You would think the concept behind Los Straitjackets would be the product of intense pop strategizing. After all, the notion of four artists donning Mexican wrestling masks while performing vintage guitar-rock instrumentals doesn't exactly present itself by chance. Except that it sort of did.
"There was no plan, no blueprint for what we did other than we all were big fans of 1960s music," co-founding Straightjackets guitarist Eddie Angel said last week by phone while en route to a performance in Harrisburg, Pa. "We were an instrumental band, but we wanted to be entertaining. Besides, people were accustomed to looking at something when they went to a show. What they looked at with most bands was a singer. So we had to do something different."
Of course, the first degree of difference was the music. Los Straitjackets songs sported lean but sturdy compositional foundations, from the bottom of their economical back beats to the heights of their clean but potent guitar harmonies. Stylistically, the sound suggested retro: a '60s-style format that expressed itself through covers of period pieces like the pop serenade Sleepwalk, Link Wray's I'm Branded and the Space Age confection Telstar. But those were simply the hooks. By adding elements of rockabilly, garage rock and all kinds of roots-driven inspirations for a wealth of original material, Los Straitjackets proved it was no musical novelty, even though its look suggested otherwise.
First in the stage-profile plan came the masks. They were brought in by Los Straitjackets' other guitarist, Danny Amis, an aficionado of Mexican pop culture.
"Danny came up with the idea of the wrestling masks from all these trips he had made to Mexico City," Angel said. "After that, we added the Spanish (introductions), the matching guitars and the choreography. But outside of that, this was really everybody's idea."
Although an initial lineup with Angel and Amis formed in 1988, Los Straitjackets became a full-time recording and touring enterprise in 1994. As the decade progressed, their popularity grew locally (through frequent appearances at the long-defunct Lynagh's Music Club) and nationally (through regular appearances on Late Night With Conan O'Brien). Growing almost as rapidly as the band's notoriety was its musical scope, which began to encompass surprises, including the swing classic Sing, Sing, Sing and the Titanic love theme, My Heart Will Go On. The music also expanded for the 2001 collaboration album Sing Along With Los Straitjackets, with a guest list that included Raul Malo, Nick Lowe, Dave Alvin, Allison Moorer, Big Sandy, Exene Cervenka and the Reverend Horton Heat.
But two years ago, the party was derailed when Amis was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an incurable form of plasma-cell cancer. That's when the many friends of Los Straitjackets stepped up to help with benefit concerts to offset Amis' mounting medical expenses. Among the more high-profile events was a Los Angeles gathering in July titled "El Beneficio for Daddy O Grande" that featured Mike Campbell (from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), Cesar Rosas and David Hidalgo (of Los Lobos) and one especially popular pack of longtime pals.
"We've played on Conan O'Brien's shows eight times and have gotten to know his band (Jimmy Vivino and the Basic Cable Band) really well," Angel said. "Conan has been a great friend, too. All of helped them out. Conan even played guitar.
"Danny's had a stem-cell transplant and is doing a lot better. We're hoping he will be able to make a few appearances with us at some shows this fall."
Amis figures prominently on the new Los Straitjackets album, a collection of all original music titled Jet Set due in August. Produced by Janne Haavisto of the Finnish surf band Laika and the Cosmonauts, Jet Set features the full Straitjackets lineup — rounded out by longtime bassist Pete Curry, drummer Jason Smay and Amis' touring replacement, Greg Townson — plus help from Vivino and the Basic Cable Band.
"You know, there was no way I thought the band would have lasted this long," Angel said. "I figured we would be playing out once a month just for fun. I spent years and years in bands that were trying to 'make it.' Then the one band I wasn't all that serious about at first was the one I wound up making a living at."