The Dragtones are four stalwart musicians from Sweden — some of the Hives and some of the underrated Hi-Winders. Between them they've been on giant labels and played late-night TV and sessioned for the Swedish greats and enjoyed the comparatively colossal fortune and fame granted only to those last rare independent musicians who snuck out hits right before the Internet atomized music as everyone knew it. But they are also singer Luis Arriaga, a self-described “guy from the San Fernando Valley” (North Hollywood, actually, where he saw La Bamba at El Portal at age 7), who used to rap a little and play basketball well enough to get a scholarship, but who then figured out two of the guitar chords you need to make rock & roll at age 16, and that was the end of everything else. Then the guys from the Hives and the Hi-Winders — they came to him.
“It humbled me,” says Arriaga humbly. Mostly he is Luis of Luis and the Wildfires, a band that got together by accident one of those recent summers when the hills around the city all go up in flames at once. So far they have put out one album (Brain Jail — please find it) and a few 45s. They are a world-class rock & roll band on Reb Kennedy's Wild Records, a world-class rock & roll label that itself stays hidden and humble in a backyard studio in Altadena, where the evidence of obvious greatness is considerately muffled for the neighbors by layers of egg crates and horse blankets.
When these Hives and Hi-Winders asked Arriaga to front their new band last summer, he was gracious and polite, even though he didn't fully think they were serious. Like so many of those who are absolutely fearlessly and even dangerously unrestrained onstage — Arriaga is the kind of guy who will unhesitatingly take a faith fall into the audience, and Arriaga's audience is the kind of people who will always try to catch him, except, like recently, when he didn't wash his dirty Dragtones pullover for a month — he is generally gracious and polite to the absolute limit of decency.
If you hear the way he sings the very first word on the just-out, self-titled Dragtones debut — “Beware!” — you would hardly believe that. And if you hear the way his screams come up like bubbles through tar at a minute and a half, you'll consider every word now and ever further published in this newspaper to be both a vicious lie and a weapon designed personally against you. But you'll also understand why four top-flight Swedish musicians who could do anything they wanted with just about anyone in the world (Example: They recorded a Christmas record with Cyndi Lauper!) would come all the way out to this little studio in Altadena to play in a band behind Luis Arriaga. They just don't make 'em like Arriaga anymore. It wouldn't be safe.
“In Sweden the promoters wanted something wild,” says Per Thorsell, the Dragtones' guitarist. “Not like a regular band, but something really wild and unique. We were thinking different singers, but when we found out we could actually fly someone over … why not do something with a band member from a band we really like? We instantly thought of Luis.”
This was just after the all-day session this spring where the majority if not entirety of the debut Dragtones album was put to tape. Everyone was drunk, everyone was exhausted, everyone would keep drinking and then sing (in Swedish) into the telephone later when they were supposed to do follow-up questions.
Arriaga laughs now, remembering: When the Dragtones cut demos last year, they did it in the studio the Hives built — lots of blinking lights, shiny cases, the works. (“Where do I sing out of?” Arriaga asked.) But when you do your record for Wild, you have to do it at Wild. At Wild you enter past the flipped-over tricycle belonging to Kennedy's son and executive producer, Hayden; there are open rafters and leaves across the stoop. There's a drum set and a piano with a sign warning bands and visitors not to put drinks on the piano; that means there are drinks on the floor. There's a Charlie Feathers LP overhead and a secret analog recording setup — manned by preternaturally adept engineer and Wild musician Omar Romero and Kennedy — walled away in the farthest corner, where the media are not permitted to see. Some studios are built; some are born.
As the Swedes said, recalls Arriaga: “This is where all the cool sounds come from?” And like Sun Records' Sam Phillips once said: “Producing? I don't know anything about producing records. But if you want to make some rock & roll music, I can reach down and pull it out of your asshole.”
So they got to pulling. Last year Arriaga had sent over loose little songs he recorded into his BlackBerry — undoubtedly the most technologically advanced act ever committed in the name of Wild — and the Swedes had responded via e-mail with … “Music!” says Arriaga. “Holy shit!” They took one day in May to really make this thing, and after probably 11 hours, they had 16 songs — exhausted, twisted-around-itself rock & roll. Billy Childish is in there; Charlie Feathers, of course; guitar like Dale Hawkins; the Cramps, the Downliners Sect, Esquerita, the Sonics on the first seconds of “Tough Enough” and every time Arriaga lets out a screeeeeeeeam. Vigilante Carlstroem was the Hives' guitarist: Did he know Arriaga before the Dragtones? No, he says. But now? “I love him!”
“What they fell in love with is what most people fall in love with,” Arriaga says. “Any band that records there — it's very 'GIVE ME WHAT YOU GOT! You just got punched in the nuts? Lemme record that! Your girlfriend just fucked your dad? Give me what you fuckin' got!' And you're there and you wanna cry, but you don't wanna show everybody you'd cry so you sing a fucking song — like 'GODDAMN THIS IS IT!' ”
That one he wasn't so polite — but he was exactly right, too.
The Dragtones' self-titled CD is out on Dec. 1 on Wild.