It's not only beer that has made Milwaukee famous; the city that the Chamber of Commerce has dubbed "A Great Place on a Great Lake" can also claim Laverne & Shirley, Jeffrey Dahmer and the Spanic Boys. Of course, each of those big three exports bears certain elements of unreality: Laverne and Shirley were fictional characters, Jeff had sex with dead men and then ate them, and the Spanics are hardly boys anymore.
But don't let that shatter your world; the father-and-son team of Tom, 49, and Ian, 27, still plays straight-on American roots rock with the spirit of a teenage garage band, albeit with the skill of the veterans that they are. The pair have been in groups together since Ian was barely out of puberty, yet there's nary a trace of generation-gap angst between the two; Tom seems genuinely puzzled that anyone should even ask such a question.
"We never had any problems like that," says Papa Spanic from his home in Milwaukee. "It's not a typical father-and-son-type thing, it's more of a friend-type deal."
Years before Tom sired his future bandmate, he developed a strong friend-type deal with the guitar. He got his first one, a Harmony Hollywood flattop with a pickup stuck in it, back in 1955. The Spanic boy immersed himself in the "music of the day--Buddy Holly, Elvis, Ricky Nelson. I always did a lot of finger picking. I'd sit down at home with Chet Atkins records and play along with those," he says. But Tom had no big dreams of stardom; he was just a guy from Milwaukee doing what he liked to do. He hooked up with his cousin Butch in '56, and for the next seven years, the two played the local bars after work and on weekends. Now, after a 30-year gap, Butch has joined up again and is featured on the new Spanic Family Album. Besides the Album's 12 great chunks of countrified, Everly-inspired originals that sound like classics, the insert contains aging snapshots of the young, guitar-wielding Spanics. Laconic Tom chuckles. "Yeah, that's some old photos, eh?"
As the story goes, in 1968, there arrived a little bundle of musical joy named Ian. Tom apparently handed him a guitar along with his teething ring; Ian's been playing since before he could walk. Yet Dad insists he had no master plan to create a musical dynasty designed for rock world domination.
"No, I didn't, I didn't have intentions of doing this with him, it just happened. We played some bars in Milwaukee and people liked it, so we formed a band," Tom says.
Since Ian is an only child, Dad admits that if his son had opted for bagpipes or computers, things may have turned out differently.
"Oh, yeah," he sighs. "If he would have hated guitar, I'd probably be teaching classical guitar, or doing spot and steal. You know, spot it in the day, steal it at night."
But thievery was not in the cards for Spanic; luckily, his offspring's taste in music ran next to his own. By high school, Ian's record collection was swollen with literally hundreds of Buddy Holly albums, and his guitar playing was closer to Atkins than Van Halen. Pops Spanic, while hardly a show-biz parent, at least saw to it that his son learn his instrument the old-fashioned way.
"I wouldn't let him have an electric guitar until he could basically master what he was doing on acoustic guitar," he explains. "I think most kids, if you took away their distortion pedals and amps and gimmicks for electric [guitar], they wouldn't be able to play. I don't know if I'm right, but I guess it worked."
Though Ian's skill grew to eclipse his father's, Tom says there were never any Great Santinilike encounters of jealousy.
"Well, Ian's by far the hottest picker of me and Butch; he's pretty hot. He's real fast at improvising things; that's my weak point. I was always a good reader and I can play things that are technically hard, but I could never improvise real good."
The world may know Tom and Ian as simply the Spanic Boys, but--in a story that could have been written by Hal Ketcham--Tom reveals some inside history.
"The way it started, we'd walk into a music store and a guy would say, 'Oh, it's those Spanic boys again!' I thought it'd be a good name for a band, so we were Oh Those Spanic Boys. But people would call us Hispanic Boys, and a lot of people would be afraid to come to the club because they thought there was going to be a gang showing up. So it just kept getting shorter and shorter, Those Spanic Boys, The Spanic Boys, and then just Spanic Boys."
The boys' first big break came at Austin's South by Southwest music conference in 1989, when the unknown Midwesterners became one of three bands featured on MTV's coverage of the event. A contract with Rounder Records and four acclaimed albums followed, not to mention appearances on Letterman, Conan and Saturday Night Live, where the Spanics' no-problem attitude toward host Andrew Dice Clay nailed them the job as last-minute fill-ins for a freaked Sinad O'Connor. Asked about the big night, Tom says simply, "We've done some big TVs. And that was a thrill."
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For all the horror stories you may hear about bands just scraping by, about poverty-level existences musicians must endure to keep their dream alive, Tom says life is good.
"It's what I like, I look forward to doing it. And between the records and touring, we make out okay." And living in Milwaukee helps keep the rent low. "It's just your average town; I can't see living anywhere else," offers Tom. "I like to go someplace else to visit, but no matter how much money I make, this is where I'll live. It's pretty down-to-earth."
Can this be the secret to Spanic success? The good, old-fashioned American work ethic that still lives on in the heartland? "That's what it is," Tom clarifies. "We just always went out and did this as a job, we do a lot of work. We basically don't mess around."
Spanic Boys are scheduled to perform on Sunday, May 28, at the Rockin' Horse in Scottsdale. Showtime is 8 p.m.