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.”
Nagle and Fosselius met in the San Francisco music scene of the late '60s, where their rejection of endless, freeform guitar solos made them outcasts among the outcasts. Nagle's band, The Mystery Trend, and Fosselius' unfortunately-named The Final Solution both failed to wow the hippies during the Summer of Love.
“I think we had some mutual commiseration over what had become of pop music because we weren't into the acid scene or any of that stuff,” Nagle recalled recently, shortly before flying to the East Coast for a talk at Yale on his sculpture. “There weren't that many people around that you could relate so you chose people that dug the same things.”
While Fosselius was renting a room from Nagle, the pair shot a series of experimental one-minute films in Nagle's basement on Portapak, an early analog camcorder that found more favor with artists than with the general public. Nagle still speaks of Fosselius' many talents — guitar playing, prop building, filmmaking, and drawing — with awe.
“He is one of those multitalented guys,” Nagle says. “He can do anything.”
After setting up the recording studio, Mathews, Nagle, and Fosselius produced an audio parody of the Patty Hearst tapes, which were sent to KPFA when the newspaper heiress went from being held captive by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) to robbing banks with them. (While this may seem like all kinds of wrong, no less a comedic authority than Richard Pryor went there on the 1976 comedy album Richard Pryor Meets Richard & Willie and the SLA.)
“The big question was, 'How in the hell did she [Hearst] go for this stuff?'” Nagle explains. “This is before people were discussing Stockholm Syndrome, but that's basically what it's all about.”
To ponder what Nagle calls “this whole phenomenon of the conversion of Patty,” everyone crammed into the basement studio with a couple of fifths of vodka, and started riffing. The part of Hearst was played by Jane Dornacker, a onetime backup singer for The Tubes who later fronted her own theatrical rock band, Leila and the Snakes, featuring a young Pearl Harbor on backup vocals. For the moment, she was a perfect Patty.
“It's one of the top five good times, I think, for everybody,” Nagle recalls. “We were on the floor cracking up.”
“The plan was to finish this piece and to take the cassettes and duct tape them to restaurants around the city,” Nagle says. Fortunately for them, they don't follow through on a distribution plan that could have landed them in hot water with the SLA, the FBI, and several other foreboding acronyms.
But they did continue making parodies of pop culture phenomena. Following the SLA tape, Nagle and Dornacker wrote the Phil Spector-esque “Don't Touch Me There” for The Tubes, which became an international hit in 1976. A year later, Mathews and Nagle penned another song for The Tubes titled “Pound of Flesh,” an acerbic send-up of Arnold Schwarzenegger released years before the formation of ArnoCorps, a Bay Area band devoted entirely to mocking the former Governator.
“It was an extremely creative period for all of us,” Nagle says.
The same was true for Fosselius, even though he didn't follow his SLA tape co-conspirators into the music business. Instead, he produced and directed a collection of short comedy films that, taken together, are like a video version of an old Mad magazine. (You can see the films for yourself on Amazon Prime if you search for Disastrous Shorts — Short Films of Ernie Fosselius.)
He spoofed hit TV shows and even Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (rechristened Taxi Dermist). But Fosselius reached the height of utter bizarro-weirdness with 1976's The Hindenburger. It's 43 seconds of a cheeseburger bursting into flames as Fosselius exclaims in frantic voiceover, “Little pickles are screaming for their lives.” Just like with the SLA tape, Fosselius found black humor in one of the 20th century's signature tragedies.
A year later, in 1977, Fosselius was planning a parody of spaghetti westerns, but changed his mind when he saw this little movie called Star Wars.
“I knew I had to make fun of it,” he said in local filmmakers Tom Wyrch and Strephon Taylor's 2011 documentary Back to Space-Con.
Around the time that Fosselius was hatching plans for Hardware Wars, he met Michael Wiese, a local film producer with ties to the 1960s folk music scene.
“We had parties every Saturday night at our house-turned-studio,” Wiese recalls. (Fosselius was contacted for this story, but was unavailable for comment.) “Since I was studying Balinese shadow puppetry at the Center for World Music, we'd put up a screen and do these impromptu performances. Somehow Ernie showed up and we did a parody of Jaws off the cuff. Ernie was so brilliant and funny, and that's really the first time I remember meeting him or seeing him.”
A few days after the party, Fosselius pitched Wiese his idea for a parody of “big special effects films” in a Chinese restaurant, “using chopsticks and soy sauce bottles as spaceships.”
“It's really the luck of the draw that we picked Star Wars to do,” Wiese reflects. “If we picked anything else, it'd still be anonymous.”
For Hardware Wars, Fosselius replaced the then-state-of-the-art special effects of Star Wars with hand-crank eggbeaters and waffle irons in an extended trailer for a feature film that will never exist. After securing a $5,000 budget from Laurel Polanick, a friend who also pulled duty as the film's costume designer, Fosselius recruited Scott Mathews to play Fluke Starbucker, and even cast Mathews' “cool '50s vacuum cleaner” as the droid Arty-Decko. Ham Salad was played by Bob Knickerbocker, Jane Dornacker's ex-husband and the former bassist of The Final Solution. To play Augie “Ben” Doggie, the crew secured Jeff Hale, who even then was a stupendously successful animator — you've seen his work in many of Sesame Street's iconic sequences, including the mesmerizing counting pinballs — who directed the infamous Lenny Bruce's short film Thank You Mask Man. Local actress Cindy Freeling played Princess Anne-Droid, with two big cinnamon rolls stuck to the sides of her head, and Fosselius himself donned a welder's mask to play the nonsense-spouting Darph Nader.
The entire shoot took three days for interiors and two days for exteriors. It was predictably low-budget.
“We had constant mechanical failures left and right,” Mathews says, recounting the Hardware Wars shoot. “The fog machine put out so much it could have filled New York. It took forever to clear the air, and we were all slamming into each other and the equipment.”
“Ernie was constantly on task as 'Mr. Fix-it,'” Mathews continues. “Repairing anything and everything that broke down resulting in him being extremely rushed because of these crazy side shows, yet ultimately always getting the shot he wanted.”
“The things that went wrong worked even better,” Wiese says. “When part of the set would fall down, it was great.”
The inevitable spoof of the cantina scene was filmed at the Palms Café, a now-defunct, gay-friendly music club that was once adorned with murals painted by Michael Cotten of The Tubes. Unfortunately for Fosselius and Wiese, none of their cast made the early Sunday morning call time. Things looked to get even worse as a pair of cops walked into the venue to see what was going on.
“I swear to God, we gave them donuts and they said, 'We'll get you some people,'” Wiese says, still laughing over this after so many years.
“They went out and started finding people on the street and they sent them to us,” Wiese continues. “We put blond wigs on them to make them look like Farrah Fawcett.”
The country tune in the bar scene was recorded in the basement studio in Bernal Heights where Fosselius, Mathews, and Nagle first met. Fosselius himself provided the lead vocal, crooning, “I'm proud to be ol' Obi-Wan Kenobi” as the camera pans by the bleary-eyed bystanders that the cops had yanked in off the street.
“They were all the people who were still partying from the night before,” Cindy Freeling quips.
“That's part of its [Hardware Wars'] charm,” Wiese says. “It's cheesy, it's sloppy, yet it's got such attitude.”
With the bulk of the cast's compensation pumped out of a keg, Mathews made sure to earn “a princely sum by drinking as much beer as possible.” In some scenes, he looks like he's holding back barf. His wig also slips off half the time. This, his first acting foray, is so good (by his own estimation) that, afterwards, he gladly retires from film.
“I'm going out on top, baby!” Mathews exclaims.
In those days before YouTube and Funny or Die provided a ready-made means of distribution for kooky short films, Fosselius and Wiese took their film to anyone and everyone they could think of who might get it out to its target audience. Fosselius even screened it at Star Trek conventions, despite his friends' warnings that sci-fi fans would wring his neck.
“The Star Trek people, the Star Wars people, they loved it,” Fosselius says in Back to Space-Con. “They got all the jokes. It was their world. They had a sense of humor about it.”
“It was so funny and so unusual at that time that everybody who saw it supported it,” Wiese explains. “Every distributor I took it to wanted to distribute it.”
Even the Star Wars makers enjoyed it.
“We got it into Industrial Light and Magic and those guys were all cracking up about it, and they told their friends,” Wiese continues. “We sent Lucas a print and he saw it, and was supportive of it, and got me a meeting at 20th Century Fox with the president. We were hoping that they'd show it as a theatrical short with their movies, which they didn't. They didn't think it was so funny.”
While Fox was one of the few studios that passed on Hardware Wars, Wiese found a more receptive audience with Pyramid Films, a short film distributor that had previous success with Bambi Meets Godzilla (1969), a two-minute cartoon where (spoiler alert) the giant Japanese lizard stomps on Disney's beloved fawn. With Pyramid pushing the movie to film festivals, school districts, and even the U.S. military, as well as placing it as in-between filler on HBO — a surprisingly strong outlet for short films back then — Hardware Wars eventually grossed $800,000, making it one of the most successful short films of all time.
“The word of mouth was probably more powerful than something going viral today,” Wiese reflects.
The theatrical market for Hardware Wars petered out in 1983, with the release of Return of the Jedi, the last film in the original Star Wars trilogy.
Despite its cult following, Hardware Wars enjoyed only about a decade of being the Star Wars spoof of note. In 1987, director Mel Brooks released Spaceballs, whose marquee-name cast and big-budget special effects — remember MegaMaid sucking up the planet Druidia's atmosphere? — overshadowed Fosselius' ramshackle production.
Except, in a way, it didn't.
Brooks hired Fosselius to do sound effects on Spaceballs, a perhaps not-so-sly homage to Hardware Wars, as well as an attempt to channel some of that film's slapdash charisma. It worked, but a Hollywood studio movie, no matter how endearing, could never quite replicate the charm of props fashioned from kitchen appliances. That charm was in some ways inextricable from the era: the period before Star Wars became a corporate cash cow, when a parody made on a shoestring budget could be shared by aficionados and embraced as a measure of fandom.
The 1997 release of Lucas' CGI-altered special edition of the original trilogy rekindled interest in Hardware Wars. Wiese seized the moment by releasing his own special edition of Hardware Wars on DVD, with more Home Depot bric-a-brac digitized into each frame. Although the new version lacks Fosseilus' approval, it still drew a packed screening at the San Diego Comic-Con.
Cindy Freeling, who was at the San Diego screening in 1997, says, “It was like the fans knew every second of Hardware Wars.” Later on, at that same convention, a booth with a TV showing Hardware Wars was asked to stop running the film — for safety reasons.
“It was creating too much of a crowd in the aisles,” Freeling explains.
In 2003, Lucasfilm itself honored Fosselius with a special “Pioneer Award” for spawning the whole phenomenon of homemade Star Wars fan films, hundreds of which can be found with a YouTube search. Many of them are parodies.
A year after Hardware Wars, Fosselius directed a pair of videos for The Dūrocs, Mathews and Nagle's ill-fated power pop band named for “a breed of large, vigorous hogs, noted for superior intelligence and exceptionally large genitals,” as defined on the band's album cover. Although Nagle recalls that everyone at Capitol Records (The Drocs's label) was “flipping for” the Drocs videos, Fosselius' efforts at early music videos become the victim of bad timing. They were completed only a month before MTV went live.
“By the time MTV was up and running, our band was over with and so nobody really got a chance to see those at the time,” Nagle explains.
With his brief foray into directing music videos behind him, Fosselius directed Pork Lips Now (1980), a short spoof of Apocalypse Now (1979) that did with deli meats to Francis Ford Coppola what Fosselius had done with power tools to George Lucas. After Pork Lips Now, his last short parody, Fosselius worked as sound effects editor on a group of shockingly appropriate major studio films: the aforementioned Spaceballs (1987), John Waters' Serial Mom (1994), and Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994).
His most ironic major film work, however, came with the Force. He arranged “Lapti Nek,” the disco tune that Jabba the Hutt and his crew rock out to in Return of the Jedi (later edited out and replaced with a rock tune, with CGI supporting band, in Lucas's “special editions” of the original trilogy).
For Fosselius, music and all things Star Wars are forever intertwined.
As for Mathews, music also has a way of leading him back to Hardware Wars and Fluke. In the late 1990s, he produced an Oakland band by way of Minnesota called Fluke Starbucker (now known as The Heavenly States) that he met at the North by Northwest music festival in Portland.
“I honestly didn't care how good they were because I'd already decided I had to produce them,” Mathews says. “Of course, they turned out to be a fantastic group, and it was fun for me — while surreal for them — as they were [Hardware Wars] worshippers. Most of what they said in the studio was dialogue from the flick.”
A few years ago, Mathews discovered the depth of his fan base when he did his first-and-only autograph session at a comic book convention in Hershey, Penn. “out of sheer curiosity.”
“I didn't even have photos there to sign,” Mathews recalls. “I just had Xeroxes of Fluke, you know, keeping it Hardware Wars style, but I was flabbergasted. The line was so crazy long and the fans were even more crazy into it all.”
“I've signed more autographs for being Fluke than I have for anything I've done in music,” Mathews reflects, sitting in the studio where he has produced platinum tracks by the likes of Elvis Costello and Bonnie Raitt.
“Fluke is the one who put himself out there. He was the guy and Scott Mathews is back in the studio, working the board.”
As it says at the close of Hardware Wars, “May the Farce be with you.” And the Farce is still strong with Mathews.
Editor's Note: The full name of Ernie Fosselius' band was The Final Solution…Is Love.