Something Else! Interview: Merrell Fankhauser on UFOs, books and — oh! — music

There’s no denying singer, songwriter, and guitarist Merrell Fankhauser is one of the most multi-faceted musicians around.

Born in Kentucky, he moved to Southern California as a teenager, and that’s where and when he began playing music. It was the early 60s, the music community was bustling, and Merrell fit right into the picture as ringmaster of the instrumental surf combo, the Impacts. Pioneers of the genre, the band’s solitary album, “Wipe Out!” is a classic of its kind.

The times were a changing though, and so was music, with Merrell adapting quickly to the consistently-shifting sonic sands, leading to Merrell and the Exiles, whose repertoire encompassed everything from British Invasion influenced pop to folk rock to psychedelic innovation. The band cut a trio of singles, along with an album under the moniker of Fapadokly, and it was during this period that Merrell transformed into the grand guitar king that has sealed his reputation tight.

Before the ’60s drew to an end, Merrell fronted HMS Bounty, whose lone album Things collected stellar reviews and comparisons to the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield.

Come 1970, Merrell put together MU with Jeff Cotton from the Captain Beefheart Band, and relocated to Hawaii shortly thereafter. The band, which focused mainly on instrumentals, sired a series of spellbinding efforts covering folk, blues, acid rock, hard rock, progressive rock, pop and tropical sounds. Positive responses were plenty, and such discs have been reissued for new generations to cherish.

Collaborations with a mob of different musicians, including John Cippolina of Quicksilver Messenger Service, Ed Cassidy and Jay Ferguson of Spirit, piano legend Nicky Hopkins, Dean Torrence of Jan and Dean, Louis Ortega of the Texas Tornados, and Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits (to name all but a few famed faces) additionally appear on Merrell’s thick resume. Merrell has also hosted radio and TV shows, and recently completed his autobiography.

As active today as he has ever been, Merrell continues to produce stunning records exposing his forte for not only stroking a mean and melodic guitar, but for composing material that’s memorable, fascinating, colorful, and steeped in his own unique style. Merrell is an international treasure, and has a widespread and devoted fan base to prove such a statement. Be it surf instrumentals, smoky blues, acid-fried blues, exotica, ringing folk rock, psychedelic magic, heavy rock, country twang, or radio-friendly pop, Merrell is the guy to go to for ear-pleasing results.

Never compromising and always true to his muse, Merrell makes music simply because he enjoys to, and his pure-hearted approach is clearly visible in the many projects he is regularly involved in. He stopped by for an in-depth and entertaining Something Else! Sitdown …

BEVERLY PATERSON: You recently staged a reunion in Palmdale, California, that — as expected — brought about great reviews. How did this reunion happen, and what can you tell us about the show?
MERRELL FANKHAUSER: The Palmdale ’60s bands reunion came about after I was contacted by the son of the owner of Glenn Records, Glen MacArthur Jr., who found several boxes of my master tapes from 1963 to 1966 stored in a freezer truck on his land way out in the little desert town of Rosamond. Glen closed up his studio in Palmdale in the mid-’90s, where he recorded my groups Merrell and the Exiles, and Fapardokly. He also recorded Buck Owens and rockabilly singer George Weston, and Ricky Nelson and Elvis Presley’s guitar player James Burton, just to name a few. Glen Sr. died in 1999, and the tapes sat un noticed in the freezer truck in the desert for years. I found several unreleased Merrell and the Exiles songs, and an outtake of a Fapardokly song that wasn’t on the original album. I mastered the songs to CD, and it’s coming out in October on the German Morning Dew Records on vinyl LP. It will also be out the end of August on CD. Glen Jr. also contacted Carla Weston, George Weston’s daughter, and told her they found several boxes of her dad’s tapes also. I helped Carla master 22 of her dad’s songs that are now out on CD. Her dad died in 1999. Carla had the idea to get her dad’s original band Second Wind back together, along with a local classic rock band Highway 138 and my band Merrell Fankhauser and Friends for a Antelope Valley ’60s reunion concert. The Lancaster and Palmdale area was the early home of Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa, who had a band there called the Omens in the very early ’60s. Finding the unreleased tapes, and doing the reunion show, was like finding a lost treasure — and then going back in time and seeing fans and friends I hadn’t seen in over 45 years. There was even a lady there that went to high school with Captain Beefheart! Original Exiles bass player Jim Ferguson joined us on stage for a couple songs. It was a complete success and everyone had a great time.

BEVERLY PATERSON: Did you rehearse much and what are the chances of all of you getting together again, either for live performances or recordings?
MERRELL FANKHAUSER: We didn’t rehearse for the concert, as my band plays together fairly regularly. The band Highway 138 said they would like to play more shows with us, but it would be up to the promoters. Highway 138 said they would like to do a CD tribute to George Weston, as they performed two of his songs in their set.

