves too seriously; their club performances (an assortment available on YouTube) and albums being straightforward, blast-in-the-eyeballs/-ears fun.
The Phantom Surfers are just a very special band in my life and heart. It’s really opened the opportunity for me to meet my favorite people in the world. I always encourage anybody—young and old—to start a band, because you’ll meet some of the best people through music.
Anyhow, a mere 30 years after seeing the Phantoms play live, I thought it’d be a kick to reconnect with the lads and do a story on their relatively cryptic group, whose surf saga always seems to have eluded the sloppy media. So, on a rainy Saturday afternoon in mid-March, I met with veteran Phantom Surfers’ guitarist Johnny Bartlett for a chat at Val’s Burgers in Hayward, one of his favorite eating haunts—and not too far from a mortuary Michael and I visited back in 1989 while researching our embalming piece.
Unlike, however, some of the stiffs in those funeral homes, the Phantom Surfers are alive and well. In fact, Johnny says they’re working on a new album.
Johnny Bartlett: Okay. Here are the origins of the band…When I was going to Hillsdale High in San Mateo, I was in a group called Wig Torture.
PKM: Great name.
Johnny Bartlett: …Before I even knew Michael Lucas—who was four years older than me and had long graduated from San Mateo High—he’d recorded and released an album all by himself in 1981 called Compendium Maleficarum with just him playing synth(esizer). It was post-punk. Like Suicide, I guess.
But then he put together a live band for MAL, so it had morphed into a bigger thing. He played Farfisa (organ) and there were drums and guitar. And the drummer for MAL was this guy named Martin Jones, whose brother, Phil Jones, was the drummer in my band Wig Torture.
Phil and I were both still in high school and Phil said to me and our bassist, “Hey, my brother’s band is playing at The On Broadway (in San Francisco) this Friday night. You guys wanna go and be roadies?” and we said, “Yeah! That sounds like fun!”
So that was the night that I met Michael Lucas. It was 1981. That was so much fun. We stayed out all night; went to Munchkins on Church Street, which was open 24 hours. We all got into big trouble with our parents, because we got home at around 6 am.
PKM: They were probably ready to call the cops.
Johnny Bartlett: Yeah. (laughs) So I eventually joined MAL, playing guitar, and we recorded an album called Preacher from the Black Lagoon (1983). That band was 100 percent Michael. I was totally a hired hand. But it was a blast. At that point, it was guitar, keyboards, bass, drums; with Michael playing keyboards and doing vocals.
Anyway, after graduating from Hillsdale High, I went to the College of San Mateo for a couple of years, then moved to Santa Cruz in ’86 to finish my last two years at U.C. Santa Cruz as a psychology major. And when I was down there… Well, by then I’d quit Wig Torture, MAL had fallen apart, so I was without a band. Plus, Michael really turned me on to surf music. Again, this was the mid-80s. In high school I thought Dick Dale was fantastic, but then Mike made me tapes of The Sentinels and stuff like that. And this music really struck a chord with me.
And while in Santa Cruz, I started writing a ton of surf instrumentals and recorded them on a cassette, just by myself. I bought a four-track cassette to do overdubs. For drums, I beat on a pizza box with wooden spoons, and just added a ton of reverb. But it wasn’t meant for anything but songwriting. I mean, I had music in me and it had to come out.
But I’d send tapes to Michael asking him, “Hey, could you critique this stuff?” and he eventually said, “You know, this is pretty good. We should probably think about starting a surf band.” See, he’d recently been to a wedding where an oldies band was hired which made $3,000, and Michael said, “We should start a surf band, play weddings, and clean up,” and I said, “Well, I don’t think that’s going to happen, but I’m all for the effort.” I mean, nobody wants a surf band at their wedding.
Then Michael said, “Hey, I’m putting out this surf compilation, and I wanna include one of your songs (note: “Horror Beach”). I want to re-record it.” This was probably ’87. I came up to the city, recorded it, just me and Henry (Rosenthal) on drums on Stevenson Street. So Henry was the original, original drummer for the Phantom Surfers. (laughs) Of course, this was before there was even a name to the band or anything.
PKM: Did Michael play bass on your song?
