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An Interview with Tim Sullivan and Mike Mandina of the Supertones
Golly Gee Records Leading Surf-Rock, Instrumental Band
By Dick Stewart, The Lance Monthly
(more articles from this author)
2003-05-01
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[Lance Monthly] What is your age, marital status, places of birth, and location where you presently live?

Michael Mandian [My] age [is] 47. [I’m] married [with] two kids. [I was] born in Madrid, Spain (Dad was stationed there in the Air Force at the time). Currently [I’m] living in beautiful New York City.

Tim Sullivan [My] age [is] 48. [I’m] not married, [was] born in Longbeach, California, [and I’m] presently living in New York City.

[Lance Monthly] What kind of music did you listen to before you became musicians?

Michael Mandian My mom and dad had a great collection of jazz, mostly Dixieland style [and] tons of Louis Armstrong. My dad is from Louisiana, [and] if you are ever in New Orleans, be sure to visit Mandina's Restaurant on Canal Street, [which has] been owned by some part of his extended family forever. Anyhoo, they also had a lot of Flamenco and Spanish records. I guess they got into that over in Spain. They also had a bunch of Calypso for some reason. We also lived in the Los Angeles area a couple of different times when I was a kid, and they would go on trips to Mexico [where] they ended up getting quite a collection of Mariachi style records. They have great taste in music. So that's what was on the record player for me as a youngster.

Tim Sullivan Both of my parents were musicians, so my early music listening was my mother playing the piano, which was usually Irish Folk music or classical. My dad also played the piano, but he would play the blues and boogie-woogie.

[Lance Monthly] Were there other musicians in your birth family?

Michael Mandian My grandmother told me my mom was quite accomplished on the piano as a kid, but I guess she let it go when she got older. I have never seen her play once.

[Lance Monthly] Who are the artists that stimulated you into becoming active musicians and why?

Michael Mandian Well, of course, The Beatles, Beach Boys, [and] the Byrds all seemed to be on the radio all the time. Pretty much everything that was going on at that time. I think everybody has a special attachment for the music that is [being played] when they are growing up. Hence, my dad with Dixieland [music]. So in 1965, it was a great time to be a ten-year-old kid in Southern California. The whole surf thing had already been established, and then the whole sixties counter-culture thing was in full bloom. One great thing about radio in those days was that you could listen to the same radio station all day and get the Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin, the Tijuana Brass, and Ray Charles. It wasn't so micro formatted like it is now, so you didn't have to work so hard to be exposed to different kinds of music. So anyway, I thought all that stuff was great, and music seemed to me like a magic force that was mysterious and important and I wanted to learn how they did that. That's still how I look at it.

Tim Sullivan The first guy to really effect me [in becoming] an active musician was my gandfather, A.J. Connor. His mother was a silent movie piano player who supported her family by playing the piano. All her kids played a musical instrument. [My grandfather] played the cornet in the Irish Army Band, so when I was one or two years old, he would give us musical instruments [and related] items like multi-colored guitar picks, harmonicas, tin whistles, etc., and [even] a small kids piano.

[Lance Monthly] What was the first guitar that you owned?

Michael Mandian My first guitar was an Epiphone acoustic, I forget the model number. I wish I still had it.

Tim Sullivan [My first] guitar was a big Silertone acoustic given to me by my uncle Len Costello [when] I was eight years old.

[Lance Monthly] Mike, have you ever performed in a Mexican-American band? I ask this because it’s a very lucrative market. I used to own a very successful label called Casanova Records (1968 to the early ‘70s) that specialized in this genre and the profits were excellent, mainly because the music was not dependent on a top 40 chart. If the song was a hit, it was a hit forever. We released seven vinyl LPs, and around twenty or so vinyl 45s that are as profitable today as they were when they first came on the market. Have you ever had any interest in this genre as a musician?

Michael Mandian No, I don’t really know that much about it. I just remember the folks having a bunch of those records around. I do like that kind of music, though.

[Lance Monthly] What were the names of your earlier bands, when did they originate, and what style of music did these bands perform?

Michael Mandian First, there was the Psuedes (pronounced “suedes” like the leather, pretty funny, right?), which was a new wave cover band in about 1978. Then there was Mondo Combo, kind of the same thing. Then there were the Lids, again kind of power pop. Then there were the Party Killers and the Biscuit Flippers, which was my departure into country and bluegrass. These [bands] were both in the late ‘80s early ‘90s, and then in about 1992 (we may want to ask Tim, I'm not sure exactly), I joined the Supertones.

Tim Sullivan My earlier bands were the Surf Nomads (1964-1969), a surf band in Camp Lejeune, N.Y.C.; The Stingbuster (1980 – 1984), a N.Y.C. rockabilly band; The Mustangs (1984 to 1987), a N.Y.C. surfabilly band; and numerous other bands that never got to the naming stage.

