Q&A with legendary guitarist Merrell Fankhauser has led one of the most diverse and interesting careers in music

"Today I think the current U.S. president has hurt the togetherness of races and the political agenda has really made racial tension worse. It may take a long time to heal this wound and realize we are all here together on planet earth and we truly need the Hippy ideal of 'Peace And Love' more now than ever!"

Merrell Fankhauser: Rock n' Lono 

Merrell Fankhauser has led one of the most diverse and interesting careers in music. He was born in Louisville, Kentucky, and moved to California when he was 13 years old. Merrell went on to become one of the innovators of surf music and psychedelic folk rock. His travels from Hollywood to his 15 year jungle experience on the island of Maui have been documented in numerous music books and magazines. Merrell has gained legendary international status throughout the field of rock music; his credits include over 400 songs published and released. He is a multi-talented singer/songwriter and unique guitar player whose sound has delighted listeners for over 50+ years. In the early 60s, Merrell led the instrumental surf group The Impacts who had a hit with their album "WIPE OUT". Upon moving to the high desert area of California in 1964, Merrell formed Merrell and the Exiles whose album "FAPARDOKLY" is one of the most sought after 60s psychedelic recordings. In the late 60s, Merrell led his group H.M.S. Bounty to several hits with album "THINGS". Merrell joined forces with Jeff Cotton from Captain Beefheart's Band in 1970 to form the group MU, and the next year the band released their debut album.

Merrell Fankhauser in Tiki Lounge with his signature guitar / Photo © by Luis Escobar, 2010

In 1973, Merrell and his group MU moved to the island of Maui to further their studies of the fabled Lost Continent of Mu or Lemuria. In 1975, after MU disbanded, Merrell began work on a group of songs for a solo album that described perfectly the feeling of his lifestyle in his jungle house beside a free-flowing stream in the Maui rainforest. These songs were released in 1976 by an independent Hawaiian label and was titled "The Maui Album". The following years found Merrell spending his time writing songs and performing in the Hawaiian Islands. In 1986, Merrell teamed up with the late John Cipollina to record "DR. FANKHAUSER". In 1994, with the release of the film "PULP FICTION", instrumental surf music came back in a big way. In 1995, Merrell and Ed Cassidy, drummer from the group Spirit recorded a great blues rock CD titled "ON THE BLUE ROAD". From 1995 to 1997, Merrell hosted a local California TV show called "Route 66 TV Live". His project "RETURN TO MU", produced by movie and record producer William E. McEuen. In 2001, Merrell began hosting a music TV show called, "Tiki Lounge" that airs on California, Hawaii, and parts of the East Coast. Merrel just finished a "Tiki Lounge Live" album that was filmed and recorded on his Tiki Lounge TV show stage and will be out by Christmas 2016.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the Rock n’ Roll culture and what does the blues mean to you?

I’ve learned a lot in my 50 plus years in the music business. I learned how to read contracts after losing a lot of money when I signed my songwriting rights away on the first album "Wipe Out" by The Impacts released on Del Fi Records in 1962 when I was 18 years old. I made a few more mistakes with contracts with Merrell And The Exlies 1964 - 1967 and HMS Bounty in 1968, after that I learned what to look for! When I was very young living in rural Louisville Kentucky I would go across the railroad tracks where I played with black kids and would watch their father and uncles play bottle neck blues. I learned very quickly that the Blues was the real heartfelt music that talked about things in real life. That made an impression on me that helped create my guitar styles. Blues is the real deal!

How do you describe Merrell Fankhauser sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

My sound and songbook & philosophy is shaped by many things and life experiences that is hard to put into words. It is important for me to play what I feel and not copy any styles, always be original. After having over 400 songs published and released I am amazed at the variety of music I've create, everything from instrumental Surf, Rock A Billy, Blues, Folk Rock, Psychedelic, and a style that is undefinable. Willie Nelson called it "Merrell Music" a style all its own.

"I learned very quickly that the Blues was the real heartfelt music that talked about things in real life. That made an impression on me that helped create my guitar styles. Blues is the real deal! (Photo: Merrell Fankhauser and The Impacts, 1963 Rose Garden Ballroom, Pismo Beach, CA)

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

There have been so many important acquaintances in my life! I learned a lot from the years I spent recording and playing with Spirit drummer Ed Cassidy. Cass always said "It's important to keep the child alive inside", meaning always be open to new and fresh ideas and don’t be afraid to experiment. In some ways Spirits music was similar to the music I played in the group MU. John Lennon & movie and record producer William E. McEuen both said it was important for me to always stay original. I had a great time playing a concert on Maui with Willie Nelson who is always very spontaneous. And last but not least my dear friend piano player Nicky Hopkins who I did a very memorable concert with in Pismo Beach California in 1991. Nicky is on several of my albums, my favorite is the song "Queen MU" from my Return To MU album. It was a sad day when he passed, I wrote a tribute song to him "Nickys song". Pete Sears of Starship played piano on it.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

There are so many great memories playing with many people. We did some very fun concerts in the early days with Merrell And The Exiles in the desert area of Lancaster and L.A. One time we were on stage at a big venue with over 5,000 in the audience and all of a sudden our bass player Jim Ferguson's pocket started smoking he started doing a real funny dance hitting his leg while trying to keep playing. He was the only smoker in the band and somehow a book of matches in his pocket caught fire! We all got a good laugh out of that! The recording sessions that we did in the little Glenn Records studio in Palmdale were very memorable as everything including vocals was done live with no over dubs. All the Exiles 45 singles were recorded that way and the songs that were found a released many years later like the German Morning Dew album "The Lost Desert Tapes". Most of the famous valuable collectors’ album Fapardokly was recorded live also. I was surprised around 1977 when I found out a sealed Fapardokly LP was selling for $1,000!

