Elliot Easton on the Tiki Gods and Easton Island
Unless you lived along a thin sliver of beach of Southern California in the early 1960s, the chances of you being immersed in the true “surf experience” were slim. But from coast to coast, and indeed eventually worldwide, people were dancing to songs like “Wipe Out” and “Little Surfer Girl,” wearing surfer-inspired clothes, and even adopting the jargon. Garages and basements in places like Minneapolis, Boston, and Rapid City rocked with the reverby guitars slung by kids playing surf. It was a boom. Half a century later, Elliot Easton envisions a Tiki empire, one inspired by a combination of surf and Polynesia, peppered with inspiration from movie composers like Henry Mancini, Ennio Morricone, and others, and focused through a modern lens. If his new band, the Tiki Gods, and their Easton Island are any indicator, he may be on to something.
You probably best know Elliot Easton from his guitar work with The Cars, a band that had no shortage of hits, some almost anthemic in the 1980s: “Just What I Needed,” “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight,” “My Best Friend’s Girl,” “Shake it Up,” “You Might Think,” “Drive,” “Good Times Roll,” and “Drive.” Since the dawn of the 1990s, you may have seen him onstage with The New Cars or with Creedence Clearwater Revisited. Fans know his 1985 solo album, Change No Change. And in 2011 you might have caught him with the reformed Cars on Jimmy Fallon’s or Stephen Colbert’s shows, promoting their most recent CD, Move Like This. For the past decade and a half, something’s been burning in Elliot, like a volcano, first manifesting itself in the creation of “Monte Carlo Nights,” from the soundtrack of Quentin Tarantino’s 2007 movie Jackie Brown, and now Easton Island.
In late 2011, Elliot assembled Elliot Easton’s Tiki Gods, the core group consisting of art director/animator/bassist Chris Reccardi and Wondermints guitarist Nick “Nicky Wonder” Walusko and drummer Michael D’Amico, with additional contributions by keyboardist/Theremin player Todd Jaeger, percussionist, flugelhornist, and Melodica player Probyn Gregory, and keyboardist/vibraphonist Darian Sahanaja. Roles blurred in places, since Elliot also contributed percussion, but his main role was as the guitaristic lead voice of this instrumental ensemble.
The collective output captured on “Easton Island” is rich, twangy, and full of tasty guitar that’s catchy, compelling, and as Elliot will tell you without provocation, melodic. Deeply contributing to the twangnificence are a multitude of Elliot’s guitars, all lefties (Elliot is left-handed, for those who don’t know). These include a special SG called the Momofuku, which sports the band’s Tiki icon logo, as well as a sunburst 1965 Gibson ES-335, a ’65 Gibson Trini Lopez Standard, a Jerry Jones Electric Sitar, a ’62 Gibson Barney Kessel Custom, a couple of Mosrites, and a ’65 Fender Electric XII, among others. He also used a gaggle of effects pedals and several amps. The result? A dozen tunes that range from full-blown old-school surf (“Sir Surfalot”) to beachfront-meets-Spaghetti Western (“Tiki Gods Theme”) to mai-tai cool (“Jill’s Theme”) and Wes Montgomery-style octave jazzing (“Tabu”). For more gear details, as well as other info about Elliot Easton’s Tiki Gods, check out their website at http://www.ellioteastonstikigods.com.
We caught up with Elliot in his home studio just after the debut album launched on iTunes and Amazon.com. At the time, he was gearing up for some gigs in the Los Angeles area to tune the band for a tour.
Your special SG is stunning.
It’s thousands and thousands of tiny crystals. Chris Reccardi [http://www.reccardi.com], our bass player on the album, is an artist and an animator at Disney. He’s really talented. He did the design on the SG, and then Robert Kantor [http://www.kantorguitars.com] painted it, and then their team put the stones on.
Does it feel rough?
