Kings of the ring

It's one of the oldest saws in show business: Ya gotta have a good gimmick. For Los Straitjackets, the gimmick came about by accident, but it turned out to be a nifty one: Mexican wrestling masks. Not that there is any relationship, per se, between Mexican wrestling and the instrumental guitar rock played by the four members of Los Straitjackets, wearing those odd and gaudy masks.

"The masks just look really cool. That's about it," explains Straitjackets guitarist Danny Amis. "We were just looking for a unique way to present the band onstage, which isn't tough these days. Well, actually these days it is, but in 1994, when we started, it wasn't. In '94, it wasn't tough to be different onstage. We had decided we wanted matching outfits anyway, but we wanted something a little more than that. And I just happened to have a bag of masks that I had bought at a wrestling match in Mexico City. Don't ask me why I bought them. I don't know why. But they were just so cool I couldn't resist. We tried them on, and they worked great. People loved it. And we knew we had to keep doing it that way."

But if the masks are a gimmick, make no mistake: The music of Los Straitjackets is as serious as a Fender guitar and amp at full volume, even if there are big hearty slabs of delicious kitsch in the group's musical sandwich. Consider, for instance, one of the centerpiece songs on the band's third and most recent album, The Velvet Touch of Los Straitjackets: "My Heart Will Go On (Love Theme From Titanic)." In one fell swoop, they prove that the song never needed Celine Dion in the first place, wrenching deep emotion and meaning just in how they play the melody. And it is probably just coincidence, but Dion did happen to announce her retirement from music the day before Los Straitjackets played her big hit on Late Night With Conan O'Brien.

Amis disavows any connection. "Hey, that wasn't us," he says. "I just want to say for the record that we don't think we had anything to do with her announcing her retirement the day before we did the Titanic song on Conan O'Brien," he insists. "We're as sad about this as everyone else is."

But seriously folks, "We wanted to do a cover of a really popular song, and everybody loved that song, so it was an obvious choice," Amis says. "We were trying to figure out how we were going to arrange that one, and the 'Telstar' type of arrangement came to mind, and it worked." Hence it also serves as an homage to eccentric British record producer Joe Meek, the man who came up with that '60s guitar rock classic. Though the track is playful and cheeky -- starting with the sound of lapping waves, and ending with gurgling water -- Los Straitjackets nonetheless address the melody with serious intent, reiterating just why the song was such a big hit and is well on its way to the Valhalla of sappy pop standards.

Yet that's the way it is with Los Straitjackets, who definitely utilize the instrumental-rock medium to wield a double-edged sword. One edge is wacky, weird, playful, and joking. The other is resolutely devoted to musical and sonic excellence. After all, nobody ever ruled that the two must be mutually exclusive.

"We try not to get too serious," says Amis. "You get too serious, then it's not rock and roll. People forget sometimes that rock and roll is supposed to be fun. If they get serious with it, then I don't know what it is."

But their playfulness does have a purpose of sorts. Los Straitjackets are, to some degree, folklorists as well as connoisseurs of instrumental rock. The result of that is heard on The Velvet Touch on a song like "Tijuana Boots," on which a musical summit meeting that never happened in real life between desert twang guitarist Duane Eddy and Mexicali pop bandleader Herb Alpert is imagined in all its glory. Likewise, their take on Louis Prima and Keely Smith's "Sing, Sing, Sing" puts all the zoot-suited swing trendies to shame. And though some might think that making music without words would be restrictive, Amis finds it liberating to be free from lyrics.

"It's great," he enthuses. "It opens up whole new worlds. You can take it anywhere. You're not confined by the lyrics. And you can take a melody line anywhere you want without it being confined by the lyrics."

The 40-year-old Amis grew up in Minneapolis, where his older brother's collection of Ventures records imbued in him "my definition of a good guitar sound when I was a kid. He also had a lot of Link Wray records." Later, the punk and new-wave movement of the late 1970s opened the way to the stage for him. "It was a cool time, because it was a time when anyone could get up onstage and start a band. And of course I wanted to do that." But it was the playing rather than singing that met his needs for expression, and he found it in the echoes of his brother's records. "I don't know, but trying to come up with lyrics that somebody hadn't already come up with, that somebody hadn't already said, seemed a little difficult. And there was such a great untapped world there in instrumentals, and you could take it in any direction you wanted. And it just seemed like a cool idea."