Johnny Bartlett: No. There’s no bass on it; just me doing two guitar tracks and Henry on drums. And Michael put the song on the album Everybody’s Goin’ Surfin’, Nobody’s Goin’ Surfin’.
PKM: Explain that shot of you as a young kid or older teenager holding a guitar in front of Henry’s “Complex” in Stevenson alley.
Johnny Bartlett: Oh yeah! Henry took that picture. But that was even earlier, before the Phantom Surfers, like around ‘83. That’s Henry’s red ’56 Oldsmobile. Anyhow, Henry said, “Let’s go take this picture.” I don’t know why. I think he just wanted to document some things. Henry said, “Pretend somebody’s jerking you off with sandpaper.” (laughs) That was his direction, so that’s the face I made.
So Michael and I decided to start a band, and Michael said, “Why don’t we get Danny (Seelig) to play drums?” who was another San Mateo guy whom Mike went to high school with. So I came up from Santa Cruz, and we practiced for about half hour at Henry’s place, because Michael lived in one of the rooms.
And during rehearsal, Michael received a phone call from David Nudelman, who had a band called Three Stoned Men—and I think Michael put out their records—and David said, “Hey, we have this gig tonight at U.C. Santa Cruz and we can’t do it.” They were, in fact, opening for Wig Torture, who were still around—without me. “Do you know anybody who can fill in?” And Mike asked us, “Hey, you guys wanna play a gig tonight?”
PKM: So it was you, Danny…
Johnny Bartlett: And Michael.
PKM: Guitar, drums, and bass.
Johnny Bartlett: Right. And Michael is fond of pointing out that our first gig happened the day of our first practice, and we played longer than we practiced. Which is true.
PKM: Did you guys do a lot of covers?
Johnny Bartlett: Yeah. Almost all covers. Dick Dale, The Ventures… But also some vocals, like “Surfin’ Bird” (by The Trashmen) and “My Babe”. We played that gig without a name. No name… no masks… in our street clothes… no trumpet… We gigged for six months and Michael finally named us. And in a rare show of a guitarist having lowered his ego, I said, “Maybe we need a second guitarist”, because I noticed that every old surf band had two guitarists, and I thought our sound was a bit thin.
So Mike took out an ad in BAM (Bay Area Music) Magazine, which Mel (Bergman) answered. Mel did an audition but, I mean, he was just ready to go. A huge surf music fan, from Camarillo originally… Ventura County; he’d gone to San Diego State, moved up here for a job, and was based in Alameda.
Mel had this white Jazzmaster guitar, a brown Fender concert amp, like a 1960 concert amp… and this tiny little box.
I asked him, “What’s that box?”
And he goes, “That’s the reverb. That’s the surf sound.”
All of a sudden I’m like, “Oh! That’s how they got that sound!”—like that distinct Dick Dale sound. I couldn’t get it with my twin reverb. Mel was like, “Yeah, yeah! They didn’t have twins back then. This is what they used.”
PKM: And that tiny box is called…?
Johnny Bartlett: A Fender Outboard Reverb Unit, which I use to this day.
PKM: And, to this day, do you still alternate on lead guitar with Mel?
Johnny Bartlett: Right. Mel and I are, actually, a very good match because we both like playing rhythm guitar; you can have more fun on stage if you’re just banging out chords, whereas you have to concentrate more with lead.
But if Michael writes a song, he’ll say, “Hey, Johnny, why don’t you take the first part of the lead, and Mel you take the second part…” I don’t think there’s a whole lotta ego involved in this band, so it’s very good that Mel and I balance each other out.
Michael is fond of pointing out that our first gig happened the day of our first practice, and we played longer than we practiced. Which is true.
And as far as our individual styles of guitar-playing, I can’t put my finger on what the difference is, but we totally have our own styles. It’s kind of like, if you had two writers on the same assignment, you’d get two different pieces.
But at this early point in the Phantom Surfers’ history, Mel’s a little bit different than the other guys in the band.
PKM: How so?
Johnny Bartlett: He has a day job—which he really cares about. He had a career path in sales or management working for Cintas, the uniform people. So there were certain gigs where he’d say, “Hey, I can’t do this gig because I have to wake up at 4 in the morning and service a Day Three, Route Two.”
