Gary James' Interview With Tony Andreason Of
The Trashmen

In 1962, a group of guys in Minneapolis, Minnesota put together a Rock and Roll band and called themselves The Trashmen. A year later, in 1963, they put out a record that went all the way to number four on the Billboard charts. That song, and what a song it was, was called "Surfin' Bird". Tony Andreason of The Trashmen talked to us about his group.

Q - Tony, were The Trashmen a band that was playing clubs in Minneapolis or were you what some people would call a "garage band"?

A - We were a garage band, sure. We never took ourselves that seriously. We didn't play clubs around town. We played dances. We played ballrooms mostly.

Q - Ballrooms?

A - That's right. When we first started, we were playing any place that we could set up. We even set up over at Hamlin University out on the mall one night. We had a big, impromptu dance out there. We would play school dances. There were a lot of ballrooms around here, the Marigold Ballroom, the Prom Ballroom, Chubs Ballroom. We'd play roller rinks. We weren't a bar band. We were pretty much, I would say, a garage band. We actually did practice in our other guitar player's garage and my garage from time to time.

Q - What kind of money were you getting in those days?

A - When I first started playing with Jim Thaxter and The Travelers, there were a number of places around here. There was a place over in Crystal, Minnesota and I think we were paid seven bucks a piece to play for the evening. If we got ten dollars a piece, that was real money when we were in high school. (laughs) A lot of times we played for nothing. We just wanted to play. We enjoyed playing because the important thing at the time were girls and cars. Ten dollars would actually buy a lot of gas. It was pretty reasonable at the time. I remember three dollars would buy ten gallons of gas.

Q - You must've got a lot of girls too!

A - Not really. Back then things were a lot different than they are now. Girls weren't promiscuous at the time. We would have girls that followed the band around, but it was kind of like a big bunch of friends going out someplace. So, there was a group of girls and guys that kind of hung out together. If we were going to do a dance, there would probably be thirty or forty of us that would go and show up and dance. Everybody went to dance in those times. That's what it was all about, dancing, having a Pepsi and sneaking a cigarette out in back.

Q - The first concert I ever saw was Freddy And The Dreamers, Wayne Fontana And The Mindbenders and Sam And The Twisters at the Syracuse War Memorial in April, 1965. Do you know that the kids weren't screaming, they weren't smoking pot. They were dancing. That situation never repeated itself.

A - That's right.

Q - People didn't sit in there and watch the groups perform. They danced.

A - Yeah. When we started out, everybody was dancing. You would have a thousand people dancing. That's what people came for. They loved the music of course and they would watch, but a big part of the crowd was dancing.

Q - What kind of material were you playing?

A - Back then, oh gosh, "A Whole Lot Of Shakin' Goin' On", "Great Balls Of Fire". We were doing some Blues, some Jimmy Reed stuff because that's what everybody wanted to play. We were playing The Fendermen's "Mule Skinner Blues", "Don't You Just Know It". We were playing a lot of Ventures' tunes, "Walk Don't Run", "Parfidia", songs like that.

Q - Getting back to this garage band terminology people use for bands like The Trashmen, that projects this impression that you guys were just fooling around in a garage some place, came up with this idea or arrangements for "Surfin' Bird" and recorded it. I say you probably worked pretty hard to come up with that song and that sound. Now, who's right?

A - Well, I'll tell you what, we got the idea for it, Steve (Wahrer) was in the back room at a place called the Chubs Ballroom. He was fooling around with that voice. Really the first time we played it was at Chubs Ballroom. We had never rehearsed it. He said "I'll just shake my head and let you know when we're gonna change chords. (laughs) Three chords going from E to B. He would shake his head. He did that and the crowd went crazy. So, there was almost no preparation for that song. It just happened when we were playing Chubs Ballroom. We played the song four times that night because the crowd was so into it. A fellow named Bill Diehl was with WDGY Radio. He was the Wizard Of Wax, the Deacon Of The Discs at the time. It was wonderful Ouija. He heard us do that song and came back to the room and said "You've got to record that. That is a hit. It's the weirdest thing I've ever heard." So that's what we did. We recorded it 'live'.