BEVERLY PATERSON: Do you ever get nervous before a live performance?
MERRELL FANKHAUSER: I never get nervous before a gig, but I do go into a meditative concentration before a show. I become one with the music when I play, and its all automatic pilot — no thinking involved. Afterwards, I replay the show in my mind and decide where any improvements might be needed.

BEVERLY PATERSON: How extensively have you toured?
MERRELL FANKHAUSER: From 1968 to 1987, I toured quite a bit and slowed down somewhat in 1987.

BEVERLY PATERSON: You’ve also just completed your long-awaited autobiography. Considering you’ve been there, done that, and there’s more to come, was it difficult picking and choosing what experiences and adventures to write about?
MERRELL FANKHAUSER: For years, people kept saying I should write a book about my early surf music years, moving to Hollywood and then Maui — where I went on a search to find pre-Hawaiian ruins. It’s definitely different than what a musician would normally do. I started on the book in 1991, when my mom was still alive and she would remember things about my recording and playing that helped jog my mind, plus she kept a lot of newspaper and magazine clippings that helped nail down dates. The book covers my growing up in Kentucky, and moving to California when I was 11 years old up to present day and doing a concert with my old friend Dean Torrence of Jan and Dean. Dean sings on my 2001 album Return To MU, produced by movie and record producer William E. McEuen (Steve Martin, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band). The book could be twice as long if I could remember everything!

BEVERLY PATERSON: How are you promoting the book?
MERRELL FANKHAUSER: Gonzo Publishing of UK is putting the book out, and they are very good about getting interviews and reviews worldwide. They have released seven CDs and DVDs of my releases, so far. I plan to do a book signing tour in California to begin with.

BEVERLY PATERSON: A Merrell Fankhauser discography book has just been published as well. You boast a catalog several miles wide, so that must have been some task researching and listening to all your recordings! How did this book come about, and exactly how many recordings have you released to date?
MERRELL FANKHAUSER: The Merrell Fankhauser Complete Discography came about when I was contacted by Dutch writer and music historian Peter Marinus. Peter flew to California and we went through my archives, and he showed me the research he had already done that included releases in countries and labels I never knew about. DJ Bill ‘The Boogie King” Newell had already done a discography on me up to 1996 that was published that year in Goldmine magazine, so that gave us a great help. We found that I’m on close to 100 releases, many of which I never knew about. The discography book can be purchased direct from me signed, for $28 post paid. Send check or money order to: Ocean Records, P.O. Box 1504, Arroyo Grande, CA, 93421.

BEVERLY PATERSON: Out of all your recordings, do you have any select favorites? And if you do, what is it about these records that stand out from the others?
MERRELL FANKHAUSER: My most favorite recording would be the Return To MU album that featured many of my musician friends like, Nicky Hopkins, John Cipolinna, John McEuen, Dean Torrence, Ed Cassidy, Jay Ferguson and my son Tim Fankhauser. I wanted to do an album about my search for the Lost Continent Of MU, and my good friend and fellow producer William E. McEuen made it happen with several years of recording in his state-of-the-art studio in Santa Barbara, California. It’s been released on four labels and recently came out on the UK Gonzo Multimedia label, with a bonus documentary DVD that shows many of the pre-Hawaiian ruins I discovered while living in Hawaii.

BEVERLY PATERSON: I truly love everything you do, but two of my very favorite recordings are the Fapardokly and HMS Bounty albums. Where did the name Fapardokly come from — which is a cool name, by the way — and what are your memories of those recording sessions?
MERRELL FANKHAUSER: The name Fapardokly came about when I moved back to the California central coast from the desert area of Lancaster. I dropped Merrell and the Exiles, and made a more psychedelic-sounding name up for the band using the first letters of the last name of each band member at the time — FA: Fankhauser, PAR: Dan Parrish (bass player), DO: Bill Dodd (guitarist) and DKLY: Dick Lee (drummer). Glenn Records had released four Merrell and the Exiles singles from ’63 to ’67, and had more than two albums of unreleased songs on the shelf. The new Fapardokly group went over to Glenn’s Desert studio in ’67, and recorded another batch of songs. Glenn randomly pulled 12 songs off the shelf and put out the Fapardokly album in 1967. That has become one of the most valuable and most sought after albums of the 1960s! It featured future members of HMS Bounty, Mu and Captain Beefheart’s band. Little did we know that much later, in 2011, one of the songs on the album — “Tomorrow’s Girl” — would be chosen to be on the Grammy-nominated Rhino Records box set Where The Action Is L.A. Nuggets 1965-1968.