PKM: Huh? (laughs)
Johnny Bartlett: Like if somebody couldn’t handle that route, that day, he, as a manager, had to fill in for them. So he was always stressed out, and Russell (Quan) used to call him Mel Stressful. So Mel was very career-oriented, and that was different from everybody else, who were just like (shrugs shoulders, smiles), “Job?… Whatever.”
PKM: So how did you other guys survive? I know Michael moved furniture and stuff.
Johnny Bartlett: I did that, too. I worked at See’s Candy… at Orchard Supply… I also worked for Mike’s dad in Hayward, at a pediatric wheelchair manufacturer, which was my first serious job out of college. I was a machinist, a draftsman, did some inside sales for his father… And it was great to realize that sales was not my vocation. I was the worst. I should add that when we started, the Phantom Surfers were one of the only surf bands around.
PKM: In the Bay Area?
Johnny Bartlett: In the world! Well… there were just a handful. It was a genre in America that had seen its day from ’61 to about ’63. The Beach Boys started off doing surf music but then they became… The Beach Boys. Then in the early ‘80s, there was a small Renaissance of surf music… The Raybeats… The Halibuts… Danny Amis from The Raybeats went on to found Los Straightjackets… and John and the Nightriders Riders and The Surf Raiders recorded these really great albums. But if you look at many of those bands, they were of their time. They looked very contemporary with the early ‘80s.
And we said, “No. We wanna look like bands used to look—with matching uniforms.” Like, if you were in a band in 1963, you had some kind of uniform, whether it was matching shirts, or blazers, or vests, or whatever. Do you remember a guy named David Doty? He was in Other Music with Henry. David grew up in southern California, and he was around during the surf boom in LA during the early ‘60s. And David told Michael, “Well, real surfers wore white T-shirts and khakis.” So that was our first uniform. We had the masks, and we kept that look.
Then we thought, ‘Maybe we should have matching blazers.’ And Mel said, “Yeah, I can hook us up.” So we had the 1,000% polyester blazers from Cintas. (laughs) We’ve had new ones made over the years. The most recent ones are matching purple velvet blazers. But we also have plaid blazers and tuxes. And we’ve done some whacky things; like we did a whole barnyard thing, where I was a cow and Michael was a farmer…
PKM: So how would you classify the Phantom Surfers’ music?
Johnny Bartlett: We’re an instrumental surf band. We never talked about ourselves as surf rock. It’s funny because I think we try hard to sound exactly like a ‘60s surf band, but clearly it’s different. Again, we don’t know why. When we get together, that’s how it sounds. I mean, it’s definitely rooted in early-‘60s instrumental surf, but it’s different.
PKM: In reference to the vocal surf music of the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean, Dick Dale was quoted as saying, “(Those bands had) surfing sounds with surfing lyrics. In other words, the music wasn’t surfing music. The words made them surfing songs… That was the difference… the real surfing music is instrumental.” Do you agree with that assessment?
Johnny Bartlett: I do. But I think there’s some grey area. The Beach Boys started out doing instrumental surf music, but then they were like, “Oh, we’re really good singers. Why don’t we sing?” So I think there’s some overlap. But basically I think the instrumental bands are representative of the pure surf music or what we think of as surf music now.
PKM: But you guys mix it up, too, with original vocal songs like “Schlock Slot” and “Turn Marshall” and vocal covers like the Japanese “Yozora No Hoshi”.
“Schlock Slot”-The Phantom Surfers:
Johnny Bartlett: Yeah, because instrumental music needs to be broken up with comedy or vocals or magic tricks or something, otherwise it’d be very one-dimensional, which is why Michael, Mel, and I all have very different styles of writing, and that’s a good thing for the band, which breaks up the monotony. But the fact that we have three different voices writing songs makes it more three-dimensional.
PKM: Other than that wet reverb guitar effect with which Dick Dale is credited, what makes the classic instrumental-surf sound?
Johnny Bartlett: You need at least two guitars, because you need that driving rhythm. And, hey, it doesn’t hurt to have three guitars. Again, this is kinda geeky but… how do I say this?… the technology that recording studios used in the early ‘60s left almost no room to make anything that sounds terrible. The limits were a benefit. And as you go into ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, and now, the technology has expanded to make it possible to make more different sounds. But these are not better sounds. I think the technology in the early ‘60s was about as good as you’d want it. Like with the Astronauts and the Trashmen and the Sentinels and the Ventures… It was almost impossible to make a record sound bad. They’d go from great to super fantastic.