Q - In the studio?

A - Yeah.

Q - In how many takes?

A - You couldn't do very many or your voice would be gone. I'll bet we didn't do more than two or three takes. Some of the tunes we did, particularly on the first album, in a couple of afternoons. I think "Miserlou" was one or two takes because we had started playing that a lot. When I listen to it, I can detect things that I wish we wouldn't have allowed to go. (laughs) But, you know you've got to get something done quickly and you've got a limited budget. A couple of the songs on the first album were just thought up in the studio because we needed another song.

Q - Did Steve ever tell you where the idea came from to sing "Surfin' Bird" in that voice?

A - He was always fooling around with voices. He came up with that. He was fooling around with it in the back room and he came up with it just on the spot. He would do things if you listen to "Bird Bath" and some of those songs. He was fooling around with voices all the time. When he got that voice, we were laughing so hard, he kept it up. The more he did it, the more we laughed and the more we got into it. It was a combination of "The Bird Is The Word", The Rivington's tune. We weren't really aware of The Rivingtons. Actually, we heard that song the first time at Woodley's Country Dam. There was a group called The Sorenson Brothers from California and they did "Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow". We watched them do it and thought it was the craziest thing. We actually came up to 'em and said "you should record that song." They said "no". We started doing Surf music and we came up with that because we were kind of turning into a Surf band, we called it Surfin' Bird."

Q - Didn't I see Steve, your lead singer, do some kind of funny dance when you guys were on American Bandstand?

A - He was. That was the first time we were on TV and when I say "we", we weren't on. They couldn't afford to bring the whole band. Steve went to do Bandstand when it was still in Philadelphia. If you watch that, he was totally unprepared. He didn't know what they were gonna do. So, he did that and he was out of breath. (laughs) I think he was there just for the afternoon. He got done doing the show and flew back and we left town.

Q - He lip-synched that whole thing, didn't he?

A - Yeah. And pretty much after that, we didn't do lip-synching. If we were gonna play on TV and we did a lot of TV, we did it 'live'. We didn't like the idea of lip-synching. Not at all. It just seemed like you weren't giving people their money's worth.

Q - Who came up with the name for the group - The Trashmen? Was that you?

A - No. We were rehearsing one afternoon 'cause we were in a play at a school over in Brooklyn Center. It was a dance. And we didn't have a name for the band. There was an artist here in town, his name was Tony Kyray, and he recorded a song called "The Trashmen's Blues". We were listening to it and Steve said "That's what we should call ourselves - The Trashmen." We were laughing, you know? He showed up Saturday night at the school with The Trashmen painted on his drum head. That's how it started. Obviously it stuck.

Q - Did you like that name, The Trashmen?

A - It was so unusual 'cause we had a lot of different names for bands at the time. Well, I like it now, sure. Now we're looked upon, believe it or not, as a Punk band. We go to Europe and a big part of our audience are Punkers. I suppose the name and the song is something they can kind of grab onto. We didn't know how we would go over, a bunch of older guys playing for a couple of clubs that were strictly Punk clubs. We didn't know how that would go. We came in there and they were a great audience. There was a lot of leather in that place. (laughs) I think we stuck around and signed posters for an hour and a half, two hours after the show.

Q - How may records did "Surfin' Bird" sell?

A - I have no idea. We had poor management at the time. We had a manager who wasn't really watching after us. He was watching after himself. We had no idea how many it sold, although the good thing about it was we did get ownership of all our masters. It's been a long time now. Of course nothing was happening at the time and we owned our masters. Then there were a number of companies that started using the song in commercials and movies. It kind of took off. Reebok used it. We had a lot of overseas companies use it. So, it's been really good to us. We made a deal with Sundazed Records in 1990 and that really was the best thing we ever did because we met the people at Sundazed. Bob Erwin was starting it. We were the first "name" group he signed. We decided to go with him 'cause we like him. A friend of ours, Mike Jan, had some tapes that we didn't even remember we had and so Erwin re-mastered a lot of our music. He did such a great job and we've had a great relationship with him since about 1990, I think. It's been over twenty years. They've released a number of new albums of old material that we had. They even released a four CD box set on us, eighty songs. It was a poor business dealing we had initially and later in life we had somebody that really cared about the group. Now, Sundazed has become a huge company. I think they really pay the artist. I've been called by all kind of different artists, asking me how Sundazed was 'cause Sundazed had contacted them about re-releasing a lot of their material. We've got nothing but good things to day about 'em.

