The band’s new album, Halfway to Eighty, out now on Innovative Leisure
The three men in The Tijuana Panthers from Long Beach, California, have known each other since they were in junior high school.
Bass player Daniel Michicoff, who also plays guitar and drums; guitarist Chad Wachtel and drummer Phil Shaheen have been playing music together, in various bands, almost as long.
“Me and Phil met at a church camp,” Wachtel said. “That’s where I learned to play music with other people. It helped my guitar playing, being able to sing and play with bass and keyboard players. The church kept me in a straight line. I didn’t get into drugs and sex when I was young. I was allowed to be a kid for a long time. Playing music in church, and being sheltered from the outside word, developed my sound and the themes I still write about. The struggle of being a human being, man’s relationship to God – it all comes out over the span of our five albums. I know that’s true for Phil as well.”
As you might expect from the title of their new record, Halfway to Eighty deals with the difficulties aging. “We were joking around, thinking that turning 40 meant we were halfway to 80. We continued joking around as we were writing the songs for the album.”
The band’s last effort was Carpet Denim, a reference to the Latin proverb coined by Horace, “Carpe diem.” – seize the day. It was an erudite title for a surf/punk album.
“I didn’t really pay attention to the title,” Wachtel said. “Phil is an artist as well, so he thinks of things aesthetically. We wrote separately. There was no thematic collaboration, but the songs were darker. I wrote one about my girlfriend at the time, who struggled with alcoholism. She was in distress about her issues and felt helpless to affect positive change. There’s a little bit of that in this album, but it mostly gets back to the lighthearted fun of our first record. The music stays light, even if it’s a song we consider dark.
“We recorded this one in August and September of last year. We went into the studio separately. Daniel has a baby boy, so he had more concerns and played it safe. He had demos that he made in his home studio. I listened to them with Phil, then we laid down drum and guitar parts, based on the demos. We recorded our parts live. Dan went in later and added bass and vocals. Phil and me worked out what we were gonna do in the garage at Phil’s parent’s house. His dad’s a musician too. He has a drum kit and amps set up, so we go there to practice and create. We weren’t worrying about death too much. We were just focusing on making the album and having fun. It’s hard to have fun when you’re worried about getting sick, but you gotta live and work. I was still surfing, when the beaches weren’t closed.”
The Panthers made the album with the help of producer Jonny Bell (Crystal Antlers, Chicano Batman, Hanni El Khatib), who also helmed their Carpet Denim album and Ghost Food EP.
“He’s a great musician, producer and engineer,” Wachtel said. “He can play a bit of piano, sax, guitar and drums too. He brought in a sax player for a couple of tunes.”
Like their other efforts, Halfway to Eighty is a group effort. Everyone is a songwriter, so they take turns singing lead. The varied arrangements are done collaboratively. “Beware of Dog” is a mostly instrumental R&B number, featuring Michicoff’s electric guitar explorations. He also adds atmospheric organ chords and synthesizer effects to compliment a spooky, processed vocal that randomly intones “beware of dog.” The band jumps into “Slaker,” with a relentless punk groove that brings The Circle Jerks to mind. Shaheen sings lead, describing all the pitfalls on the way to redemption, adding a sly reference to the Ramones halfway through. They show off their surf roots on “False Equivalent,” a brisk rocker with cryptic lyrics, that stretch the verse/chorus structure to the breaking point.
“Reflections” opens with a line from the Serenity prayer – “God won’t you grant me the strength to accept the things I can’t change.” Wachtel’s peaceful strumming and soft vocal is backed by the minimal rhythms of Shaheen’s drums and Michicoff’s bass. It’s a quiet rumination on past transgressions and a request for forgiveness.
As the restrictions imposed by the pandemic slowly lift, the Panthers are thinking about what the next step might look like.
“We all have day jobs and we’re not touring right now,” Wachtel said. “We thought our label (Innovative Leisure) wouldn’t put out an album without us touring, but they did. They just let us play a few shows, here and there. Dan has a newborn and Phil has a four-year-old, so we’re not touring, as such. Having children changes things a lot. We don’t hang out like we used to, but it still works out, even though we do things more independently now.
“I never set out to be a touring musician and have that be my career. I just liked playing music, so it was great to have had the privilege to make a living off it. I still want to share and create. It’s part of my propose in life. Music has paid my rent and bills for many, many years. It’s been a blessing, that’s for sure.”
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