Over the course of three full-length albums and one EP, The Madeira have established themselves as one of the premiere bands within the instrumental surf genre – if not the premiere band. Fine Print Magazine recently caught up with lead guitarist Ivan Pongracic, Jr. as the band undertakes a short West Coast tour.
Q: Instrumental surf is a pretty niche form of music. How did you first discover the genre?
A: I grew up in Croatia (back then a part of former Yugoslavia), and my dad used to listen to the ‘60s British instrumental rock’n’roll legends the Shadows a lot (he even played in a Shadows tribute band in the mid-’60s). I really loved the Shadows, and was a bit distraught when we moved to the States in ’84 and I couldn’t find anything about them anywhere (they were never able to break through in the US). But in ’86 I stumbled across a newly-released Best of the Challengers LP (on Rhino Records) at a record store. It had a black-and-white photograph of the band on the cover, dressed in suits with Fender guitars and big smiles on their faces – they looked JUST like the Shadows (except that there was a sax player among them). I looked at the tracklist, and was shocked to discover that there were something like three Shadows tracks on the album. So, I immediately snagged that, and it became my first introduction to surf music. I picked up some Beach Boys albums around the same time. Guitar Player magazine also occasionally had stories on surf music, and I remember seeing the name Dick Dale pop up here and there, so in ’91 I picked up his Greatest Hits CD (also on Rhino – thank God for that label!). Shortly after, Rhino released Legends of Guitar – Surf, Vol. 1 CD, which I got in ’91-’92, and which was chock full of all these amazing classic surf tracks, “Squad Car,” “Mar Gaya,” “Diamond Head,” “Surf Rider,” etc. Both of those CDs were quite eye-opening, and led me to search out more surf music. Then I got to see Dick Dale in ’93 on his first East Coast tour since the aborted ’63 trek, and was just blown away. I couldn’t believe the power of his playing. In ’94 I also got to see Laika & the Cosmonauts twice in Washington, DC. They were an amazing live band, ton of energy and chops, and they left a huge impression.
Around the same time I met Larry “Moon Dawg” White, who was already deeply involved in the surf music revival, being a close friend of Man or Astro-Man?, and he turned me on to a whole bunch of new bands from around the world, and let me know about the Cowabunga surf music discussion email list, which I signed up for right away. So, by the fall of ’94, I was deep into all this stuff, and starting to seek out every surf CD I possibly could find, with regular visits to Tower Records and other record stores, and also buying through mail order places. Surf music resonated with me in a way that no music ever had before. I really felt I found a musical home, somewhere I belong. It took less than a year and a half after that to decide to start the Space Cossacks.
Q: The Space Cossacks were your first surf band. How was that whole experience for you?
A: The four years of the Space Cossacks surpassed any expectations I had when forming the band BY FAR. I had been playing in alternative bands that got nowhere for the previous few years, and really got bored with it. I wanted to play surf music strictly for fun and the love of the music, not thinking it would go anywhere. I didn’t even think we’d be playing any original music, I just wanted to play all those great songs that I loved, stuff by Dick Dale, the Atlantics, the Ventures, the Astronauts, the Shadows. So, I put out some classifieds in the local free weekly in early ’96, back when I lived in the Washington, DC area. Much to my surprise, the people that answered were really good, and seriously into it! Our first show was opening for the Mermen in June of ’96, and over the following two years we played something like 60 shows, all over the East Coast and the South, as well as doing a two-week tour of the West Coast. Just unbelievable. I never ever expected any of that.
We were somewhat fortunate that we caught the ‘third wave’ of surf music right as it really took off in the wake of Pulp Fiction and with many modern surf bands getting more attention – but we were also at the trailing edge of it. We rode it for all it was worth, but it fizzled right as we really started taking off, right around ’99-‘00. In some ways it was OK, though. By that point I had moved first to Indiana and then to Michigan, for work, so it was becoming very difficult to do anything as a band. In addition, the personality mix in the Cossacks was always quite volatile. It got a bit tiring after a while. Nobody’s fault in particular, just the way the chemistry was between the four of us. But we managed to release two albums that I’m very proud of, and that many people out there seem to love, ‘98’s Interstellar Stomp, and ‘00’s Tsar Wars. Once I moved to the Midwest in the summer of ’98, the band didn’t play live for a year and a half, though we still got together to work on the songs for Tsar Wars, which finally came out in the Spring of ’00. Following its release we only played four more shows in total: three shows in California, including the amazing Rendezvous Ballroom Reunion show with Dick Dale, the Chantays, the Belairs, Jon & the Nightriders, the Eliminators, the Nocturnes, etc., and one show back in DC – and that was it. Four years after that first show opening for the Mermen we were done (though we did have a brief reunion in the summer of ’10). Didn’t last long, but it made a surf music addict of me for the rest of my life. I couldn’t even imagine playing any other kind of music in a band after that.
