Merrell Fankhauser is a guitarist out of California who specializes in the surf music genre. When surf music was born in the early 60's, Merrell was a very important part of its happening wave. After finding initial success playing guitar and singing in a local movie theater, Merrell formed a band and got right to work writing songs. Two early songs were titled "Wipe Out" and "Blue Surf". An album was released and had nice airplay. A short time later, The Surfaris scored national hits with similar sounding songs. Merrell has been steadily writing and performing music throughout his career. He also has a TV show called "Tiki Lounge" and they have just completed their 100th show. I recently corresponded with Merrell.
R.V.B. - What kind of music were you exposed to at a young age? Did anyone else in your family play an instrument?
M.F. - I was exposed to a variety of music when I was young classical, old style Country, Country Blues, Dixieland & Pop of the 40's & 50's. My mom sang in a big band when she was young and my dad played guitar.
R.V.B. - - What sparked you into picking up the guitar? What kind of songs did you tackle first?
M.F. - At around age 11 I got a ukelele and my dad started teaching me chords and within 9 months I was writing my own songs. Living in rural Louisville, KY... I was exposed to a lot of country & blues. We moved to California when I was around 13.
R.V.B. - What was the California scene like for you as a teenager? How did you go about getting gigs and can you give an example on how one of your early shows went?
M.F. - The California music scene greatly influenced me when we made the move west and I was hearing the birth of Rock N Roll on radio. I loved Bill Haley, Carl Perkins and later heard Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson and all the Doo Wop groups. We were living on the California Central Coast and I got a job as an usher and cleanup person at a local theater. The Saturday matinee was always full of teenagers and the manager heard me practicing my guitar on a break after cleaning up after a matinee. He said "You play pretty good and you sing very well, how'd you like to do a few songs between movies?" I said yes, and the next weekend I did three songs and when I went out in the lobby afterwards, I was mobbed by teenage girls wanting my autograph! I later got together with some other local high school students and we formed The Impacts and started playing large auditoriums up and down the California Coast. Del Fi records discovered us and in 1962 put out our instrumental Surf album "Wipe Out" by The Impacts.
R.V.B - What kind of gear have you used through the years? Did you change your equipment as your career progressed?
M.F. - My first electric guitar was a Harmony that a lot of Blues players used, I later moved up to a Fender Jaguar that was perfect for Instrumental Surf Music. I made enough money to buy a Fender Bandmaster amp. Fender later made a seperate Reverb unit. Through the years I've had many guitars, Fenders, Gibsons, Rickenbacker and Martin. I still have some nice vintage guitars and amps.
R.V.B. - Can you tell me about your Album Wipe Out and how it may have changed you?
M.F. - The recording and release of the "Wipe Out" album on Del Fi records was quite a lesson for the entire band. It was recorded in a studio in L.A. where many of the early Surf groups recorded including "The Challengers". The drummer for that group , Richard Delvy was in our session and heard our versions of "Wipe Out" & "Blue Surf". He later went on to manage, publish and produce "The Surfaris" who recorded songs titled "Wipe Out" & "Blue Surf" that both had some reseblence to our songs... We never received any royalties for our album or the various compilation albums we were on despite Del Fi owner Bob Keen's claim that our album was a good seller. We later recorded a second version of "Wipe Out" in Janurary of 63' with more drum solos that was supposed to come out on a 45 single but never did? The Surfaris "Wipe Out" was copyrighted in Richard Delvy's publishing company in May of 63' ! We got a real life lesson in the music biz real quick. I studied contracts and learned how to copyright my songs and vowed I would never let that happen again ! In 1994 the copyright expired on all The Impacts songs with Anthony Music and I re copyrighted all our songs and secured the rights back. Today the Impacts album is out on CD on Collectors Choice Records.
R.V.B. - Throughout the years you have played a variety of different genres of music... surf, psychedelic folk, standard rock and roll. Was this driven by the times or just the will to experiment with something new?
M.F. - It seems I always strive to experiment while writing and recording to come up with something different. I was influenced by changing music styles over the years and loved the 60's & 70's as record labels were more open to experimental music then. My bands "The Exiles", "Fapardokly", "HMS Bounty" and "MU" were my favorites from that time period.
M.F. - There were so many great gigs over the years, backing up various groups with "The Impacts" and "The Exiles" like "The Drifters", "Little Anthony", "The Isley Brothers", "Donnie Brooks" , "Jewel Akens" and many others... Doing a concert on Maui with Willie Nelson was a blast. Also recording and playing with piano great Nicky Hopkins and "Spirit" drummer Ed Cassidy, so many great memories!
R.V.B. - Do you have any routine to come up with and write new music?
M.F. - I don't have a writing routine, sometimes somebody will say something and I will think "That's A good Title" and a song will pop out! You never know where a song will come from, my best ones only take about fifteen minutes to complete.
R.V.B. - Your new album is called "Signals from Malibu" and it's an interesting concept to put music to foreign sounds. Was this a fun project for you? Do you think there has been UFO's and it's just a matter of time that it comes to the forefront of reality.
M.F. - I was sent some strange radio signals that were believed to have come from an underwater anomaly off the California Coast, that inspired me to write and record a Sci Fi style Instrumental Surf album titled "Signals From Malibu", now out on Gonzo Multimedia. The area off the coast off of Malibu has been a hotbed of UFO sightings for years, a subject I've always been interested in. My only sighting was atop Haleakala crater on Maui in 1974. I do believe we are being visited by extraterrestrials from somewhere... An interesting occurrence that has happened on radio interviews lately when they play "Messages From The Dome" from the new album, a section near the end of the song the radio signals get loud and its caused the radio stations boards to shut down! This seems to only happen with newer digital mixing boards, not old analog boards !
R.V.B. - What do you like to do when you're not playing music?
M.F. - I stay very busy when not writing or recording doing my TV show Tiki Lounge that is on four channels in California and three in Hawaii. Select shows can be seen at youtube.com, type in Merrell Fankhauser "Tiki Lounge". The show has been on air over 12 years and we just completed the 100th show ! My autobiography "Calling From A Star" The Merrell Fankhauser Story is out and available at amazon.com. I feel very blessed and lucky to still be doing what I love, making music.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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For more information on Merrell Fankhauser visit his website http://www.merrellfankhauser.com/
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