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.
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.
Still cool as hell for his ba-boom boom boom boom intro on "Dazed and Confused," Jones also thinks a change, instrumental or not, is under way. His work and that of Los Straitjackets may be harbingers of insta-pop's death. "A lot of it these days isn't interesting," says Jones from his home in England. "It's like at the end of the '70s. There was nothing, then punk came along. It's kind of like that now. We have to wait and see.
"The standard artist today is a bunch of old folk doing the same stuff. I'm old folk doing new stuff." He laughs. "I feel there's room in rock to do different things. Rock is energy and attitude. I'll see where I can go without trying to retread the past. We should build on the past.Everything will change real quick soon and radically. It's very exciting."
Until about four years ago, when Jones began fantasizing of recording solo, he had been, as usual, working in bass-player heaven, behind the scenes. Back home Jones taught college, scored films and produced records. He has contributed to the works of Austin's Butthole Surfers, Peter Gabriel, R.E.M. and Brian Eno.
Jones began performing live again in the mid-1990s, when he joined Diamanda Galas and her band on tour. Not long after sharing the stage with Galas he began consciously crafting what would become Zooma. "In the final days of Zeppelin, we were playing these huge stadiums," he says. "They have their own charm, but the vibe wasn't conducive to much. You can't get too sophisticated, in the musical sense. The crash barriers began at 16 feet.
"It's nice to see people's faces as is. It's nice to get back.If people are talking at the bar, you'd better think of something quick." He laughs again, an almost worried chuckle. He says Zooma came from his "desire to play live in the first place."
Not much of Zooma relies on overdubs or heavy mixing. That way, Jones says, when he and his stage help -- Nick Beggs on the stick and Terl Bryant on percussion -- perform Zooma tunes live, they can deliver honest studio replications in real time.
The composer of every song on Zooma, Jones obviously wrote from the perspective of "that other guy in Zeppelin." Even "The Smile of Your Shadow," a mostly atmospheric acoustic reverie, makes one's head sway along in measure. In each song, especially "Zooma" and "Snake Eyes," rhythm is key. If a song's heart cannot be found in the main bass riff, sometimes simplistic, other times solid, it is there in the percussion or tempo.
Considering how the bass guitar has evolved, along with Jones's obvious technical skills, Zooma offers more than what one would expect from a typical bass-guitar-drums arrangement. Strumming a 12-string, popping a four-string, punching a ten-string or sliding over a lap steel, Jones carries entire tunes almost by himself. The playing and sonorities are rich. Give Jones a B-boy rapper and he might be on the Top 40 alongside Limp Bizquick and (Kreamy) Korn.
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"I'm fortunate, because I can afford to experiment," says Jones. "It doesn't have to be commercial. But I don't want to make obscure records, either."
In some respects the rock instrumental may be on its deathbead, but thanks to Jones and Los Straitjackets, it looks like its heart will go on.
Los Straitjackets performs Saturday, March 11, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington. For more information, call (713)869-COOL. John Paul Jones performs Wednesday, March 15, at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak. For more information, call (713)862-7580.
E-mail Anthony Mariani at anthony.mariani@ houstonpress.com.