Back in the mid-1980s, brothers Tony and Frank Marsico had a revelation: They decided to quit their punk-rock bands and form a space-age jazz combo called the Martini Kings. Known for their exotic, retro-style, jazzy vibraphone licks and sonic resemblances to the '60s surf-rock sounds coming out of Hawaii, the Martini Kings were a clear departure from the punk scene the Marsico brothers had been so immersed in. But it was also one of the best musical decisions they ever made.
"We played our first gig in front of a punk audience," bass player Tony Marsico says from his home in Los Angeles. "At first, the punk kids were scratching their heads, but after a while, they really got into it... and 20 years on, we are still together doing what we love."
Lately, the Martini Kings' musical style has experienced a revival, thanks in large part to a renewed interest in tiki culture — the Polynesian motif popular in nightclubs, art, and music during the '40s, '50s, and '60s. Their dreamy song "Las Nuedas" was featured on an episode of HBO's popular Entourage series. The band members themselves made an appearance in another HBO hit show, Six Feet Under, and four of their songs were chosen for that television show's best-selling soundtrack. They've also played privately for an event presided over by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and they recently appeared on the cover of the L.A. Daily News as a testament to how polished the group is musically.
"We are doing the same thing that we always used to do," Tony says of their newfound popularity in the tiki-phile community. "It's just that now we are getting a greater response and the people are really getting into it."
As luck would have it, the band is coming to Fort Lauderdale to perform at this year's Hukilau, a yearly happening celebrating Hawaiian and Polynesian pop culture. As the biggest Tiki gathering on the East Coast, the Hukilau draws thousands of tiki-philes from around the world, and the Martini Kings' performances are set to be some of the event's highlights.
That's due in part to their latest album, the Hawaiian-themed Tikis and Bikinis, a collection of popular exotica from the early '60s. On the album, the group reworks old standards like Elvis Presley's "Can't Help Falling in Love" and Martin Denny's superb "Quiet Village" into breezy, tropical chill-out minisymphonies.
All the same, the exquisite vibraphone — as played by Frank Marsico — gives the Martini Kings their trademark "space age" bachelor-pad sound. This year's Hukilau event — set to be the last held in South Florida — promises to be a special occasion for the band.
"We couldn't be more excited — we love Florida," Tony says. "We have family there, and the Hukilau is a big happening. I'm sad that this is the last year, but we are thrilled that we are going to make it to the top tiki event on the East Coast."