[Lance Monthly] Tim, you say that your uncle gave you a number of musical instruments and related stuff like whistles etc. Did that entice you to include different musical devices in your recordings or performances in order to produce an unusual sound?

Tim Sullivan Absolutely! We experimented with a wide range of weird instruments from a sitar to a theremin, as well as a wide variety of unusual drums and percussion things like castanets, tabas, Moroccan drums (mostly in the studio though), [and] using any odd instruments on stage.

[Lance Monthly] Some of our readers might want a definition of a “theremin.”

Tim Sullivan The theremin was named after its inventor, the Russian scientist, Leon Theremin (1896-1993) [and] was the earliest, viable, electronic, musical instrument. It is unique among musical instruments because the performer is not playing on any thing physical, like a keyboard or a fingerboard, but merely on air. The electromagnetic fields around two antennas [that] protrude from a box [senses the performer’s activity].

[Lance Monthly] In what kind of venues did your earlier bands perform?

Michael Mandian Pretty much the same as now . . . bars around NYC. The first two bands I mentioned were in North Carolina where I went to college. The bars there were the same as here.

Tim Sullivan For me it was at places called The Teen Club at the Paradise Point Pavilion at Camp Lejuene, N.Y.C., and at my junior high school dances with our Ventures cover band.

[Lance Monthly] When did you discover surf instrumental music and why were you drawn to this genre?

Michael Mandian When I was a kid in California, it was all over the place, radio etc. I didn't really start to learn the songs and develop a real knowledge of the genre until I started up with the Supertones.

Tim Sullivan For me it was in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. The first time I heard that sound was through my older brother’s record collection. Tunes like “Rebel Rouser” by Duane Eddy, “Surfing Bird” by the Trashmen, “Wipeout” and “Surfer Joe” by the Surfaris, “Walk Don't Run,” “Pipeline,” [and] all the [other] surf hits. My first guitar teacher was a huge Ventures’ fan and he loaned me his vast Ventures’ record collection, which was about 20 records in all. I still have the “Surfing with The Ventures” record. It was the one I borrowed and never returned. That record changed my life.

[Lance Monthly] When and under what circumstances did you both meet?

Michael Mandian Tim worked in Chelsea 2nd Hand Guitars on 23rd Street in NYC. I worked around the corner at the time and I used to go in there and buy guitar strings, look at guitars, and hang around. I found out Tim was a surfer as am I, and we started yakking about surfing around New York. Then we started going surfing together when we had time. I also knew who the Supertones were because they played at the same bar (McGovern's) that the Biscuit flippers played in all the time. Around that time, my wife and I were also planning our wedding and I hired the Supertones to play at it. Then a little while later, one of the guys in the band (Ted Lawrence) wanted to form another surf band. So when he dropped out, Tim asked me if I wanted to join.

Tim Sullivan One of the really great things about the Supertones is that our musical relationship is based on our friendship and mutual respect [for each other]. Mike and I met at a music store in the Chelsea Hotel on 23rd Street in N.Y.C. [where I] worked. Mike use to come in to buy guitar strings and we talked about surfing, which Mike and I both love to do in our spare time. So Mike invited me to [go] surfing with him [on a] weekend [in] 1988 or so. We've been best friends ever since, which I think shows in our music. We play because we really enjoy what we are doing.

[Lance Monthly] Place the following artists/bands in the order of importance to your interest in becoming a surf-rock guitarist and why: The Ventures, Duane Eddy, Dick Dale, George Tomsco, and The Shadows.

Michael Mandian No. 1 - The Ventures, because they were (at least to me as a kid) more available on the radio etc. You didn’t have to be (and still don't) a total surf guitar weenie to be familiar with a lot of their material. I also liked the way they covered a lot of different kinds of tunes and made them their own. No. 2 - I'd say the Shadows and Duane Eddy are tied for second place for different reasons. I love Duane Eddy because his stuff is kind of raucous country-fried Americana which I dig, and The Shadows are all the way on the other end of the scale, kind of soft, sophisticated and arranged, which I also appreciate. No. 3 – [That] would be Dick Dale. I know he's a god and everything, but his stuff just doesn't rattle my shutters. I'm not humming “Misirlou” in the shower. I appreciate and respect it more than I like it, [and that’s the] same with Tomsco.

Tim Sullivan Those of us who know and really love what we call surf music, know that Dick Dale came up with the name, the genre, and the basic guitar formula, which is a combination of flamenco music and R & B with slight Arabic overtones. But he was unique in the sense [that] he was the king of surf guitar and not what we know as a surf band. He was a star [and] not a band like The Ventures or The Fireballs. They really set the stage for what we know as the classic surf band: lead guitar/rhythm guitar, bass guitar, drums, and sax. Duane Eddy was the man who had that big, big twang sound. He was the guy who Dick Dale, The Ventures, The Shadows, [and] George Tomsco [of] the Fireballs were trying to copy. Duane Eddy set the standard for the tone of the music, if you will.

