There's a full moon, and the Tijuana Panthers are thirsty for tequila.
There have been complications, though, which are my fault. I intended to interview the Long Beach garage rockers over a tequila tasting at a dive cantina. Such a venue would seem appropriate, considering that their brand of endless summer, surf-crazed debauchery is the perfect soundtrack for tequila-fueled mayhem.
But my first choice turned out to have no available bar stools and was too loud to record the interview. The next hour was spent driving aimlessly around L.A. with the Panthers in their white Ford pickup, searching in vain for that perfect spot.
I was beginning to feel pretty rotten about the whole thing, actually. It was a school night for drummer Phil Shaheen, a high school art teacher. But they took it in stride. When we finally settled on El Chavo, an upscale Mexican restaurant in Los Feliz, we were all ready to drink.
If you're not familiar with the Panthers, you should be. Their throwback surf rock marries a barrage of influences, and sounds something like they had spent an afternoon with Jan and Dean sharing fish tacos with Quentin Tarantino, before laying down some 4-track recordings with The Cramps in a sunlit garage.
“My dad was the manager for a bunch of surf bands that played The Rendezvous in Huntington in the '60s,” says guitarist Chad Wachtel. “I got really into that stuff, along with The Beach Boys and Neil Diamond.”
But that doesn't mean they're all sunshine and whimsy.
“Our single, 'Summer Fun', is satirical,” says bassist Daniel Michicoff. “It's about us not wanting to be a summer fun band anymore. Someone came up to me at a show once and said, 'Man, you guys are so great…it's total summer fun music!' I was drunk and told him, 'Yeah, just burn our records in the winter for firewood then. You don't need us after the summer apparently.”
The three Long Beachers met through a church youth group in junior high, and played in various incarnations throughout high school, before eventually forming what would become the Tijuana Panthers.
“The name comes from my neighbor,” Shaheen explains. “His house burned down somehow, and he gave me this porcelain panther from the rubble for me to fix. He told me a story about how he got it in Tijuana. I still have it to this day. So, we just put the two together. We think it's a cool name. It sounds like a shitty baseball team or something.”
They've kept the momentum going through their lauded self-released debut LP Max Baker, non-stop club dates, and even a gig at the zoo.
But the Panthers have landed their highest profile slot to date with a slot at FYF Fest, which takes place on Saturday at Los Angeles State Historic Park. “We're very grateful to play FYF, but we give it our all no matter where we play,” says Shaheen. “Whatever happens, at least we'll get to see The Dead Milkmen and Guided By Voices.”
Last call has come and gone, and the Panthers and I are outside waiting for cabs. Hands planted in pockets or smoking cigarettes, their backs to the wall of El Chavo, they're staring up into the full moon.
“If we could follow anyone's career trajectory, it would definitely be Jonathan Richman,” muses Michicoff. “He played three nights in a row at diPiazza's, a small pizza place in Long Beach. We walked in, paid our nine dollars and he was there eating pizza. I thought, 'If we can be like him, go around eating free pizza and make a decent living playing songs at small places for true fans, that'd be the life.'”
The group's “Summer Fun” video is below.