Over the years, Paul Frank has been on my radar. He’s an amazing designer, as most everyone knows, but he also happens to be a fellow music geek. Thanks to Instagram, we connected recently through a mutual friend. Enjoy!
Cordtangler: Like so many others, I’m familiar with your career as a popular designer. But in addition, you’re a musician and huge music fan!
Paul: The design career was an accident, actually, when all I wanted to do was play music.
CT: I heard that you also were part of an amp business?
P: In the early 90’s, my friend Matt from high school started getting into tube amps. He was teaching himself how to wire amps and wanted to cover the amps with something interesting. We were sitting at a Mexican restaurant noticing the tapestry on the seats. We figured if you had a Fender tweed amp, like a ‘56 deluxe, why couldn’t you use the same stuff. We went to the fabric store and that stuff was like 40 bucks a yard. We then found these warehouses that had these crazy Brady Bunch-patterned fabrics. Searching for fabric to cover speaker cabinets and amps was really inspiring.
I donated some of my money and we started the company Fire Melon. Matt would do the wiring and I would cover the amps. He first started modifying Fender champs because you could get them cheap back then. We’d do stuff like remove the tone knob and other stuff where you’d see sparking, but it sounded really cool. Then we found where you could get the transformers wound and went from there. We did what you’d do now, like take a Supro and a Fender and mate them together. Matt ended up working at the company that created World of Warcraft. But this whole experience got me interested in finding fabrics, which then led me to making wallets and things for my band and beyond.
CT: When did you start playing?
P: I started playing the summer before high school, which is pretty late in the game. When I was a kid, my sister had a cheap acoustic but I never understood it. I didn’t know that you had to push the strings down, so when I put my fingers on the strings, I was like, “This doesn’t do anything.” So I guess I would’ve started at a much younger age, if someone had hipped me to that. (laughs)
CT: Tell me about the guitars you had as a kid.
P: My first was a JCPenney Teisco guitar that my friend got from the “druggie” down the street. It was probably a stoner just getting rid of his guitar for 25 bucks. Then, for Christmas that year, I got a Hondo Strat copy from my mom. It was red with a maple neck. The strings were like half an inch high off the fret board, but it was still a major improvement.
The Teisco was still fun to experiment with. Whether it was painting it with a British flag or using spray paint that was on hand. I actually spent a few years just taking that guitar apart and adding different pick-ups from other guitars I found at the swap meet. I had more fun customizing it than playing it.
It was fun playing the Hondo but that was all you could get at that point. They didn’t start to reissue cool guitars until ‘85. You could get a Strat but it was $800, which was like a million dollars back then. (My dad drove a truck so I was lucky to get any guitar.)
When the Squier came out, I was finally able to get a real Fender. Even though it was a Squier, it was pretty legit. I thought, “Wow, I’m in business!” Over the next few Christmases, I kept getting Squires. I had a true collection!
CT: Did you finally get a full-blown Fender?
P: Yes, when Fender came out with the American-made re-issue Stratocasters. I remember finding one in the Recycler at a store in Costa Mesa. The store had a second from Fender where the neck was horribly orange. I remember the wires to the pick-ups had the wax, and it felt solid, different from a Squier. I spent all summer sweating away, printing t-shirts to buy that one… I also remember seeing a Jazzmaster that was $225 that same summer. You couldn’t give those away back then; nobody cared about them at that point.
CT: Man, The good old days!
P: I remember reading about the Bel Aires in Guitar Player magazine and writing to their guitarist Paul Johnson. I asked him what I needed to do to get the surf sound, and he actually wrote me back and told me that I needed a Fender Showman and a Reverb Unit. (Remember, there wasn’t Google back then.)
My mom was really cool and she would go out of her way to find stuff.
I used to go to the Community College Swap Meet with my mom and we came across a Reverb Unit in ‘84, for $150, but my mom said we couldn’t afford it. That Christmas, I opened up a box and there it was. So she went back and found the guy for me. My mom also got me a Fender Twin Reverb. I knew enough that I had to get a tube amp. That was horribly loud. I can’t believe my parents put up with that.
CT: What kind of music do you remember first being excited about?
P: My cousin lived in Whittier, California, and he’d always find great records. I remember he said he wanted to give me a record, and held up two for me to choose from. One was the first Devo record and the other was the first B-52’s record. There was something cool about the B-52’s record cover and they sounded like surf music, so I went for that one. I remember just staring at the inside of the record cover, reading the lyrics… and that Blue Mosrite. You never saw a Mosrite in those days.
