Performer Scene: Ivan Pongracic – The Madeira, The Space Cossacks

How did you get into playing the guitar?

My dad is a guitarist, and he used to be a semi-pro musician on Yugoslavia’s Adriatic Sea in the mid-’60s, shortly before marrying my mom. While I was growing up he would often have his other musician friends visit our home and they’d play together for hours. As a result, I think I just knew that I would also eventually play guitar.

At the age of 10 or so, rock’n’roll music started becoming a real passion, starting with the Beatles and the Shadows, shifting to hard rock and heavy metal, AC/DC, Rainbow, and Iron Maiden. I just loved the sound and the looks of guitars, and found them completely fascinating on every level! I think it was just preordained!

What was your first good guitar and how did you get it? (Do you still have it?)

I started on my dad’s sunburst Framus acoustic guitar when I was 13, but at the age of 14 my family emigrated from Yugoslavia to the US. We sold off most of our belongings, moving to the US with only the barest of possessions. But the only thing I wanted when we arrived in the US was an electric guitar! My parents got me one two months after arriving, a budget copy of a (hardtail) Strat. I played that for two years, and it wasn’t a bad guitar, but then I took a big step forward for my 17th birthday, getting an all-black ’85 Ibanez Roadstar II RS430, with three single-coil blade pickups and a locking trem. That was extremely exciting! But at that same time when I was into heavy metal, my love of the Shadows just kept growing. About 6 months later, as a college freshman, I walked into a local guitar store and saw a new (’86-’87) MIJ red Squier Strat with maple neck for about $250. It looks so much like Hank Marvin’s Strat, and played like a dream! I was as poor as a church mouse so I couldn’t afford to buy it, but I also couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was a Fender – a budget Fender, but it did have the Fender headstock and it said Fender on it! So, I asked about trading it for my Ibanez, and they said they’d do an even trade – they even said that they’d be getting a better guitar! They were probably right, but the appeal of that traditional looking Strat proved to be more than I could resist. That ended up being my main guitar for about two and a half years, and I wish I still had it, it was really good.

My first truly pro-level guitar was an ’87 Fiesta Red Strat Plus which I bought new in ’90, at the age of 21. I’ve modded it extensively through the years, but have also played it a LOT, both on recordings and live (been with me around the US multiple times, to Canada, and even all around Europe three times), and it’s been my most reliable guitar.

What were your early musical influences?

I think the reason I wanted to play guitar was the Shadows. Even though I was born in ’69 and therefore missed their heyday, my dad and all his friends in Croatia loved the Shadows, played their records all the time, played their songs on guitars when they got together, and talked about them all the time. As soon as I started getting into music, the Shadows were on the top of my list of my favorite artists.

I used to listen to their second LP, Out of the Shadows, over and over again, in particular. I remember being completely fascinated by their music – those instrumentals with the echo-drenched lead guitar seemed impossibly mysterious and exotic. Music with singing and words was fine, I loved the Beatles and tons of other bands that sang, but there was something special about the Shadows’ instrumentals – they forced me to use my imagination, especially reading their song titles, transporting me in my mind to more exciting and unfamiliar locales. I remember also being fascinated with titles on instrumentals – why does a particular song have that title?? How can an instrumental have a title? It made me really think about what music is, its meaning and impact on me, for the first time.

Favourite piece of gear?

Definitely my ’87 Fiesta Red Strat Plus that’s been with me for 30 years as of this month. All the “Plus* features (Lace Sensor pickups, two-point trem, Wilkinson nut, TBX control) are gone, I’ve had them all replaced with vintage-style parts over the years, as I got into playing surf music, and the guitar has gone through quite a lot, it’s got scars. But that’s the piece of equipment to which I feel the most attached.

I’ve also grown quite attached to my ’09 Ice Blue Metallic ’62 AVRI Strat, which has been my main guitar with the Madeira since ’13, and which is a great instrument in every way. I love my 2000 UK-made ’64-reissue Vox AC30 with Celestion Blue speakers, that’s been my main amp for a while, but also my ’62 brownface/blonde Fender Bandmaster (Atlantics-approved!) with a 2×12 EV-12M-loaded cab. Both amazing sounding amps!

What are your top 3 guitar albums (or songs)?

The Shadows “Sound of the Shadows” (’65) – Hank’s peak as a guitarist, in my opinion

The Atlantics “Now It’s Stompin’ Time” (’63) – one of most remarkable and perfect albums of original surf music ever made, exploding with energy, creativity and musicianship

Dick Dale “Greatest Hits” (Rhino Records, ’92) – DD was one of a kind, and he really changed everything in the guitar world, I don’t think he still gets enough credit

And I’m going to cheat – a LOT! – by also including the “fourth” one (or four) albums by Ritchie Blackmore, whose playing I love immensely, especially his ’82-’84 period::
Rainbow “Rising” (’76)/”Straight Between the Eyes” (’82)/”Bent Out of Shape” (’83) & Deep Purple “Perfect Strangers” (’84)

What’s your latest release/recording?

The most recent studio release is the Madeira’s 2015 album “Ancient Winds”, which has received really nice reviews and with which I’m extremely happy. Many people seem to think it’s the best of our four studio albums (and it was also released on vinyl in 2017).

In 2018 we released “Center of the Surf”, a live album recorded at the 2017 Surf Guitar 101 Convention in Torrance, CA. It was recorded by the triple-Grammy-winning producer Mark Linett (Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers, etc.), which sounds huge and captured possibly one of our all-time best shows in front of a wonderful audience!

Any upcoming live/streaming gigs?

I don’t think anybody is playing right now! No, there’s nothing on the horizon. But Dane Carter, the drummer of the Madeira, and I got together with our old friend Jeremy DeHart (the Manakooras, the A-Men, and Aqualads) several weeks ago for a four-day ‘musical camp’, and we had a blast working on a bunch of new songs! I hope we will be able to work up an album’s worth of songs, professionally record it, and release it next year. Here’s hoping! I am very excited about what we’ve done so far.

About Ivan

Ivan Pongracic is the lead guitarist for the Indianapolis,
USA-based instrumental surf band the Madeira, who have released four
studio and two live albums since 2005. Prior to that he was the lead
guitarist in the influential Washington, DC-based instrumental surf
band the Space Cossacks, whose two studio albums (1998’s “Interstellar
Stomp” and 2000’s “Tsar Wars”) have received much acclaim.

About Martin Cilia 79 Articles
Martin is an Australian guitarist and vintage guitar collector. Apart from his solo work he is a member of The Atlantics, Dave Warner’s From the Suburbs and is currently guitarist in Mental As Anything.

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