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Legends Series: Inside the Mind of David “Fishman” Rivera
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Legends: Inside the Mind of David “Fishman” Rivera

While others step away from the industry and close their doors to enthusiasts, there has always been one constant in California, pumping out ‘Fish Editions’ of any car you can imagine, year after year. David Rivera refused to leave the industry when things got tough, he worked through recessions and came out on the other side, still building the same insane quality, bar-setting builds he always has. After 24 years in the business, countless accolades and magazine features, the Fishman himself sat down and spoke with pasmag about what it’s like inside the mind of the mad man himself.

PASMAG: How did you get into the car audio game?Legends: Inside the Mind of David “Fishman” Rivera

FISHMAN: Back 1990, I made a delivery to a very high-end shop at the time. They had this gorgeous black Corvette that was on the cover of Car Stereo Review. Right there in that moment, I decided that that was what I wanted to do. I just knew it. I started reading magazines because there were so many car audio magazines. There was Car Audio, Car Stereo Review, Auto Sound & Security and stuff like that. I built my first car just from reading magazines. 

I sent my ex-wife up to Florida for a week while I did the system in my car because if I told her I was going to do it, she wouldn’t have let me! So, for four Saturdays I went to this shop because, supposedly, this guy was going to teach me stuff, but they just put me in the back cleaning bathrooms and stuff. It is not what I signed up for, I was able to see enough in the four weeks that I went there and I said to myself, ‘Okay, I’m going to do my first install.’

I bought all the equipment without my wife knowing. Now, keep in mind that the first system that I did was pretty big; it wasn’t just two speakers. It was three amplifiers, three subs, a pair of MB Quarts up front, a pair of Boston Acoustics plates in the back. It was a pretty big system for a first system. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, I just got all this equipment. I took out the phonebook and called every shop in the Boston area with a single question. Obviously, you’re not going to call a shop and ask whoever’s going to answer the phone two different questions.

I grew up in Puerto Rico really poor, so I used to build my own toys and work with my hands, so I was already pretty good at working with my hands. So, believe it or not, after calling different shops with my different questions, I built the system. After five or six days, I put the power on and it worked!

Legends: Inside the Mind of David “Fishman” Rivera

PASMAG: The first time?

FISHMAN: First time! It worked. I couldn’t believe it. KISS 108 FM was the main station in Boston and The Heart of Rock & Roll by Huey Lewis and the News was the first song I heard in my car. Unbelievable! Twenty-four years later, I still remember it like it was yesterday. After that, I started competing.

Legends Fisherman Micky Slinger PASMAG 029

I went to this one shop because I needed a crossover. I didn’t even know what a crossover was, so my subwoofers were playing the full range. So, I go to this one shop and they tell me I needed a crossover and I go, ‘What for?’ They explained it to me, so I bought it and the guy told me how to install it. Little did the guy know I had called him with my first question a couple weeks prior. When he saw my system — it was very clean — he asked me, ‘What shop did this for you?’ I go, ‘I did it myself.’ He goes, ‘Really? Who do you work for?’ Then I started going there on Saturdays for four to eight hours a day to do work for him.

Legends: Inside the Mind of David “Fishman” Rivera

PASMAG: When did the infamous fish tank come into play?

FISHMAN: I went to my first show and people kind of liked my system. It was very simple and they liked the detail, but I said, ‘I’ve got to do something to get people’s attention.’ I wanted to be showman from the beginning; I didn’t care so much about the competition side of it, I just wanted people to like my work. So I said, ‘Imagine putting a fish tank with live fish in a car.’ How can I do a fish tank in this car? And keep the fish alive? And keep the water from splashing out of the car? 

Of course, my ex-wife told me it had to be the dumbest idea she’d ever heard. If I put a fish tank in a car, she would be so embarrassed and she wouldn’t go with me to the shows. So I said, ‘Great! So that means I’m going to have to do a fish tank!’ So, I did the fish tank and history began.


 

Legends: Inside the Mind of David “Fishman” Rivera

I went to my first show with the fish tank [in my Corolla SR5] in the middle of summer in New Jersey. I was late to the show and they wouldn’t let me register. I had all my tools with me, so I found the owner of the place and I said, ‘Look, man, you’ve got to give me a chance.’ And he just said, ‘I’m sorry.’ 

I’d only gone to one show before, so nobody knew who I was. I had no connections in the industry. I was there by myself and I said, ‘Look, man. I’ve got something here that’s pretty special and if you just give me five minutes of your time, I guarantee you won’t regret it.’ 

Legends: Inside the Mind of David “Fishman” Rivera

The guy finally said, ‘Okay, I’ll give you five minutes.’ So I showed him the car, I had a towel over the fish tank and I showed it to him and said, ‘Look, I have a fish tank in this car.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Are you serious? Are those fish alive?’ And I go, ‘Yeah!’ It had the pump and everything. He said, ‘Okay, I’ll let you into the show, just finish your car and let me know when you’re ready.’ So, I was in the back, far away from everybody. It probably took me three hours to finish what I was doing and I finally called the guy over. 