That album inspired me to check out older music at the Swap Meet, like the Beach Boys and Dick Dale. I would always buy those old Beach Boys records and they would have those Pendletons and those white guitars. I remember we used to bleach out our Levi’s so we could look like the Beach Boys. Those records really influenced how we dressed and the guitars we liked. We lived by the beach and it just seemed cool.
I also remember one Christmas eve, one of my uncles was playing Duane Eddy. I was thinking this guy sounds like Brian Setzer? At that time, you thought the Stray Cats invented that music. He was like, “No son, this is Duane Eddy” and I was like a dog tilting his head, “Huh!?” It was a whole new world that I needed to discover. I also remember buying Elvis’ record “Louisiana Hayride” on a TV commercial. So my taste went back and forth: rockabilly, surf music, my uncle’s old records. It was much more fun than A-ha or Flock of Seagulls.
CT: Any famous musicians you were excited to meet? Any good stories?
P: I got to meet Dick Dale, go to his house and play his guitar!!
CT: Holy shit.
P: He knew this guy named George who owned a famous surf shop in Huntington Beach. So my mom wrote a letter to George saying, “My son listens to Dick Dale everyday. Do you think there’s any way he could meet him and would you send this letter to him?” Then after school one day, I was jamming with some friends and our drummer Chris shows up and starts banging on the garage door. Chris then pulled open the door, my boom box gets knocked off my amp and Chris says, “your mom just called me. She said Dick Dale called and wants you to come to his house!” (laughs) I was like “Is this a joke?” But no, it was him and he invited my cousin and me over to his house in Balboa. He showed us all these photo albums with naked girls on the beach (laughs) and he really trashed the Beatles. I think a lot of those guys were pretty bitter because they came in and pulled the rug out.
When I told him I had a Jazzmaster. He was like, “Those aren’t very good, you need a Stratocaster.” Then he let me play that gold guitar of his, which is strung upside down.
CT: I didn’t know that.
P: Yeah, Albert King did that as well. It’s cool. When you bend, you bend in a non-intuitive way. He also uses custom strings, from high to low, so the gauges go in this order: 14, 18, 18, 38, 48 and 58 or 60.
CT: Cool, I never knew that.
P: Have you ever tried it?
CT: No, that sounds crazy!
P: Well, you’re obviously you’re not going to do that much bending but Dick Dale didn’t do that much bending. It’s physics, if you’ve got a magnet, like in the pick-up, and its job is to pick up the vibration of the metal strings and the bigger the strings, the more ballsy it’s going to be. That’s a big part of his sound.
CT: What was his guitar like?
P: It was seriously the most amazing guitar in the world. Dick said that Leo (as in Leo Freak’in Fender) made it for him. The neck was really thin and narrow at the nut. It fit your hand like butter. Or like ice cream, but not too cold or too melty and gross. It was perfect. So, I decided to take a swing at playing Misirlou with Dick Dale. He ended up teaching me how to play it right (Laughs).
CT: Speaking of Fender, did Dick have any good stories about Fender?
P: He said that Leo didn’t want to use the blonde tolex, on his amps, in case you’d spill your coffee on it and ruin it. But he told Leo that he had to use the blonde, that it was cool. He also told me that he didn’t like using Vox stuff because the speakers were too small. He said that he was always blowing speakers and went to Leo about talking to JBL about putting some sort of flexible ring on the speaker to keep it from blowing. So he was instrumental in that development. He was out there field-testing this stuff. No one played like that back then. Maybe Link Wray but he was playing a Supro in a different state.
CT: Embarrassingly, I’ve had the chance to see Dick Dale, but didn’t go.
P: You’re running out of chances! In high school, when I heard Dick Dale was playing I asked my mom to drop me off two hours before the show. I thought the place would be packed, so I sat on the side of the Pacific Coast Highway at night wearing shorts, waiting. I was the first one in the show. I remember crying tears of pure joy seeing him play.
In the early days, Dick Dale had a full revue, like James Brown. He had three female singers, a Farfisa player (crazy), a rhythm guitar player, a drummer and four horn players. They would start with Peter Gunn before he would come on stage. Like Elvis with his C.C. Rider intro.
These old dudes used to tell me about this place called the Rendez Vous in Newport (Beach) that was an old ballroom on the pier. Back then, that was as rockin’ as you could get. There was no Jimi Hendrix or Beatles, so you’d see Dick Dale if you wanted to see someone really wail. People would do the surfer stomp and the whole floor would be moving. Can you imagine?
