For two decades Los Straitjackets have donned the Lucha Libre masks, the snazzy dark suits and the sparkling, space-age DiPinto guitars. For 20 albums — their 21st came out last month — they have blazed a path through lyric-free music, dipping into primal surf, sparkling ‘60s pop, spaghetti Western, spy themes, Latin twang and more, creating a sound that’s earned them the title of the "World’s Number One Instrumental Combo."
Which, in America anyway, means they draw “a couple hundred,” shrugs co-founding guitarist and songwriter Danny Amis, aka Daddy-O Grande.
In the world south of the border, it’s a different story. “They treat us like gods. They love Los Straitjackets down there.”
He’s not kidding. Last fall the L.A.-based group drew 50,000 at Mexico City’s Foro Sol arena. Two nights in a row.
“Danny Amis is considered the godfather of the surf music sound here in Mexico,” says Gabriel Lopez, guitarist in the instrumental group Twin Tones. Amis and Twin Tones have just released the aptly named collaborative album Super Spy Western Tones.
“For a whole generation, mine and the one after, the guitar playing style of Daddy-O Grande was a huge influence,” continues Lopez, who says he first heard the band on bootlegs that began trickling south in the late ‘90s. “I think it's a sound that a lot of Mexican bands consciously and unconsciously adopted.”
But why? The lack of lyrics makes for easy musical translation, sure, but beyond that? Is there some grand intercultural, pan-artistic vibe? Some raw sonic transcendence that defies borders? Or something else altogether?
Caleb Franco, bassist for Mexican surf/garage/punk quartet Lost Acapulco (another band Amis has produced) mulls the question.
“Well, of course they wear wrestling masks, which is really good for Mexicans,” he offers. “But I have no words to describe it, it’s just beautiful… I think the crowd in Mexico likes their music so much because it’s so clear, so clean and super fantastic.”
It was Franco’s band that helped spark the Los Straitjackets buzz in Mexico. After tapping Amis to produce their hit 1998 debut 4, interest in the high-energy stateside act grew.
“I think a lot of it was the fact that we were embracing Mexican culture,” Amis says, “and they weren’t used to that and it really meant a lot to them, so there’s some national pride going on there. They’ve got their own brand of surf music, they call it surf Mexicano. It’s a huge genre. Their surf scene is by far bigger than anyone else’s in the world.
"For them it’s a new form of music," Amis continues. "It’s a new genre, not a retro thing at all. The retro thing can turn into such a trap for American surf bands.”
Amis’s group clearly avoided that trap on their latest release. Los Straitjackets: Deke Dickerson Sings the Great Instrumental Hits features godhead roots guitarist Dickerson sitting in to croon classic numbers on which the vocals have rarely been heard, from The Shadows’ hit “Apache” to the Rockin’ Rebels’ ’63 gem “Wild Weekend” to the theme from Hawaii Five-0. (OK, Sammy Davis, Jr. belted that last one out on a ‘70s LP, but you probably already knew that.)
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Four years ago, Amis had a life-changing experience that came close to life-ending. “I got cancer in 2010,” he says. “I had a stem cell transplant to treat multiple myeloma. It got everything under control. I’m not technically in remission, but I’m doing OK.” But not OK enough to tour — though Amis still records with Los Straitjackets, he’s been happily replaced in the group's live incarnation.
Now he’s left his longtime Santa Monica home for the land where he is the godfather, and his music is worshipped.
“It dawned on me, you know my favorite place in the world is Mexico City. The more I thought about it, I thought, that’s where I really want to be. I’ll probably play and record a lot more music down there because I don’t have to travel to do it. A year ago I had a heart attack. Now I have [survived] the two leading causes of death, and I’m still here and I feel like I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”