But the classic surf sound… It’s the dominant lead guitar that is playing the melody and then the rhythm section which is always the bass and drums. And there’s not too much bass. You can hear it, but it’s not overwhelming bass. And then you need another guitar, maybe a saxophone, or an organ, or electric piano, like that sound in “Pipeline” which the Chantays had; that electric piano is terrific. You need something to fill out the sound.
The technology that recording studios used in the early ‘60s left almost no room to make anything that sounds terrible. The limits were a benefit.
PKM: Are any of the Phantom Surfers really… surfers?
Johnny Bartlett: When I lived in Santa Cruz in the ‘80s, I’d surf all the time. Recently I started surfing again…Pacifica is about the closest spot, but I’d go down to Santa Cruz and Bolinas. I don’t make my own surf boards, but I repair my own boards. Michael went out a few times. But I think I’m the most consistent surfer.
PKM: Mel’s double-neck guitar is almost like a mascot for the Phantoms.
Johnny Bartlett: It is! (laughs) That’s another kind of geeky, surf music thing. The two main guitars associated with surf music from back in the ‘60s are the Jazzmaster and the Jaguar. They’re both Fenders. And the Jaguar has a very similar body as the Jazzmaster, but the Jazzmaster is a full-scale guitar and the Jaguar is a shorter-scale guitar. So Mel thought it’d be funny to have a double-neck guitar with one of each. The joke is that they’re both six-string guitars and very similar.
PKM: Is that a custom-made guitar, then?
Johnny Bartlett: Yeah, Mel made that guitar. But it’s been like an albatross around his neck because it’s very heavy, very difficult to travel with. But he kind of always feels compelled to bring it because people expect it. Actually, we did a show in Spain and wanted to make it a big deal, so I made a double-neck guitar. I didn’t make it as well as Mel’s guitar; kind of pieced mine together and painted it like his. But that was a sight to see: two double-neck guitars on stage!
The two main guitars associated with surf music from back in the ‘60s are the Jazzmaster and the Jaguar. They’re both Fenders
PKM: When we see photos of you on-stage behind Mel with both of you simultaneously playing the double-neck guitar… are you guys playing the same lead?
Johnny Bartlett: Usually Mel will play the lead in those moments, and I’ll play the rhythm. But on “Malaguena”, we play the melody together, then he’ll take a solo and I’ll play rhythm.
PKM: Let’s talk about some Phantom Surfers albums. When did you guys decide to record the first LP, 18 Deadly Ones?
Johnny Bartlett: I wanna say probably in ’90. Or maybe even ’89.
PKM: I noticed that in the first album, you’re songwriting is very prolific.
Johnny Bartlett: Yeah, because I wrote all of those songs down in Santa Cruz before the band formed.
PKM: And Mel ultimately became a bit more prolific, although you and Mel remained the most consistent songwriters in the band.
Johnny Bartlett: I think so. Mel’s a great songwriter, and to this day, we’ll say, “Hey, let’s record some music,” and he’ll bring out three great songs.
PKM: Did you use the Fender Outboard Reverb Unit on the first album?
Johnny Bartlett: Mel had one. I didn’t. I mean, my gear was not very special on that album. I played my own homemade guitar, which I made with my brother. It looked like a Bo Diddley guitar. It was red, and I changed the color a few times. We made that with DiMarzio humbuckers… I mean, totally not what you’d make for a surf guitar. But that’s what I play on the first album.
We recorded it on the second floor of Henry’s Stevenson loft.
PKM: Oh, and I got stuck in the garage playing trumpet. (laughs)
Johnny Bartlett: It was after Henry and (his wife) Corola moved from the second to the sixth floor, or wherever, leaving that second floor empty, which is where we recorded the first album.
PKM: And J.P. Gutrock, the credited producer on 18 Deadly Ones is…
Johnny Bartlett: That’s Michael. He produced it. It was recorded on a tape, like a cassette. Michael is the steady hand on the wheel. The Phantom Surfers is a very democratic band, but Michael’s the de-facto leader.