The bands in southern California that came slightly after those bands started to play this music in a new way, [which is now referred to as] surf music. [This was due to] a lot of these young [musicians being] surfers themselves. So this music with tunes like “Torquary,” “Bulldog,” “Walk Don’t Run,” “Miserlou,” “Rebel Rouser,” and “Church Key” [coupled with the use of] the new Fender Showmen amp with outboards and reverb tanks became a spontaneous voice for the new West Coast surf culture. [It’s] kind of like a new folk music, if you will.

If I had to put [forth] a list of who is the most important and influential of those guys on me and the Supertones, it would be [in this order]: Duane Eddy – He invented rock instrumentals and played lead on the low strings. [Interviewer’s note: He also popularized the electronic tremolo sound.] 2. The Ventures – Their use of the Electric bass and rhythm guitar helped to create a new [style of] instrumental dance music. Nokie [Edwards] is my favorite and biggest influence. [Interviewer’s note: The Ventures also popularized the Fender guitar and the tremolo bar.] 3. The Shadows – It was hard to get their records in the U.S. in the ‘60s. I discovered them through The Sandels. Two of the [Sandels’ band members] were from Belgium and recorded two Shadows’ tunes, “Drifting” and “Jet Black” for the “Endless Summer” sound track. The Shadows were great musicians of their time, and still are. 4. Dick Dale invented the guitar glissandos that we associate with surf music. His influence is more as a performer and not so much as a musician. I could never figure out what he was playing or where he played it on the guitar even after he gave me a private lesson. 5. George Tomsco – He wrote a lot of the standards of early surf music like “Bull Dog” and “Torquay.” The Fireballs were very early and very south of the border.

[Lance Monthly] Tim, when did the Supertones form, who came up with the name, who were the original members, and what gear did they use?

Tim Sullivan The Supertones were formed in January 1989 and I came up with the name. Ted had a very old amp that said Supertone on the front of it. We had been trying to come up with a name of the band when I looked at Ted’s amp and [suggested that] we call ourselves The Supertones.

The original members are: Tim Sullivan – 1964 sunburst Fender Jazzmaster, and 1964 lackface Twin Amp; Ted Lawrence – 1964 sonic-blue Fender Jaguar and 1964 blackface Pro Amp; Marc Lipscher – 1964 sunburst Jazz Bass, AMPEG SVT; and Mike Arcidiancono – 1964 blue-pearled Gretsch.

[Lance Monthly] Did either one of you do any recordings with any of your bands previous to The Supertones?

Michael Mandian I did some demos here and there, [but] nothing packaged and released.

Tim Sullivan I recorded a lot of stuff over the years with other bands [and] so has Marc and Mr. Action.

[Lance Monthly] Mike, what was it that was so appealing about The Supertones that made you want to join? How did your wife feel about that and what are her feelings at present?

Michael Mandian I love music and I've been in various types of bands. The Supertones for me has been great because I think this type of music represents more of who I am and where and when I grew up than some of the stuff I’ve been involved in. I feel at home with it. My wife thinks it’s good that I have something to do that makes me happy. She is a great sax player and singer as is her sister, who is in the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir as one of the main soloists. (I think they have been nominated for a Grammy for one of their recordings). Also, her dad is an awesome classical pianist, so even though she likes other types of music better than surf, she knows that music is an important endeavor for people.

[Lance Monthly] What are your day jobs?

Michael Mandian I work in computer graphics, scanning, digital imaging etc.

Tim Sullivan I work in a guitar store.

[Lance Monthly] Do you feel that the majority of the ardent surf-guitar-instro fans generally feel that the modern California surf-instro groups rule over those from other areas of the globe?

Michael Mandian I don’t know how a lot of the fans see it, but I feel that surf culture in general is a part of everyday life on the West Coast and in the Pacific Rim (Hawaii, Australia, etc.), so that the music is also a natural part of their life. If you go to Tennessee or North Carolina, you'll find that bluegrass and country music are a part of their heritage, and everybody is familiar with it. [The] same is true with surf music in California. It is a part of who they are, so there’s more of it.

Tim Sullivan No, not at all. There are surf bands now in every town and country in the world. Bands like the Atlantics from down under to Laika and the Cosmonauts from Finland. They’re all very good and there’s always something for everyone.

[Lance Monthly] What kind of guitars do you use and why?

Michael Mandian [I use] Fender style, solid bodies with single coil pickups. I say Fender style because currently I have a Strat that I put together from Warmoth parts, so it's not really made by Fender. [Also] heavy gauge, flat-wound strings are important [as well as] Fender tube amps. This is the formula that works for the surf sound.

