Kings of the ring

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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."

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Rob Patterson

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