PKM: “San Onofre” is just one of many super Bartlett-penned tunes on 18 Deadly Ones. Tell us about its origins.
Johnny Bartlett: Actually, I stole that riff from an Annette Funicello song called “The Battle of San Onofre” (from her 1963 LP Annette’s Beach Party), a really silly song about surfers and scuba divers getting into a ‘battle’ over turf—except it’s at sea. I think it was written by Gary Usher or one of those guys (note: written by Zino/Crawford). But there’s a really cool guitar riff in the middle of that song which plays exactly once, and I thought, ‘No, that’s a whole song.’ So I just called it “San Onofre”.
PKM: And “Jalama Burger”?
Johnny Bartlett: Jalama is a surf spot/beach in Santa Barbara County. Very remote. My girlfriend in college was from Lompoc and I used to go down to Santa Barbara a lot. You drive out there, and Jalama is a beach far from any town. But there was a food truck or hamburger stand there, and the thing to get was the Jalama Burger.
Actually, I stole that riff from an Annette Funicello song called “The Battle of San Onofre”.
PKM: How do you feel about 18 Deadly Ones?
Johnny Bartlett: You know, I used to not like that album because I thought, ‘It doesn’t sound like the Astronauts!’ (laughs) Now I’m like, ‘Thank God it doesn’t sound like the Astronauts! There’s already an Astronauts. Our sound is different.’ Sam Phillips of Sun Records had a mantra, “If you’re not doing anything different, then you’re not doing anything at all.” And that’s exactly the Phantom Surfers mantra. Michael said this to me a long time ago: “The Velvet Underground were trying to sound like the Stones, but it came out sounding like the Velvet Underground. And then Jonathan Richman was trying to sound like the Velvet Underground, but it came out as Jonathan Richman.” That’s a great thing, when you try to sound like somebody but it comes out different. That’s what you want. That’s the desired result.
PKM: Now, except for Japan and Western Europe, you guys pretty much play the West Coast.
Johnny Bartlett: Well, we used to go up and down a lot between Vancouver, BC, and San Diego. We’d hit all of the major cities. In 1991, though, to promote 18 Deadly Ones, we did the closest thing to a national tour.
PKM: Was Danny Seelig playing drums on that tour?
Johnny Bartlett: No, he left after the first album.
PKM: Why did he quit? He never seemed happy. He was never smiling in the pictures with the band.
Johnny Bartlett: No, he’s not a happy guy. He’s a great guy and a terrific drummer, though….Danny was more of a serious musician… studying music theory at S.F. State… piano and stuff. A great jazz drummer. Anyway, he wanted to make money from music, and surf music is not the way to do that.
PKM: So how did Maz, the bass player of the Mummies, get Danny’s drumming position? How do you pronounce his last name?
Johnny Bartlett: Kuh-too-uh. Palestinian. We’re like brother bands with the Mummies. We played tons of shows together. Trent (Ruane of the Mummies) was also a guitarist in the Phantom Surfers for a while. He was on that 1991 tour. In fact, Mel Bergman was not on that tour because of work. So for that tour it was me, Trent, Maz, and Michael. We went to Bethlehem, PA; New Brunswick, New Jersey; CBGB in New York, where we opened for the Lyres; Providence, Rhode Island; Washington, D.C.; Memphis; Tuscaloosa, Alabama… and the last show, after being on the road for three weeks, was at the Muddy Waters Club in New Orleans, and we’re like, “Do we wanna do this one more time?” There was no promotion for the show… it was just a bar with a couple of barflies…. So we just decided… (pauses) “Let’s go home.” (laughs) We told the club owner, “Hey, we’re going to get something to eat. We’ll be right back.” But when we left the club, Maz said, “No—let’s go find a Safeway parking lot, unpack the van, pack it really efficiently, and then drive home”, which is what we did.
The Velvet Underground were trying to sound like the Stones, but it came out sounding like the Velvet Underground. And then Jonathan Richman was trying to sound like the Velvet Underground, but it came out as Jonathan Richman.
About a month later, we were playing a gig in San Francisco, and this guy comes up and goes, “Where the hell were you guys in New Orleans?” (laughs) Just some New Orleans fan who happened to be in San Francisco.
