Los Straitjackets: Who Are Those Masked Men?

Surf music is often associated with a specific time and place. The rock subgenre featuring instrumental tunes built around sonorous electric lead guitar enjoyed its heyday in the late 1950s and pre-Beatles early 1960s. And the form is most closely associated with Southern California. Artists like Dick Dale, The Chantays (“Pipeline”) and The Surfaris (“Wipe Out”) were exemplars of the style. But as with all trends, the popularity of instro-surf crested, then ebbed.

But it never washed away completely. Several subsequent revivals have brought surf music back into the limelight. And the unbridled joy, excitement and humor built into the style has meant that surf music has continued to delight new generations. Today it inspires and influences musicians who might not have even been alive during the original surf era.

Without a doubt, the most heralded and successful of modern-day surf revivalists are Los Straitjackets. Founded in (of all places) Nashville in 1994, Los Straitjackets put their own unique spin on the form. “We wanted to play instrumentals, and we wanted [our show] to be vintage entertainment, like the Ventures,” says guitarist Eddie Angel. As for the name, “we liked the absurdity of it.” he admits.

Dressed in matching outfits and sporting matching custom guitars, the quartet cuts a distinctive image. All four members appear onstage wearing Mexican luchador masks, and the group spokesman addresses the audience in a hilarious, gringo-fied Español. The band executes tightly choreographed stage moves while spinning out impossibly catchy, twangy and heavily reverbed instrumental tunes, inevitably eliciting broad smiles from everyone in the audience.

Angel co-founded Los Straitjackets with fellow guitarist Danny Amis (aka Daddy-O Grande). After successfully wrestling a bout of cancer, Amis retired from the group, settling in Mexico. Today Angel leads the group, joined by longtime member Pete Curry (a Bay Area native who played with an early lineup of the Chocolate Watchband) on bass, guitarist Greg Townson and drummer Chris Sprague.

Los Straitjackets’ music is a dazzling mix of originals (with vintage-sounding titles like “Caveman” and Rampage”) and inspired surf-instrumental reworkings of unlikely tunes like Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The group is astonishingly versatile: they’ve collaborated onstage and on record with rock heroes like Deke Dickerson, Marshall Crenshaw and Nick Lowe; a new Los Straitjackets album with Lowe is due later this year. They’ve released nearly 30 albums – three of them Christmas-themed – and succeeded brilliantly in breathing new life into a genre that was popular more than a half century ago.

Angel admits that while he and his band mates were serious about Los Straitjackets from the start, it was a bit of a goof. With the wrestling masks, Aztec medallions and Shadows-style synchronized moves, “we didn’t know what we were doing,” he admits with a laugh. “We just thought it looked cool. I didn’t think we were going to make a career out of it.”

When Los Straitjackets began, Angel was already a rock veteran. “I had been in bands my whole life,” he says. “Moved to Nashville, got a record deal, lost a record deal.” But when he donned that luchador mask, everything changed. “I realized that something magical was happening,” he says.

With the tightly arranged songs and patented moves, it would seem that there’s little room for spontaneity at a Los Straitjackets show. But Angel says that’s not really the case. “Some songs I play the exact same solo every time,” he admits. “But on some songs, my solo is never the same.” Moreover, the band is always in tune with the audience, and that audience can sometimes be a wildcard.

Angel recalls a recent gig in Connecticut. “This one blonde girl was out there dancing. So Greg jumped out into the audience with his guitar, and started dancing with her while he was playing.” After the show, the woman approached the group and introduced herself as Tina Weymouth (Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club). “She and her husband Chris Frantz were at our show!” Angel says with pride.

In the group’s early days, Daddy-O Grande did the song introductions, declaiming lines like, “¡Muchas gracias, Damas y caballeros! ¡Los Straitjackets presentamos ‘Rumble’!” Angel says that Amis was “really good at it; he was animated and funny.” After Amis retired, the duty of serving as Los Straitjackets’ emcee fell to Angel. “At first, I really tried to get it right,” he admits. “I wanted to get the grammar correct and everything. But I sound like a gringo from upstate New York.” So he relaxed. “I realized,” he says with a chuckle, “that it’s probably funnier if I get it wrong.”