Masked Avengers

It's one of the oldest saws in show business: You gotta have a good gimmick. For Los Straitjackets, the gimmick came about by accident, but it has turned out to be an eye-catching one: gaudy Mexican wrestling masks.

Not that there is any relationship, per se, between Mexican wrestling and the instrumental guitar rock favored by the four members of Los Straitjackets. Then again, why should there be? What's the relationship between Madonna and cowboy culture? Or Alice Cooper and real medieval head-crushing, thumb-screwing torture? Or half the rappers out there and Sicilian-style gangsters? A gimmick, after all, is just that.

"The masks just look really cool. That's about it," explains Straitjackets guitarist Danny Amis. "We were just looking for a unique way to present the band on stage, which isn't tough these days. Well, actually these days it is, but in 1994, when we started, it wasn't. In '94 it wasn't tough to be different on stage. We had decided we wanted matching outfits anyway, but we wanted something a little more than that. And I just happened to have a bag of masks that I had bought at a wrestling match in Mexico City. Don't ask me why I bought them. I don't know why. But they were just so cool I couldn't resist. We tried them on, and they worked great. People loved it. And we knew we had to keep doing it that way."

While the masks are a lark, Los Straitjackets' music is as serious as a Fender guitar and amp at full volume (despite the big hearty slabs of delicious kitsch). Consider, for instance, "My Heart Will Go On," one of the centerpiece songs on the band's third and most recent album, The Velvet Touch of Los Straitjackets. In one fell swoop, the guys prove that the tune never needed Celine Dion, wrenching deep emotion and meaning from the melody merely by approaching it from a different perspective.

"We wanted to do a cover of a really popular song, and everybody loved that song, so it was an obvious choice," explains Amis. "We were trying to figure out how we were going to arrange that one, and the "Telstar' type of arrangement came to mind, and it worked."

As a result, the cover song also serves as an homage to eccentric British producer Joe Meek, the man behind "Telstar," the Tornados' guitar-rock classic from the early '60s. Though Los Straitjackets' version is playful and cheeky -- starting with the sound of lapping waves and ending with gurgling water -- the band nonetheless addresses the melody with earnest intent, reiterating just why the song was such a massive hit in the first place.

Welcome to the world of Los Straitjackets, where the band wields instrumental rock like a double-edged sword. One edge is weird, playful and joking. The other is resolutely devoted to sonic excellence. After all, whoever said the two must be mutually exclusive?

"We try not to get too serious," says Amis. "You get too serious, then it's not rock and roll. People forget sometimes that rock and roll is supposed to be fun. If they get serious with it, then I don't know what it is."

But the playfulness does have a purpose of sorts. The band members are, to some degree, folklorists as well as connoisseurs of instrumental rock. The result is heard on a song like "Tijuana Boots," from Velvet Touch, on which a summit meeting between desert twang guitarist Duane Eddy and Mexicali pop bandleader Herb Alpert is imagined in all its glory. Likewise, the guys' take on Louis Prima and Keely Smith's "Sing, Sing, Sing" puts all the zoot-suited swing trendies to shame. Though some might think it restrictive to make music without words, Amis finds it liberating. "It's great," he enthuses. "It opens up whole new worlds. You can take it anywhere. You're not confined by the lyrics. And you can take a melody line anywhere you want without it being confined by the lyrics."

Los Straitjackets began to coalesce in Nashville in the mid-1980s. Amis had moved there after making a dent in the New York scene as a member of the Raybeats, only to watch everything go techno. "I figured at least down in Nashville, they still appreciated guitars. So I went down there really looking to get into studio work. And I ended up doing television production for a few years and didn't play for a long time."

He came to meet guitarist Eddie Angel and drummer Jimmy Lester because it was "likely that the only people in Nashville who not only knew who Link Wray was but were big fans would end up as friends," he says. "So we got together, and it worked." After doing some club gigs for fun as a threesome in the summer of 1988, the Straits took a six-year hiatus and then reunited for good in 1994.

Though Los Straitjackets ply their trade on the small-club circuit and record for indie labels (with undersung pop whiz Ben Vaughn producing), they've been lucky enough to win friends in high-profile places. They've played Late Night with Conan O'Brien three times, thanks to the fact that O'Brien and sidekick Andy Richter are both fans. Being an instrumental act also has helped Los Straitjackets land songs on TV shows like Melrose Place and Good Morning America as well as in a number of films. "We don't have somebody paying our way into the mainstream. We have to do it with what we do," notes Amis.

That includes venturing into such uncharted waters as the Russian club scene, where the band was a huge hit. "We were offered two weeks at this club in Moscow. How could we turn that down? It was wild," recalls Amis. "That was a really fun time, because those people pretty much have freedom for the first time in their history, and they're just having a blast and enjoying it. They're having a big party over there."

As folks from Moscow to America now know, there's much more to Los Straitjackets than their face coverings. Nonetheless, the Mexican wrestling masks do raise a number of questions, such as, Doesn't it get hot under those things on stage? "It gets hot on stage anyway," Amis says. "Doesn't matter. You get used to it. In the Raybeats, we played in suits. Those got hot. I think those got hotter than the masks do."

And have they learned that the masks also can work against them? Amis recalls one incident with a chuckle: "One time we did a radio interview, and it was on the top floor of an office building in downtown Nashville. We got on the elevator, the four of us, and some lady got on the elevator. And I pulled out a duffel bag, and we all put on masks. Security was alerted by the time we got to the radio station. You have to be careful where you wear them."