Q: When you formed The Madeira, what was your goal? Has that changed over time?
A: I just wanted to play and record original surf music again. I didn’t get to do any of it since 2000. Right around the time the Cossacks broke up I started a Shadows tribute band in Indiana with my dad, the Troubadours, and we played quite a few shows for the next four years, which was huge fun. We also played a couple of Shadowmania events in Toronto with several of the original Shadows’ members present, (including Bruce Welch Almighty!), and got to be friends with them, which was an amazing experience, as they truly are legendary to me, a huge influence and one of the great musical loves of my life. But I was really missing the heavier sounds and playing my own music, so in ’04 I felt like it was time to do it again (especially as I had finally managed to finish my PhD dissertation!). I had also returned to some of my hard rock and metal roots in the interim, at least somewhat, and wanted to incorporate a bit of that attitude and energy (just a bit, though!). And I was very interested in exploring the whole middle-eastern thing in surf music more deeply. Once the band was together I think I came to the realization that I seriously lucked out in finding all these players and that not only was our chemistry pretty great (and not volatile in the least, in contrast to the Cossacks), but that everybody could really play. So, we decided to push the boundaries a bit. Go a bit further with surf music in a direction that would be mostly our own while still building on the great ’60s stuff.
Surf music was a heavily experimental form of music back in the ’60s, guys like Dick Dale, the Atlantics, the Fender IV, they were pushing the boundaries of sound, volume, tonalities, song structures, almost anything you could imagine. And it seemed that that sort of experimental spirit was not as present in the modern surf scene, and was even looked down upon by some. I found that pretty sad. There of course have been more than a few prog-surf bands since the early ’90s, quite a few of which I really love, but what made most of them ‘progressive’ is that they basically introduced outside, more modern influences into surf music. I was more interested in starting in 1965, as the first wave of surf music came to an end, and imagining what its continued evolution would have been like, as if the in-between period never happened. In other words, I did not want to introduce elements that obviously came from classic rock, metal, prog, fusion, alternative, jazz, whatever. I wanted us to mine the deep history of surf music in order to draw inspiration in exploring our own path. Obviously, all four of us grew up in an era where many of these more-modern music styles were huge, and of course we’ve been influenced by them, so some of that is going to come out. But the idea is to try to avoid any obvious stylistic borrowing from the modern era and try to find traditional surf music and early ‘60s instrumental rock’n’roll precedents for everything we do. Which I think we more or less have, even if that sometimes may be less than clear to outsiders!
I’ll say this, though: no matter what kind of plans I might have, the fact is that our rhythm guitarist Patrick O’Connor writes almost as much for the Madeira as I do, and he’s got his own ideas. He’ll come up with songs that are their own, and don’t necessarily fit into my concepts. And ultimately my concept gets changed and expanded, which in the end is a great thing. And of course, our drummer Dane Carter and bass player Todd Fortier have a say as well and add their own creative input, which influences the overall direction. It’s a very democratic process. As a result, the albums end up broader, more diverse and interesting.
But I think the original goal is still with us: Write and record original surf music that is very much grounded in the traditional surf while pushing the boundaries and sounding unique and personal. It’s not a matter of a fixed formula, it’s a matter of good judgment and high standards. Each album should sound different, if they start sounding the same it’s probably time to pack it in.
Q: Despite keeping the same main influences (Dick Dale, The Atlantics, The Shadows, etc.), Carpe Noctem was quite a different album stylistically from Sandstorm. After Carpe Noctem, did you have a specific plan in mind for Tribal Fires, or was the tribal influence something that developed gradually as you and Patrick began writing songs?
