Surf guitar? Check. Rockabilly guitar? Check. Mexican wrestling masks? On. Vocal mics? Off. It's not the preflight check most bands do before going on stage. But for Los Straitjackets, it's a necessary preparation for their nightly excursions flying into airspace other groups won't go near.
It all started around '89 in Nashville when surf-guitar aficionado Danny Amis – who says the Ventures are the reason he plays guitar – teamed up with rockabilly twanger Eddie Angel, who toured with Ronnie Dawson and rockabilly legend Link Wray. The duo started an instrumental band called the Straitjackets, named after Angel's tune "Straitjacket."
"Everybody liked it, but it wasn't going anywhere," Angel said recently by phone from his Nashville home. They gave it up after six months, cranking it back up in '94 just as something to have fun with.
Meanwhile, Amis developed a fascination with the Mexican wrestling culture Lucha Libre, featuring grapplers who wore full face masks. He had even brought back boxes of the masks from his visits to the Mexico City matches. "We just thought, 'Wow. These look cool,'" Angel says. "'What would happen if we wore these, thinking people are used to watching singers, so after about 30 minutes they're gonna be bored with us, so we might want to do something to keep their attention.'"
To go with the masks, the band incorporated its love for '60s Mexican rock 'n' roll. Angel says the Mexican bands had a punk energy, and American rock 'n' roll such as Little Richard's "Good Golly Miss Molly" sounded even cooler when sung in Spanish. They wanted to call the band Los something, because they thought Mexican band names such as Los Teen Tops sounded funny and cool. "It was 1994. Pulp Fiction came out, and all of a sudden surf music was really cool," Angel remembers. "So we just wore the masks, and the timing was right."
But it took a lot of roadwork to keep Los Straitjackets in the public eye. "We hit the road, man, and never looked back," Angel says. "I had a kid in 1996 and I don't remember the first five years of his childhood."
Although billed as an all-instrumental band, guest vocalists including Allison Moorer, the Rev. Horton Heat, X's Exene Cervenka and current touring vocalist Robert "Big Sandy" Williams of Big Sandy and the Fly Rite Boys have snuck in from the band's inception. Williams' high, clear tenor comes in handy on tonsil-straining tunes such as Jackie Wilson's "Lonely Teardrops" and a twitchy, upper-register rendition of the Coaster's "Poison Ivy" ("La Hiedra Venenosa") from the 'Jackets' latest, Rock en Español Vol. 1, produced by Los Lobos' Caesar Rosas. With the masks (and Amis now introducing all the tunes in Spanish on their live shows and a new collection of classic rock done entirely in Spanish), Angel worries they might have gone a bit too native. "Man, people probably feel like we're like Mexican or something," he says, laughing.
But fans and critics have no problem with the band's ethnicity. Los Straitjackets have proven over time that their sound meshes well with a variety of genres, even earning them a Grammy nomination for '03's Rock 'n' Roll City, a blues collaboration with Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater. "I can see how on paper it looks kind of weird," says Angel of the band's merger of surf and rockabilly. "To me, it's all really rooted in blues guitar music. If you have a background in blues, you can play rockabilly, rock 'n' roll – any kind of music."
The 'Jackets have more musical makeovers in mind for the future, including a kids record and a Halloween record, as well as a three-day guitar camp up in the Catskill Mountains in August. And as usual, fans can look forward to more cross-cultural musical adventures. "We just try to keep pulling rabbits out of our hat," Angel says.
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