Tim Sullivan Right now, my main guitar is a Fender Jazzmaster. [In addition, I use] a Fender Jaguar [that’s] good for that surfy sound, a Fender VI [that’s] good for rhythm work, and a Ric 66’s 360 12-String [that’s] good for that ‘60s stuff.

[Lance Monthly] Which one of you is the designated lead guitarist for the Supertones?

Michael Mandian We trade, but Tim does more leads.

Tim Sullivan Well that depends on what kind of a song we’re doing. If we’re doing a Shadow’s tune or a more intricate, complex melody like “Wonderful Land” or “Atlantis,” then Mike will play lead. I usually play the more Ventures’ movie-theme stuff. Also, on a lot of tunes we work out an arrangement in which I play lead [on the verses] and Mike plays lead on the bridges as in “Slaughter on 10th Ave.”

[Lance Monthly] How often do the Supertones perform and what types of venues do you particular play?

Michael Mandian We play once every month or two, usually at bars of some sort.

Tim Sullivan When we started in the late ‘80s, we played two gigs per week up until about 1998. Here in N.Y.C. there was a crackdown on live music in bars (The Cabaret Laws). When Guiliane was mayor, we played once every six weeks or so. Right now, we’re again playing more frequently in N.Y.C. We’ve played just about every bar that has live music; we’ve played on boats down in Fulton Market where “The Gangs of New York” took place; and [we’ve performed] on the East Side at the Water Club where we had to eat in the Kitchen. We’ve never played The Ritz or Irving Plaza. That’s the big time, man!

[Lance Monthly] Give our readers two interesting scenarios that occurred at one of your gigs, both cool and uncool.

Michael Mandian First, the cool, and this comes to mind right away: One time we were playing at the Ludlow Street Cafe, and the dance floor was packed. At one point, we looked up and noticed that all the women were taking their shirts off! You know it really is the little (and also not so little) things that you appreciate.

As for the uncool, I would say it was the time we were booked to open for Jimmy Buffet at the Jones Beach Theater (an outdoor amphitheater), which would have been a very big time gig for us. We got all the way out there and it started raining, and the show was cancelled. Poof, our day in the big league evaporated. We never heard a peep out of the promoter about a reschedule or anything. Show biz.

Tim Sullivan [On the cool side], we use to have these two go-go dancers, [one of whom] was this incredibly beautiful belly dancer named Dalphina. [She would] belly dance and play sax on “Tequila” and drive all the guys wild. People still ask me about her. She was way out there, man. [On the uncool side], I’m one of those cats who never miss a gig no matter how sick I am. Once I broke my little finger on my left hand and my whole left hand swelled up. My pinky was in a cast, but I played anyway. It was a very painful experience and now, when I look back on it, I don’t know how I did it. I had to refinger everything and my fingers were too swollen to play, but somehow I pulled it off.

[Lance Monthly] How did you hook up with the great Mel Spinella at Golly Gee Records?

Michael Mandian That would be through Ralph Rebel, who Tim knows better than I do. He could tell you more about that.

Tim Sullivan God bless Mel. He helped rescue us from obscurity. He really looks out for us, and released a lot of our surf and rockabilly [catalog]. Here in New York, there is a really big retro music scene and there’s really no record labels that pick up on that. So, lots of very talented musicians are overlooked by the labels and are never heard by anyone outside of N.Y.C. We’re all looking for the next big [break] like the Goo Goo Dolls. Once they opened up for us at the Continental Club on St. Mark. They could hardly stand up much less play music. A good guitar friend named Ralphy Rebel introduced Mel to me.

[Lance Monthly] How far do you want to go with the Supertones?

Michael Mandian I think as long as we remain interested, and are able to grow and improve, I don't see any reason to stop. Where it leads, who knows? The fun part is the ride.

Tim Sullivan Well, I’ve never planned on stopping. I really do this out of love for the music more than anything else. I can’t really put into words what I get out of it [other than the fact] that I believe the music has a magical force on the human soul. I [just] let my guitar reflect on that.

[Lance Monthly] What are your thoughts about the future of surf rock instrumentals?

Michael Mandian I'm just glad there is enough of a cottage industry out there for it so that it can keep going. I think that once a new form of music establishes itself and reaches a critical mass, it may wane in prominence when the initial craze wears off, but it will then have a core following through time. Waltz, Polka, Dixieland, Bluegrass, they all hit big when they were new, and now they are not really mainstream pop, but they all enjoy a permanent place in the musical picture for the enthusiasts and historians. I think that surf has carved out its place in that way.

Tim Sullivan As long as the guitars are around and people love to play it, rock instrumentals will survive.

[Lance Monthly] Thanks Mike and Tim for your great answers, and I do wish you and your group continued success.

For additional information and album availability on The Surftones, visit: www.gollygeerecords.com .


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