PKM: So who came up with the neat concept for The Exciting Sounds of Model Road Racing?
Johnny Bartlett: There was a slot car album in the ’60s by the Revels, and it was such a great idea for a concept album that we said, “Hey, there’s room for one more.” (laughs) We hired a photographer to shoot that cover, with all of our hands at various controls, with the car that’s in the midst of wiping out propped up and glued in place. Maz’ hand is the closest hand, and mine is out of focus in the back.
PKM: Did any of you Phantom Surfers actually play slot cars?
Johnny Bartlett: We did. We had a couple of slot car parties.
PKM: Drinking martinis, playing the slot cars, nude female dancers swirling, undulating in the background…?
Johnny Bartlett: No. It was just guys. And I did one issue of a fanzine called The Journal of Slot Car Sciences.
PKM: “Stumps of Mystery” is a rousing, bass-propelled Bartlett tune on Model Racing.
Johnny Bartlett: That title came from a bumper sticker you used to see around the Bay Area. There’s a place up north called Trees of Mystery; one of those mystery spots. Their story is that the laws of gravity don’t apply to this small area, where water appears to go uphill, and there’s a crooked shack; their whole theory being that maybe a meteorite landed there and made everything go haywire. It’s all fake, an optical illusion, a tourist trap. So “Trees of Mystery” used to be their bumper sticker. And then in the ‘80s there was a bumper sticker reading “Stumps of Mystery”, which was an anti-logging sentiment, seeing as loggers were cutting down all of these trees from Trees of Mystery.
PKM: So “Stumps of Mystery” was a kind of a political slogan?
“Stumps of Mystery,” live, Norton Records event, Brooklyn, N.Y., 2011:
Johnny Bartlett: Yeah.
PKM: Decrying the…
Johnny Bartlett: Deforestation of Earth.
PKM: Political messaging in an instrumental-surf title. On the other end of the spectrum, “Turn Marshall” is a silly, hilarious vocal tune on Model Racing.
Johnny Bartlett: That song is “Church Key” which had been re-recorded and renamed several times by the Trashmen. They did “Church Key” but also did a song called “Bird Bath”, which was the same song. Then they did one called “Bad News”—same song. So we took that song and made it “Turn Marshall”, a term referring to the guy who fixes the slot cars when they spin out.
“Church Key”-The Trashmen:
PKM: What’s with the Phantom Surfers shot of you, Mel, Michael, and Maz in Japan with a geisha propping up a guitar by the neck?
Johnny Bartlett: That was shot in 1993 in front of the same temple where the Ventures had an album cover The Ventures in Japan (1965), so we were recreating that. We thought, ‘Oh, this would be a great album cover,’ but it just never happened. The geisha model is Yoshiko Fujii, the singer/guitarist of The 5678s, and the photo was taken by her sister, Sachiko Fujii, the drummer for The 5678s.
PKM: On The Phantom Surfers and Dick Dale, there are two Dick Dale vocal numbers… but the Phantom Surfers aren’t playing with Dick Dale at all.
Johnny Bartlett: Right. So, in the ‘80s if you went to a record store and looked through the surf section—if they had a surf section—there’d be these Dick Dale albums containing those same two vocal numbers which aren’t at all indicative of the Dick Dale sound. He probably recorded those songs in ’60 or ’61, then he became this big deal in southern California and recorded for Capital Records. But that pair of songs were resold over and over again; and people would put out these albums with filler, schlocky surf music—and those two songs. And on the cover it would be The Drag Sounds of Dick Dale… and somebody else who did the bulk of the album. Those two songs weren’t even surf songs. Dick Dale must have done them for a fee, because he had no license to those two songs. So, whoever owned them would just sell them to anybody. So, as there are just tons of “Dick Dale” albums with those two songs, we said, “Hey, we should do that.”
PKM: What about the Fazzio painting on the cover?
Johnny Bartlett: Crown Records was a budget label in the ‘50s and ‘60s which would “license” existing tracks of an artist. Like, if an artist suddenly had a big hit, chances are, they had recorded things in their past. Crown would find those earlier songs, license them, and put them out as if it was a new album by that person who’d just had a hit.
PKM: Just re-packaging.
