Interview: Rob Mehl talks “House On The Rock”, “Taste And See” and Waikiki

Rob and I first met in 2014 on a beautiful November afternoon in Waikiki, at a park next to the water known as San Souci Beach. The sun was making its way to the horizon and the southern stretch of Kalakaua Avenue we were on was bustling with tourists of all shapes and scenes, waiting for the coming sunset, while locals with surfboards under their arms moved along after a session at Queen’s, or Canoe’s.

I had been in contact with Rob through email back in 2011. He resides in Oceanside, California. I think he reached out after a friend of his, George Nasif, read a blog post I had written about finding Rob’s rare as hell album, Taste And See. Unfortunately, the copy I found was without the vinyl disc, and scrawled across the jacket were in caps, “OLOMANA”.

Rob emailed me after reading that post and joked — ” i read that someone had written “olomana” on the album jacket and had to laugh. you know that means “old man”, right? ah, i get no respect! ;)> “.

He travels to Hawaii every few years. The islands beckon him, like they do for everyone who grows up here (there’s no escaping it!). So in 2014, when Rob had booked plans to visit Kauai and Oahu, he reached out once again for a chance to meet up and talk story. This was just around the time I was starting up the record label — which officially launched in January 2015 — naturally, I pitched Rob the idea of doing a 7-inch of my two favorite songs from his Taste And See LP: “House On The Rock” and the title track.

Rob immediately agreed.

Rob Mehl in 2014. Photo by Roger Bong.

The day we met in Waikiki was like any other afternoon in Waikiki: relaxed atmosphere, plenty of people playing in the ocean, cars moving along down Kalakaua, the sky slowly turning orange. Rob and I talked for about an hour, sitting at a picnic bench not far from one of those great, big banyan trees that dot the park. Despite the fact that Rob was getting over a bout of pneumonia, he told me stories about his childhood in Waikiki and the journey he’s been following since long before he first started creating his own music.

Life sets itself at ease when you spend an afternoon like this, talking story with someone you’re just getting to know, but somehow this new friendship feels like a familiar one.

Even though Waikiki isn’t what it was like when Rob was growing up here, it still lent itself to our conversation as the perfect backdrop to the beginnings of a new project for Aloha Got Soul, and a new friendship between two people separated by time and by distance, but not by their love of music or their love of stories.

AGS-7006 is available now on the webshop. Listen:

Rob Mehl: I moved here in 1958 and stayed till about 1965 the first time. That was elementary and junior high. I was at Iolani, it was an all-boys school back then. I came back in 1969, but had to go right to Vietnam. Then back here after Vietnam. And then back and forth for years [between here and Southern California].

Roger Bong: What were you doing?

Music. A lot of times I’d leave in the summer just cause it got so crowded. I would go work, record, try to go to school. In fact when I finally left Hawaii in 1983 I was trying to finish a graduate degree and I just surfed too much. I lived right on the corner of Liliuokalani and Ala Wai. I was in the water a lot.

You were going to to UH Manoa?

No, not at all here. Cause all I wanted to do while I was here was surf. So I went back and finished at Long Beach State. I thought, “sure i’d be back over when I’m done”. Then I met my wife, and she didn’t want to live here. I never thought I’d marry a haole girl.

I’d never know my dad to have less than three jobs. He was in the Marine Corps. But to be honest, I don’t know what the third job. I think he worked interestingly enough for K-POI when it was in the basement of the Royal Hawaiian. My dad had a radio show in the Tree House with Aku. That’s when Duke’s Restaurant was just behind the Tree House in the market place. Actually, when we first moved here, where the banyan was right in the front, that’s all the International Market Place was. Boy, did it grow over the years. On the Ewa side of the tree, that’s where Duke’s was. That’s where Uncle Don Ho started, Alfred Apaka, Marty Robbins, Mahi Beamer.

A lot of big names.

Well, they were the pioneers. That was my first real influence in music. I wanted to write, but I had no desire to be a rock star — which I’m not. But making music, story telling, that’s all I ever really wanted to do. And the passion’s still there.

Rob Mehl surfing at Diamond Head, 1978. Photo by Steve Wilkings.