CT: Did you ever see Link Wray?
P: I had the chance to see him at the Foothill in Long Beach. Link was pretty old, in his 70s, but he could still play really well. The other thing was his wife kept coming on stage and flipping his hair back. It was almost like the guy that would come up and bring James Brown a towel. He could play really well, almost better than his old records. He would incorporate stuff that sounded like Jimi Hendrix. He wasn’t just playing rumble with three chords, he could still rock in the 90’s and with one lung!
CT: It’s always amazing how those old school musicians just keep rolling.
P: Don’t get me started about how relatively unknown some of those guys still are. I feel like there are guitar nerds who know about them, but most people have no idea how great some of these guys really were.
CT: Tell me about some of your favorite memories playing music?
P: When I was in my band, Blue Tiki, I found a Leslie speaker with the full-on oak cabinet and the speaker pointing at the floor. It was huge. At that point, another corporation (FMIC) owned Fender and there was a place you could go and order Fender parts. I ordered the black Tolex, the corners and the silver grill cloth. My uncle and I made a plywood box and with the emblem and I shoved the Leslie with the assembly into the back of it. So, we were playing the school talent show in 1986 with a Fender piggyback cabinet, Leslie. It was pretty cool.
CT: What about your band The Moseley’s?
P: We were originally called the Birdhouse Four but after our bass player got married and moved, we switched things up in the band. We also had a falling out with our singer so our drummer Chris switched to bass and vocals. He is an amazing talent. We were modeling ourselves after the Ventures, doing stuff like Taste of Honey. It was like when you buzz off your hair for the first time: that invigorating feeling of not having to brush your hair! Everyone else was poppy, punky ska and we just wanted to have fun and not care about “making it.” You know what? It was the most fun I ever had!
We also discovered The Sonics and other cool bands through some Japanese friends. Stuff we had never heard before, like a compilation from Lux Interior of the Cramps. There was Grady Moseley, he was the singer bass player; I was Bunny Moseley on lead; there was Rex Moseley on rhythm guitar; and Palmsly Moseley, our drummer, who ended up in the Aquabats. We had various people come and go but they had to be a Moseley, just like the Ramones. The story was that our uncle was Semie Moseley.
In 1993, every Thursday night, we’d play Linda’s Doll Hut with Dave and Deke Dickerson’s Combo. We became big Deke heads. Watching him play was like Eddie Van Halen for us. You’d watch those guys and you’d be like, “What just happened!? How does anyone get to be that good?” It was still so inspiring. Deke had a double neck Mosrite and we said, “We have to get Mosrites!”
My friend happened to be up in Hollywood and he saw two Mosrites at a music store and asked the guy what he wanted for them. I had to sell my Fender Jazzmaster and my ‘59 reissue Tweed. And I finally got my first real Mosrite! That guitar was a real game changer for me. The Joe Maphis’ single neck. The neck is chambered and the pick-ups give out a really cool sound, like a motor winding up. It’s a very magical thing. When you listen to the Ventures, “Live in Japan” you can see how they got that sound.
CT: I bet you have some amazing gear.
P: I’m a closet player now. I have a Rickenbacker 381 that I really like. I don’t perform anymore so I still don’t need all that gear. I had a 71’ Fender Telecaster Deluxe (with the humbucker). I ended up selling it so I could buy a car. It was so much fun to play, something about those old guitars and how they are all settled in. I used to also have an Electro lap steel with a horseshoe pick-up. Oh, man, I put the Dick Dale strings on that and the tone and the warmth was amazing. What I really remember loving was my 62’ reissue Strat.
Under pressure from my band, I eventually got a MXR distortion pedal. I was so against it that I wrote bad words all over it. Then I started to realize that it sounded cool if you played it during certain parts of the song. Overall though, I was never that into pedals and more into just turning the amp up to see what it could do. Give me that ‘71 Telecaster Deluxe through my old ‘62 Fender Bassman! With that open back cabinet, you don’t need a pedal. You are playing the room, I’m a big fan of the room.
When I had the Mosrite, I had two brown Fender concert amps. One of the first things that I got when I started to get a little more successful was a blonde Showman. I had to have it! The real deal. Even back then, in ‘96, it was going for $2500.
CT: Let’s talk more about how much of an influence music had on you and your brand?
