October 9, 2019 Interview – Oingo Boingo’s Johnny “Vatos” Hernandez
Emerging from a surrealist performance art theatrical troupe, The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, the band Oingo Boingo was born into the ’80s era with a sound like no other. Begun by the one and only Danny Elfman, they experimented with Rock, Ska, Pop, and World Music, thus becoming one of New Wave’s most influential acts on the American circuit. Featured in films, as well as frequently spun on the radio, Oingo Boingo left an impression that is still felt today… and that is why over 2 decades since they disbanded people are still screaming for more.
Fortunately for fans, there is an outlet for indulgence in Oingo Boingo music with the band calling themselves Former Oingo Boingo Members. Dubbed “The Best Oingo Boingo band until Hell freezes over” by Richard Blade, they are an all-star cast featuring original ‘80s and ‘90s era Oingo Boingo members Johnny “Vatos” Hernandez (drums/jefe), Sam “Sluggo” Phipps (saxophone), Carl Graves (keyboard/vox), Steve Bartek (guitar), and John Avila (bass), along with Brendan McKian (vocals), Mike Glendinning (guitar/vox), Freddy Hernandez (bass), and Brian Swartz (trumpet).
Currently on a tour that began September 28th in Saratoga, CA before wrapping up on November 3rd in Tucson, AZ, are you ready to join the dead man’s party? If so, be sure to leave your body at the door! Excited to be out on tour, Johnny “Vatos” Hernandez recently sat down to chat about his time in Oingo Boingo, the inspiration to perform the music live, plus a whole lot more.
Cryptic Rock – You have been involved in music professionally a long time now, doing a lot of cool things including being a part of Oingo Boingo for nearly two decades. Briefly tell us, what has your career been like in music to this point?
Johnny “Vatos” Hernandez – The career so far has been totally exciting. (Laughs) In all the ups and downs, it has always been very musical. The ups and downs are basically, like every musician, not getting paid or getting paid. (Laughs) Music itself has been absolutely exciting and always fun.
Cryptic Rock – And you have done a lot of great things. What do you think has been your inspiration to continue on through the years through the ups and downs?
Johnny “Vatos” Hernandez – Years ago when I was starting to play drums, my mom said, “Mijo, if you’re going to play Rock-n-Roll, you’re going to have to get a job and play Rock-n-Roll. If you’re going to play Jazz, you’re going to have to get a job and play Jazz. If you play everything, you’ll never have to worry about it because you’ll always be working.” Sure enough, that’s been the key to my success.
Cryptic Rock – It’s good to be diverse and keep your options open.
Johnny “Vatos” Hernandez – Right. Every decade I’ve been involved it has always been something different. I have my Pop decade in the ’70s when I was the house drummer on The Midnight Special. Then I graduated into The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo and then in the ’80s came the Oingo Boingo stuff. In the ’90s I went and joined Tito & Tarantula, we were in the movie From Dusk till Dawn (1996) – toured with them and still tour with those guys. Then by the time 2000 came along I was playing in movie and TV soundtracks for things like Battlestar Galactica with Bear McCreary who is a great composer. It just never stops. (Laughs)
Cryptic Rock – That is awesome, you have done a lot of fun stuff. Let’s talk about your time in Oingo Boingo. You hooked up with Danny Elfman and were a part of Oingo Boingo for the band’s duration. How did you guys connect?
Johnny “Vatos” Hernandez – In the late ’70s I kind of got tired of doing all that Pop stuff. I got called to do a show with Toni Basil and it was a big Rock show with the guys from Devo plus a bunch of other really great people. Danny and Steve Bartek came to all four shows and said, “Man, I’d like to have that guy in our band.” Sure enough, they asked me to join the band. It’s funny because they had used me six months before; Steve hired me to play drums in the movie The Forbidden Zone. When they heard me play live, I blew their minds at the time – that’s how we hooked up. So from 1978 until the end of the band in 1995, I was their drummer.
Cryptic Rock – Wow, and you recorded eight albums together as a band.
Johnny “Vatos” Hernandez – It was very intense. Danny is a writeaholic, as you know by his current abilities to write for 2-3 movies at once. Every day at rehearsal, we would rehearse three days a week, and every day there was tons of music! It was like playing for Frank Zappa or something. (Laughs)
Cryptic Rock – That is crazy! You are now on tour as Oingo Boingo Former Members, and you have a list of shows coming up through Halloween and beyond. What inspired you to hit the road with this project?