Not bad. I thought it would feel abrasive on the forearm. It’s a USA SG, not the greatest guitar I have, but I had to give something to Robert to do it on. It’s so pretty, and when the lights hit it, it’s bound to be spectacular! Mostly I have it hanging on the wall, since it’s a piece of art.
You recorded “Monte Carlo Nights” back in 1995.
Yes! That gives you an idea how long I’ve been scratching this little itch. It was on a compilation on Delphi called Pulp Surfin’, sort of a play on Pulp Fiction. There was another one called Shots in the Dark [Shots In the Dark: Del-Fi Does Mancini] that the Wondermints and the Tiki Gods were on. We did a version of “Mr. Lucky.” Quentin Tarantino heard “Monte Carlo Nights” and liked it, and put it in the movie Jackie Brown. It’s in the film twice – in the film proper and in the credits. I’ve always loved that kind of music.
Why the long build-up between then and the full Tiki Gods CD?
Well, I did a lot of things in between. I spent 11 years playing with Creedence Clearwater, and the New Cars with Todd Rundgren, and two years ago we actually did a Cars record and tour. I was busy.
The thing about those old Tiki Gods tracks was that it was just me playing all the instruments. And on top of that, it was all recorded on an Akai 12-track recorder. So I’ve got a bunch more, and there will be bonus tracks on the CD. There’s “Goldfinger” and “Mr. Lucky,” and other stuff. It was just me sitting in my little studio, overdubbing and overdubbing and overdubbing. So it wasn’t really ever a band. Being commissioned to do a track was just the kick in the butt I needed to do something like that, because it was in my head. And if you remember, in the early to mid 1990s there was this sort of surf and lounge resurgence in the air, in the zeitgeist a little bit. There were bands like Combustible Edison and Man or Astro-Man, another called the Mount Ararat Finks. [Laughs.] It was something that I was having so much fun doing on my own.
Then a couple of years ago I was doing one of those rock and roll fantasy camps, and the special guest one day was Brian Wilson. They were doing a sort of stripped-down acoustic thing. I met Nick and Darian [Sahanaja, keyboardist] and those guys, and we just hit it off like long-lost brothers. I must have shared some of my stuff with Nick. The Wondermints were on that “Shots in the Dark,” that Henry Mancini tribute, like I was. They knew my track and I knew theirs. We had things to talk about. I was playing with Brian Wilson the night he heard the Wondermints at this little theater in Santa Monica. They were playing things from [the Beach Boys’] Smile, and that’s when the wheels started turning, and next thing you know, he’s playing Pet Sounds live with them.
You had the idea, the people, and the opportunity.
I met Nicky at the fantasy camp, we became friends, and the idea developed, so a couple of years ago we thought we’d try a real band. So we rehearsed and did a well-received show here at the Key Club in L.A. That was all we did, because then I went back on road. It’s been one thing or another, those pesky things like going out to make a living and stuff. So it’s taken this long to get things cleared so we can make this a full-time thing.
Did you have all the songs written before you started the project?
Oh, not at all. We wrote some together, some apart. A lot of the songs are collaborations, and a few I wrote myself – “Blue Lava” and “Rarotonga.” The four front guys – me, Todd Jaeger, Chris Reccardi, and Nick Walusko – everybody was into the project and trying to bring cool stuff to it. We got together at my home studio and just played ideas on small amps and simple equipment. I had the melody for “Jill’s Theme” and those guys started harmonizing things behind it and trying to figure out the chord structure. We’d put stuff together like a real band. It’s a lot more fun than just working on your own. It’s a real band on this album, and everybody contributed.
There’s no substitute for that push and pull from working with a band.
Totally. We tried to get as many instruments as we could on the basic tracks. It’s very different from building it up from a drum track and working that way. That’s not to say we didn’t spend a lot of time overdubbing all sorts of things. We did play a lot together at the same time.
Did you have a main go-to set of equipment?
I don’t haul everything out and just stab in the dark. I think about the sound before I do it, so then I go to the right guitar, effects, and amp. The way I look at the band is that I’m the lead singer, only I do it on guitar. I wanted a voice, to develop a real voice. I think I’ve always had one on guitar, but I wanted to have one for this. What I ended up playing for about 75% of this record is this beautiful 1965 factory left-handed Gibson ES-335 with a factory Bigsby. It’s a great guitar. I used to not play it before because it never stayed in tune. Then my buddy Don Butler, who’s known as the Tone Man here in town, put these domed thumb wheels under the Tune-O-Matic bridge. And because they were domed, they allowed the bridge to rock. Then the guitar stayed in tune. I couldn’t put it out of tune. It became a total cream puff.
What I loved about this particular 335 is that it’s not a skinny-necked one; it’s got the full width at the nut. The guitar twangs beautifully, but has a full-bodied tone because of its humbuckers. But it still twangs. I’ve been listening to guys like Al Caiola and Billy Strange, and some of the Wrecking Crew guys – Jerry Cole, Al Casey, and Tommy Tedesco. Al Caiola was playing the Bonanza theme, and all sorts of things that are twangy and orchestral. We’re trying to do sort of our own blend, our own take on this music. Caiola always used to play a Gibson ES-355 or an Epiphone Al Caiola model, and he was great on that twangy stuff. He made dozens and dozens of records, where he did what I’m trying to do: He played the melody on the guitar.
How do you get so much twang out of a guitar with two humbuckers? It sounds more like something from a Telecaster.
I know! You’d think so. Like “Mu Empire,” where it’s that low part with the tremolo, it’s the 335. The treble pickup and two-pickup sound have plenty of twang, but a bit more robust and a bit more mids, whereas a Fender is more highs and lows, but not a lot of midrange, which I love. I love that hi-fi sound. But I was drawn to the sound of this 335, and with it playable and able to stay in tune with the Bigsby, I just got hooked on it. It rapidly became one of my favorite guitars.
I used that, and I used some Mosrite. I’ve had a relationship with the Mosrite of Japan people for quite a while. Now they’re fully integrated with the Moseley family to the point where Dana Moseley in Bakersfield is winding the pickups, like she did for her dad in the early ’70s. I’m sure I played some Fenders too. I also used a 6-string bass to play some baritone guitar. John Page gave me this thing in the early days of the Fender Custom Shop. It’s a 6-string bass Stratocaster. It’s a normal Strat body with the bridge in the usual place. I don’t know how they worked out the physics of this instrument, where the scale lets it play in tune. It’s got this long 24-fret neck – they stretched the scale, and it all works. It’s wired so you can get the two outside pickups together. John said they’d made it for Dick Dale, and he didn’t want it, so did I want it? He didn’t have to ask me twice! Let me think about that for a nanosecond. [Laughs.] It’s been a great instrument for me.
Going in the other direction… Back when The Cars were playing in Japan, in the early ’80s, I made friends with the people at Greco guitars, which I believe were Fuji Gen-Gakki, the people who made some Fenders. They made me a little octave guitar that tunes up an octave. It has a really short scale, short neck. I used that on “Isle of Canopic.” I plugged it into a Vox Repeat Percussion from the ’60s, I believe, a hard-sounding tremolo that’s all on-off on-off. I doubled that with a normal guitar. There’s so much fun stuff going on in that record. Nick played his electric sitar on some places.
What did you use for the jazzier solos?
I used my ’62 Gibson Barney Kessel. It’s gorgeous. It gets that Wes Montgomery-like tone. There’s a song called “Tabu,” which is the Kessel all over. I’ve had L-5s, L-5 Wes Montgomerys, all those, but nothing gives this kind of sound. It’s a laminated top, so it doesn’t feed back or give those wolf tones you get with a normal arch-top.
“Tabu” really sounds like it could easily be called “Wes Montgomery Goes to the Beach”!
That’s a very astute observation! My actual line is “It’s Wes Montgomery Backed by Les Baxter and His Orchestra.” That’s what was in my mind. The melody seemed to sound so pretty in octaves, and when I plugged in that Kessel, it was like, “Whoa!” That’s another song with me playing everything; it’s an old track.