The [Waikiki] beachboys were where we lived. We lived where the Hale Koa is now. The apartment we lived in was closer to the water. As a kid I got to walk up and down the beach and I’d see groups of people — this is when we first moved over to Hawaii — I’d see people sitting under the banyan trees. I was just a little kid, I don’t know what’s going on, but I just walked up and sat down.

Slack key and ukulele and stories and Primo beer. For a little kid, it was Disneyland. And hearing those guys talk story —and then they would bring me books when they realized this little kid wasn’t going anywhere. They saw I was just in awe. Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Jack London. They got me to read. In fact, I remember different times when I would show up and they’d go, “Hey, where’s the book?” “Uh, at home.” “Go get it.” Because there was going to be reading time, it was like school was in. So they got me reading.

Boy did I get in to those books. And it hasn’t stopped. In fact I’ve finished two books since I’ve been here. Less Than A Treason, a story about Ernest and Hadley Hemingway in Paris at the turn of the century.

“Words in. Words out.” Boy do I remember hearing that from the guys.

My dad had a jazz [radio] show. Hardcore jazz. Thelonius Monk. Dave Brubeck. Walter Wanderly. Martin Denny. But then I found out my dad wrote poetry, and I didn’t know that. In fact I have a song called “Poet’s Son.” He wrote poems for my mom, primarily, which I didn’t get to see. When I found out, it sparked a real interest in writing poetry. Mom is Irish, my dad was German. That’s why he introduced me to William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet. Gosh, reading real poetry. It began to really take form, being a writer. I would imitate poetry that I read, I would use lines. I’m not sure if not intentionally, but from Mark Twain’s books and Hemingway’s books. Phrases would stick in my ear, and I’d incorporate those in my poems — or stories and songs that I’d hear on the beach.

Musically, the influence of the slack key guitar and the ukulele. Total laid back. And then jazz. So at the time it was an interesting mix. I think Hawaiians and Hawaiian music are naturally pre-disposed to jazz flavors. Listening to — my dad was in the Marines with Herb Ohta, so Ohta San my first teacher. Herb’s a jazz master — he and Lyle Ritz, gosh! Now I can’t play like that, but…

I had lots of songs. I was in Vietnam. I didn’t play guitar. I was in the Navy. There were musicians who knew that I wrote. I don’t know if anyone ever said, “Have you tried writing melodies” — I started getting melodies just in my head. I would sing these poems to some of these guys who were real musicians, and they’d go, “That’s a real song. It’s got a verse, verse, a chorus, a bridge.” They were the ones whoe explained to me the structure of a song. So I had lots and lots of songs. I bought a guitar once we took a little detour for a couple of wweks up to Japan. I had a Neil Young 8-track with a player. In Japan I bought a chord book and I taught myself how to play.

But I wasn’t doing much with it. Carol Kai, Alex McAngus, Dick Jensen, Jay Larrin, a lot of these guys were friends. I don’t even think they knew — you know, you don’t walk around and “I’ve got poems to read”. Over the course of time they found out that I played songs.

I saw Alex McAngus the other day and was flashing back and said “I remember the very first club that hired you.” It was Don The Beachcomber’s, cause he was in the big showroom back then. This would’ve been mid-70s. It was before Don Ho was there.

How did you get to know these people?

Through the beach and through church. I went to a place called Faith Fellowship. We met at the Diamond Head Mortuary. That’s where all those guys went to church. Kevin I., The Krush, Society Of Seven, Al Bardi, a lot of studio musicians went to church there. It was a happening place. Emme Tomimbang.

You got your first club gig and from there?

It built from there. I would whine about having to learn covers. So I’d just kinda throw in my own songs in between these covers I knew I was murdering. Although the very first time I played a Stevie Wonder song, and this guy sitting in the club said, “That didn’t sound like Stevie Wonder.” The motivation was there to just keep writing my own stuff.

I was back in California, sitting on a beach just playing music, and some friends came around and were sitting listening to me. A guy walked by, stopped to listen. It turned out to be Barry McGuire. He had a hit in the 60s called “The Eve Of Destruction”. He was one of the Christy Minstrels. He sat down for the longest time, we played songs back and forth, and he said “Say, what are you doing this weekend?” He introduced me to Pat Boone and all these big Hollywood people. So I started writing for him and he recorded my songs. I got some of the biggest royalty checks I’d ever seen in my life — I’d never seen a royalty check before — it was the biggest check I’d ever seen in my life then.

California’s water is so cold. In fact, I kind of disappointed Barry because I had signed with a label, Sparrow Records, as a writer. They were ready to do something with me, and then “Hey, where’s Rob?” Well, I’m back here and I’d just surf my brains out and be a bit incommunicato. It’d be 2 or 3 months until my friends notice and go, “Oh! Rob! When did you get here?”

Herb Ohta would have me come sing at different places with him. I wouldn’t even play, just sit in and sing. Jay Larrin would do that [too].

This stuntman friend of man invited me over to the house one night for dinner and slapped a check down on the table and said, “You gotta record, you just gotta do it.” That was it, that was Taste And See. We took the publicity photos by a banyan tree down this side of Kuhio Beach.

The artwork wasn’t supposed to be. Steve Wilkins was a photographer for Surfer Magazine, he was a friend because I surf a lot so I’m part of that surf community. We had a session out at Diamond Head, out at LIghthouse one day, and a session at Old Man’s, and a session at Queen’s where he’d come out and take pictures of me surfing for the album cover. It was gonna be Taste And Sea, with an “a”.

But for some reason the corporate guys in California, it was too much for them. They were thinking of a bigger audience. All I was thinking of was my friends — “C’mon, nobody’s gonna buy this but my friends!” And I’d probably just give it to ‘em.

My original vision for this album was to do traditional Hawaiian music. I’ve prided myself on pronouncing correctly, making sure. He took me to Michel’s. I thought we were gonna talk vision for this album. At lunch, he said you know you’re haole, it just won’t work. I was crushed, I was devastated. Taste And Sea, it was gonna be this mix of songs I’d written and a few kanaka wai wai.

So that was a no-go.

It was a no-go. So again I went back to my friend who wrote this check and he had a friend in California who was a record producer, and they ended up — and I didn’t even know this until after, that’s how clueless I was, surfers, man — it wasn’t until after the album had been out for maybe 6 months that this check my friend had written was only about one-twentieth of the album’s budget, and the label in California picked up the rest. I met this producer who said, “Yeah, this is legitimate stuff, let’s do it.” Well, I didn’t have to sign anything, they just recorded it. But it cost twenty-five-thousand-some dollars. My friend wrote me a fourteen hundred dollar check and I’m thinking, “Whoa, I can go make a record!”

One night I was singing with Herb Ohta at the Hyatt, in the steak house upstairs. Chuck Mangione came in. We talked and somehow the timing was right, it was around the time I was heading to California to do the album. I used his lead guitar player, Steve O’Conner, on the album, and another jazz horn player that Chuck knew in San Diego, John Rekevics. He must’ve worked with the Chuck Mangione as well, because Steve and John did matching leads on one or two of the songs on the album. The lead and the sax playing the same exact notes — oh, man!

So, yeah, the team over there that we assembled, I sang a duet with Larry Carlton’s wife, before Larry married her. It was fun. But I still didn’t… I guess, naive… the islands, simple… I didn’t have visions of grandeur.

Do you think you could’ve taken it somewhere further if you had been more prepared? 

Yeah, I mean I’ve been told… Yeah. You know, my family watches The Voice and American Idol, and I’ve just never had that in me. To me, to sit under the banyan trees — and the same with Gabby Pahinui, people who knew who he was would sit and listen all day long — maybe that was as big as I could dream.

And that was enough.

Gosh, that was plenty. And then go surf, you know. In fact, the guys would say as I’m growing up, “Robbie, no grow up you like us. Drink beer all day, then go surf. Come and drink moa beer. Play some music, go sail, go paddle, come and drink more beer. No grow up like us, Robbie.” As a little kid I’m going, “Ok, uncle Robin”. And the older I got I’m thinking, what’s wrong with this? But the dreams of stories, living adventures so that I could write them — they challenged me to be serious about them. Don’t grow up and be like us, get out there. See it all. Somebody had said one time, “You can’t see everything, you can’t do everything.” These guys would say, “Why not? Just go.” They planted the wanderlust in me. With the books they gave me, it opened up the world.

Visit Rob Mehl on tour, dates updated regularly at www.robmehl.com.

Rob Mehl in 1978. Photo by Steve Wilkings.

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