Legends: Inside the Mind of David “Fishman” Rivera

It was unbelievable. This guy brought me to the very front and I didn’t have to pay to register. All the judges had stopped judging because they needed to see this car. It was my second show and I went from being a truck driver to having a fish tank in the car. One of the reps from Phoenix Gold — this is back when they had their first amplifiers — came up to me and said, ‘Hey, man. I’m going to get you in touch with Phoenix Gold, they have to see this car.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, right.’ Next thing you know, I get a phone call from the President of Phoenix Gold and they want to see some more pictures of my car.

Legends: Inside the Mind of David “Fishman” Rivera

PASMAG: So, when did you start competing?

FISHMAN: I started competing at shows that summer; winning some and losing some. Whenever I lost, I didn’t car about losing, I just asked the judges what I did wrong. I just wanted to get better. The same judges would see my car the next week and I would fix whatever they told me. I just kept learning as I was going. 

I was going from show to show every week and the next thing I know, my car started becoming the talk of the East Coast. I went all the way to Canada because back then Canada had some great installers. I was competing throughout the Northeast, and I got invited to the IASCA finals in ’91 where my car took first place. I got invited to CES and got featured in Car Audio magazine. Here I am, 24 years later.

 

Legends: Inside the Mind of David “Fishman” Rivera

PASMAG: That feature was your first of many...

FISHMAN: Yeah. That was the magazine I wanted to be featured in, because I had called the editor months earlier and explained to him that I had this car and my dream was to be in his magazine. Of course, you’ve got a Puerto Rican with a fish tank in a car; no one is going to give you the time of day. 

Legends Fisherman Micky Slinger PASMAG 012

When I went to the finals and the car was the talk of the show, [the editor] was there and I recognized him. So, I went up to him and said, ‘Hey, you like this car?’ And he goes, ‘Oh yeah. Very interesting.’ I said, ‘Well, you might not remember me, but do you remember someone on the phone tell you he had a fish tank in his car?’ He says, ‘Oh, I don’t recall.’ And I said, ‘I do, that was me.’ 

I had all of these magazines wanting to do a feature on the car, so I had all these editors fighting each other to see who was going to do the feature. Of course, my dream was for my car to be in Car Audio magazine, but he didn’t know that. So I just started playing the game and I got my car featured.


 

Legends: Inside the Mind of David “Fishman” Rivera

PASMAG: Going back to the fish tank, did that work first time, or did you have a lot of problems?

FISHMAN: Right off the bat, I grabbed Plexiglas. I had never crafted with Plexiglas before. There was no YouTube back then to teach you how to do anything, so I just cut out a fish tank and glued it together with silicone, put it in the car and added the fish in. I made a ledge so the water would splash into one compartment then back into the fish tank. After my first show, I took the fish tank out and the whole thing just came apart. I had fish flapping all around the back of my car because the tank was just held together with silicone and I had never worked with Plexiglas before. Finally, I started looking for a shop to build me a nice tank. I called like five different shops and they wouldn’t give me the time of day. It’s funny, this one shop, I called the guy and before I could even finish what I needed, he said, ‘Come by and see me.’ This guy was intrigued; he wanted to see what this was that I was doing. When I explained to him what I needed, he goes, ‘Okay, no problem.’ You know what? He didn’t even charge me for labor on the fish tank, just the materials. He knew that I was going to do something with my life. He was an older guy who had been working with Plexiglas forever.

Legends: Inside the Mind of David “Fishman” Rivera

I competed the whole summer and won most of the shows. Before the IASCA finals, with about two months to go, I destroyed my whole car; I wanted a bigger fish tank because it was the talk of the show. So, I went back to him and gave him the dimensions of the fish tank that I wanted. This fish tank had to have ports inside of it so bass would travel from the trunk to the interior of the car. He goes, ‘Great. No problem.’ 

I built my whole car against the wishes of my ex-wife and my boss, who were so mad that I destroyed my car because I was winning almost every show. I said, ‘Guys, I’ve been winning only on the East Coast. I’m going to the finals. I’m going against the whole West Coast, the middle of the country, I’m going against Canada, and these people don’t know who the hell I am.’ The new fish tank was twice the size of the original. He didn’t charge me for that one either. He knew he wasn’t going to see me again. He goes, ‘You’re going to do something very special.’ 

So I went to the IASCA finals and my car wasn’t finished. Everyone was pissed at me because I was sponsored by Phoenix Gold and I was supposed to be in the Phoenix Gold booth. 

Legends: Inside the Mind of David “Fishman” Rivera

I didn’t show my car on Friday, I didn’t show my car on Saturday and everyone was mad at me. I go, ‘I’m not going to show my car to anyone until it’s done.’ I just gave it all I had. I literally finished my car 10 minutes before I got judged on Sunday morning. When the show opened, the car was in the Phoenix Gold booth, all detailed, all opened up. Now everybody had seen everybody’s cars, but now the Phoenix Gold booth was packed full because the talk of the show was this car with a fish tank. 

