Instrumental surf rock
With a sound that combines the classic strumming of 1960s surf music—reminiscent of Dick Dale's guitar work—with the element of punk, Los Straitjackets have carved a successful niche for themselves in the world of alternative rock. Comprised of Eddie Angel and Danny Amis on guitars, Pete Curry on bass, and Jimmy Lester on drums, the instrumental band has performed original as well as classic tunes, while always focusing on pop culture and fun. Their trademark Mexican wrestling masks, matching clothes, and custom-made matching guitars have made them one of the more visually exciting bands to see in live performance.
Much of what has made Los Straitjackets successful has come from coincidence and a process of working together that makes the group more successful as a team than as individuals. Angel explained to John Wirt of the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Advocate, "Every time we get together we come up with new songs. The whole thing has been like that, just totally organic. You can't plan that. It happens in its own way." Part of this process is the band's ability to think differently about performances, from the choreography of their live shows, to scheduling boat cruises with other bands, to inviting a group of fans to join them on tour.
A chance meeting at a bar sowed the seeds of Los Straitjackets. Amis, who had been playing bass for The Raybeats, went to Nashville, Tennessee, to see Webb Wilder perform. Angel, who had performed as part of several rockabilly bands, was opening for Webb Wilder. Amis and Angel met and talked, and both discovered they were drawn to the drumming skills of Lester, who was part of Webb Wilder. In 1988 the three musicians formed The Straitjackets and performed around Nashville for a short time, disbanding soon afterwards.
The three reunited in the early 1990s. Amis, who had been playing bass in the original lineup, took up guitar alongside Angel. Scott Esbeck came on board as bassist and The Straitjackets were ready to try again. They were a solely instrumental band, and Angel wanted to add some kind of visual interest to the group for crowds to watch. Amis had Mexican wrestling masks, and despite the group's initial concern about people's reactions, the addition took hold. Los Straitjackets have worn them while performing together ever since their first show, at Lucy's Record Shop in Nashville. For their 2004 appearance at the Grammy Awards, they did exchange their standard jeans and t-shirts for tuxedos, but maintained their anonymity with the headgear—after getting the go-ahead from security.
Los Straitjackets get their primary inspiration from 1960s-era pop culture. But as Angel explained to Curtis Ross of the Tampa Tribune, Los Straitjackets find their musical passions excited by a wide range of artists and genres: "Our tastes are all over the place, from The Sonics to Link Wray, Henry Mancini to 'West Side Story.'" While their roots are firmly in the past, they have not shied away from the present. The group produced an instrumental cover of "My Heart Will Go On," the theme song from the movie Titanic, that rivaled the pop passion of its original singer, Celine Dion.
In 1994, after performing together for a while as Los Straitjackets, the band signed with Upstart Records. The following year they released their first album, The Utterly Fantastic and Totally Unbelievable Sound of Los Straitjackets. They supported the album with a summer tour that increased their exposure. That year they were nominated for Best Unsigned Band—despite actually having a contract—at the Nashville Music Awards ceremonies. Lester was also nominated for Best Drummer. Despite losing out in both categories, Los Straitjackets had gained momentum and went on to play at the South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas, one of the music industry's most renowned gatherings.
By 1996 Los Straitjackets was committed to a heavy touring schedule while also recording their second release, Viva Los Straitjackets. They made a second appearance on the talk show Late Night with Conan O'Brien and appeared on an episode of Pacific Blue. Other TV appearances included a performance in The X Games on ESPN and on MTV's Oddville. Los Strait-jackets also found that their instrumentals were in demand as background music for television shows and movies. Their work was heard in the films Harriet the Spy and Meet the Parents, and on TV shows like Malcolm in the Middle and Melrose Place. The band was also seen in the film Psycho Beach Party. Opportunities like these kept the band together and working.
For the Record …
Members include Danny Amis , guitar; Eddie Angel , guitar; Pete Curry (replaced Scott Esbeck, 1998), bass; Scott Esbeck , bass; Jimmy Lester , drums.