P: Well, the whole reason behind my fashion was the inspiration from old records: the B-52s, The Beach Boys. The Stray Cats. I was one of the three people in high school that had creepers. I felt like you had to snap it up a bit and be an individual. That was being inspired through music. And the first stuff I made was my band merch. I made the belts that the Aquabats wear. I thought that if I made it for my band, I could make it for other bands. The guitar straps too.
We would also do music spoofs. We did a Mickey Mouse watch but it looked like Ted Nugent. We did Marshall amps and then did washing machines in the same style. Music was a huge part in the brand and people we hired were in bands. I met my first business partner because we both liked our friend’s band. Our first graphic artist was in a band. Our other graphic guy was is in the Aquabats. The original core group at Paul Frank was made up of artists and musicians. That was the culture: art and music. You start making flyers with clip art, and then before you know it, you realize you’ve become a graphic artist.
CT: Agreed. I saw that you made a Paul Frank model guitar with Fender. What was that experience like for you?
P: Really cool! As I said, I worked an entire summer for my first Fender and I got to play Dick Dale’s Fender. So my whole life has been Fender, Fender, Fender. When I got the call to make one, how fast can you say yes?
The guitar was for Namm and I wanted to use my Scurvy character. At the time, I remember some of the bigger brands that I was doing partnerships with didn’t want to use that character because it’s the symbol for poison. Before Brittney Spears wore it, you have to remember that a skull and crossbones was what bikers wore. I also didn’t want the guitar to have a pick guard, which caused some controversy. And I wanted to paint the guitar all the way around like pirate socks. (They were concerned that the scurvy guitar design wouldn’t sell.)
But they went ahead and we produced a custom soft case and a strap and it actually sold. They presented me with my own custom copy of the guitar, which was super cool.
I also designed Warren’s (from the Vandals) orange guitar. I used my character Worry Bear on a toilet. Worry is looking very nervous sitting on a toilet on the body because the toilet paper is on the end of the headstock, taunting him.
Seventeen magazine gave away a Fender designed guitar. We designed it with red pickups, light blue with a pearly pick guard and my Julius character.
I also designed a guitar for Brian Baker in Bad Religion. It was a Les Paul so I felt like I should check with Fender because you have to pledge allegiance to the Fender vibe (laughs). They were okay with it.
I’m also excited to be working with Fender again on a new guitar for the Namm show and one for another project.
CT: I recently saw a picture of you playing Neil Young’s Gretsch.
P: My friend O invited me up to lunch in Burbank to meet master builder Todd Cross and all the guys at Fender Artist Relations. I guess, Steven Still’s ended up owning Neil’s Gretsch and Nate, from Fender, bought it. They asked if I wanted to play Neil’s guitar. I couldn’t believe it. It was heavy and it had all these wires inside of it, like the wires that would be beneath a house. Every Neil Young song that I knew I instantly forgot in that moment. So we just imitated Neil from this famous picture with that guitar – that classic pose. It was pretty funny. I happened to be at the right place at the right time
CT: Tell me about the amps you’re doing with Satellite.
P: I’m super excited about that project. First off, Adam (from Satellite) is an amazing guy and amp builder. Together, we designed an amp with an 8” speaker and made it sound like a mix of this and that old amp. He came up with this 4 watt amp that is amazing. I guess watts don’t always mean a lot. They sound amazing.
CT: Nearly everyone I’ve interviewed has brought up Satellite Amps!
P: Yeah, I’m not that technical but when you play them they sound amazing. You almost don’t care that you’re not playing some vintage amp. Nothing against other people’s amps but you plug in a Satellite and it feels like an old friend.
CT: I also saw on Instragram that Satellite did a stereo amp. I think one of the amps was the one you helped design?
P: Yes, that was so awesome! Two amps in one cabinet. Each amp is angled in a slightly different direction. Instagram is great for turning people onto amps, actually. And I’ll have people direct messaging me for straps. I was also contacted about some new old gold vinyl stock that I’m giving someone to help cover their amp. I’m all about rolling up my sleeves and doing cool stuff.
CT: Do you believe in ghosts?
CT: Have you ever seen one?
P: No, but I smell them! (laughs) We bought our house from the kids of the original owners. Late at night, I can smell smoke and can tell from the tobacco stains in the sconce above my bed that the original owner must have smoked. I can also smell perfume that I think belongs to the original owner’s wife.
CT: Wow. Thank you, Paul. So great to meet you!
*Paul is a really busy guy and has been super generous and supportive of this project. He is a straight-up nice guy and I can’t thank him enough for his patience and help!