Rock Star moment No. 3,798: Los Straitjackets’ Danny Amis, a.k.a. Daddy-O Grande and, once upon a time, Daddy-O “Cougar” Grande, is home trying to get caught up with his bills. Like imagining Dave Alvin painting his house, it’s funny to think of Amis in his silver-and-blue wrestling mask, writing checks and licking stamps. But, you know … it kinda messes with the mystique.
Mystique is something the surf-instro champs (Amis, fellow axesman Eddie Angel, bassist Pete “Pedro Del Mar” Curry, drummer Jimmy “Caveman” Lester) have cultivated since forming in Nashville in 1988. They donned Mexican wrestling masks, says Amis, out of love for Mexi-rasslin’ movies more than the actual sport. The silver screen combatants, such as Santo, Blue Demon and Mil Mascaras, represented an amalgam of the undeniable “power of wrestling” and the larger-than-life heroic iconography of cinema. The colorful masks, as well as an uncanny interpretive skill with regard to the art form known as the surf instrumental, has become Los Straitjackets’ trademark.
“When we put the band together,” says Amis, “there were a lot of bands out there that didn’t seem very presentation-conscious. It was just to put on a show for people, because that’s one of the reasons you go out to see a band.”
Anonymity, mystique, as any Kiss fan knows, cranks up the appeal. Not knowing the faces of the musicians, it’s easy to make them into heroes. Granted, Los Straitjackets’ fan base isn’t as vast as the corporate kabuki clowns’, but it’s equally enthusiastic. And like Kiss before they unmasked, Los Straitjackets has its share of people who are dying for a peek at their bare mugs. The band’s security isn’t as tight, however, but they do try almost as hard to keep undercover. “Fans are always trying to get a peek. It’s funny, sometimes they think the guys who set up our gear are really us without the masks. It’s a good deception,” says Amis.
How about the ladies? Any interesting masked “encounters” to recount? Unfortunately, that will remain a mystery as well. “The only other person to ask us that was Jimmy Vivino of the Max Weinberg 7,” says Amis, not revealing what Vivino was told, and not telling City Weekly, either. Instead, he expands on the issue of anonymity.
“We’re not really all that anonymous. We all have other records out, either from previous bands or side projects. I used to be in The Raybeats years ago. Eddie was in Planet Rockers and they still play on occasion. Pete Curry was in The Halibuts. Jimmy played with Webb Wilder. We keep all that stuff separate, [but] if somebody really wanted to know who we are, it wouldn’t be that hard to find out.”
One concludes most Straitjackets fans are content not to mess with the fantasy. That is, so long as they get their fix of sweet surf tunes, Straitjackets-style.
Surf fans are junkies for a little tremolo pickin’-and-a-grinnin.’ And Los Straitjackets deal it proper, whether it’s a rendition of “Rawhide” or an original number like “Kawanga!” or “Cavalcade.” Asked to encapsulate the rhapsody of the instro, Amis is happy to oblige. “Part of the appeal of surf instrumentals is a lack of really stupid lyrics. I’m not going to name names here, but you know who they are! It’s also fun to hear a good melody line, something that can be handicapped by words at times.”
Surely, in a world where mainstream music daily strays further from poetry, the philosophy is catching on. Retro is no longer fashionable; it’s a coping technique. People are reaching backward to embrace roots music (alt-country) and garage rock (The Strokes, The Hives). Can surf be far behind? Are Los Straitjackets the Rock Gods of the Future?
“Something has to take over the mainstream at some point,” says Amis. “After all, hip-hop is about 20 years old now and not as big as it used to be. That’s an entire generation. This seems like the natural next step. Whether it’s good or bad depends on what the new bands do with it. So far, so good!”
This, as Los Straitjackets tours in support of Sing Along With Los Straitjackets, a stopgap “novelty record” composed of non-instrumental gems from the ’50s and ’60s. The band eschews instrumental fireworks in favor of vocal turns by Straitjackets cohorts Big Sandy, Dave Alvin (“California Sun”), Exene Cervenka, Raul Malo (“Black Is Black”), Nick Lowe, Mark Lindsay, Allison Moorer, Lonesome Bob, El Vez, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ Mike Campbell (“Bumble Bee”), the Reverend Horton Heat, Sixpence None the Richer’s Leigh Nash and surf compatriots the Trashmen.
“We noticed that a lot of bands out there, including bands we know, have put out CDs that have vocals on them, so we thought it would be a fun novelty. It turned out great. Maybe we’ll do it again someday, but it’s time to put out something serious next. Look for our new Christmas album this fall!”