BEVERLY PATERSON: HMS Bounty achieved a pretty good deal of commercial success. What prevented the band from recording a follow-up album?
MERRELL FANKHAUSER: My band moved from the California central coast to L.A. in 1968, and our producers there thought we needed a more British sounding name — and the name of the band was once again changed to Merrell Fankhauser and HMS Bounty. We were signed to Uni Records during a very prolific writing period for me and our first single “Things” from the album of the same name, started zooming up the charts and we made it into the Billboard Hot 100! We all thought we were headed for the Top 20 and a million seller. We were playing concerts with many of the top bands of the day, like Canned Heat, CTA, the Blues Image, Buffalo Springfield and others. Then the label signed Neil Diamond, who already had a big hit on a smaller label — and we watched as our single fell off the charts and all the promorion went over to him. Two more singles were released but neither of them made the national charts. Uni Records went on to discover and sign Elton john. The HMS Bounty band members were depressed and moved back to the central coast and I stayed on in L.A., and formed the band MU.

BEVERLY PATERSON: How old were you when you started playing guitar? Did you take lessons or teach yourself, and did you find the instrument easy to grasp?
MERRELL FANKHAUSER: My dad played guitar and started teaching me chords on a ukulele when I was about 11 years old. I bought my first guitar when I was about 14 years old that I saved up for after a hot summer of picking strawberries in the fields with the Mexican nationals. I was mostly self taught and bought some guitar instruction books and started writing songs almost immediately.

BEVERLY PATERSON: You have the amazing ability to play every single style of music possible. How have you managed to hopscotch from one genre to another, and yet retain such a distinctive sound?
MERRELL FANKHAUSER: Writing music comes very easy for me. I sometimes hear a complete song finished in my mind, and then have to figure out the music and write it down or record it before it goes away! I never know what style a song will be in, as it writes itself. I like all kinds of music and have been exposed to many styles growing up. My mom was a big-band singer in the ’40s and my dad played guitar in a Dixieland jazz band. He also liked the Blue Yodeler Jimmy Rodgers’ country blues songs.

BEVERLY PATERSON: Is there a brand of guitar you’re particularly partial to? What kind of guitars are you playing these days?
MERRELL FANKHAUSER: I’ve played mostly Fender, Gibson and Rickenbacker electric guitars, and I like Martin Acoustics — and I have a custom Merrell Fankhauser signature guitar that I designed and built with my son Tim Fankhauser, who worked at Ernie Ball Music Man guitars for 15 years. When I write a song, it always tells me what instruments to use.

BEVERLY PATERSON: Aside from music, you have a keen interest in UFOs. What are your thoughts on these objects? Do you feel communication between us and the beings occupying these flying vehicles can be accomplished?
MERRELL FANKHAUSER: My dad was a flight instructor and taught me to fly when I was just 14 years old in a Piper Cub. I also soloed in a sailplane. I always talked to my dad when I was young about flying saucers, and he believed we were not alone in the universe. I built a few flying saucer models that actually flew and, after high school, I went to college to be an aeronautical engineer but dropped out when the Impacts’ Wipe Out album became a hit and we went on the road. I do hope someday there will be communication with aliens. If I met an alien, I would greet them with peaceful open arms: Welcome, space brothers — let’s talk!

BEVERLY PATERSON: What do you find most satisfying about singing, playing, and writing music?
MERRELL FANKHAUSER: There is no way to explain in words the feeling of writing, recording and playing music! Meditating is the next best thing, but nothing gets me as high as music.

BEVERLY PATERSON: If you weren’t a musician, what kind of work do you think you would be doing?
MERRELL FANKHAUSER: If I were not a musician I probably would have been an aeronautical engineer. I still have my own design model airplanes and gliders that I built nearly 40 years ago. I wish I had time to build some these days.

BEVERLY PATERSON: How would you define your music to someone who has never heard your records?
MERRELL FANKHAUSER: The best way to describe my music would come from the lips of Willie Nelson. When I played with him on Maui back in 2000, somebody asked him to describe my music and he said — “I would call it Merrell Music.”

BEVERLY PATERSON: Who are some of your favorite musicians?
MERRELL FANKHAUSER: There are so many great musicians, I like: Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, James Taylor, Carl Perkins and, of course, Willie Nelson. There are to many too mention.

BEVERLY PATERSON: What activities are you currently pursuing, other than promoting your book?
MERRELL FANKHAUSER: I regularly produce a TV show called Tiki Lounge that can be seen on the entire California central coast, from above San Luis Obispo down nearly to Santa Barbara and Hawaii. The show has been on air for 13 years, with stars from the late ’50s to now. Select shows can also be seen at Merrell Fankhauser on YouTube. My band Merrell Fankhauser and Friends does a concert or Tiki Lounge TV performance about every two months, and we are always working on new recordings when time permits.

BEVERLY PATERSON: Thank you for your time and all your music. We love you, Merrell!

Beverly Paterson

Beverly Paterson was born the day Ben E. King hit No. 4 on the national charts with "Stand By Me" - which is ironically one of her favorite songs, especially the version by John Lennon. She has also contributed to Lance Monthly and Amplifier, and served as associate editor of Rock Beat International. Paterson's own publications have included Inside Out, and Twist And Shake. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.