Despite the distance between Southern California and Hawaii, the influence of Hawaiian and Polynesian culture has been quite profound in this region, at least in receptive circles. Of course, an American interpretation of Polynesian culture led to what we now call “tiki,” which has become intrinsically linked with the lowbrow and rockabilly scenes. It’s funny the way these things work out.
Out of all this, The Hula Girls were born. Formed nearly a decade ago by Matt “Spike” Marble, The Hula Girls sprang from the ashes of Huntington Beach band The Smokin’ Menehunes, a hapa haole (literally, half white; here meaning Hawaiian music with English lyrics) group.
“That was going for maybe four years, and when that thing fell apart, I decided that I wanted to pursue more of a rockabilly/surf thing that also does some of those same sort of things,” Marble says. “Borrows from Hawaiian music but also moves it into a midcentury rockabilly/surf thing.”
So that’s what he did. The Hula Girls have been described as “hulabilly,” a term that Marble doesn’t particularly like but admits is pretty much appropriate. The guitarist-singer has a deep fascination with tiki culture that led to him installing an expensive tiki bar, complete with volcano and pond, in his backyard. You have to admire that commitment to a culture from which he has no genetic roots.
“I grew up surfing, with a lot of admiration for the Hawaiian people and culture,” he says. “I guess where it all came from is, I was in college in the late ’90s, early 2000s, in Stockton, up north. There was a tiki bar there called the Islander, but it was well out of business by the time I got around there. I had a graphic design professor who was telling me about the different thrift stores around Stockton, and I found these mugs that said 'The Islander' on the back. Different kinds of Polynesian-looking things. I started buying them up just for the aesthetic because I thought they looked so interesting.”
Sven Kirsten's The Book of Tiki was released in the early 2000s, and it blew the whole thing open for Marble. The book detailed the tiki culture that was popular from the 1940s to the mid-’70s; it was America’s interpretation of Polynesia. Marble was hooked.
Marble lives in Costa Mesa; the band also has members in Long Beach, Seal Beach and Newport Beach. However, the frontman stops short of saying that they’re part of a Costa Mesa music scene.
“We don’t perform much in Costa Mesa,” he says. “Our long-running gig was always at Don the Beachcomber in Sunset Beach. I guess I can’t really speak to that. We really don’t fit in at most venues. We do really well in tiki bars.”
That makes a lot of sense. Still, the band's rockabilly edge offers them plenty of opportunities in cities such as Long Beach and, of course, Los Angeles, where that style of music is still popular with old rockers and punks. This weekend, The Hula Girls play at Alex’s Bar in Long Beach, a perfect fit for these guys.
“In L.A., there's Clifton's/The Pacific Seas— that’s probably my favorite,” Marble says. “Don the Beachcomber was a tiki wonderland and made a lot of sense for us. Sadly, Don the Beachcomber is closed. Alex’s is great, too. We haven’t played there in seven years or something. Last time we played there, we played with Wayne 'The Train' Hancock and Russell Scott.”
Despite that band name, there were no females in The Hula Girls when they originally formed. Later, they added go-go dancers and the name backfired a little, but it was originally intended to be a chuckle along the lines of the Lazy Cowgirls or New York Dolls. “The name was much more clever before we got girls in the band,” Marble admits.
The Hula Girls have released two albums on vinyl in their decade of existence: The Curse of Tiki and last year’s Jungle Beach Party. Both have the glorious garage-surf sound blended with that trad Hawaiian edge, the sleeve art decorated with pinup girls and tiki statues. It’s all deliciously lowbrow.
“They’re self-released things,” Marble says. “The first record features DJ Bonebreak from X playing vibraphone. We were honored to have him be a part of it.”
As fun as the tiki imagery is, one does have to wonder if it was tainted when white supremacists took to marching with tiki torches in the wake of Trump’s election. For a while, the image of the clueless fuckwits holding tiki torches aloft while screaming hateful bullshit was all over everywhere. It would be a damn shame if tiki culture was tarnished forever because of these creatures.
“Oh God, I hope not,” agrees Marble. “I have tiki torches in my backyard and I completely disavow any of that racist bullshit. When I saw that, I was like, ‘Oh man, can’t you use anything else? Don’t do that.’ Or don’t do anything, in fact.”
The show this week should be typically raucous, energetic and pretty fucking sexy, the way rock & roll should be.
“Our instrumentation is upright bass, Hawaiian steel guitar, I play lead guitar and sing, and we have a guy on a Gretsch cocktail drum kit. A small Gretsch kit. It’ll be a lot of stuff from our record. Rockabilly with a Hawaiian theme. Probably some surf instrumentals. Surf, and late-’50s garage instrumental stuff like Link Wray. It should be a good time.”
When that show is done, The Hula Girls have gigs lined up around this region through the next couple of months, so there’s really no excuse not to see this killer live band. After all, the opportunity to experience a little slice of Hawaii in SoCal range is irresistible.
The Hula Girls play the Rock-a-Hula night with Surfer Joe & Band and Black Flamingos at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 2, at Alex’s Bar. For more information, visit thehulagirls.com, or the band's Instagram page.