(Photo provided by Fred Zermino)


It’s the holidays, and Santa just delivered us some very good news. One of our favorite bands from back-in-the-day are ready to send us back in time and launch us back to the future.  After all, there’s much to be said about being all dressed up with nowhere to go. This year, dress anyway you want because there’s a place you can go. That’s right, the legends are back. Who are these irresistible creatures who have an insatiable lust for all things that go bump in the night? It’s Oingo Boingo Former Members.

The question we’ve all been asking ourselves is this: Is this the same Oingo Boingo from way-back-when? The answer is YES! (with an asterisk*). It’s been a journey, but Johnny “Vatos” Hernandez got the band back together (*less one guy). How did he manage to do it? Persistence, persistence, persistence.

Hernandez was born September 5th 1951, he attended a few schools before settling in at San Gabriel High School. Like Mike Ness of Social Distortion, he didn’t have much interest in sports or school elections; it was all about the music. He graduated in 1969 when he was only a lad, and took his mother’s advice: She told him if he was going to be a jazz or rock drummer, he would need to get a job; and if he would play every kind of music, he would always work. He also listened to the advice of his high school band director, Bill Wadelton. He told Hernandez that if he got selected to join the Los Angeles City College (LACC) band, he would make it in the music business. He followed his mother’s advice and his band director became a prophet as he eventually joined the LACC band under the leadership of Bob MacDonald. It didn’t take long for Hernandez to develop into the monster drummer we know today as Johnny Vatos.

(Johnny Vatos on drums | Photo by Green Eyed-Blonde Photography)

His life has been surreal; how many people can say when they were kids they befriended a local video clerk named Quentin Tarantino? YES, that really happened! If that’s not nutty enough, Hernandez’s life changed forever when he joined a band called Oingo Boingo in 1978. Danny Elfman’s crew evolved out of The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo performance troupe which was formed in 1972 by his brother Richard.

By the late ’70s, music was changing, shifting from disco and hard rock to new wave. The new genre was being ushered in by a local radio station on the rise, KROQ-FM. “The ROQ’s” Freddy Snakeskin and Jed the Fish were among the disc jockeys championing new wave.

“I love Boingo,” Jed said during a recent conversation. “Their music surprised and took you on a journey. No band before or since delivered such profound, theatrical originality. I was lucky to have their music to play on the radio.”  Snakeskin called Oingo Boingo “a quintessential SoCal KROQ band. We played their music even before they got signed to their first record deal.”

(Only A Lad from the Self-Titled Album, Only A Lad)

During the band’s (and some would argue KROQ’s) heyday in the 1980s, members played high-velocity new wave, rock and ska tunes. The early Oingo Boingo featured guitar god Steve Bartek; Kerry Hatch on bass, Sam Phipps on saxophone, Dale Turner on trumpet, Leon Schneiderman on alto/baritone sax, Richard Gibbs on keys, Hernandez on drums; and front-man Elfman on lead vocals, guitar, percussion, sitar, vibraphone, trombone and violin.

(Grey Matter from the album titled, Nothing To Fear)

As the story goes, Elfman gave his sidemen nicknames. Phipps got “Sluggo” and Hernandez was at first “Batos,” but they settled on “Vatos” and BOOM! … a legend was born. With KROQ’s support, Oingo Boingo went from Gong Show  winners to sharing the stage with some of the biggest bands at the US Festival in 1983. That same year, Vatos earned his trademark look from innovator Annette Macfarlane. She was one of the first stylists to integrate lines and designs into hairstyles. She went to work on Vatos in ’83 and still shapes his mohawk and colors his hair today.

The band became even more infamous with the addition of bassist / percussionist / vocalist John Avila. With a solid lineup in place, Halloween shows became an Oingo Boingo trademark. Their sets at Universal Amp and Irvine Meadows were unreal. As time went on, their music catalog exploded with songs such as Ain’t This the LifeOnly A Lad, Little Girls, Grey Matter, Who Do You Want to Be, We Close Our Eyes, Not My Slave, Sweat, Just Another Day, Nothing Bad Ever Happens to Me, Wild Sex (In the Working Class), No One Lives Forever, Dead Man’s Party, Violent Love and Goodbye-Goodbye. They became so popular, before you knew it … they provided the theme song to Weird Science and were featured in the Rodney Dangerfield comedy Back to School.

Image may contain: 1 person

(John Avila on bass | Photo by Green-Eyed Blonde Photography) 

Boingo was a juggernaut out West, but they weren’t as popular east of the Mississippi according to Vatos. All good things eventually come to an end, and we got the news in 1995 that the band was done. Elfman went on to do movie scores full-time after having already hit it big with iconic films such as BatmanPee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Edward Scissorhands. He would go on to score Good Will HuntingMen in Black and The Nightmare Before Christmas (which also features him on vocals), among many others.