When I got my score sheet, I didn’t let anyone know what my score was. I took first place by 11 points. It was a great feeling. I moved out to California from Boston soon after that and I’ve been all around.

Legends: Inside the Mind of David “Fishman” Rivera

PASMAG: Have you ever come across fish tank copycats? Are you cool with that?

FISHMAN: I’ve actually had a lot of people copy my stuff, but the fish tank is one that almost no one will copy. It was such a unique idea and everybody knew it was my idea. There’s a guy in Puerto Rico and he figures because he’s Puerto Rican he’s allowed to do it. It’s funny. As far as my work goes? Oh my God, all the time. People will copy, but that’s what keeps me going. Every time they thought they caught up to me, I’d come out with something new and I would give them something to catch up to from the last project. Then I’ll turn around and bring something new next time. It’s been like that for 24 years. I’ve never done two of the same cars ever. Once I’m done with one idea, I throw away the template and that idea will never be duplicated again.

Legends: Inside the Mind of David “Fishman” Rivera

PASMAG: Of all the installs you’ve done, which would you say is your favorite?

FISHMAN: That’s so tough. I could probably give you a top five because each one of them is different. I drive my Expedition every day, so I can say that’s probably my favorite because it’s built for me and it’s got all the cool toys, motorized compartments for my watches, a motorized bar — it’s got all these cool features. Then again, you go to this Cutlass I’m working on right now and it’s just pure insanity. 

There’s the Beetle I built and this thing was pretty insane, there’s a golf cart that I built, too, it’s pretty badass. Oh, the Ram. There was this Ram I built back in 1994 and Car Audio would not do a vehicle on the cover. I was determined to have my first vehicle on the cover of that magazine because they only did product. I fought with them for over a year until they finally gave me this cover. This Ram had 22 motorizations back in 1995, before any of these guys on TV. To this day, people still talk about this Ram.

Legends: Inside the Mind of David “Fishman” Rivera

PASMAG: No limits. Which car do you wish you could do an install in?

FISHMAN: To be honest with you, if I had no limit and a Continental convertible right now with suicide doors, that would be the car for me. Given a year, a $250,000 budget and carte blanche I would build something unlike anything anyone has ever seen before.


 

Legends: Inside the Mind of David “Fishman” Rivera

PASMAG: Who or what were your biggest inspirations?

FISHMAN: Mark Fukuda was ahead of his time. When I got to the IASCA finals, he had the stuff that caught my attention. He had this yellow Blazer with all this crazy motorization, all Rockford Fosgate, big old Rockford 1,000-watt amplifiers, big box with 18-inch woofers. This was the guy that I saw and said, ‘Wow! I want to be like this guy.’ He was the one guy I looked up to. His workmanship was so ahead of his time. We actually ended up becoming good friends.

Legends Fisherman Micky Slinger PASMAG 003

PASMAG: You’ve built cars for celebrities and many other noteworthy people. Is there someone that you haven’t built a car for that you’d want to?

FISHMAN: Simple: Michael Jordan. He was my biggest inspiration through all this. It’s something I’ve been working towards for 24 years. Back in 1984, his first front cover of Sports Illustrated says, ‘A Star Is Born’ and there’s Michael Jordan flying in the air. I didn’t know who he was and I’d never seen him play before. Something touched me with this guy as I was trying to learn about who he was. 

Legends Fisherman Micky Slinger PASMAG 022

He’s the guy who keeps me going. As hard as it’s been for me to stay in this industry and survive it, the one thing that keeps me going is knowing that someday I’ve got to build him something. I cannot quit until he knows how he inspired me to be the best. 

Legends Fisherman Micky Slinger PASMAG 011

PASMAG: What would you build for Michael Jordan?

FISHMAN: A golf cart. The ultimate, baddest golf cart on Earth. It would be beyond whatever he thought possible. First, I’d have to find out what he likes. What kind of cigars he smokes? What he does at the golf course? I don’t want to just build it without knowing what his preferences are. I want to give him something beyond anything he could ever even imagine. That’s why I built that one golf cart I did. I wanted to have something for when the day comes. I can show people what I’ve already done and the next one will be 1,000 times better.

Legends Fisherman Micky Slinger PASMAG 027

PASMAG: Do you have any advice for our readers who are just starting to get into car audio, or are looking to get involved in the industry? 

FISHMAN: Go to college! Go to college, man! But just be passionate about [whatever you do]. Simple and clean is better than big and gawdy and nasty. Less is more. Be passionate about it and be patient. Look at me, 24 years and I’m still learning. Every car that I do, I try to teach myself something new. I screw up, but most of my best ideas come out of screwing up. Never give up on an idea.

Legends Fisherman Micky Slinger PASMAG 023

PASMAG: What’s next for Fishman?

FISHMAN: Well, I’m working on a couple of TV shows. Talking to a couple producers right now. Most likely there’s a TV show that’s in development that I’ll start with, and I’ve got a couple producers who want to develop a show with me for the Spanish market. I don’t know exactly what the future holds, but something out there is waiting, that’s for sure. #pasmag

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