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The L.A.-based Blue Hawaiians formed in 1994 when bassist/vocalist Mark Fontana, guitarists Mark Sproull and Bron Tieman, and drummer Tom Maxwell did a favor for a friend by playing at the opening of her new nightclub, the Lava Lounge. Both the group and the club became favorites with L.A. hipsters, as they combined retro exotica with a seedy, slightly dark edge, and director Quentin Tarantino was one of the band's earliest fans. The Hawaiians added to their kitsch-noir mystique by claiming to be Wayne Newton's backing band, moonlighting on some L.A. gigs; it took a year for their true identity to be discovered. By that time the group was a fixture at venues like the Viper Room, the Roxy, the Wild Cat, the Derby, and the Hollywood Palladium, playing shows on their own and with artists such as the Brian Setzer Orchestra and the Ventures.
By 1995, the Blue Hawaiians were also developing the studio side of their band, appearing on the Del-Fi collection Pulp Surfin'. The following year they appeared on the label's Shots in the Dark compilation, and by 1997 recorded Live at the Lava Lounge. The group recorded their first full-length studio album, Sway, in 1998, and released their major-label debut Savage Night the next year with new guitarist Gary Brandin and keyboardist Eric Godal. Along with playing live and recording, the Blue Hawaiians also appeared in the BBC documentary History of Rock & Roll and in PBS's retelling of surf icon Mickey Dora's life, In Search of da Cat.