Bartek kept busy as a composer as well, writing music for films such as Tales from the CryptRomy and Michelle’s High School Reunion and Mission Impossible, as well as working with Elfman on Good Will Hunting.

Avila went on to create the band Food for Feet and played with Neville Staple of the Specials. He produced records as well, locally for icons Reel Big Fish and Suburban Legends. Vatos is a chameleon to say the least. He’s been in other bands such as Avila’s Food for Feet and Tito & The Tarantula. He appeared in Midnight Run and reunited with Tarantino in From Dusk Till Dawn, where he got to work alongside George Clooney. As a side note, the Tito & The Tarantula album Little Bitch was dedicated to Johnny’s mom.

While the guys worked on other projects, Oingo Boingo fans prayed for a reunion. They even started a movement to get them on the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ballot; that day hasn’t come just yet, more to follow on this. It should also be noted the band’s legacy is extended through their fans as they come from all walks of life and socio-economic backgrounds; they’re also multi-generational.

What’s even better: Fans prayers didn’t go unanswered. In 2005, Vatos put together a Boingo tribute show. That performance included former bandmates Bartek, Avila and Phipps with trumpeter Brian Swartz. This version featured new front-man Brendan McCreary (a.k.a. McKian). Back then, McKian was working with his brother Bear McCreary on scores for the revamped miniseries Battlestar Galactica. (Bear would later find fame as composer of AMC’s The Walking Dead and Starz’s Outlander.) The brothers were huge Oingo Boingo fans and before you know it, McKian became the lead singer.

(Brendan McKian and Johnny Vatos | Photo by Green-Eyed Blobde Photography)

With a successful re-launch, there were whispers of Elfman’s return. Those whispers were quashed in early 2007 as Elfman announced he would not come back. He revealed he had developed irreversible hearing loss and was very concerned about further damage if he kept playing live. Nobody can blame him for tapping out.

Due to legal issues, the band’s name had to be addressed. After coming to the decision he wouldn’t be returning, Elfman gave Vatos permission to use the name Oingo Boingo Dance Party. This is where this story takes an odd turn. It’s said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Over the years, a few Boingo tribute bands emerged. These bands mimic the original Boingo sound/style the best they can. Entertaining as many of these bands are, a perception has developed that some have tried to  align themselves to the Boingo legacy. That’s where the story goes off script. As Oingo Boingo Dance Party started playing more gigs, it became increasingly clear that the number of Boingo tribute bands created an identity flux. Sadly, it got to the point where Vatos was being asked by show promoters to prove Oingo Boingo Dance Party wasn’t just another tribute band.

(Dead Man’s Party from the album titled, Dead Man’s Party)

As a result of the name ambiguity, Vatos worked out another band name with Elfman. The name that emerged is Oingo Boingo Former Members (OBFM). This incarnation combines the new and the classic. While tribute bands continued to mimic Boingo every way possible (right down to some very good Elfman lookalike singers), OBFM doesn’t do anything but be themselves. With a great voice, good looks and fantastic showmanship, McKian delivers, with the band providing a fresh sound to songs we already love.

Image may contain: 1 person

(Brendan McKian at The Coach House | Photo by Green-Eyed Blonde Photography) 

Over the past two decades, I’ve been fortunate enough to see both versions of Boingo, and I say this with upmost respect and gratitude to Elfman: McKian honors the band and their fans, which is important. Vatos is as good as ever on drums, Bartek and Avila are electrifying and “Sluggo” kills it on sax. They are joined by Carl Graves, who lights it up on keys; Mariel Austin, who tears it up on trombone; Mike “The Spike” Glendinning, who shreds on guitar; Freddy Hernandez, who slaps the bass; and Swartz, who brings it home on trumpet.

So what’s next for the former members? Vatos and crew were in studio last week working on their forthcoming untitled new album. It’s still early, so we’ll have to wait for the title, but the target date for release is St. Patrick’s Day 2020. Of course that could change, but so far, so good.

I have a theory that a music scene is best defined by its unique place in time. While I can never give justice in words alone to describe the experience of a Boingo show, just know the theme personifies Halloween, and the music is without comparison. As for Vatos, he’s been reborn so many times, he can’t remember them all, but being in OBFM might be one of his favorite band incarnations.

Check out this band while you can, it’ll be a once in a lifetime experience. OK, maybe twice in this place in time. They start off the year by playing The Canyon in Santa Clarita on January 4, 2020.

The Link for information on the Canyon show:


For information on Oingo Boingo Former Members: