New wave

Despite the oddly lulling, hedonistic vibe that instrumental surf rock has historically ridden, today’s ambitious version of the cultish genre seems to attracts few slackers. Just consider Man or Astro-man?, those furiously talented extraterrestrials who survived a spaceship crash in Alabama to become the decade’s showiest indie-rock band. (Of late, of course, they’ve veered significantly off the surf path, becoming cozily submerged in electronica).

And then there’s Los Straitjackets (boasting home bases in both Nashville and Southern California), whose members confine their notes more closely to those of the surf legends, recalling the best of The Ventures, Link Wray, et al. in their pounding instrumental excursions. Truly frightening-looking Mexican wrestling masks are their stab at standing out: “They look cool,” is the band’s official explanation of the demonic camouflage, though they’ve also dared to protest, “[The] only problem is that after the show, with the masks off, no one knows we’re in the band, so we miss out on all the compliments and other bonuses that come with being in a rock ‘n’ roll band.”

But these guys know they can’t complain too loudly, because industry bigwigs have long had their eyes (and ears) wide open where Los Straitjackets is concerned: They’ve appeared on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, the USA channel’s Pacific Blue and MTV’s Oddville and 120 Minutes; their songs have been played on Good Morning America, at the Atlanta Olympics and in films like Harriet the Spy, Two Days in the Valley and The Naughty Ones; and their list of admirers includes hip filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, comedian Jeff Foxworthy, grunge fossils Pearl Jam and (no stretch here, right?) the Beach Boys.

Knowing that Los Straitjackets has only been around since 1994, it’s tempting to dismiss the group as little more than a currently bubbling trend. But band spokesperson Eddie Angel has been surfing this sound for almost 20 years. And whether he’s playing with a band or riding his own wave, the guitarist has a few points he’d like to emphasize about his longtime love.

“I like to refer to [what we do] as instrumental music, not surf music, because a lot of people think of surf music as just Dick Dale, and it’s a lot more than that,” he proclaimed in a recent phone interview. “I’ve always played this kind of music: I had my … debut album in 1981, an all-instrumental album called Rampage, and it took off from there. People’s response was always good. [With Los Straitjackets] a lot of fans will tell us that even their 5-year-old likes us. I’ve played in other bands, like rockabilly bands, where all you get is a really hard-core audience that just like that kind of thing. But this appeals to everyone. … It’s just fun, high-energy music.”

Fun’s fine, in its place, but the earnest Angel is also inclined to penetrate the genre’s glassy surface.

“I’ve thought about it a lot, and [come to the realization that] it’s only been with pop music that lyrics are considered so important to the song,” he muses. “Most other music is instrumental. When you listen to classical music or jazz, you don’t [wonder] why it has no lyrics.

“What attracts me about this kind of music,” he continues, “is that it has integrity, but it’s still a lot of fun. With instrumental music, you can convey any feeling you want. Link Wray had a song, “Rumble,” and he was able to [produce] a very menacing feeling in it without using one lyric. An instrumental record is a way to keep the spirit of rock alive.”

Seasoned musicians Danny Amis (guitar), Scott Esbeck (bass) and L.J. Lester (drums) assist Angel in his vision: “Our drummer brings in a nice modern style, but we definitely always have one foot in [traditional] instrumental rock,” he points out.

Their soon-to-be-released album, The Velvet Touch of Los Straitjackets (Yep Roc/Cavalcade, 1999), features hard-edged originals and one surprising (but somehow strangely fitting) cover: a weepy, witty instrumental send-up of the ubiquitous Titanic theme, “My Heart Will Go On.”

Back in surf rock’s heyday, instrumental rock bands routinely offered their version of the hottest current hit, reveals Angel. And who is he to eschew tradition? “It was kind of tongue-in-cheek, but at the same time, it’s good music that doesn’t make a joke of the original,” he notes with quiet devotion.

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