By: Heidi Darby Tijuana Panthers might come off as laid-back surfers, but that doesn't mean they don't appreciate a good sword fight every now and then. Their video for "Tony's Song" manages to juxtapose the spangling, power-pop single onto a polished production of swashbuckling action that's equal parts Zorro and Monty Python. At one point, bandleader Chad Wachtel cuts off the arm of the story's protagonist, then picks it up and dances around with it as though it were a woozy prom date. Even with the serious amount of success they achieved in the past year, an opportunity to goof off is rarely lost on them.
Wachtel met bassist Dan Michicoff and drummer Phil Shaheen via a community youth group, and after filtering through various side projects, the trio formed Tijuana Panthers in 2006. The band quickly developed a sturdy word-of-mouth following, releasing 45s and eventually making an LP that moved them out of the garage and into such Long Beach venues as Alex's Bar and Que Sera. Now established veterans of the scene, they find themselves dueling with unforeseen success.
The group maintain they're "just a bunch of mellow dudes" holding down day jobs, but their work environments suggest otherwise. Last year, when Shaheen informed his high-school art students that his band earned a spot on the 2012 Coachella lineup, the kids immediately advised him to quit. "I laughed and thought, 'These guys have no clue.' It does open doors--we're on a label now, and people know about us--but it's funny the perceptions that go along with playing Coachella."
Perceptions aside, there's no denying the forward progress the band continue to experience. After signing with LA label Innovative Leisure, the group made an album that intertwines their humorously haunted lyrics, catchy riffs and dreamy vocals into a flurry of thrashing, punk-tinged surf rock. Semi-Sweet is slated for release Tuesday. Not only have Tijuana Panthers landed on lineups with many of their childhood heroes (including the Buzzcocks, Jello Biafra and the Dead Milkmen), but they also created an early buzz that helped to pave the way for a surf-rock revival in Southern California.
"When Chad and I started playing surf in 2003, there was a niche for [surf rock], but it wasn't popular. No one would be playing Coachella, and there weren't bands coming up like there was in the late 2000s," Shaheen says. "Now, youth culture is grabbing onto this sound, which is nice. It's weird to be playing the same kind of music for this many years, and finally, there's a ton of kids out. It's not because we've been playing a certain amount of time, but because they like it right now. Hopefully, they keep liking it."
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If the success of fellow surf-toned outfits the Growlers and Hindu Pirates is any indication, the genre is indeed regenerating. Semi-Sweet thankfully remains on par with their previous work. Aside from "Tony's Song," standout tracks such as "Boardwalk" are heavy on beach bop and light on the heart.
While Shaheen relentlessly claims that, offstage, they're your average grown-ups, the band members have been known to find time for mischief. In March, Tijuana Panthers were cajoled by the Growlers to sneak into a graveyard and set off mortars and fireworks during the South By Southwest festival in Austin. Shaheen assures us it was done in the most respectful way possible.
Tijuana Panthers perform at the Eagle Rock Center for the Arts, 2225 Colorado Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 226-1617 Fri., 7:30 p.m. $10. All ages. For more info on Tijuana Panthers, visit www.tijuanapanthers.com.