A: It’s hard to remember exactly how it developed, quite honestly. I think the concept of “The Madeira Go Sub-Saharan” occurred to me pretty early on. Carpe Noctem came out in June of ’08, while Patrick was living in California (he moved there just a few months before). After it came out, we played as much as we could, with him flying to Indiana or us flying to California, and we even toured in Italy in ’09, but we never could practice or work on anything new since we lived so far apart. Fortunately for the band, he ended up moving back to Indy in the fall of ’09, and by the beginning of ’10 we started working on the new songs, which were finally recorded in the summer of ’11. So, there was a year and a half period where we gradually shaped the songs and ultimately the album. In that period a lot of ideas were proposed and rejected, and a few ended up sticking, like the whole tribal concept. The concept ended up driving the songwriting, rather than the other way around. But there aren’t all that many songs on the album that have any obvious ‘tribal’ thing going, it was more of a conceptual hook on which we could hang the album rather than some box that the songs had to fit in. And from that conceptual hook, it was a small step to having an actual concept, all of us being fans of that sort of a thing.
Q: Would you say the recording process has gotten easier over the years for you?
A: No, I don’t think so. We operate on a limited budget, so we always record our albums in one weekend. We’ll start setting up at the studio late morning Friday, usually start recording by that evening, and then record straight through Sunday evening, with not a whole lot of sleep in those two nights. Since we’ve been recording 13 songs for each album, it’s not actually a lot of time to record it all, especially since we’ve become more ambitious and have been incorporating more overdubs and ‘colors’, as well as all sorts of percussion parts. Being in a studio is in many ways a thrill, since you’re creating something that will hopefully be a bit special and will last a long time. In addition, if you get in the right zone, creativity really starts kicking in and you end up doing cool unexpected, unplanned things, which is a huge rush. But watching the clock tick away while still having a lot to do isn’t much fun. And I swear, studio time moves faster than real time! It’s like being in some kind of a black hole – you’ll play a 3 minute song but half an hour will have passed on the clock! It can get stressful. Especially if something that you expected to work, well, just doesn’t. (That happened with “Twilight” this last time around.) And then you’re sitting there trying to figure out what needs to be changed so it does work – and the time is ticking away, faster than real time. Having said that, because we have such limited time to record each album, we always go in really well prepared, so we rarely encounter those problems. But they do happen. This last time we did have to go back in the studio for a few hours about a month after the initial recording sessions, and rerecord a few guitar parts. I’m very glad we did.
Q: You touched on the trad vs. progressive debate, and in a way combining the two approaches by imagining where the genre could have gone after 1965 while not bringing in outside influences. Do you tend to enjoy bands who take this sort of approach more than ones who fall on either the entirely trad or entirely progressive side, or is it more of a case-by-case thing?
A: It’s mostly a case-by-case thing, as there are some excellent bands that are basically trad. But to generalize, the bands I find the most interesting are the ones that try to do things somewhat differently while still somehow staying true to the foundations of surf music. I think that too many trad bands are too worried about sounding the part or looking the part – they seem to be primarily interested in RE-creating. They may not care about developing their own sound or style, so it becomes mostly about nostalgia, sometimes even by younger people that weren’t even alive when it originally came around. The bands that I enjoy want to stamp their own personality on this genre, they want to create, not just recreate, and in the process they take the genre to new and unexpected places, while still keeping it recognizable as surf music. That’s what I find exciting. It’s remarkable to me that there are all these modern surf bands that are playing what for most people is a dead music genre, that use basically the same gear, have the same lineup of instruments, have basically the same influences (at least within surf music), and can STILL create their own unique sound and style! It may not be obvious to a casual listener, but true surf aficionados can easily tell apart most of the major bands – Slacktone sounds very different from the Bambi Molesters, who sound a lot different from the Surf Coasters, who in turn sound nothing like Laika & the Cosmonauts, etc. I find it fascinating – the listener is hearing the differences between bands inthe purest form, in terms of their melodic sensibilities, playing abilities, their touch – their talent, not necessarily in sounds or production.
Q: Are there bands you think have been able to take that sort of approach and succeed in creating interesting, original music?
