Formed in 1988 by Amis, second guitarist Eddie Angel, and drummer Jimmy "Caveman" Lester, the Straitjackets played a few gigs around Nashville strictly for kicks. Ruffling the sensibilities of chew-jawing cowboys is sure to raise some eyebrows, but the Straitjackets never took the band seriously. Then, in 1994, when Angel moved back to Nashville after a brief escape, Lester suggested they reconvene the Straitjackets, again just for giggles. Amis, who had used the interim to travel to Mexico City in search of obscure records by '60s Mexican rock bands such as Los Teen Tops and Los Hooligans, returned with a bag of wrestling masks, and Angel thought they were dandy.
"We were looking for a unique way to present the band on stage," Amis recalls. "We didn't start taking the band seriously until we put the masks on and saw the reaction to them." The group added bassist Scott "El Dragon" Esbeck and, to complement the new disguises, took the name Los Straitjackets. "It was always funny to hear the Spanish article with an English noun," Amis explains. "And then, just to confuse the audience even more, I speak only Spanish on stage."
So why surf? Was that merely another ploy to get attention in the country music capital of the world? "All instrumental music tends to be labeled 'surf'" Amis says. "We definitely do a few surf songs, but we also do a lot more than that. I grew up listening to Link Wray and the Ventures, and Eddie and I have both been putting out instrumental records since around 1980. When we put this band together, it was just natural. It's just what we do."
And while Amis is quick to point out that 75 percent of the world's music is instrumental, not writing lyrics in the rock world seems as dangerous as pretending to be Mexican in Nashville. "It's more of a challenge to come up with a great melody," Amis agrees. "But it's certainly more satisfying without having the crutch of a lyric to anchor it. Sometimes we'll come up with a title first and write a song around it. Sometimes we'll come up with the song first. Sometimes the song that we come up with, the title doesn't fit, so we'll rename it. There's no real formula."
Regardless of formula, or perhaps having sold their souls to Quetzalcoatl, Los Straitjackets' career took a massive upswing not one year after they began to consider the band as more than a way to front the Nashville counterculture. By this time, there was another surf band in Nashville called the Phantom Five, but Los Straitjackets had the stage presence and energy to beat the odds. Within months of re-forming they had produced a cassette which would eventually become their first album, The Utterly Fantastic and Totally Unbelievable Sound of Los Straitjackets, and Nashville surf was placed squarely on the map.
Their first out-of-town gig came in March of 1995, at the South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas, and coincided with the release of The Utterly Fantastic on Upstart Records. After a four-month tour, the quartet then found themselves on national TV for the first of several appearances on Late Night With Conan O'Brien. They knew they made it when "Calhoun Surf," off their debut album, was covered by the Ventures.
"You can't imagine how that feels," Amis says. "They're probably the reason I play the guitar to begin with, and to have them cut one of my songs was an honor I can't put into words."
The same tune was also licensed to Fox's Melrose Place, and other songs appeared in everything from the USA Network's Pacific Blue to Bay Area Rapid Travel radio spots to feature films like 1997's Two Days in the Valley. And while Amis hadn't expected his band to go anywhere, he wasn't too shocked by the attention. "That doesn't surprise me a bit," he says, "because our music is pretty natural for TV and film. It's instrumental."
After the 1996 release of a second album, Viva Los Straitjackets, the band began to tour extensively with everyone from Tom Petty to Amis's other idol, Link Wray. Throughout 1997 they toured and put out two singles: one a Christmas collection including "Marshmallow World" and "Sleigh Ride," and another of Mexican rock classics "La Plaga" and "Que Mala," recorded with Big Sandy of the Fly-Rite Boys on vocals. Even without a new album, 1998 found Los Straitjackets touring Europe, hitting Holland, Moscow, and Spain as latter-day ambassadors for thoroughly American music.
"Moscow was amazing," recalls Amis of the two weeks they spent in the city. "In Moscow surf bands are nonexistent, but they're so into this type of music that it didn't matter. They're crazy over there--they get pretty nuts."
Earlier this month, Los Straitjackets returned to the studio to record their third album, which is expected to be released by March. Like their two previous efforts, it was recorded "live" in the studio in under a week. "I think it's necessary for us to do that to keep the energy," Amis says of the quick recording. "We have added more overdubs on this album than the previous two, but I couldn't see doing hundreds of them."
In 1999 the masked men will ride again with an extensive U.S. tour. And, though the group is full of surprises, don't expect them to reveal their true faces, à la Kiss. "What would be the point?" Amis wonders. "It didn't do their careers any good. If people want to know, they can tell what we look like."
Los Straitjackets. New Year's Eve, Wilbert's Bar & Grille, 1360 W. 9th St., 216-771-2583, $20 ADV, $25 DOS, Ticketmaster 216-241-5555.