The Tikiyaki Orchestra Keeps Exotica Alive and Soothing in SoCal

Tikiyaki Orchestra (Credit: Scott Feinblatt)

The exotica/lounge music scene has ebbed and flowed since the first wave began with Les Baxter’s 1951 album Ritual of the Savage. This, of course, was followed by many other albums by subsequent maestros of the genre, Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman, and Gene Rains to name a few. After this golden period, the genre became dormant for about 30 years, until the first retro movement began in the early 90’s with the group Combustible Edison. Currently, there are but a few musicians keeping exotica alive, and one of them is Huntington Beach resident Jim Bacchi, who does so with his bands The Tikiyaki Orchestra and Tikiyaki 5-0.

As the exotica music scene is usually associated with tiki culture and Polynesian pop, it is unsurprising that Bacchi’s transition from a rock and heavy metal musician into a champion of and prominent member of the current exotica wave started with getting into tiki when he moved to Los Angeles from Long Island, NY. “I went to Wacko in Hollywood, and I bought Tiki News, which was a little fanzine that Otto von Stroheim put out. He’s [the co-producer of] Tiki Oasis. I love fanzines! And I was like, ‘Oh, there’s a fanzine for tiki! Oh my God!’” Bacchi recalls, “There was a music section in there, and [Stroheim] would write articles about Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman, and stuff like that, so that’s kind of how I became aware of exotica…so tiki lifestyle was the gateway drug for that.”

Inspired by Stroheim’s Tiki News, Bacchi sought out the records of the seminal artists of the genre. He also became more interested in surf music at this time, which has historically also been a complement to tiki culture. It would also be an important influence on the music he would soon begin composing. “When I was in [my previous] band Fuzzbubble [which had a song on the soundtrack of the 1998 Godzilla film], I was on a trip to Long Island and I was in a record store and I heard this amazing version of [the Hawaii 5-0 theme song played] really slow. It was The Blue [Hawaiians],” Bacchi explains. “I’m like, ‘God, they play up the street from me every week [at the Lava Lounge, in Los Angeles, but] I’ve never been to see them.’ So I bought that record; it was called Sway…Once I started getting into them, I started writing a couple of things.”

Given exotica music typically involves musical arrangements that are distinct from those of the heavy metal and power pop bands Bacchi had been used to performing with, he took it upon himself to compose his early exotica work in his own digital studio. Bacchi recalls, “The first song I did was ‘Mai Tais on the Moon.’ It was kinda like my ode to The Blue Hawaiians…a slow surf guitar type of song [with a little bit of] some exotic instrumentation.” The song also features a performance by Gary Brandin, a slide steel guitar player, who was a member of The Blue Hawaiians, and whom Bacchi had also enlisted to perform on a previous Fuzzbubble album.

After writing “Mai Tais on the Moon,” Bacchi found his audience online through a message board on Tiki Central, where he discovered that there was an audience for such music but not so much in the way of bands producing and performing it. “I [realized that I could] probably make my own record, press up a thousand CDs — it’s not that expensive — and advertise on there and sell them.” The Tikiyaki Orchestra’s first record, “StereoExotique,” which was released in 2007, features Bacchi performing most of the parts using sampled instruments; however, Brandin also performed on several of the songs. Bacchi recalls, “I put up little banner ads on Tiki Central, and I did some free downloads — or [had the downloads available to] buy…for ninety-nine cents…and people really liked the record.”

Once the buzz began spreading through the internet, The Tikiyaki Orchestra began to grow. “Mai Tais on the Moon” had already made its way to the ears of several musicians, who contacted Bacchi to find out if he would be interested in jamming, and though he was happy to do so, he was initially reluctant to take the next step. “I didn’t have any intention of having a band because I knew it would take at least eight people or seven people to do what I was doing. I didn’t know if I could deal with seven musicians, you know,” Bacchi recalls. However, when the musicians kept coming, Bacchi came around. “It took me a long time. I put ‘StereoExotique’ out in ‘07. We started [jamming] at the end of the summer…a lot of [the musicians] didn’t work out. [Then by] the beginning of ‘08, I [had] a finished band, and we played our first show at a Tiki Farm parking lot sale — [Tiki Farm makes] mugs. They’re the biggest [tiki] mug manufacturer. [Tiki Farm’s owner and founder Holden Westland] used to have these parking lot parties, you know all the vendors would come and sell stuff in San Clemente.”

The band’s name is connected with an extended universe of Bacchi’s making — a universe which this writer believes to possess the most epic mythological qualities of any branding found throughout the genre. The band name was originally Bacchi’s eBay name. Later, after the band had started producing records, the Tikiyaki brand was developed into various conceptual ideas, which were presented in conjunction with the artwork and promotion of the group’s various albums.  For example, for their second album, Swingin’ Sounds for the Jungle Jetset!, the record begins with an in-flight announcement and the liner notes suggest itineraries for swingers that include drinking tiki cocktails and taking impromptu weekend getaway trips via Tikiyaki Airways — an imaginary airliner whose logo is modeled after that of the defunct Pan American Airways . For the Orchestra’s third album, Aloha, Baby!, Bacchi presented the notion that the album had been produced in conjunction with the opening of a fictitious resort destination called The Tikiyaki Polynesian Village, in Waikiki.

When each of those albums was released, limited edition packages were available that included branded merchandise (such as mugs, ice buckets, room keys) to highlight the concepts — and which, naturally, would strongly appeal to fans of tiki culture. Images of the fictitious enterprises have also been featured on the film shows that The Tikiyaki Orchestra has screened to provide a visual complement to their live performances.

Over the years, the group has seen various players come and go and ultimately form its own spin-off band. As distinct from The Tikiyaki Orchestra, Tikiyaki 5-0 is a pared-down incarnation, which performs smaller arrangements of the Orchestra songs for more intimate gigs. As the name implies, 5-0 has also been a vehicle for Bacchi to explore more of the surf rock music that got him started in the exotica scene.

Bacchi remains active in a variety of aspects of the music business. Within the last few years, he wrote and sold a couple of songs that were used on fairly recent Alice Cooper albums. However, through his ongoing work with The Tikiyaki Orchestra and Tikiyaki 5-0, he maintains his affection for and commitment to the lands of tiki and exotica. “Tiki has always been a thing here since the mid-century,” he explains. “It’s part of embracing the California lifestyle too, to me — being from outside of it. It’s like paradise, you know, and that’s kind of [what] you want to wake up to every day — something that puts you in a good mood. Tiki does that.”

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