A: Sure, tons! Starting in the ’90s, my favorite was the Fathoms from Boston, followed by the Penetrators from Atlanta, the Volcanos from Detroit, Slacktone from SoCal, Laika& the Cosmonauts from Finland, the Surf Coasters from Japan, the Bambi Molesters from Croatia, Satan’s Pilgrims from Portland, OR, the Treble Spankers from Holland (led by Phantom Frank who is now playing with another amazing surf band by the name of the Phantom Four), Langhorns from Sweden, Los Twang! Marvels from Germany, Ferenc Dobronyi with Pollo del Mar or more recently Frankie & the Pool Boys from San Francisco, the TomorrowMen from San Francisco, the Beat Tornados from Norway, El Ray from Denmark, the Barbwires from Sweden, Aqualads from Charlotte, NC, the Deadbeats from San Francisco – the list really goes on and on, and I could easily come up with another dozen modern (post-’90) surf bands who are all I think quite incredible. These are just some of my favorites. I’m simply astounded by how much talent there has been in surf music over the past 20 years!
Q: You mentioned the experimental spirit being looked down on – do you think that was stronger during the Space Cossacks’ time together, or more recently?
A: I think the trad forces were definitely stronger in the ’90s. Some of those guys seem to have lost steam. It seems that the really hard-core traditionalist people are rarely passionate about trad surf for a long time. It’s hard to remain passionate about things staying exactly the same – everybody gets bored with the same-old, same-old. Surf bands along those hard-core trad lines seem to call it quits before the more adventurous bands. They will usually move to another retro genre, garage or rockabilly or lounge or soul or god knows what, since there are only so many times that one can listen to or play the same songs by – or the ‘original’ songs that sound like they’re by – the Lively Ones or the Chantays or the Belairs. Alex Faide of Los Twang! Marvels once told me that the only thing that keeps a tradition alive is from time to time to renew the fire, and I think that’s absolutely true. You’ve got introduce something new or a vibrant tradition soon becomes a dead art form. Interestingly enough, it seems like the original surf musicians tend to be very open to the more adventurous approach….
Q: How do you think things have changed within the genre compared to a few years ago?
A: It’s possible that the average age of the people listening and playing this music is going up. It attracted a ton of younger people in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, but it seems that more recently people in their 20s or even 30s are not forming surf bands as much. There are a few notable exceptions, such the awesome Deadbeats from San Francisco, but that does seem to be the somewhat alarming trend. It’s interesting, pretty much all the people that have gotten into surf music in these past 20 years are *still* into surf music, especially the players. It gets under your skin, it’s really addictive. I’ve seen many people quit it only to return to playing surf music just a few years later. Anyway, it’s still drawing new people into the genre, it’s just that they tend to be middle-aged or older. Also, there are much fewer labels releasing surf music than there were in the ‘90s. Obviously, self-releasing an album today is a lot easier, and if you’re a part of the scene, people will find out about it. But I still find it unfortunate that there are so few labels releasing surf today. These are two trends that I see today, and they aren’t so good. Nevertheless, in spite of all the odds, amazing surf music continues to be created, and the past couple of years have been particularly creative and fruitful! It’s mind-boggling….
Q: You were behind a recent compilation of contemporary surf bands, Brave New Surf. What was the idea behind the comp?
A: In the summer of ’11 I was taking many long walks with my dog and my iPod on, and having my mind blown by all this new surf music, thinking that it’s just unbelievable how much great stuff has been coming out recently. From my perspective, there was a wave of amazing releases that came out in ’08, followed by another in ’10-’11. It seemed like maybe even many surf music fans didn’t really know about all of them – and who could blame them, it’s tough to keep up with it all! So, I got this idea to put together a sampler of the best of the recent stuff, just to let the people know that it’s out there and hopefully get them to check it out, and maybe also reach some new people that know nothing about modern surf music. Modern surf comps were very common back in the ‘90s, and they played a huge role in my discovery of so many bands that I love today. So, it was a bit of a return to that era. I ran the idea by Sean Berry of Double Crown Records, our label, and he loved the idea and told me to go ahead. I put together a list of songs between ’08 and ’11 that I thought were the true cream of the crop, and contacted all the bands. Every band I contacted agreed to be a part of it, which was pretty awesome. I have to say that I am extremely proud of this CD, and very happy that I had the chance to do this. It was an incredible experience, and it also showed me yet again how cool the people playing this music are. Absolutely no egos and no bullshit, just genuine enthusiasm and love for what we do. We also ran a Kickstarter campaign to raise some funds to promote it, and got an incredible response, much more generous than we had hoped for. And many people pitched in and helped with everything for no charge, the SG101 Big Kahuna Brian Neal designing a super-duper website for the comp (BraveNewSurf.com), Ferenc Dobronyi designing the CD package, Danny Snyder helping out with the Kickstarter campaign and the promotion, and a few other people pitching in. It’s a truly great community of people.