Really? You matched it to the newer tracks perfectly.
Yeah. We might have done a few additional overdubs, but it’s one of those tracks I recorded in 1995 or ’96.
Do you have a main go-to amplifier for most of your recording?
I have a couple. I mean, for what I do, you can’t really beat a Princeton Reverb or a Deluxe Reverb. I favor those amps, plus I have a pair of mid-’60s Ampeg Reverberockets – they’re just as sweet as sugar and have the prettiest reverb and tremolo. Like the Ampeg B-15s, millions of hit records that we all love were made with those kinds of amps. Purists might scoff at this, but I also used one of the original Vox Valvetronix amps that Mitch Colby sent me. Now the Valvetronix is sort of geared toward heavy metal players, but this was more like a Line 6, but with a tube in it. It’s a modeling amp that has the warmth of tubes. I like the Line 6 people, and I use a lot of their gear. Everything is built into the amp: compression, noise suppression, tape echo, plate reverb – like a Swiss army knife in an amp. For a lot of rehearsals, I could dial up what I wanted. I could quickly dial up and use a sound; I got a lot of beautiful tones out of it. I believe in those amps very much. I have a few configurations: the stereo 120-watt head with two cabinets so I can use it in stereo, and a 60-watt combo version, which is what I used on the record. I used some Pod X3, and also some Line 6 plug-ins. That stuff sounded fantastic, too. On “Isle of Canopic,” I play this climbing line. I put one tone on one track with the 335 and a Dual Showman and a Plate Reverb and Echoplex and Fairchild limiter, and the second layer was a Vox AC-15, a fuzz box, and a fast tremolo. So when you listen to it, you don’t hear the fuzz on a note until it starts to die out, and you hear something like a helicopter-style fuzzed-out tremolo.
I had a lot of fun with the stuff. The guys in the Wondermints have a studio in Los Angeles, and we would do drums and tracks and some overdubs. But sometimes I would take it back to my house so that I could sit and really massage a guitar part. I could spend a few hours and not waste anyone else’s time or feel any pressure. Some solos were just better to do at home, like some of the jazzier solos, where I had to push myself to the edge of my ability – which I truly did on this record. I tried to pull some things out of myself that I’d certainly never recorded before.
How did you divvy up the parts between you and Nick?
It’s easy because Nick’s a master chord man. Want to hear the mystery chord at the end of “Twilight Zone”? There he is. Or Henry Mancini chords. He spent 15 years playing Brian Wilson music, Pet Sounds and all that. Just a brilliant musician with a great ear for voicings. So we don’t get in each other’s way at all. And because we sort of designed the band around me being the “singer,” in a way it takes away the two-guitar clash that you might be concerned about. I’m just trying to sing the song. Nick is the epitome of great taste and gets great sounds. We’ve all been doing it a long time, and we’re conscious to not step on each other’s parts and to leave space in the recording where it’s appropriate.
What made you decide to do an acoustic number, “Sydney’s Samba”?
I play gut-string guitar on that, and it’s a lot of fun. It’s not fully acoustic, and it’s a bossa nova. It’s got some playing in it. Again, it’s our own little recipe. I like to think about it like this: We weren’t trying to make a record that sounded like it was recorded in 1957 or ’58. We love all those influences – Henry Mancini, Ennio Morricone, John Barry, crime jazz, surf, TV shows, all that stuff. But we know we’re rock kids. Everything we know was absorbed and filtered through a rock filter. We were babies when those records came out. We relate to rock music and pop music and stuff like that. What separates us from someone who does a pure retro record is that we’re sort of irreverent about it. We’re being who we are; we’re not trying to play characters from the ’50s. We’re just doing music that we think is cool. Hopefully, it sounds like who we are, not studio musicians in the ’50s.
