by Audrey Coleman
On a sizzling September afternoon at the Torrance Cultural Arts Center just south of Los Angeles, I meet up with Troy Fernandez, who’s headlining the 2015 LA International Ukulele Festival. He’s easy to spot: Hefty, with close-cropped hair and a striking black-and-white aloha shirt, he’s hovering over a merch table chatting with a fan about his most recent solo album, Strumming My Ukulele, released two years ago.
Fernandez, who is most known for his work with guitarist Ernie Cruz Jr. as part of the ’90s duo Ka‘au Crater Boys, was born 53 years ago on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. He grew up in a low-income housing project in the Palolo Valley. There, Fernandez learned the rich tradition of kanikapila, intimate jam sessions, in which he and his neighbors would gather to play Hawaiian roots music.
Between 1991 and 1997, the Ka‘au Crater Boys rode a wave of success that earned them a Na Hoku Hanohano Award for Best Contemporary Album in 1995, for On Fire. Brimming with youthful energy, the duo’s songs conveyed the wonder of the islands and the ocean, and often the intensity of romantic love. Fernandez’s embellishments on the ukulele—roller-coaster scales, cascades of thirds, thrilling tremolos—showcased the instrument to a new generation.
Now living in Los Angeles with his wife and two daughters, Fernandez looks back on those heady—and later heartbreaking—days with bittersweet nostalgia.
You and Ernie Cruz Jr. broke up the Ka‘au Crater Boys in 1997—at the peak of your career. What happened?
Before we even recorded the first CD [1991’s Tropical Hawaiian Day], he told me, “Before we start anything, I want you to know that one day I want to do other things.” I was like—that’s kind of weird, you know? You form a group and put a limit to the time we’re going to play?
When he called it quits, we were on top of the world. Honolulu Magazine readers had [named] us the best group in Hawaii. We were getting ready to break into the mainstream. Our manager was booking us for the David Letterman show. Right before [Cruz] came to us and said, “Hey, remember when I told you that someday I was gonna want to do something else?” I said, “Hey, no! We worked so hard to get where we are. It’s going to be not only hard on me, but look at all the fans that fell in love with us. You’re going to make them so happy and then break their hearts?”
And that’s what happened. If I had control, if I had had magic, we never would’ve broken up. When you form a group, it’s like a marriage, you know.
You were together seven years, right?
Yeah, and five CDs. So every time we did an album, I was kind of thinking, is this the last one? I kept remembering what he told me.
When did you start playing the ukulele?
In Hawaii, they had ukulele classes in all the elementary schools. They start at fourth grade. Songs with just one chord, you know, and we thought we were jamming already. When I got to be 12, 13, we started a group called Us [with Palolo Valley friends Chino Montero and Nathan Nahinu] doing Hawaiian music. Then I started learning about Peter Moon.
He’s a legend of ukulele and slack-keyguitar. What did you pick up from him?]
He was totally different from anyone else. I never heard anybody play like that. I also liked Moe Keale and Eddie Kamae, but Peter Moon was doing these fancy rock riffs. [That got me] started doing slides, bends, mutes.
Wasn’t Roy Sakuma one of your early mentors?
He had our trio performing here and there. He got us the opening act for the first Helen Reddy concert in Hawaii. When we went to the soundcheck, the guys on the stage at first didn’t realize that’s why we were there. We were just kids. Fast-forward to the ’90s: We formed the Ka‘au Crater Boys and [Sakuma] became our manager and produced all our CDs.
What songs did you write for the Ka‘au Crater Boys?
I wrote “Tropical Hawaiian Day,” “Carly Rose,” “Surf,” “Makaha,” “North Shore,” and on and on. A lot of my songs were about surfing because that’s what I do. I play music and I go surf. I’ve probably written and recorded 50 or 60 songs. “Strumming My Ukulele” [the title track on his latest album] is my song.
Some of your songs are in Hawaiian. Did you grow up speaking Hawaiian?
No. I just learned to learn what we were singing about. But my grandmother was pure Hawaiian and spoke the Hawaiian language. She was correcting us all the time: “You doing it wrong, you gotta go like this.”
How did the reggae beat get into some of your songs?
Back in middle school, a friend started playing these Bob Marley cassette tapes every day. He was just hooked on Bob Marley. And that’s how I got exposed to it.
Can you talk about some of the playing techniques you’ve employed over the years?
The fast picking was with this fake fingernail [shows large transparent plastic fingernail glued onto his real nail.] I would make believe I was holding a pick but this was the pick right there, and I’d go jiga-jiga-jiga-jiga. Or I’d do a flamenco kind of picking. Also, I’d do pull-offs. I never did take lessons. I just figured it out.
Do you think your playing has influenced other musicians?
By the time our fourth album came out, everybody was telling me that. I would hear: “Oh, my boy, he can play all your songs.” I heard that everywhere. Magazines, radio programs, the media were giving me credit for re-exposing the ukulele. My sponsor for ukuleles, Sonny D Ukuleles, his sales went out the roof.
On your solo albums, your playing is more restrained. Are you intentionally going for fewer lightning riffs now?
In the Ka‘au Crater Boys days, it was fireworks. Everybody was trying to see who can pick the fastest. Now I’m kind of like, slow down. I still can probably do some of those things, but you gotta let the ukulele breathe, lay back a little bit. Because it can be too much. Like one of our engineers once said, “It’s too many notes. Less is better.”
You cover Hank Thompson’s country classic “The Wild Side of Life” on Strumming My Ukulele. How did you get into country music?
I got turned on mostly to country-western by Ernie Cruz Jr., because his dad was a famous country-western singer. He was in Hawaii and all over in the mainland. He used to come and perform with us sometimes.
And now you bring your own kids—daughters Tory, 16, and Tia, 14—onstage with you. Does that mean the spirit of the Ka‘au Crater Boys lives on?
At the time of the breakup, that’s when my wife gave birth to Tory. When she was not even two years old, she sang her first song. She had a sense of melody, a sense of pitch, and I was like—wow! I already knew she’s going to be a superstar. Tia also started singing around two. Now, my focus is all on my daughters.
They do more pop-oriented music. Have you encouraged them to sing Hawaiian material?
They like to do the pop songs. That’s why we moved here—for them. When they become superstars, then we’ll go back to Hawaii and we will do a Hawaiian CD.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Ukulele magazine.