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."

He started a band called The Overtones, which ended up opening for New York early-'80s instrumental kings The Raybeats, who invited Amis to join the band and move to New York. "Those were fun days, they really were," recalls Amis. "It was a weird time to be in New York, and probably the most dangerous too. But still, it was a good time to be there."

But by 1984, prophetically enough, Amis "kinda got frustrated with the New York scene, because at the time, everybody was going techno, because that's what they were doing in the '80s." So he moved to Music City, Tennessee. "I figured at least down in Nashville, they still appreciated guitars. So I went down there really looking to get into studio work. And I ended up doing television production for a few years and didn't play for a long time." He came to know guitarist Eddie Angel and drummer Jimmy Lester because "it was kind of likely that the only people in Nashville who not only knew who Link Wray was, but were big fans, would end up as friends. It just happened. We became friends and we all played. So we got together, and it worked." After playing some club gigs for fun as a threesome in the summer of 1988, they finally coalesced as a genuine band and a foursome in 1994 (original bassist Scott Esbeck now plays with Dallas-bred singer-songwriter Jack Ingram).

Though Los Straitjackets ply their trade on the small-club circuit and record for indie labels (with undersung pop whiz Ben Vaughn producing), they've been lucky enough to win some friends in high-profile places. Unlike many other bands at their level, for instance, they've appeared on Late Night With Conan O'Brien three times already. "Andy [Richter] and Conan both were fans," explains Amis. "And they had already used one of our songs in a comedy bit, something involving Andy driving around in a speedboat with Hulk Hogan shooting off guns, or something. When we showed up the first time, those two were just all over us. It's as if we have an open invitation to come back anytime...from Conan and Andy. Of course they have producers who are a little more sensible. If it was up to those guys, we'd be on every week. And we just love doing that show. I mean, there's the obvious reasons, but they're just fun people to be around." And the most obvious reason is that "we see an increase in both CD sales and show attendance immediately after we do one of his shows."

Being an instrumental act, and a clever one at that, has also helped Los Straitjackets land their songs on TV shows like Melrose Place and Good Morning America, as well as in a number of films. They've also composed theme music for ESPN's X-Games. "We don't have somebody paying our way into the mainstream. We have to do it with what we do," notes Amis.

That includes venturing into such uncharted waters as the Russian club scene, where they were a huge hit. "We were offered two weeks at this club in Moscow. How could we turn that down? It was wild," recalls Amis. "That was a really fun time, because those people pretty much have freedom for the first time in their history, and they're just having a blast and enjoying it. They're having a big party over there. It's hard to tell whether they even think it's going to last or not, so they're just living for today. They love to have fun over there. And it was a blast being over there. It wasn't unusual that I'd hang around the bar after we were done, and talk to people and drink, and look at my watch, and realize it was 8:30 in the morning, and the place is still packed and people were dancing on the bar."

As folks now know from Moscow to Barcelona to America, there's much more to Los Straitjackets than those masks that meet the eye. Nonetheless, the Mexican wrestling masks do beg any number of questions, such as, doesn't it get hot under those things on stage? "It gets hot on stage anyway," Amis says. "Doesn't matter. You get used to it. In the Raybeats, we played in suits. Those got hot. I think those got hotter than the masks do."

And have they learned that the masks, as much as they've been a boon, can also work against them? Amis recalls one incident with a chuckle. "One time we did a radio interview, and it was on the top floor of an office building in downtown Nashville. We got on the elevator, the four of us, and some lady got on the elevator. And I pulled out a duffel bag, and we all put on masks. Security was alerted by the time we got to the radio station. You have to be careful where you wear them."

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Rob Patterson

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