HMS Bounty had a great time opening for "Canned Heat", "Country Joe", "Strawberry Alarm Clock"! MU had many memorable concerts in big venues in L.A from 1969 to 73. When we moved to Maui we opened for David Carradine & Bonnie Bramlett in an idyllic jungle setting on Maui with a 40 ft. waterfall in the background. I jammed with David in his cabin trading songs back and forth. The concert was filmed for a movie called "Maui 74", but due to contractual problems it never came out... Playing on stage with Willie Nelson, Dean Torrence, Chuck Negron and many more were all wonderful experiences!

"My sound and songbook & philosophy is shaped by many things and life experiences that is hard to put into words. It is important for me to play what I feel and not copy any styles, always be original." (Photo: MU, 1973 / Randy Wimer, Jeff Cotton, Merrell Fankhauser & Jeff Parker)

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I miss the analog sound of the music in the past. Digital music of today, CD's, MP3's etc. is only giving you %15 of what is really there, and it’s so thin and trebely, it just doesn’t have the warmth. My studio is a mix of analog and digital. I record everything analog and then save the digital for the final master to go to CD. I sometimes still mix to two track analog before making a digital master. I did that process for the Jimi Hendrix tribute I was on "Gypsy Blood Vol 2". I did All Along The Watchtower for that release on Comet Records from Italy. I do hope a higher sampling rate and better sound in digital comes about in the future. I know Neil Young is really working on that with a process he calls Pure Tone.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I would find a way to make it easier for new artists to audition their music to agents and labels. There are less record labels now than when I started and unless you know somebody on the inside it’s hard to get in to be heard. There was a boom of indie labels in the late 70's & 80's but that is a very difficult market now and many have closed up. The internet has helped in some ways but it’s hard to find new music unless you are an experienced researcher, and it’s still hard. And there are ways for people in the know to get music off the internet for free, this hurts the labels, artist and songwriter!

What are the lines that connect the Rock n’ Roll culture with Surf, Psychedelic, Tibetan chant, Pacific Ocean music?

In the 60's and 70's everyone was searching for something and the Hippy generation was created. This made the connection with the Rock N Roll culture to explore all kinds of new and different music styles. Meditation was an inspiration for me and being able to meditate with Tibetan Monks and searching for the Lost Continent Of MU on Maui and other islands in the 70's was a big inspiration for me. Songs would just magically materialize, like somebdoy else was writing them and I was just the channel. John Lennon called it "Automatic Writing".

What were the reasons that made the 60s to be the center of spiritual, and artistic researches? What touched (emotionally) you from the lost continent of Mu?                                 (Photo: Merrell Fankhauser at his jungle shack on Maui,  1976)

Nobody really knows why the 60's seemed to be the decade for the spiritual and artistic research? It was a time of change when young people started questioning what they were being taught. In 1969 I found the book "The Lost Continent Of MU" by James Churchward it was like finding a long lost secret inside myself. Being part German, Swiss and Canadian Indian, I found a deep kinship in MU and went on a 15 year quest in the Hawaiian jungles and found many pre Hawaiian ruins. The discoveries and photos are all in my book "Calling From A Star" The Merrell Fankhauser Story, available at Amazon.com.

What is the impact of Rock n’ Roll music and culture to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

I think the blending of early Blues and Country music definitely created Rock N Roll. Elvis Presley stated this many times! It brought us all together back then. Today I think the current U.S. president has hurt the togetherness of races and the political agenda has really made racial tension worse. It may take a long time to heal this wound and realize we are all here together on planet earth and we truly need the Hippy ideal of "Peace And Love" more now than ever!

What has been the hardest obstacle for you to overcome as a person and as artist and has this helped you become a better musician?

The hardest obstacle for me has been trying to keep a solid relationship with a mate while being a working musician. I never suffered bad poverty and was always able to support a family and band. Being away many nights playing somewhere and especially weekends made it hard to keep a relationship together. Thru it all the music was always there and kept me going, I made a lot of sacrifices for the music.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

If I were to go back in time for a day it would definitely be back to my cabin in the jungle in the 70's on Maui were I was so inspired and wrote some of my best songs. My 1976 Maui solo album and the "Return To MU" album I co-produced with William E. McEuen in 2000 are my favorites. I just finished a "Tiki Lounge Live" album that was filmed and recorded on my Tiki Lounge TV show stage. Hopefully that will be out by Christmas 2016. The show has been on for 15 years airing in California and Hawaii. Select shows are on youtube. Aloha!

Merrell Fankhauser - official website

Photo by Carolyn MacDonald Manning / Merrell Fankhauser and friends on stage, Tiki Lounge

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