Johnny Bartlett: Yeah!—and also exploiting a situation… and a market. One example would be the Dave Clark Five. Crown Records released a Dave Clark Five album with a Fazzio painting, but it would be The Dave Clark Five and the Playbacks. Well, the Dave Clark Five are only on two songs on that album, and the Playbacks—whoever they were, now lost to time—did the majority of the songs on that album. So 90 percent of all Crown Records had that formula, and we recreated it.
And the Fazzio painting is another in-joke. If you’d ever go to thrift stores or record stores back in the day, Crown sold millions of albums; the kinds of albums that were even sold at gas stations; all of ‘em just low-budgeters. We could go into the history of Crown Records, but that’s another story, too. But Crown would hire this guy Fazzio to do most of their covers. So we were like, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could have Fazzio do our cover?” And it was Russell who, in fact, did that painting, which is hanging over my mantelpiece right now. Russell gave my wife and me that painting for our wedding.
PKM: So did Dick Dale ever find out about your Dick Dale album?—which, except for those two misfit Dale songs, is one of the Phantom Surfers’ best efforts.
Johnny Bartlett: Well, we got a call from Dick Dale’s lawyer, and Mike masterfully kind of played him. Mike’s a fixer.
PKM: And how did you get the legendary Jack Davis to do the cover of The Great Surf Crash of ’97?
Johnny Bartlett: That was on Lookout Records. I’ve asked Mel about this, because I left the band right when we cut the last track on that album. I think Mel asked Lookout, “Hey, how about getting Jack Davis to do a caricature of us?” And they said, “Okay. We’ll look into it.” And they did. (laughs) I think Mel has the original painting. I love it. Unfortunately, my caricature looks like me. (laughs)
PKM: What kind of a guitar do you currently play?
Johnny Bartlett: My go-to guitar is a Fender Jazzmaster, a step up from a Strat(ocaster).
PKM: What about guitar effects?
Johnny Bartlett: Still my trusty Fender Outboard Reverb box.
PKM: And your amp?
Johnny Bartlett: I usually play a Fender Showman amp. Every surf band played a Showman. Mel recently bought one of the Astronauts’ original Showman amps.
PKM: That musta cost a pretty penny. Any Phantom Surfers shows which really stand out in your memory?
Johnny Bartlett: Yes—New Year’s Eve at the Bottom of Hill in San Francisco during the mid-90s. Maz was already on stage, all alone, playing the beat, and the rest of us were on the street. And we let him start it, and then we started playing our wireless guitars on the street. So all the people in the club were like, “Okay, we hear the guitars” because our amps were on stage, “but where are they?” because everybody was looking around. And we came in—and we had turbans on for some reason—jumped up on the bar, walked down the length of the counter playing our instruments, then jumped off and onto the stage. That was pretty magical. We were playing “Bikini Beach”. The Pyramids did it in the movie Bikini Beach (1964). I think that was ’94, ’95. San Francisco was great during the ‘90s.
PKM: I agree. So why did you leave and then rejoin the band, Johnny?
Johnny Bartlett: I left the band in 1996… Mel knows the exact date. I had just started my career path in advertising, which is what I’m still doing… more or less. It was a full-time job; not just 9 to 6. A lot of hours. I was doing graphic design for a small agency, writing headlines and really just learning because I didn’t go to school for this at all. But I was also in two other bands aside from the Phantom Surfers: The Saturn 5 featuring Orbit and The Sugar King Boys, which were a rockabilly band; whereas Saturn 5 were a frat rock band, which would play songs like “Louie, Louie”; like a band you’d see in a college fraternity in 1963. Anyway, I was in three bands, had a demanding full-time job, and I’d been in the Phantom Surfers for eight years, and it just wasn’t fun anymore. Something had to give; so it was the thing which was bringing me the least amount of joy.
PKM: It was becoming too routine?
Johnny Bartlett: Yeah, but I think it was also evolving into something different. At this point, it was me, Maz, Mel, and Mike. I don’t know what the band was morphing into… I left after the last day of recording The Great Surf Crash of ’97. I just wanted to play straight-ahead surf music. And I think Michael, rightfully so, and Mel to some extent thought, ‘We’ve already done that. Let’s do something different.’ And, in retrospect, I think that was totally the right thing to do. So after I left, they eventually did The XXX Album.
