INTERVIEW: Tijuana Panthers on longevity, faith and ‘Carpet Denim’

Tijuana Panthers

Tijuana Panthers

If a band plays Coachella with no booking agent only two years after releasing its debut LP, there’s got to be more to the story. Tijuana Panthers’ grass roots work ethic during the early 2000s made them DIY luminaries with a ravenous following far before 2010’s Max Baker saw the light of day. What’s even more amazing is that they still remain the flagship Long Beach band.

“Everything has exceeded my expectations,” drummer Phil Shaheen said. “All I wanted to do back then was put out a 45.”

The original lineup of Shaheen, guitarist Chad Watchel and bassist Daniel Michicoff has stuck around after contemporaries either broke up or changed personnel. Beyond the fact they’ve known each other since since they were teenagers, Watchel credits the band’s hard-earned success as motivation.

“What’s kept it together is the fact we can take our ideas, materialize them and if we’re lucky, profit from it,” Watchel said. “I never set out to do that with music. The thing I’m most grateful for is seeing people moving to our music, knowing our lyrics and shaking our hands. But the fact we’ve been able to pay some rent with the band is another factor.”

Tijuana Panthers’ success and longevity can also be accredited to their unique blend of old-school rock and roll, punk rock and surf music. Given that all three members contribute songs, it makes sense that their respective influences crop up.

“Chad’s songs are more influenced by ‘50s and ‘60s stuff, and I’m influenced by more punk,” Shaheen said. “So is Dan, but he likes to write more mellow. A lot of our songs are mellower, but I think they still have an edge to them.”

“I think that’s why our band sounds the way it does,” Watchel said. “That was always my outlook for the band’s concept, even back in junior high. … I wasn’t modeling Tijuana Panthers after any particular band. I wasn’t trying to play like anyone else.”

Perhaps because of their particular blend of genres, Tijuana Panthers’ relationship to the term “surf rock” is complicated. While Watchel’s guitar tone certainly carries an influence from the surf bands his father used to manage, he is quick to dispel the idea of being in a traditional surf band.

“It’s been a running joke of mine to say, ‘We sound like the Beach Boys,’” Watchel said. “To anyone who thinks we’re not a very good surf band, I agree with you. We’re not trying to be.”

This stylistic freedom has kept the Tijuana Panthers’ sound vital, right up to their forthcoming fifth LP, Carpet Denim. As with past records like Poster and Wayne Interest, Shaheen came up with the title on the fly and the meaning afterward.

“Growing up in surf culture, everyone’s constantly making up words,” he said. “That, and my dad making up random phrases, is where that comes from. The meaning is like the working man’s carpe diem—seize the day after work or on the weekends.”

The philosophy is appropriate for people with day jobs. With Watchel working as a fine carpenter and Shaheen married with a kid and teaching high school art, the band becomes part of a juggling act. Shaheen mused about times his students find out about his rock and roll alter ego.

“People sometimes get weirded out when I’m already teaching them, and someone tells them I’m in a band,” he said. “They search us up on YouTube and see some of our songs with a million plays. Kids really care about clout online. … It’s the world we live in.”

The trio’s long-standing relationship contributes to this controlled chaos.

The band members met at the camps of Grace Brethren Church in Southern California, before one youth pastor broke off to form Bridges Church—which Shaheen still attends. Watchel‘s family was always involved with church, and Shaheen began attending in the ninth grade. With the youth group antics and braving ‘90s “spirit-filled hardcore” shows of bands like Unashamed and Pensive, it’s a time Watchel and Shaheen look back on fondly.

“The ‘90s Christian hardcore scene still brings a smile to my face,” Watchel said. “I remember going to the shows and being overwhelmed.”

Christianity has played an interesting role in Tijuana Panthers. Though Michicoff is not religious, faith often appears in the music Watchel and Shaheen write. Watchel even invokes the trinity on his song “End of My Rope.” Still, Tijuana Panthers isn’t a “Christian band” as far as the members shoehorning their worldview at every opportunity. 

“That’s some people’s trip; I’m not built that way,” Shaheen said. “You would have to read into my songs to find the Christian undertones.”

“It’s a tough balance,” Watchel said. “Some of my songs are prayers. I’m sure there are people who wouldn’t be OK with that, but I’ve never had anyone say they didn’t like me talking about God.”

Though punk rock isn’t exactly the most Christian-friendly place, both of them have a spectrum of responses from nonbelievers—mostly centering on a don’t-ask-don’t-tell situation. Watchel recalls a time where his faith manifested at an unlikely time during a stay in a hotel with the Growlers during South-by-Southwest.

“I remember Scott [Montoya], the Growlers’ drummer at the time, came up with a Bible in his hand,” he said. “He wanted to take it to a cemetery and light it on fire. It caused a bit of an uncomfortable moment. … I said, ‘I wouldn’t do that,’ and he couldn’t believe I would have a problem with it. I approached it from an objective perspective, not damaging private property. 

“I wasn’t mad at anyone,” he said. “To most people, Christianity is just a tool of oppression. I don’t think it would be very Christlike to get angry and upset. … I used to avoid defending my faith, or putting effort into thinking about it. I started reading C.S. Lewis, and other books. They inspired me to enrich my spiritual life.”

Shaheen and Watchel take the opportunities to speak on such things as they present themselves. With no front to hide behind, Carpet Denim speaks on the experiences of those who wrote and lived them.

The album’s themes range from the joys of fatherhood found on “Little Pamplemousse”—the nickname Shaheen and his wife gave their son—to the harrowing struggles with addiction in “Path of Totality.” The latter is actually partly about the band’s past producer Richard Swift, who succumbed to his addictions.

“That was really tough,” Shaheen said. “We never knew the problem existed to that extent, since we weren’t with him all the time. … It’s also about my struggles with addiction, extended family and friends who have died. Even though I was going to church, I couldn’t shake it. I gave up drinking for Lent over two years ago. Even if I wasn’t not outwardly destructive, I knew if I didn’t do something, it would never end.”

In an album with some stylistic twists—like the synth flute on “Things I Don’t Mind” and “Generation Singular,” which Shaheen compares to Devo—“Path of Totality” was chosen as the single because it best represented Tijuana Panthers’ regular sound.

“People have said it’s a good summer song, and that happens with a lot of songs,” Shaheen said.

“We could write a really dark song, and people tell us it makes them want to go to the beach,” Watchel added. “Dan wrote a song called ‘Garbage Person’ that’s very dark and angry. We were told in an interview that the song was romantic. People hear the positivity no matter what. … The song ‘Pretty in Pink’ by Psychedelic Furs was supposedly about a prostitute, but it has a dancey ‘80s vibe.”

Whether Carpet Denim becomes a hit, it still embodies the “don’t overthink things” mentality that Tijuana Panthers have held to since the beginning. The band used to write its songs, then record them in a studio and finally learn to play them live. Now the band writes in the studio. Shaheen said songwriting is more of a challenge to him than to Michicoff.

“I’m not the first person to say this, but inspiration is overrated. Sitting down and painting, songwriting or anything else is work,” Shaheen said.

Watchel and Shaheen foresee more Tijuana Panthers albums in the future. Having carved out their niche, the band does what it likes, ignoring whatever the current trends are in favor of what comes naturally.

“People always want to know what’s next, but we just put out a record,” Shaheen said, laughing.

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