MDM Studios is located near Glendale, between a gentleman's club and a power plant. At first, it seems like an odd place for garage group Tijuana Panthers to be rehearsing. After all, three dudes who regularly surf near weather-beaten rocks and lush palm trees don't usually come this close to Skid Row.
But the rooms are cheap. And frankly, the whole surf-rock label no longer applies to the Long Beach trio, whose third LP Wayne Interest has influences as diverse as the Stooges, New Order, and the working class blues. "What am I gonna tell my wife? Cuz I'm gonna' get fired," sings guitarist Chad Wachtel on "Fired," which has the aggression of the Buzzcocks. It also holds true to their garage rock roots as part of the Burger Records family.
Originally from Long Beach, the trio have been DIY from the start. They self-released their 2010 debut Max Baker and have since been signed to local indie Innovative Leisure. Wayne Interest is the first time Tijuana Panthers have worked with producer Richard Swift—whose credits include the Shins and Foxygen. As the touring bassist for the Black Keys, Swift understood the delicate nature of adding texture without losing lo-fi authenticity. As a result, their new sound is more complex but not overproduced. "NOBO," for instance, has a bossa nova feel. The track was played on KCRW in May.
Now, the trio is rehearsing for an upcoming West Coast tour with Canadian hardcore band Fucked Up, which includes a stop at the Glass House tomorrow, August 22.
Watching the Tijuana Panthers rehearse at MDM is like seeing them live, without all the crowd surfing. A few feet away from my notepad, bassist Dan Michicoff raises his vintage Rickenbacker bass over his head, twirling it around as he flings his unkempt pompadour from side-to-side.
"Dan is business," says Wachtel, who works at an antique shop. Drummer Phil Shaheen is a high school art teacher, while Michicoff recently got off tour with Hanni El Katib and, for extra cash, works as an improv actor. Michicoff also likes to jump rope and watch HBO's Girls because he thinks it's ironic. When I ask him about the new Stars Wars movie—his eyes light up with excitement: "Dude, I'm tripping out."
Right now Wachtel looks like he's floating off, playing groovy guitar licks influenced by the Simpletons and New Order. It's probably the same look he has riding his vintage BMW motorcycle on the open highway.
"Chad's a lone ranger," says Michicoff, referring to the fact that Wachtel, the only member who still lives in Long Beach, doesn't have the ambition of a rockstar. "I'm just not that interested in success," he says, "I can do with or without it."
With his neatly trimmed mustache and slicked-back hair, Wachtel looks like an outlaw from some '50s Western. "Chad was the most vocal about wanting to move past the surf rock thing," says Michicoff. "Yeah, I think the new record is a departure for sure, and it's interesting that you noticed that," says Wachtel.
Shaheen, the lankiest of the three, sounds like a snot-nosed Iggy Pop behind the kit, frequently jolting his head towards his left shoulder like a surfer shaking sand off his face. He's also the band's art director—designing the album art and merch' — and today, he took time to increase the feng shui of their rehearsal space with patterned wall decorations. He's like a teacher pinning a decorative calendar on a bulletin board. "I'm actually missing the first week of school to go on tour," he says.
Offering me homemade cookies, Shaheen comes off as the father figure of the group. He's also the most talented vocalist. He's the lead singer on "Cherry Street," the single off Wayne Interest, which takes the Tijuana Panthers into a more post-punk direction.
The group first formed in Long Beach, circa 2006. It's around that time that Shaheen lived next door to a guy named Max Baker, which is also the title of their 2010 debut.
When Baker's house went up in flames, Shaheen discovered a black porcelain panther in the rubble. "Its front leg broke off when his house burned down," says Shaheen, who, considering that Baker purchased the panther in Tijuana, named the band after it.
Eight years later, the group seems poised to break out. So I ask them about their pre-show rituals.
"We were at a festival listening to classical music and drinking coffee," says Michicoff. "The Growlers walked into our trailer and said, 'Whoa, is this your pre-game?'"
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Clearly, the Tijuana Panthers are too mellow for all the debauchery. But during a live show, their spirit animal gets wild and reveals their gritty rock 'n' roll roots: throwback and blue-collar, but also, a good time.
Tijuana Panthers perform at the El Rey tonight, August 21, and at the Glass House tomorrow, August 22.
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