September 23, 1997
by Gail Watkins
The question that has been on everyone's mind (at least everyone who's been to a fez show) is finally being answered. Who are these people? You have probably asked yourself if you've ever witnessed the lounge-xotic surf sensation that is fez. We finally have an answer (of sorts), brought to you from an undisclosed island location where the air is warm, the drinks are cold, and life is what you might call good.
We are in the habitat of a genetic mutant with a penchant for guitar and little paper umbrellas, one Monkey Boy, founder of the new and quickly spreading frenzy known as fez. I am sitting under a palm-thatched pavilion across the table from the Monkey Boy, who is resplendent in his trademark Hawaiian shirt that almost completely fails to match his shorts. Somehow the ensemble is very fetching - maybe it's the Elvis sunglasses.
Why don't you start by giving me some background on how the band got started.
Well, I got sort of fed up with the 9 to 5 world and decided to just leave. I built a boat, got in, and sailed around the world for a while. One of the islands I stopped at had a really cool old mansion and I went in since it seemed to be abandoned. That was where it all started.
What did you find there?
It was the lair of the nefarious Dr. K. Mako. It was one of those "Oh, please, come have dinner. Let me fix you a drink." and then you wake up in a laboratory strapped to a table with a genetic experiment going on around you and you're growing a tail. Essentially what happened is, he was conducting some bizarre genetic splicing mutation -- combining the DNA of a man and that of a monkey. I was kept in a cage down in his laboratory for a bit by Dr. Mako and his sidekick, Space Girl.
Tell me about Space Girl - is she evil?
Space Girl crash-landed and got suckered in on his plots. I think she's sort of ambivalent. I mean, she's not from here, she's from outer space. She doesn't really know about our little concepts of good and evil. Basically, Dr. Mako helped her out, saved her from the crash, and so she thinks he's pretty good. I'm not sure she gets that whole angle that society really frowns upon the world domination thing that he's out after.
How did you get out of that situation?
My little brother, Secret Agent Chaos, came to my rescue. Apparently he had been searching for me and had finally tracked me down. He infiltrated the lair and there was a huge battle - we fought to a standstill. Being the pacifist super hero that Chaos is, he couldn't vanquish Dr. Mako entirely, so we had to figure out a way to keep his evil plans in check.
What did you do?
We came up with the idea of starting a surf band so we could keep an eye on Dr. Mako. Chaos had been a mild-mannered record store manager, but he became a secret agent after he found out that his wife died. Then he found out that she had faked her death. Ever since, he wanted to be a rock star.
How did you get Dr. Mako involved?
We put a post-hypnotic suggestion on Dr. Mako so that every time he feels his world domination urges coming on, he's supposed to suppress that by playing drums. The more gigs we have, the safer the world is. The club owners out there actually have a responsibility to the community to book fez. We keep hypno-disks on stage because every once in a while he'll start slipping into world domination mode again. It's really more of a battle between good and evil than just a band.
That was a brilliant idea.
Well, yeah, I guess. It was mine.
What about Space Girl - is she just along for the ride with Dr. Mako?
She's his henchwoman, you know. She's going along with him. She's not affected by our little petty primal concept of good and evil, right versus wrong, world domination versus surf bands.
So why a surf band?
I've been in several bands, like the Aboriginals, Burnable Ernie, and the Dauphin Street Combo. After a while you just get to feeling that you're doing stuff that's musically more and more complex but further and further away from just having a good time. In surf, although you can have a lot of elements of musical integrity and musical difficulty - because I put a lot of jazz influence on what we're playing - it's basically good time party music. It's close to rockabilly, it's close to the roots of rock-n-roll. I like surf music. I saw the Ventures in concert - when I was twenty I snuck into a bar in Hilton Head Island, SC and there were these guys my dad's age and all wearing Hawaiian shirts. These guys rocked! They were great, and it was one of the best times I've ever had. It stuck in my mind, and then once I was just sitting around thinking, if I were ever in a rock band again (since I've been playing jazz lately), it would be a surf band.
Well how's it working out with the tail? Is that a hindrance to you?
The tail doesn't get in the way of the guitar too much; it's a bit of a problem with the pants, but other than that, the tail thing really isn't much of a hindrance. I've been keeping it under wraps, so to speak. But I'm really considering letting it out - you know, stop trying to hide this fact from the public that, indeed, I have grown a tail.
Some of us that are tail-less wonder, does it have a mind of its own?
Really, it's sort of like being ambidextrous. It's prehensile, like a rhinoceros' lip -- it's a little like a finger, they can grab stuff with it
What is a fez show like?
It's like a circus with none of the cruelty to animals and none of the scary clowns. It's like riding a psychotic rhino. It's like burning down Disney World. It's loud, but it's not that loud, because we don't use a p.a. system or anything like most bands. Most bands, it's like they're trying to peel paint off the back wall with sonic vibrations. We just run straight. First of all, it's less stuff for us to carry around, and plus it's more pure, like the true surf sound. I mean, you just haul a couple of amps in there, get a drum set, crank up, and there you go. It's lo-tech rock. I'm a pretty lo-tech kind of guy. We're not a syntho band.
So what's Chaos like?
He's a man of many faces, a man of many hair styles, and colors. And he's a man of many mysteries, wrapped in leather pants. Chaos stays busy; he's keeping the world safe. It's not just Dr. Mako out there. There are other villains, other people out there working to prevent people from enjoying what fez stands for, things like truth, freedom, and the pursuit of tropical drinks.
Do you all travel together?