Q: How was the response?
A: Hmmm, well, as with everything connected to surf music – slow. But I do see more and more people saying how this comp opened their eyes to the quality of modern surf music and got them into the genre, and I expect that to continue. It just got reviewed in the Vintage Guitar magazine this month, which is really cool. I’m definitely hoping that will lead to increased sales and slightly wider awareness of the modern surf scene. I’m also hoping that more true surf music fans will give the CD as a gift to friends that they think would be open to enjoying modern surf music. I just basically look at it as a proselytizing tool for the genre!
Q: Any plans for another volume?
A: Absolutely not at this point. Given that this one covers a four-year period, it seems we need to give it at least a couple of more years before looking into doing another one. We’ll also have to decide if the sales of this one justify another volume. Having said that, the new releases this year have been really impressive, and if things continue this way, I have no doubt another amazing comp could easily be pulled together in a few years.
Q: Where do you see surf music heading in the next few years?
A: It’ll probably just keep on keepin’ on more-or-less the way it has for the past 20 years, highly underground but passionately loved by a small group of people, some subset of which will form bands and play it live and create more of it. You look at some of the people playing this stuff today, and it’s just amazing that they would actually choose such a small, niche genre as a place where they would exercise their talent. I’m thinking of people like Shigeo Naka of the Surf Coasters, Phantom Frank of the Phantom Four/The Treble Spankers, Mike Barbwire of the Barbwires, Alex Faide of Los Twang! Marvels, Ferenc Dobronyi of Pollo del Mar/Frankie & the Pool Boys, Dave Wronski of Slacktone, Danny Snyder of the TomorrowMen, etc. As long as the genre continues to draw people of that caliber, and so far it seems to, I think we’ll be OK.
Q: What does the rest of 2012 hold in store for The Madeira?
A: 2012 may turn out to be our busiest year yet. Tribal Fires has been received so well that we feel that we should do whatever we can to play as many places as possible and promote it further. We played two shows in North Carolina in May, our first time there, we played Chicago and Milwaukee in mid-June, also our first time in Wisconsin, we’re just about to do another tour of California in August with five shows from San Francisco to San Diego, including the 5th Annual Surf Guitar 101 Convention outside of Los Angeles, which we’re REALLY excited about. Following that, we already have shows lined up in Indiana, Ohio, Illinois and possibly Michigan from late August through October, including some bigger deal shows that we’re greatly looking forward to. Beyond that, we’ll see. I’m sure we’ll play more in the IN/MI/OH/IL area over the winter, but we do usually tend to slow down once the weather turns bad. As far as next year, we’re very much hoping that we get to visit Europe again. Stay tuned for that, and keep checking the updates on our gig schedule at http://themadeira.net/gigs/
A: That’s a really tough question, there are SO MANY. But here’s my attempt at it, not withstanding that most of these are not so easy to find. But this is what I would give to someone to start them off in surf music:
The ’60s stuff:
1. Various Artists: Legends of Guitar – Surf
2. Dick Dale: King of The Surf Guitar
3. The Lively Ones: Hang Five
4. The Ventures – In Space
5. The Atlantics – Now It’s Stomping Time!
6. The Shadows – Greatest Hits (not surf music, but definitely spiritual cousins to surf from the UK)
The modern (post-’90) stuff:
1. The Fathoms – Fathomless (’96)
2. The Surf Coasters – Surfdelic (’98)
3. The Barbwires – Searider (’08)
4. Laika & the Cosmonauts – Instruments of Terror (’93)
5. Satan’s Pilgrims – Creature Feature (’98)
6. The Treble Spankers – Hasheeda (’95)
7. The Bambi Molesters – Dumb Loud Hollow Twang Deluxe (’03)
8. The Aqualads – Treasures (’11)
It’s tough, leaving out a LOT of great albums and artists, but somebody just getting into this stuff certainly wouldn’t go wrong with any of these, I think.
Q: Anything else you’d like to talk about/parting words?
A: Nothing I can think of. Thanks for the interview! Hope the readers found it worth their time.