Another thing with us, authenticity is a big word. We were doing “Rarotonga,” and I was thinking to myself “Burt Bacharach.” The little “chicks” on guitar that go with the snare drum, swirling strings, all that kind of stuff. And we were having the best time pulling all these references and influences out and making it our own. I read an interview with John Lennon once, and he said, “In my mind, I’m doing my Elvis thing right now.” Nobody else sounds like Elvis, and nobody else would think that. We’re doing our sort of mid-century, pop, AM radio, studio musician thing, but at the same time it’s not going to be heard like that.
“Ballad of Cowboyardee” has a great Spaghetti-Western feel.
Yeah. Todd Jaeger was largely responsible for that track, and “Sir Surfalot.” “Cowboyardee” has the castinets and whistling, and “Sir Surfalot” really steams along. “Cowboyardee” is like Ennicone or Hugo Montenegro, and we brought in a guy who’s an expert whistler. And Nick and I just sat there chugging along on 12-string acoustics with the castinets – the whole epic Western thing. It’s just so much fun, especially after a lifetime of rock and pop, to play stuff like this, which is melodic and harmonically sophisticated, has beautiful chords. It really lends itself to melodicism. I love the melody. I always respected Miles Davis for that: Play the melody. The antithesis of that is all these young singers who use way too much melisma, and the melody is gone.
I knew some people wanted to hear hot soloing, and I tried my best to wail on the guitar, but some of the most satisfying stuff, to me, was coaxing the beautiful melody out of the music, being the singer. It’s such a pleasure.
There’s an art to creating a good melody.
It’s so expressive, the way you hold a note and add vibrato halfway through the sustain – just like a singer does. All those considerations. It’s a beautiful thing; it’s just a great thing to caress a melody.
A good, classic example is the Beatles’ “And I Love Her”…
There you go: It’s just the vocal line played on guitar in the solo. What does it do? Go up a fourth? It’s gorgeous. You can’t go wrong with that. I did that with many solos for The Cars. I’d look for an entry and kind of key off of the vocals, like on “Shake It Up.” It comes straight from the vocals and takes off from there. That’s a usual approach for me.
On Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” solo, Eric Clapton brings in a melody from another song entirely – “Blue Moon” – and takes off from there.
In my solo on “Tabu,” I start off with a bit from “Night on Bald Mountain,” and other bits. I’m conscious of that old jazz tradition of quoting from pop songs in the middle of a solo. It’s so cool, and I wanted to do that myself. I’d never call myself a jazz guitar player, but I am a Berklee-educated guitar player who loves jazz, who loves Grant Green and Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell and Pat Martino. So if I can hear it, I can play it. I can’t say I’d be able to improvise chorus after chorus of hard bop or anything like that, but I can write myself a good solo. I just have to work it out. I don’t get to do it all the time, so I’m not as fluent in it. But I do think I have a feeling for it. If what I’m playing sounds authentic, then the job’s done.
The bottom line is that it’s your album and you can do whatever you want.
Yeah, there’s that, but I did work closely with Nick and Todd. It’s like a partnership. I really worked hard at my leads. I would never show my lead to someone else until I’m happy with it, and I’m really hard on myself.
With the ability to do lots of overdubbing, did you ever find a place where you felt you had put too many things into a song and had to pull some out?
Yeah. You know there’s always that tendency, especially recording these days with ProTools. However, we did try to rein that in and just play what we felt was needed. For instance, if we didn’t feel we needed the strings to come in until the second chorus, we didn’t have them playing all the way before that, and instead just started where they needed to come in. Sometimes you play a solo or line over one chorus and then record it over another chorus and tell yourself, “I can take it out later if it doesn’t work.” But I’m a great believer in making hundreds of little decisions every day and living with them. To me, that’s how you put together music. Todd Rundgren taught me something about that too. He said that before he records, he hears the entire piece of music in his head. And that made an impression on me. It’s like my philosophy of what guitars and effects to use. Do you just break out all the guitars and pedals and start throwing them at the wall and see what sounds good? It all starts in your mind. If you have a clear vision of what you’re trying to do, you can’t go wrong.