Amis, Lester, and Angel formed The Straitjackets, toured for a summer and disbanded, 1988; reunited, added Scott Esbeck on bass, changed name to Los Straitjackets, 1993; signed with Upstart Records, 1994; released first album, The Utterly Fantastic and Totally Unbelievable Sound of Los Straitjackets, 1995; made first appearance on Late Night with Conan O'Brien and appeared at South by Southwest music conference in Austin, TX, 1995; toured Europe, 1997; Esbeck replaced by Pete Curry, 1998; made Las Vegas debut, opened tour dates for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, toured with Reverend Horton Heat, all 1999; made Mexican debut at Cinco de Mayo celebration in Mexico City and film debut in Psycho Beach Party, 2000; toured Spain with selected group of fans, launched first Los Straitjackets Rock and Roll Party tour, 2001; hosted cruise ship tour called "Surfin' to Baja" with The Ventures, 2003.
Addresses: Record company—Yep Roc Records, P.O. Box 4821, Chapel Hill, NC 27515-4821. Website—Los Straitjackets Official Website: http://www.straitjackets.com/index.html.
Los Straitjackets made their first venture overseas in 1997 with a tour of Spain. The tour inspired the band to return to Europe the following year with dates scheduled in Spain, the Netherlands, and Russia. Their two-week tour of Russia was a great success. Their Mexican debut came in 2000 when they played Cinco de Mayo celebrations in both Mexico City and Guadalajara, where Mexican audiences enthusiastically embraced the band. In 2001 Los Straitjackets toured Spain for a third time, but with a few extra guests. The band booked a tour bus package for a group of fans that traveled with them.
In 1998 Scott Esbeck left the band and was replaced by Curry. By the next year, Los Straitjackets had made its Las Vegas debut, toured with country punk rocker Reverend Horton Heat, and opened some shows for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Their third album, The Velvet Touch of Los Straitjackets, was released that year as well. All these exciting developments weren't enough for the group, and they decided to incorporate some dance moves into their stage shows. Scottish choreographer Kaiser George was hired to help them achieve their goal.
Responding to questions from Wirt about not having a vocalist, Angel countered that the majority of existing music is instrumental. He said, "No one asked John Coltrane or Mozart if they needed a singer." Despite their perseverance as an instrumental band, Los Strait-jackets eventually recorded an album with vocals. Sing Along with Los Straitjackets was released in 2001 and is a collection of classic tunes sung by 12 different guest vocalists, including Reverend Horton Heat, Exene Cervenka (formerly of the band X), and country swing star Big Sandy.
Los Straitjackets has a dedicated fan base, but has managed to stay outside the radar of mainstream popular music. Their videos "Outta Gear" (1997) and "Tempest" (2000) saw some rotation on MTV. In 2003 Los Straitjackets collaborated with Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater on his album Rock 'n' Roll City. The band was able to display a range of musical talents as they provided instrumental backup and vocals on a variety of tunes. These covered the spectrum of American musical styles, including hillbilly rock and swamp pop. In 2004 Los Straitjackets and Clearwater were nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues Album.
Los Straitjackets have continually found new ways to expand their horizons. Whether through collaborating with legendary artists such as Clearwater, Link Wray, or The Ventures, or scheduling holiday cruises for their fans, Los Straitjackets can be counted on to explore all the angles. At the same time, their sound is a constant reminder of their rock and roll roots and deep connection to pop culture. As Angel explained to Wirt, "We're just fans of pop culture, whether it's rock 'n' roll, monster movies, Mexican wrestling. It's just fun, pop culture stuff." Their musical skill, their innovations, and their pure joy in creating music are likely to carry Los Strait-jackets into pop culture history.
The Utterly Fantastic and Totally Unbelievable Sound of Los Straitjackets, Upstart, 1995.
Viva Los Straitjackets, Upstart, 1996.
The Velvet Touch of Los Straitjackets, Cavalcade, 1999.
Damas Y Caballeros … Los Straitjackets!, Yep Roc, 2001.
Sing Along with Los Straitjackets, Yep Roc, 2001.
Tis the Season for Los Straitjackets, Yep Roc, 2002.
Supersonic Guitars in 3-D, Yep Roc, 2003.
Advocate (Baton Rouge, LA), October 31, 2003.
Palm Beach Post, February 20, 2004, p. 5C.
Tampa Tribune, February 20, 2004, p. 18.
—Eve M. B. Hermann
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