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Shut Your Mouth

Where is instrumental rock? Los Straitjackets and John Paul Jones might know.

Over the sounds of crashing water and a bellowing steamship, softly echoing guitar tones coalesce a familiar melody. A pause -- one, two, three -- then the tempo doubles and the song begins. It is Los Straitjackets' take on "My Heart Will Go On," the Grammy-winning hit from 1997's Titanic. Yet instead of a Celine Dionian voice, the lonesome, clean twang of a Fender Squier Pro Tone buoys the main melody line. Like Dion's version, Los Straitjackets' is memorable.

The band, a quartet from Nashville, performs and writes only guitar-based instrumental material. An anomaly on the pop circuit, Los Straitjackets has made a name for itself refashioning surf and '50s make-out music into something contemporary and even radio-friendly. Call it "instru-pop."

While hot and, dare we say, trendy, Los Straitjackets is certainly not the first band completely dedicated to instrumentalism to be able to keep on keepin' on. There have been others, most well beyond Los Straitjackets in significance and originality, including Booker T. & the MGs, the Ventures, Duane Eddy and Dick Dale, to name a few. Today there are only a handful of marquee guitar-based non-jazz, non-electronica instrumental acts that can claim some sort of following -- not to mention afford to cut an album or two and tour regularly -- including Man or Astro-Man?, Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet and now that guy who used to play bass and co-write songs in Led Zeppelin.

Mexican wrestling masks in place, the members of Los Straitjackets deliver strong instrumental surf.
Sears Portrait Studio
Mexican wrestling masks in place, the members of Los Straitjackets deliver strong instrumental surf.
His aversion to the spotlight notwithstanding, John Paul Jones enjoys center stage with his instrumental outfit.
His aversion to the spotlight notwithstanding, John Paul Jones enjoys center stage with his instrumental outfit.

John Paul Jones, the quintessential background-hogging bass player, released his first solo record, Zooma, this past summer, around the same time Los Straitjackets released its third record, The Velvet Touch of Los Straitjackets. Both acts have been touring since, and both will play Houston this weekend.

Aside from guitar gods Eric Johnson and Joe Satriani (who does sing occasionally), the last instrumental "rock" acts to have any sort of impact on the pop landscape reared their well-moussed heads in the '80s. Harold Faltermeyer scored a massive Billboard hit in 1984 with "Axel F," off the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack, and Jan Hammer had everybody dancing the Don Johnson in 1985 with his theme to Miami Vice. Most rockers today were in puberty when those songs broke.

No one knows the source of this wavelet of instrumentalism. One explanation why Los Straitjackets opted for the instrumental approach may be Mexican wrestling. Follow along: Danny Amis, who co-founded the band with lead guitarist Eddie Angel, grew up in Minneapolis watching the adventures of Santo and the Blue Demon on TV. Like most of Mexican cinema's beefy action figures -- luchadores (wrestlers) by day, movie stars by night -- Santo and the Blue Demon always wore form-fitting masks, just like those the guys in Los Straitjackets now sport.

As anyone who has ever worn a lucha libre (Mexican wrestling) mask knows, it is nearly impossible to talk -- let alone sing or chew food -- when one's head is covered in leather. Hence, Los Straitjackets' all-instrumental sound. Makes perfect sense, right?

"I just thought [the masks] were cool," says Amis, dispelling any and all other theories. "I thought they were the coolest things ever." When Amis visited Mexico City, around the time he and Angel were preparing to debut Los Straitjackets, he purchased a handful of wrestling masks off the street and returned to the States with a plan. "We needed something to separate us," Amis says. Wearing lucha libre masks, in his opinion, was the trick. The rest of the band agreed.

"It gives an image that we can have fun," says Amis, who also says the Los Straitjackets stage show is full of choreographed luchadore moves like planchas (flying cross-body presses) and patadas voladoras (dropkicks). All with instruments intact. "It's fun. It gives people our graphics to focus on."

Los Straitjackets' sound, finely crafted and produced on CD, is punchy and punkish live. The band, which includes Pete Curry on bass and Jimmy Lester on drums, improvises a lot, sometimes stretching songs to twice their normal running times. Amis says that once in a while a new song or two comes from improv. "Close to Champaign," off The Velvet Touch, for example, is a song that sounds almost like what the band once stumbled across a few years ago jamming in Champaign, Illinois. "It's not exactly that song," says Amis. "But it's close."

The band spends most of the year touring, basically spreading the instrumental gospel. Amis says the band plans to perform overseas within the year. One stop will be Japan, where lucha libre is huge. What a co-inky-dink. "We hope to get as many places as we can," says Amis. "We want to get instrumentals back on the radio. The stuff on the radio now, the '80s stuff they play, it's so dated. That '80s techno.

"We're not old. We're not dated. We're looking for something new. Even hip-hop is 20 years old. We want them to pick up something new. And we'd like to be in there. We've gotten a lot of attention on TV, that's not a problem. Who knows? The system is so corrupted, it may not be possible. We'll wait and see. If it's not corrupted, we should get on" radio.

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