Tiki Takeover: Author Interview with Jason Henderson and Adam Foshko, Part I

We recently sat down with authors Jason Henderson and Adam Foshko of California Tiki: A History of Polynesian Idols, Pineapple Cocktails and Coconut Palm Trees, to talk about their upcoming book, their mutual love of Tiki culture, and the fun they had writing a book together. Read on to see more of what they had to say!

Author Adam Foshko.Author Jason Henderson.
Authors Adam Foshko (top) and Jason Henderson (bottom).

An easy question to start off with: What is it that you love about Tiki?

Jason: That’s an easy question, but a very broad one. I like it because it’s so many things all rolled into one. It is simultaneously a movement that a lot of people regard as kitsch, but that other people regard as a culture all its own. I think that it is also something that had a lot to say about the challenges and traumas of the 20th century. It is an expression of the time. You can sit down and watch something that seems silly now like Gidget, but it will have secret meanings you can figure out. To me, Tiki is a set of mysteries that you can unlock.

Adam: That was very well put; let me try to add some color to that. There are two things that appeal to me about it: One is the fact that I think it represents something that was critically important to people post-World War II. But it’s also something that is critically important today because of its sense of escape and belonging. By that I mean that the idea of Tiki represents a notion of adventure – something that takes you far away from everyday life, and lets you leave the daily stresses and demands of daily life behind. It also has this sense of a shared identity that’s different than your own normal identity – it’s a separate life outside of the every day. The culture has been rediscovered and refabricated, and it’s what you make of it. There’s a sense of kitsch, yes, but it’s almost a physical version of virtual reality with cocktails. My and Jason’s work is all about transporting people and world-building, and I think Tiki accomplishes that. It allows people to be who they want to be, how they want to be. I think in the modern human experience that freedom is important.

One of the mainstays of the original Tiki movement was Exotica music. Can you explain a little bit more about what Exotica was, and what it was intended to do?

Jason: The weird thing about Exotica is that it was a popular kind of music that charted – it was extremely popular during its heyday. It basically was a sub-genre of big band jazz that combined traditional big band with instruments that Americans associated with the sounds of Hawai’i or South America. It also added in sound effects that were developed by artists like Martin Denny, like bird calls or rain. When you put all of this together, you wound up with music that was still listenable because it had a melody – it wasn’t atonal. Instead, it sounded like, as artist Les Baxter expressed it, a “soundtrack to the movie of your life.” It was a soundtrack to a film that didn’t exist, but rather that you were in. So if you were having a cocktail and sat down at night, you’d put on this music and feel like you were being transported. The only way to listen to exotica is to play it and just go about your business. It is intended to be soundtrack music to your life. And that was a pretty big hit – but it died in the 70s. By that time, these guys had stuck around for a long time – Arthur Lyman was a wunderkind when he started playing the vibes for Martin Denny back in the 1950s, and Lyman played well into the 1980s. Eventually, these artists became passé. What had been exotic wore off and no longer seemed exotic, because the music was the same music your parents had listened to. The young people wanted to find a new way of escaping, so exotica was killed by hippie music as much as anything else. That’s just what popular music trends do – they don’t last because they can’t.

Moving away from music for a second, you’ve both mentioned frequently that Tiki was meant for an older generation, and veterans specifically. Do you think that Tiki could have flourished the way it did without the Pacific War, and the experiences of veterans there?

Jason: Boy, that’s a solid question. I don’t think you get Tiki culture without South Pacific, the musical which is based on the hit novel Tales of the South Pacific. It’s an interesting question because Hawai’i still probably would have become a state… I don’t know! That’s a great question. The only equivalent I can think of is to look at the Universal horror pictures of the 1940s. They’re heavily informed in art direction by American veterans who had gone to Europe during WWI. What distinguishes the design of those films is that they picture Europe as being one great big undifferentiated mashup. Everything’s a little bit British, a little bit German, a little bit French, and there’s gypsies everywhere. It’s similar to Tiki, where veterans came back from an experience with all of these memories and visions, and cobbled it all back together from an American perspective. They created a vision of this world that was based on their memories, but wasn’t really the same, which is very close to Tiki. That being said, I honestly think if there’s no Pacific War, there’s no Tiki.

Adam: I don’t think so either, because we would have only had a European conflict then. I think we would have brought something else back from that conflict instead, but Western Europe is close enough to America (especially because people came from there) that I don’t think the desire to escape would have been as extreme as the island escape of Tiki. Tiki is something that, unlike the army, or unlike even the air force, really came from the navy. They were far away for long periods of time, and they really became the drivers of Tiki when they came back. The other armed forces adopted it along the way, but largely it was sailors on the ocean – I think that without that conflict there, we wouldn’t have Tiki exactly. The US was also extremely isolationist at this time especially, so it took having so many people flung far out to the edges of the world, and then having them come back with that taste for the exotic and the need to escape again to get the Tiki movement as we saw it. They wouldn’t have had the same experience in just Europe. It just wouldn’t have been the same thing – had it not been Tiki, it might have been just Japan or something else. But I think it really took this conflict to create the need, opportunity, and the exposure to create this culture.

This is all great information, and it seems like you two really worked well as a team on California Tiki. What would you say was your favorite part about writing the book together?

Jason: I have to say, first of all, that I wanted to write a book with Adam for many years. We share so many interests, starting out when we were both working for video game companies back in the late 1990s. We have very similar and focused interests, like black and white horror films. We finally found a topic that we could come up with something to write about together, and it wasn’t going to bore us. It was definitely going to stay interesting. For me, my favorite part was to get to take what we would have been doing anyways, with diving deep into a topic for no real reason, and turning it into a major project together.

Adam: Yeah, I would agree. We had worked on some far-out stuff together, and finding something that was something close to home that we really liked, that touched several types of media elements was great. It had history, it touched on our shared interest of film and TV, and allowed us to really dig into “where did this come from, and what is it like now?” Working this time with Jason was great because we could really dig deep into the topic.

If you want to learn more about Tiki, like its connection with surf music, or Jason and Adam’s favorite Tiki bars, check out Part II of their interview, and their book below!

Are you also a fan of the modern Tiki movement? Let us know in the comments below!

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