So getting back to the original question, I’d say there wasn’t much extraneous recording that we had to weed through. I think we did good job on the spot of building the arrangements – let’s save this for the next chorus, let’s make it get bigger and bigger as it progresses, etc. I think we used all the principles that go into making good arrangements.
Did you record with your effects, or did you add effects later?
I printed [recorded] mostly with effects. I certainly wasn’t worried about recording the guitars dry so that we could put the reverb in later. I put the guitar down in the well from the get-go. [Laughs.] I have never liked that in-your-face dry guitar sound anyway, like a Les Paul, a Marshall amp, and a cord. I loved it when Eric Clapton did it with Cream, or Leslie West, but I can’t think of too many cases. I like reverb. I like delay. I got interested in guitar during the pre-Beatles surf era. So what were we listening to? “Pipeline,” “Walk, Don’t Run” – that was the exciting music; the cool guitar stuff was like the Ventures and surf. I guess it left its impression on me.
They didn’t always use spring reverb. Sometimes it was a plate. Like, if you were in a studio, if you were going to want that real reverby splash, you’d break out the old Fender reverb tank. And some of us just wanted a nice Jack Nitzsche sound, with a plate reverb. So I used all sorts of different reverbs, different types of delays. A lot of the sound comes from those things. Like, if you have a lot of overdrive and a lot of “sing” in the sound, it doesn’t need any help to make the notes last. But I enjoy having some delay and reverb in the sound because it lets me tease it a little bit more and manipulate it a little bit more, make the notes last a little longer or be a little more haunting. It just seems to fit with the style I’m playing.
It’s like the dilemma bassists face when they’re used to an amp and then plug straight into a board to record.
Yeah, you don’t get the air moving. We used an Ampeg B-15 flip-top for a lot of the bass. They have more vintage gear in their studio. I’ve got an Avalon 737 mic preamp and a Universal Audio mic preamp, so I always warm things up before they get into ProTools.
Do you have a favorite mic for your amp?
Gosh, I’ve made so many recordings with just a Shure SM-57. I like an AKG C-414, a Neumann that cost about a thousand dollars. That’s a nice mic. But really, those Shure 57s are so great on guitar – you can hammer nails with them and plug in and they sound fantastic. That’s the classic sound: just a little off the center of the speaker cone and a little off the grille cloth, and off you go. You don’t have to muss or fuss with it; it just sounds good.
The whole guitar-amp-mic acts like a team to bring the tone.
Yeah, and every part of that chain is important. It’s always the fight to get the sound through all those wires into the control room and to sound as close as possible to what’s coming out of the amplifier. It’s always the struggle, isn’t it? I’m not a super audio tech head. I brought in a couple of nice CAD mics with power supplies, big ol’ tube mics. I use AKG condenser mics on acoustics. Their little pencil-type condensers are just the bomb, sound fantastic when you put one at the end of the fingerboard and one a little further away for a nice stereo spread.
So there’s always a bit of experimentation.
There always is, but at least you go in with some kind of goal in mind. If you listen to music, you know what you should do with it; it’s instinctive, especially if you’ve been doing it for a long time. A lot of guitars have passed through my hands over the years. I’ve gotten rid of some, downsized. We all know that the best guitars are the ones you play all the time. So it’s better to have a nice stable of guitars that get used than to have a bunch of stuff that just sits in the closet. I try to play them all.
When people go on vacation, they see what they really need to get along in their day-to-day life, and leave a lot behind.
I know exactly what I need to bring along every time: A Martin D-28, a tuner, extra strings, a capo, and some picks. That’s it. All I need. Maybe a 00-18 if I don’t want to take up too much room. I like those little travel guitars, and I have a [Taylor] GS Mini, but every time I go on vacation, I want to take something that I’m really going to enjoy playing, something that will give me a big sound, because I like to fingerpick and hear that low end, so I always end up taking something good. If I were flying, it might be different, but most of the time we drive.