Also, we went into a studio for Great Surf Crash of ’97. It was a real studio, but it was above a cabinet shop in San Francisco on Capp Street. It was 16 tracks, two-inch tape. I think Pulp Fiction had already come out and there was this wave of new surf bands.
PKM: Because of Dick Dale’s “Misirlou” in Pulp Fiction?
Johnny Bartlett: Yeah, and also other songs on that soundtrack. And somebody—I don’t know if it was Michael—whoever it was that named that album, said, “Oh, this will crash surf music.” And, oh yeah, it really got diluted.
PKM: But you came back to the Phantom Surfers some 10 years later. Tell us about it.
Johnny Bartlett: In 2009, 2010, the Phantom Surfers had a gig in Madrid, and Russell (drums) couldn’t do it. So, Maz (playing guitar at the time) agreed to go back on drums, so they were looking for an (additional) guitarist. Anyway, I think it was Mel who asked me, “Hey, any interest in doing this gig in Madrid with us?” I’ve always wanted to go to Madrid. Spain is up there with Japan as far as having the population which really enjoys going out to live music. They’re rabid fans of rock and roll, in general; like, all of these subcultures will show up at the gigs. I think this was a festival called Surf-o-Rama.
And I said, “I’ll do it, if I don’t have to learn any new songs which you guys did after I left the band. I don’t want to put too much effort into it.” So they gave me a play list… I think we did one rehearsal before the gig… And it was so much fun. It really felt like coming home. And those guys are the greatest guys in the universe. But I thought the Madrid gig was just a one-time thing.
Then they said, “Hey, would you like to do this other thing in Portugal and Spain next year?” And I said, “Yeah.” So I just slowly came back. And they said, “Well, we’ll have to figure out what to do when all five of us are available” because Maz really likes playing drums and Russell said, “Well, I’ll play guitar.” So that’s why Russell started playing guitar. He has this marvelous way of playing rhythm guitar like he’s a drummer. And in our most recent recordings, he really brought a texture that I’m incapable of.
PKM: But now Maz quit, so Russell is back on drums.
Johnny Bartlett: Right. It’s almost as if you need a scorecard with the Phantom Surfers and personnel changes. (laughs)
PKM: You mentioned “recent recordings”…
Johnny Bartlett: Yeah. We recorded six songs last year, and this year we’re gonna record more, and hopefully have another album. We’re going back to Henry’s Complex in June to record some more tracks. Going back to where it all started.
PKM: Aside from the Phantom Surfers, you’re also in the Ogres.
Johnny Bartlett: Yeah. Basically the Ogres is a Sixties garage band. That’s like my everyday band and the Phantom Surfers is my special band. The Ogres are two guitars, organ, bass, drums, and we all sing. We have one album and two 45s. It’s just our heads on the album cover. (laughs) Some of it’s original stuff, some of it’s obscure covers.
PKM: So what’s the secret for keeping a band together for so long? I mean, the Phantom Surfers have been together for over 30 years now.
Johnny Bartlett: I think I can speak from experience because I’ve been in so many bands. It’s all about chemistry and family. I consider the Phantom Surfers all family. It’s like being in a marriage. It’s very important to like your spouse, and being in a band with the Phantom Surfers is like being married to four other guys—so you’d better like them.
PKM: Do you have a favorite Phantom Surfers album?
Johnny Bartlett: Well, the first one is great, although I listen to my songs on that and I’m like, ‘Oh, these aren’t my best songs.’ For me, my favorite album is between the Dick Dale album and Model Road Racing. But I’d say Model Road Racing; that was just a lotta fun… taking the picture was fun. I think we were hitting our stride at that point.
The Phantom Surfers are just a very special band in my life and heart. It’s really opened the opportunity for me to meet my favorite people in the world. I always encourage anybody—young and old—to start a band, because you’ll meet some of the best people through music.
“Wave Hog”-The Phantom Surfers, live, 2011:
John/Ammy/Jack Pluth, Barbara Vetter, Lynn Peril, Michael Lucas, Henry Rosenthal, Yoshiko Fujii, Ivan Terrible, Sven-Erik Geddes, Janine Kraus, Craig Rennie.