No, very rarely do we travel together. In fact, my standard greeting to Dr. Mako is, "Dr. Mako, we meet again." Space Girl is really hard to get in touch with, because she's usually orbiting the planet. We have to send out mental waves to her to let her know we've got a gig coming up. Chaos and I use Walkie-talkies. The more time we have between gigs, the longer Dr. Mako is out of our sight, so we try to stay busy.
How do you find people reacting to the shows?
People just go insane. They go wild. For most people, it's like nothing they've ever seen before, unless they've seen us.
Do you think people go out intending to hear surf music?
I don't think people necessarily go out intending to hear surf music, but I don't think there's anyone out there who hears good surf music being played and goes, "Ugh, surf music! I don't wanna hear that!" It's more like, you walk in the door and say, "Oh wow! Yeah, cool! I love this stuff!" People for instance watch Pulp Fiction and hear surf music in the background, but they don't really think about who Dick Dale is. But if they walk into a place and there's some blazing surf blasting out of the amplifiers, it's a good time.
Do you think people come in to a show expecting to hear the Beach Boys?
Yeah, I think that's a real misnomer that the Beach Boys are surf. Okay, the Beach boys happened at the same time as surf, and I guess they are the cleaned-up, radio-friendly version of surf. I don't want to dis the Beach Boys -- they do make an easy target, but they have some real great songs that sound real nice. We just don't do any of them. That's not what we're about. I started off playing in punk bands, so there's a lot of angst and aggression and testosterone in our fun. The Beach Boys are like, "She got her daddy's car and she's cruising to the hamburger stand now," and we're more like, "She just drove her daddy's car off a cliff ."
I've been to several of your shows, and it seems that there's a lot more going on than just surf.
That's because we incorporate a lot of different elements. It's not just surf. A lot of it is world music; a lot of it is out and out punk rock. A lot of it is rockabilly/psychobilly - we're not purists. We're not trying to be a period act. We don't say, "Hey, a surf band dresses this way, let's dress like that" or "they had this equipment so let's only use this equipment." It's just like jazz. A lot of people try to reduce jazz to being a museum piece. I think surf is a living breathing organism, and I think it's still a valid form of expression even if its heyday was in the 1960s.
I've seen people at your shows who experienced surf music the first time, and they seem to really be enjoying it. Why do you think that is when it's so different?
First of all, you like stuff that you know and that's familiar to you. We're doing a lot of classic surf songs, "Pipeline," "Penetration," "Walk Don't Run" that people might recognize from radio in the 60s. But we've changed them. It's like a hot rod -- we've taken the standard surf kind of thing and we've souped up the engine and made it a lot more aggressive and harder edged and chopped down the top. We've made it faster and sleeker, just because technology has come further.; we get more gas mileage now. But someone who liked the original '34 Ford still digs it because it's the same thing, only exaggerated.
And younger people?
Younger people like it because it's just cool. It's like nothing they've been exposed to in their daily life.
Do you have any originals?
Yeah, a lot of original stuff that we're working on. We've got a growing repertoire.
How's that working?
We've gotten a great response from everything - stuff like "Skeg Swamp," "The Monkey Boy Stroll," and Chaos' Theme, "Dr. Mako's Stomp." Come to our show, check it out, hear it -- it's rooted in the past but it's got its face turned toward the future. It's kicking, it's great - in all modesty. I am a pretty harsh critic. Anybody that knows me knows I rank myself about 50th percentile in terms of guitarists. If I don't like something - ask any of the other guys in the band - I'll say, "No, no, no, that's not working." Usually people are scared off by originals. I feel like we've gotten a pretty good response from it and there's a pretty good appreciation for the surf style. We're not trying to reproduce it exactly; we're trying to present it as a continuing art form, and I think it is that.
How's island life treating you?
Oh, it's great. You can't complain - you've got your coconuts, you've got your tropical drinks, you've got your beach. Have you ever been in a bad mood at the beach?
This is what I'm saying. That's what fez is all about. It's about having a good time, being in a good mood, regardless of what's happening to you. We're bringing the beach to everybody, to people in Idaho.
Is this how you pictured your life?
Pretty much, yeah. I see being a genetic mutation, you know, I thought about it as a kid.
What kind of music has inspired your band?
Obviously, surf, The Ventures, Dick Dale (but only when he's really rocking). And lounge, like Martin Denny and Herb Alpert. Me, personally, I was influenced by the Dead Kennedys and punk stuff I listened to early on, but more recently, Brian Setzer, Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, Charlie Christian, Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis, and my new favorite, Calvin Newborn, who's a guitarist up in Memphis. In terms of bass playing, Chaos is particularly influenced by Sting, especially his work with the Police. He also has a lot of background in classical music and the Beatles. Dr. Mako is into bands like Korn and Pfeel, and Helmet. Space Girl's all new to this whole earth-music kind of thing, but she's into bands like Dress and Betty. All the different influences come together to make fez have a sound that's worth hearing.
Do you think Dr. Mako enjoys the band even though he's under hypnosis?
Not nearly so much as he would enjoy actually taking over the world and subjecting everyone in it to a life of slavery in his service. He'd much rather enjoy being ruler of the world. But I think he doesn't really view those two things as totally contrary goals. He really thinks one day fez will take over the world anyway. We've only been together a short time, and already we're getting things like BayFest. He's getting a lot more exposure than he would just by working away in a laboratory by himself.
Do you think your growing acclaim will further his goals of world domination?
Well, the most dangerous danger is that you're not even aware of. I think just knowing Dr. Mako's designs for world domination, people realize there are only two choices - the two choices are fez domination, with the forces of cocoa butter and slushy mixed tropical drinks or Dr. Mako domination, which is mindless slavery, very grey, people shuffling off to work nine to five every day. OH MY GOD!!! HE MAY HAVE GOTTEN FARTHER THAN WE REALIZED!!!