This is Local Music / It’s noon on a Wednesday and Mike and Tom Piranha are lugging their equipment upstairs in preparation for their gig in the evening. It’s something of a routine, what with their 32 gigs per month, sometimes at two different venues on the same day. It’s a grueling schedule, one that has rightly earned them a reputation of the hardest working band in Hawai’i.
“We have a hard time keeping guitarists, because most people can’t keep up with our schedule,” Mike jokes. “That’s why our guitarists are usually much younger than us. Otherwise this schedule would kill them.”
After setting up their equipment, the two run through a few practice songs to check the sound of the room in comparison with the vocals. It’s a mix of rock standards, beginning with Tom Petty’s “American Girl.” In the last 34 years, they’ve done this so often that they can tell if something with the levels are off before they finish the first verse. Tommy adjusts the levels set next to his drum kit and they start again. Within five minutes, both are satisfied.
That evening, the Piranha Brothers play a blistering, exhausting set for nearly two and a half hours before taking their first break of the night, plowing through primarily cover songs from the ’70s through ’90s featuring some of the most memorable, sing-alongable songs from those eras, everything from “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” to the Beatles’ “Nowhere Man.” On occasion, without hype or ego, they slip an original song in the set, and it fits seamlessly. Some people think it’s another cover, just one they can’t remember the words to, and after a few visits, these are often the songs that will bring the crowd to their feet and on the dance floor.
Cover bands have been around forever. Sometimes, playing a known favorite can fire up a listless crowd. Other times it’s to pay homage to a fellow artist. Some even make careers off other people’s music, even adopting the persona of musicians long since dead or no longer relevant. But Honolulu is the rare place musicians can make a living at it, without the need to constantly tour the country.
“People come to visit,” Mike explains, “No matter where they come from, they want to bring their living rooms with them. They want something familiar.” But the road the Piranha brothers traveled to get here was anything but familiar.
In 1975 Chicago, Mike and Tom were brought together by a mutual friend (”And I hated Mike when we first met,” Tom interjects) for a band called Getcher Kicks. Previously, Mike had been on the road as a professional musician since he was 19. “I was hired because I fit in the leisure suit of the guy they had just fired,” Mike said. “Chicago was really slow, not like L.A. or one of the bigger musical hubs. But just as they do to this day, the band played relentlessly, making a name for themselves, even when they didn’t have a name, picking fake monikers for themselves and changing the name of the band to whatever they thought was funny at the time, from Bucky and the Buffalo Chips to Your From Poland to Free Beer. Interacting with the crowd and joking with the crowd, the band knew that connecting with the audience was a key to success, and they began incorporating covers into their set. “You have to remember,” said Mike, “this was two years before MTV. Some people may not have known it was a cover.”
In 1978, during a winter tour, they got an offer to play in Hawai’i. “We were supposed to play 13 weeks,” Mike said, “but we fired the management and stayed for a year, living in Jack Law’s guest house. We made eight return trips.”
Meanwhile, the Chicago music scene began to get more noticed by the recording industry, and in 1988 MCA Records offered them a deal. “We were never so poor as when we were on MCA,” Mike said. “We recorded two albums’ worth of material, and one eventually got released, but almost all of it went to the lawyers.” Mike says he figures that the actual members of the band made about $800 each from record sales. Then, in 1992 they got a call in the airport as they were preparing for another flight to Honolulu: MCA was dumping them to concentrate on their newly-acquired Motown records.
“What was terrible about that was that for those two-and-a-half years,” Mike said, “we were being courted by other labels that we couldn’t talk to because we were contractually obligated, only to be dumped two-and a-half years later. When we got cut, we were both 38. We weren’t young and good looking anymore. We were old and good looking.”
Within two years Mike started to talk to Tommy about moving to Hawai’i permanently. First relocating to the Big Island, they found it hard to get enough gigs around the island, not to mention the commuting times making it difficult. To make ends meet they started managing a Mexican cantina. “We fixed everything up,” Tom explained. I did carpentry on the room and the stage, and we ended up managing not only the night club portion, but the restaurant as well, and still playing there at night.” That lasted nearly three years until the cantina burned down–with all their equipment inside.
A move to Honolulu made more sense–more people, more places to play. Operating this time under the name the Swinging Johnsons, they still incorporated original material into their sets, but saw the value of covers. “All the roots stuff still lasts,” Mike explained. As they rebuilt a following, Tommy worked as a bartender, carpenter and brick layer. “I worked as a drug dealer and a musician,” Mike admits. Eventually, they settled on the Piranha Brothers, taken from a Monty Python sketch.
Even now, with both of them able to live off their music, it can be a grueling schedule. “If I weren’t playing with Mike,” Tommy said, “I’d probably get out of the business.”
“Yeah, and I won’t let him leave,” Mike answered. “We’ve always been able to survive, and we’ve always been blessed with work. In between sets, I always try to thank every person in the room. We’ve been together all this time, and we’ve always been doing it the way we wanted to. It’s what we do.”
Mike pauses for a minute, then smiles.
“It’s either this or Wal-Mart greeters.”