Los Straitjackets represent a return to the golden age of rock and roll. A time when a few guys with a fun-loving attitude, some energetic tunes, and four Mexican wrestling masks could set out to make a living rocking the house. They play instrumentals. Strictly instrumentals. And at a time when saccharine sweet teen crooners dominate the charts, the vocals may be missing, but they are not necessarily missed. The love and respect Los Straitjackets show for the great instrumental genres of the past — surf rock, spy themes, novelty records, etc. — is matched only by their unique ability to make them their own. And then there are those delicious vintage electric guitar tones. Through three releases — The Utterly Fantastic and Totally Unbelievable Sound of Los Straitjackets, Viva! Los Straitjackets, and The Velvet Touch of Los Straitjackets — the band has honed and polished its sound to blinding perfection. All three records are must-own slabs for lovers of instrumental rock, vintage tone, and good fun in general. Naturally, I was excited to have the opportunity to talk with guitarist Eddie Angel, one half of the fabulous Los Straitjackets guitar duo.
The last few years have seen a real renaissance in rock instrumentals. What is it about instrumental music that makes it so special?
I think that it comes down to fun. With lyrics, sometimes people think that lyrics have to mean something, and they often are angry or too serious. Instrumentals are the antidote. It’s all about fun. Interestingly, it’s only with pop music that there is this bias — radio won’t play it because they think you need lyrics to be popular. Which is crazy, because there have been some big instrumental hits in [the] past. I do think that the Pulp Fiction soundtrack was a real event that helped kick off the resurgence.
What do you think of the trippier instrumental bands, like the Mermen and Friends of Dean Martinez?
Umm, to be honest, I don’t care for the Mermen style. I think they kind of miss the point somehow. I do like what of I’ve heard of Friends of Dean Martinez.
I’m a big fan of the Neanderthals. Will there be more Neanderthals records or was that a one shot-deal?
Actually, the Neanderthals have two records out. The first is kind of hard to find, but it’s on Get Hip Records. I’m sure there will be more. The Neanderthals have done some touring. We went to Spain, that was a lot of fun. If you like them, you should check out the Kaisers. They are on Get Hip Records, also.
You guys make it look easy, but playing high-energy guitar instrumentals all night long has got to be a lot of work for a guitarist, compared to backing up a singer. Is that tough? How do you deal with that?
It is a lot of work. Actually it’s the hardest for our drummer. It’s like anything, though, you do it enough and you get in shape for it. Me and Danny get to split the guitars, but the drummer almost passes out sometimes.
You guys wear Mexican wrestling masks, have a Mexican motif to your artwork, and of course the name – Los Straitjackets. What is the Mexican connection?
It’s because Danny is a big, big fan of Mexican culture. He goes to Mexico 3 or 4 times a year. He brought back the masks and we just thought they were so cool. We’re also big fans of the old Mexican rock and roll bands like Los Teen Tops and Los Rockin’ Devils. It’s funny, we’re like the Beatles down there. We’re doing a little Mexico tour and Danny went ahead of us. He was mobbed by paparazzi when he arrived. Very cool.
Both you and Danny seem so totally dialed in to the old school of guitar, with no acrobatics or high-speed stunts, no dive bombing vibrato, just a sweet clean tone with little or no effects. How did you arrive at that sound, having obviously grown up in the era of Eddie Van Halen and digital signal processing?
Well, all Danny has ever played is in guitar instrumental bands. We both had the same influences, and they just happened to be bands like Link Wray, the Ventures, Dick Dale, the Shadows. We play what we like, and the fact is we just don’t like any of the “modern” bands. It’s not deliberate, it’s just what we listen to. It was really just dumb luck, getting together like we did and sharing an appreciation for the same music.
Your tone is such an important part of your music, it seems worthy of discussion. I know you use Fender guitars and amps exclusively. Specifically, what instruments do you play, and what are some of the other secrets to your sound?
We both use Fender Vibrolux Reverb amps live. Danny plays a Fender Jazzmaster guitar and I play a Fender Stratocaster. Pete plays a Fender Precision bass. Lots of reverb and vibrato, but that’s about it for effects. We’ll use an occasional fuzzbox or a Leslie (rotating speaker) when we record. When recording, we use all different kinds of amps, whatever sounds good. We used Vox AC30’s a lot on the first two albums. It just depends. I used Mike Campbell’s (Tom Petty band) AC30 on Viva!. Recording seems to be much different from playing live. The gear that works great for me live doesn’t always sound good in the studio.
How does Eddie get that awesome “lightly burnt” tone on the first two albums? For example, the songs “University Blvd” and “Pacifica”?
That’s just the natural distortion of those vintage tube amps.
Your sound is a little crisper on The Velvet Touch of Los Straitjackets. Was there motive behind that? What did you change?
[Laughing] Well, there was no grand plan. When we go in the studio, we just plug in and hope for the best. There is no design behind it, it’s just potluck. Sometimes everything sounds like crap, sometimes it sounds great. We’re not geniuses.
What does the Calhoun in “Calhoun Surf” mean? It’s a cool song.
That’s an interesting question. Danny grew up in Minneapolis and there is a Lake Calhoun up there. Absolutely no surfing. None. He wrote that song 10 years ago, and put that record out. It was the first record on Twin Tone. It really is a great song.
Are you going to keep working with Ben Vaughn? You seem to have a good thing going with him.
Well, Ben’s pretty busy with his soundtracks and all his other projects. We’d like to, but we might try something different.