Johnny “Vatos” Hernandez – I waited about 10 years after the band broke up and asked the guys if they wanted to play. At first they didn’t want to, but more and more people started coming and really liked it. Because I still have energy and pump it up, the band still roars; it’s snowballing into another younger generation. The last 2-3 years the parents have brought their kids and the kids are bringing their grandkids and they know the words to the songs! It’s really weird to see someone 21 singing “Grey Matter.” It’s really wild!
Cryptic Rock – It’s wonderful how you can connect with a whole new generation.
Johnny “Vatos” Hernandez – Yes, these songs were written during the Ronald Reagan administration. Basically in the United States nothing has really changed, they have only gotten worse since then. The songs are kind of time appropriate still. (Laughs)
Cryptic Rock – They are still fresh for sure. The band obviously features a bunch of former members of Oingo Boingo. What’s it like rocking out with these guys again?
Johnny “Vatos” Hernandez – Well, Steve, John and I always had side projects, and always played together whether we were doing this music or not. John and I had a band together for years called Food for Feet; we’ve always been playing together. We’re all still friends and it wasn’t much of a stretch to say let’s do some gigs!
Cryptic Rock – That is good to hear. Richard Blade stated you guys are phenomenal.
John “Vatos” Hernandez – Yeah, Richard’s a big fan. When we did our Oingo Boingo Day in L.A., he was part of the whole honoring of the band – it was really cool.
Cryptic Rock – Well, the upcoming shows should be a blast. Will you be coming to the East Coast too?
John “Vatos” Hernandez – We were actually looking at dates in January and February.
Cryptic Rock – That is something to look forward to. Oingo Boingo is one of those bands people remember, people love it, and people want it. Are you often surprised to see how much fanfare the band still gets even though it has not been active in two decades?
John “Vatos” Hernandez – Yeah, sometimes I start to get nervous just like I did in the early days. I think, “Who’s going to show up? Who the heck cares?” And it’s packed! We’re selling out all our shows and it just keeps growing.
Cryptic Rock – That is wonderful to hear. What can you tell us about some of your other projects going on?
John “Vatos” Hernandez – I have a great love for music and all kinds of music. One of the side projects that Steve Bartek and I have going on is Raymond Scott and all the cartoon music of Raymond Scott. That’s really exciting to me. Then John Avila and I work on record projects. I do TV commercials here and there, and I do all kinds of pickup gigs with all the musicians I know in L.A.
Cryptic Rock – You certainly have a lot going on. You mentioned being in From Dusk til Dawn with Tito & Tarantula. You were also in Back to School with Oingo Boingo. What’s it like being involved in films?
John “Vatos” Hernandez – It’s always fun. Meeting Rodney Dangerfield was absolutely exciting. He walked up to me and said, “What do you do?” I told him, “I’m the drummer.” He said, “Oh yeah, all the chicks and half us guys like the drummer.” I looked at John Avila and said, “Did Rodney just hit on me?” (Laughs)
I knew Quentin Tarantino back when he worked at a video story. When we did From Dusk Til Dawn he said, “John I’ve been wanting to get you in a movie with me, man, it’s so cool!” That was a whole other thing; it was really exciting. Going to lunch with Salma Hayek as she was talking right next to my ear was really a high point of that filming. (Laughs)
Cryptic Rock – (Laughs) Those are some awesome memories!
John “Vatos” Hernandez – That’s why I have some great dreams. It’s been good. The terrifying things are just terrifying musically and how you are going to pay your bills, but that always gets worked out.
Cryptic Rock – It all seems to work out if you keep going strong with what you love. Last question. If you are a fan of Horror and Sci-Fi films, do you have any favorites?
John “Vatos” Hernandez – I’m actually not a fan. I have a terrible thing, I don’t know if it’s a health or mental condition, but with all the empathy I have in my body I can feel when someone’s getting their hand or neck sliced. Whenever we would be on the road on the bus, Danny and Steve would say, “We’re going to have a slasher movie night!” They would go to the back of the bus to watch, and you would hear all that screaming and I would be covering my ears.
Unfortunately, I think we live in a crazy, violent society and try not to go there too much. Okay, here’s the extent of it – live organ transplants in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983) – that’s as grotesque as I can get. As long as it’s in a funny way, I kind of like that. I’m just not a real fan of watching people get their heads blown off.