Q - There was some controversy about who wrote "Surfin' Bird". The Rivington's had "The Bird's The Word" and The Sorenson Brothers had "Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow". So, who wrote "Surfin' Bird"?

A - Steve put the two of 'em together. We didn't know when the record first came out they had us as the writer of that song. Beechwood came along and said they were the writer of "Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow". We should've fought 'em on that because we could've had at least half of the writer's credit on that. Our song is different.

Q - I've never heard The Rivington's song, but I'm just guessing it is different from yours. So technically speaking, you should get writer's credit.

A - It was totally different. We should've gotten credit, but we had poor management and people that didn't care about is. We were kids. There were so many artists at the time that I've talked to, that I know now, nobody got paid. They just didn't. It was really a treat for us later on when we hooked up and actually got paid.

Q - Is your manager still in the business?

A - No. He passed away years ago.

Q - Was he a "name" manager?

A - No, he wasn't. He just kind of fell into it. He moved to the West coast and we never saw him again.

Q - When "Surfin' Bird" became such a hit, how did your life change? Did you tour nationally? Did you headline or support someone else?

A - Both. We toured really from '63 through '67. We were on the road constantly. We did, I always thought it was 289 one-nighters in '64, but Dal (Winslow), he's the other guitar player in the group, has the book and it was 292 one-nighters in '64 and in '65 almost as many. So, we were on the road constantly. What an adventure! We didn't take ourselves that seriously, but we were headliners for some shows. The first "name" group we toured with were The Four Seasons. The Four Seasons had "Sherry" and "Big Girls Don't Cry" at the time and we were pretty intimidated about going out with The Four Seasons. (laughs) They turned out to be just great guys. Wonderful guys. Gave us a lot of good advice.

Q - You were travelling how in those days? You must've had a station wagon.

A - We had a station wagon and a little van at first. Then we got the biggest station wagon we could find and towed a trailer behind it. We stayed strictly at Howard Johnsons and Holiday Inns every night and we were all set up. That's where we stayed.

Q - Holiday Inns weren't a bad place to stay, were they? I don't know much about Howard Johnsons.

A - No. They were good. Our booking agent, his name was Jimmy Thames, he was a wonderful guy and the reason we did well in touring is because Jimmy was an honest guy. He knew every ballroom in the country and every armory and auditorium. He would go ahead and book 'em and with him we would go ahead and book our own venues. He knew how to promote it. And so, we would split it with him. He was a great guy to be on the road with. He watched our for us. We were twenty years old at the time.

Q - He took a percentage?

A - Yeah. He took a percentage of the door. Sometimes a bigger one, sometimes a smaller one. Depending on what it was. When we went out, he brought us for ten days when "the Bird" first sort of hit. He offered us just a flat fee and he said "if we do well, I'll pay you more." We did really well and he actually paid us double what he had guaranteed us. We never had a contract either with Jimmy. We worked with him through our whole career really, until he passed away, until he retired. We had a hand shake with him. That was really a good, long-term relationship.

Q - Was he with an established agency?

A - It was The Jimmy Thames Agency. He broke a number of groups. He had a ballroom too. It was called The Show Boat in Lake Benton. He would have everybody in there; The Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, Fats Domino. So we would play those kind of places. He had a dance band back in the '40s and '50s called The Jimmy Thames Orchestra. They traveled all over the country. So, we played places all over the country and we'd go out and do package shows with Frankie Avalon and Dion. There might be five or six "name" acts on the same show. That was great. It brought really great memories that we can live with now.

Q - In your career, you recorded fourteen albums?

