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Straitjacket Season

The masked men of surf music celebrate the holidays.

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Guitarist Danny Amis doesn't go into a lot of detail explaining why his band wears Mexican wrestling masks while they play instrumental surf music. "They look cool," Amis replies to most who ask.

Amis, who plays the surf guitar parts opposite co-lead guitarist Eddie Angel's rock licks says that when they started putting Los Straitjackets together, they were trying to think of a way to create a unique presentation for the band. "I just happened to have some wrestling masks that I'd bought at a wrestling match in Mexico. And we thought let's try this and see what works. And it really did work."

Asked what the industry thought of the idea at first, Amis reveals that corporate reactions were the least of the band's concerns. "Oh, we don't pay much attention to the people in the industry. We just gauge it by crowd reaction, and the reaction was fantastic, so we stuck with it."

The band was first known as The Straitjackets, named after a tune called "Straitjacket" that Angel had written. "And when we came up with the ideas of the masks, and in paying homage to the old Mexican rock 'n' roll bands like Los Teentops and Los Rockin' Devils," Amis explains, "we decided to put 'los' in front of Straitjackets."

The concept was successful from the beginning. Angel had a pedigree in rockabilly that was forged on the road with 'billy kingpin Ronnie Dawson, and Amis had honed his surf licks as a member of the '80s cult surf band the Raybeats. The mix of rock and surf backed up by the rhythm section of former Nashville session drummer and ex-Webb Wilder stick man Jimmy Lester and bassist Pete Curry, who also has surf credentials as a member of the Halibuts, sounds like nothing else in the musical marketplace. The closest thing to it may be the vintage sound of the Ventures, whose guitar tones "are the reason I play the guitar," Amis relates. But Los Straitjackets take things a bit farther out than the Ventures. There's that Link Wray sounding thing that Angel does, and then Amis glides in with the Dick Dale surf attack, and then the whole thing takes a sharp left and goes off into the ozone. If you don't like what's happening in any given moment on a Los Straitjackets record, just hang on a second--another genre'll be right along. But it's not a disjointed jumble of sounds--somehow the band manages to blend it all together until it's the texture of guacamole.

The only constant on a Straitjackets record is the fact that the band doesn't sing. Amis says the reason for that is because of the influence of surf music's lack of lyrics on the band. "There's something refreshing about not hearing lyrics, especially if the lyrics are really bad. I won't name names here but there are plenty of those out there." And although the band did put out one record with guest vocalists, 2001's Sing Along With Los Straitjackets, Amis says there are no plans for band members vocalizing. "Why mess up a good thing?"

Los Straitjackets manage to stir up plenty of excitement without opening their mouths on stage. Their non-verbal renderings of Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" from '99s The Velvet Touch of Los Straitjackets may have had an affect on the singer's career. "She did announce her retirement shortly after we released that, but I don't think there was any connection," Amis says coyly. "I want to go on the record and say that I don't think that we had anything to do with her announcing her retirement. Obviously, we were as sad about that as everyone else must have been."

But just to make sure that's enough to hold the crowd's attention when they play, on this tour the band will be accompanied by the World Famous Pontani Sisters, a New York City dance troupe that "does production numbers with costume changes. It's a whole show," says Amis. "The show has a Christmas theme and promotes their latest Yep Roc release, 'Tis The Season for Los Straitjackets.

Meanwhile, the 'Jackets will be out on the road, "just trying to do stuff we like. We have an underlying philosophy: rock 'n' roll is supposed to be about fun," Angel told Morphizm.com's Scott Thill. "I think that people are fed a line in most rock journalism that says music is supposed to be serious stuff. In one sense, rock 'n' roll is totally serious to me. I've dedicated my life to it. But it's not meant to be taken so seriously--it's supposed to be fun and lighthearted. It's supposed to be an anecdote to the serious stuff. We want to be fun and entertaining and that's the long and short of it." EndBlock

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