Conceived back in 1994 in Nashville, Los Straitjackets have been the uncrowned Surf kings for more than a decade. If your knees shimmy and shake for Duane Eddy-inspired guitar riffs, retro showmanship and "Lucha Libre"-style hijinks, these guys embody all that and more.
They're currently touring in support of their new release, Rock en Espanol, Vol. 1, which features Big Sandy, Little Willie G. and Cesar Rosas of Los Lobos as guest vocalists. It's a dynamic change of pace for the band, since most of their records spill over with self-penned Surf instrumentals.
This one ricochets between assorted classic Garage Rock (only translated in Spanish) such as "De Dia y de Noche" (The Kinks' "All Day and All of the Night") and "La Hiedra Venenosa" (The Coasters' "Poison Ivy").
In my interview with bass player Pete Curry from his tour stop in Memphis, he explains how the band started wearing wrestling masks onstage while performing.
"Well, Danny Amis, our guitar player, likes to travel, and he found himself in Mexico City outside of a big wrestling stadium years ago and they were selling these masks on sidewalk tables, so he bought one as a souvenir," Curry says. "We were doing instrumentals then and decided we needed some kind of shtick. It just looks good, you know?"
I do know. Imagine four guys strutting onstage like masked marvels, wearing swinging Straitjacket medallions and scissor-kicking in unison as they peal off one Stratocaster razor lick after another. Somehow it becomes more than just a gimmick when everything clicks. At the very least, they will make you smile.
"A lot of today's acts just stand there and look bored," Curry says. "We're trying to be entertainers as well as musicians up there. It's good to see people having fun onstage instead of just standing there."
He's not kidding. You can't help but laugh with them when you see this quartet rockin' choreographed step routines. It's not every day you see a band with such flamboyantly cool showmanship. Anticipating their upcoming Southgate show, Curry's says, "We've got some new moves for you."
In describing their music, Curry admits, "It's kind of a hybrid, I think, between Rockabilly and Surf music with a little Link Wray thrown in the mix."
The new record opens up their sound even more. Cesar Rosas produced Rock en Espanol, and he brings the eclectic, Latin bar-band vibe of Los Lobos. In fact, Los Straitjackets recorded the new collection in Cesar's basement in East L.A. Rosas also sings lead on a few songs, and he brought in his own inspiration, Little Willie G. of L.A.'s legendary '60s Rock group Thee Midniters, to sing on a few as well.
But the main singer is Big Sandy from the Fly-Rite Boys, with his smooth, booming tenor voice. Some of the 'Jackets grew up in East L.A., listening to Mexican border radio stations. They inhaled the boleros, the rocanrol Mexicano groups, and Freddie Fender-style balladry. Blending Hispanic influence with California's sun-soaked guitar wipeouts proves to be a potent brew.
The band wondered how their loose translations of Rock classics would be perceived south of the border.
"We tour about half the year," Curry says. "We've been going to Spain every year and other parts of Europe. We're pretty popular in Mexico, too. At first I was kind of nervous that they would think we were a bunch of gringos, kind of stealing their thunder, but they were good-natured about it. They saw it's all in fun."
Hearing warhorses like The McCoys' "Hang on Sloopy" ("Hey Lupe") or The Troggs' "Wild Thing" ("Loco Te Patina El Coco") sung in the Spanish vernacular puts a whole new funky spin on these rave-ups.
As Curry explains, "You hear more of the song because you don't understand the lyrics -- I've always been fascinated by that. You hear it differently. You hear the melody and the music without the words getting in the way because you don't know what the hell they're saying anyway."
The popularity of Surf music has always ebbed and flowed. There's no telling what might bring it back in vogue -- The Ramones dabbling in surf covers or Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction contribution in the '90s.
Asked if Jack Black's recent Mexican wrestling movie, Nacho Libre, positively affected the band's success, Curry says, "We had nothing to do with it. It's a shame, because it would have been a good match. I'll tell you what did help, though -- when Pulp Fiction came out and had all that Surf music on the soundtrack. That changed everything, and got people interested in that kind of music again."
Even so, Los Straitjackets have been doing pretty well for themselves. They were nominated for a Grammy in 2003 for a record they cut with Chicago Blues singer Eddie Clearwater.
"We lost," Curry says with a laugh. "But we got to go to the Grammys in our masks, which was cool. Everybody just steered clear of us."
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