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The Farce Awakens: The Origins of Hardware Wars 

Wednesday, Dec 16 2015
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Scott Mathews greets me at the door of Tiki Town, his recording studio in Mill Valley. Guitars, sitars, drums, and several other musical instruments clutter the entranceway, while gold and platinum records crowd the walls. In a music industry career spanning five decades, Mathews has produced hit albums by Eric Clapton, Johnny Cash, Brian Wilson, and Barbara Streisand, just to name a few. As a musician, the late R&B legend Allen Toussaint called Mathews' playing "pure like meat and blood," while Ringo Starr said Mathews could take his place behind the drums "anywhere, anytime." He played with The Beach Boys; Beach Boys co-founder Carl Wilson was the godfather of Mathews' daughter.

It's baffling that Mathews hasn't become a household name, but his lack of fame is not why SF Weekly is interviewing him. We're not even here for the music.

We're here because of Hardware Wars, the 13-minute spoof of Star Wars from early 1978 that takes George Lucas' "galaxy far, far away" and plunges it into the housewares aisle at a thrift store. Steam irons and toasters battle across space while suspended from clearly visible wires. Really hungover-looking knockoffs of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Obi-Wan Kenobi — Fluke Starbucker, Ham Salad, and Augie "Ben" Doggie — fend off tip-loading dishwashers with power drills. A basketball is a peaceful planet on the brink of annihilation. "Chewchilla the Wookiee Monster," who resembles a Cookie Monster puppet dyed brown, is indeed a Cookie Monster puppet dyed brown.

While most short films are relegated to the dustbin of artistic aspiration, Hardware Wars comes back to the cultural zeitgeist like a bad penny with every sequel and prequel in the prolific Star Wars franchise. No matter how many times Lucas or a co-conspirator updates the galaxy with a new character, new actor, or new director, the old Hardware Wars is always there — on YouTube, Fandor, Amazon Prime, or just on plain DVD — still sticking it to Star Wars in every way imaginable.

As the relentless cross-marketing of The Force Awakens reaches critical mass, this plucky little analog satire with its meteor storms made from crumpled tinfoil grows more powerful than its creators could have possibly have imagined. The first of many send-ups and parodies of Star Wars, one of popular culture's most-referenced products, Hardware Wars is also reportedly George Lucas' favorite.

Filmed on cardboard sets in a warehouse on 24th Street in San Francisco, this self-proclaimed "sprawling saga of romance, rebellion, and household appliances" would appear to be a left turn away from Mathews' platinum-plated curriculum vitae, but it's really anything but.

The roots of Hardware Wars, with its raw DIY aesthetic, began in the Bay Area music scene, which has served as an incubator for all kinds of quirkiness since at least the 1960s, ranging from The Tubes to Jello Biafra to Captured! by Robots.

In Hardware Wars, Mathews donned a lopsided wig as wide-eyed "intergalactic good guy" Fluke Starbucker. He somehow conjured a pitch-perfect satire of Mark Hamill's Luke Skywalker — without ever having seen Star Wars before he goofed on it.

"We did this the moment Star Wars came out," Mathews recalls. "I'm not a sci-fi guy. I eventually saw it [Star Wars], of course, but I had no idea what we were going after."

"I didn't care, because we got paid in beer, and I brought my own other substances," he adds. "You could just look at me, and you could imagine in those scenes of me gazing off with that look." Mathews does maintain an expression of vapid, utter elation throughout all of his scenes, in his one starring role.

If there's a reason Mathews channels Luke so well, it's because he was the same kind of dreamer as the aspiring Jedi. California's Central Valley served as his own personal Tatooine, just as it had for the Modesto-bred Lucas. But instead of wanting to go to "Tosche Station to pick up some power converters," Mathews had the burning desire to make and record music.

This passion put him on the path to Hardware Wars.

As a teenage musician in Sacramento in the mid-1970s, Mathews was itching to get into a studio and start recording. The problem was there weren't any recording studios in Sacramento at that time.

"The only way you could record a band, anything, was to go to a radio station," Mathews explains. "They might've had a four-track, or maybe even a three-track."

Instead, at a gig in Sacramento in 1974, Mathews' attack on the drums was noticed by legendary San Francisco surf guitarist John Blakely. Blakely referred the teen to Ron Nagle, a musician and songwriter renowned today as a sculptor. Nagle's 1971 album Bad Rice, an odd mix of grinding rock and roll and AM gold, had flopped badly, but his skills as an audio engineer led to a quick rebound for the jack-of-all-trades. By 1974, Nagle was building a recording studio in his home in Bernal Heights with money he made from looping the audio of buzzing bees into the noise of demonic possession as the sound designer for The Exorcist.

Hoping to help Nagle wire his audio board — a big undertaking back then — Mathews packed his large collection of instruments into a VW van, drove to Nagle's house, and knocked on his garage door.

"So, slowly the door opens and there's this guy not exactly looking at me sideways," Mathews says. Nagle was expecting Mathews, but he was giving off what Mathews deemed "the grumpasaurus hangover vibe." Mathews considered turning around and going home, but in two hours Nagle warmed to him. Soon, the two were "as thick as thieves."

Later that same day, Mathews met Nagle's upstairs roommate, Ernie Fosselius, the reclusive comedic genius (who, later, would become the driving force behind Hardware Wars). With Fosselius measuring a lanky six-foot-four and Nagle being short and bald, it was as if Mathews was confronted with an updated version of Laurel and Hardy — without the girth.

"Those guys start going into shtick, which was their fallback mode," Mathews recalls. "They were always hilarious."


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Bob Calhoun


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