A - I don't know if it was fourteen? There's a lot of bootleg albums out there too, (laughs) on us. But I think there's thirteen albums that I'm aware of that we did that were released, a lot of 'em by Sundazed. They did a nice job. We did have a number of records on the national charts, but "the Bird" is the one they remember most.

Q - Were you playing cover songs as well as originals on these albums?

A - Both. We wrote some of our own stuff, our own material rather. "The Bird" was a two-sided hit. The flip side, "King Of The Surf" got a ton of airplay. I suppose on the albums there were a lot of cover songs, but we had a lot of original material too.

Q - You toured Europe extensively in 2010. What type of venues were you performing in? Clubs? Theatres?

A - All of that. We played outdoor festivals in big town squares with big erector set kind of stages, like you'll see for big concerts. That may be on a Saturday or a Sunday. Then on a Monday we'd be playing one of the clubs in Berlin or something. Clubs are big in Europe. There's some very well-known clubs there. During the week we might play a small club or like on a Thursday play a smaller club, a smaller venue. Then on Friday we'd be at a huge outdoor festival. (laughs) We traveled in a Mercedes van, one of the big stretch vans, the real high ones, the ones you can walk around in. I think the longest stretch without a day off was eleven nights. We didn't know how that would go, but when you're there, you want to play. We had a day off after that eleven day stretch, but we had to travel five hundred miles to the next show. So, we traveled thousands of miles over there. We went through the Alps I think six times. (laughs) We didn't have to drive, so we got a lot of sight seeing in.

Q - How long of a set did you do?

A - We were doing anywhere from sixty to ninety minutes. We got it to a point where we did a lot of songs. What really was something is in some of the countries they didn't speak English, but they knew the words to the music, which is kind of interesting.

Q - Would "Surfin' Bird" be your encore?

A - (laughs) Well, we had a place where we were called back four times. We played two or three songs and then came back and played a couple more. So, it ended up we played an hour and forty-five minutes or so.

Q - Where would you put "Surfin' Bird"? It wouldn't be the opening song, would it? Towards the end?

A - Towards the end. It was never the end 'cause we would play it and start backing up and the audience was really into it, so we'd just step up to the mics and play another one and we'd do "High School Confidential" or something like that. We'd back off like we were gonna leave and they were standing up, and "More! More! More!" and so we came and did some more. We'd leave the stage and the owner would come up and say "You gotta go out and do a couple more!" What was really fun was meeting the people when it was all done because there were sometimes lines of people that would want to take pictures with you. They would want you to sign posters. Posters for the shows were really popular over there. We signed thousands of posters and sold a lot of merchandise. They like old Rock 'n' Roll and they like vinyl over there too.

Q - Do you tour in the U.S. as well?

A - We don't tour really. We played The House Of Blues in New Orleans in the last few months and we played a guitar fest in Anaheim, California. We played a couple shows in Chicago. We're just going out for one or two nights once in awhile. I think we may go back to Europe again towards the end of the year (2011). But, we're getting a little older. The newness of travel has worn off a little bit. If it's something special we really want to do, we'll do it. We played a show recently with Ronnie Spector and La La Brooks, who was the singer with The Crystals, and Roy Head. It kind of brings everybody back. We were all staying at the same hotel. That was fun, just getting together and talking about the old days.

Q - How many original guys in The Trashmen these days?

A - All but the drummer, Steve, who passed away in 1989. My brother took over and started playing once in awhile. Then we got a call from Goldstein. He was a booker doing nostalgia shows. We went out and did shows with Jan And Dean at that time, in the '80s, beginning of the '90s.

Q - Steve sang "Surfin' Bird". Who sings "Surfin' Bird" now?

A - I do. (laughs)

Q - Do you do it as good as he did it?

A - Well, they say you can't tell the difference, because even when we were on the road back then, sometimes if Steve didn't feel good or had a bad cold or something, I'd do it because I watched him do it so much, I could do it exactly like him. In fact, we did a commercial for Mervins and they couldn't get anybody to do the voice like the record. They wanted to do it exactly like the record, except in was "Merv was the word" instead of "Bird was the word." And so I did it and it's pretty tough to tell the difference between the two. So, there's three of the original guys and they're getting their moneys worth.

Q - Did you ever cross paths with The Beatles or The Stones?

A - No. We were in New York at the same time The Beatles were. Ringo Starr said he didn't like us. (laughs) I don't know why.

Q - Where'd you hear that?

A - They actually said it on the radio. He didn't like the group. But it was alright with us. (laughs) We played with The Hullabaloos and The Animals. Groups like that. Sometimes we'd play shows over a weekend in Ithaca, New York for example. They would have Spring and Fall Weekend and they would have ten or fifteen "name" bands coming in there, playing on the campus. At the same time, Link Wray And The Wraymen were playing. The Kingsmen were there. We were there. The Beach Boys were there. All kinds of different groups. You'd play three or four times a day.

Q - This was in a college auditorium?

A - Outdoors, most of it was. Some of it was indoors. They would have frat parties and the fraternity had deep pockets or their parents did. We would come in and play after The Kingsmen or some other "name" group. They'd have a bunch of 'em. We'd all be staying at the same motel.

Q - Do you guys have a clear memory of the places you played?

A - I remember lots of the places, but sometimes it's just a blur when you're going from place to place. We came back from Europe this last time and of course with all the security, they, security was asking me what was in the case. I said it was a guitar. I've got a Stratocaster. I don't let it out of my site. They asked me where I was last night, what the name of the hotel you stayed in. I said "Gee, I can't really remember." The security guard said to me "You can't remember what hotel you stayed at? What town were you in?" I said "Amsterdam." "But you can't remember the name of the hotel?" I said "Look, in the last twenty-three days I've been in twenty-one different hotels." (laughs) So, to me it doesn't mean anything. I get in there at two o'clock in the morning or whatever. Sometimes we didn't play a show 'til twelve-thirty. I get in there at three o'clock in the morning, go immediately to bed. I get up in the morning, look for a cup of coffee, take my shower. I'm out the door. We're in the bus and we're on our way, somewhere else. So, the name of the hotel just doesn't mean anything to me. (laughs) They understood this. They said "Where is your cell phone?" I said "I don't have a cell phone with me." "You don't have any electronics with you at all?" "No, I don't." "What about this?" I said "It's an electric guitar." "You have to plug it in." It just went on and on. They said "How do you call home?" I said "We've got a computer with Skype." When you're a touring band in another country, you can call home and see your family members or whoever you're talking to. Not only see 'em, but talk to 'em for five cents.

Q - Who was giving you all this trouble? It wasn't the Americans, was it?

A - No, it wasn't. If fact, when I came through customs this last time, the customs official said "Hi. How are you?" (laughs) "Fine." "Did you have a good tour?" I said "Great." He said "Welcome home." That was it. (laughs) So, I jut walked right on through. It was nice. Back then, that's one of the things we never did, drugs. I've never even tried drugs. I've never even tried pot to this day. We just weren't into drugs at all.

Q - That's a good thing.

A - Yeah. I think it was. Bands back then, at least bands that I knew, they just weren't druggies. We were in it for the music, Rock 'n' Roll. And it still is. Particularly now because we never thought we'd have an opportunity to do it again, because there's been a resurgence. You never know how long it's gonna last. We came back and played the Las Vegas Grind, I think it was called, in 1999. We hadn't played in quite some time. We walked off the stage and we were getting a standing ovation. We were so elated. Dal looked at me, we were walking off the stage and down the stairs and he said "You know Tune, if we never do this again, this is the way to go out." (laughs) And so, we never thought we would play again and then the resurgence kind of started over in Europe. Bobby Vee came back and told me "you guys are really big in Europe. You should call the guys and see if they want to do some shows." Bo, I called Bobby and he said he'd love to. Dal said he'd love to. So we decided to see what would happen. We were booked on a show in Chicago and it went off really well. We had such a good time, we still do it occasionally. Next year (2012) will be our fiftieth year as a band. Fifty years? I can't even relate to it.

© Gary James. All rights reserved.