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Surf-rock instrumental group revels in ‘vintage entertainment’

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Los Straitjackets will perform at the Santa Fe Bandstand Thursday (photo by Jim Graham) Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE, N.M. — Eddie Angel is asked often whether he feels limited by not having a singer fronting his band.

“And I think to myself, well, wait a second, when you look at the world of music, think how much of it is just instrumental,” the guitarist of instrumental surf-rock band Los Straitjackets said in a recent phone interview.

“How much jazz is just instrumental?” Angel asked. “How much classical is just instrumental? It’s just what they’re talking about is pop music, I guess. To me, it’s not limiting at all.”

Angel spoke to the Journal during a visit to upstate New York, where he was visiting family and friends during time off from touring. The Nashville-based band recently finished a six-week U.K. tour with British singer-songwriter Nick Lowe, with whom the band has been touring off and on for the past several years.

Los Straitjackets, clad in its signature 1960s-style matching suits and Mexican wrestling masks, will get back out on the road again this August, kicking off a new string of shows Aug. 1 at the Santa Fe Bandstand.

The group has been described as the “leading practitioners of the lost art of guitar instrumental.” When asked if he considers it a lost art, Singer said he doesn’t necessarily think of it in those terms. He described what they do as “vintage entertainment.” The group doesn’t consider itself an oldies band, but rather inspired by and modeled after ’50s and ’60s acts like The Ventures and The Shadows.

“Just trying to keep alive something that’s worth keeping alive, I think,” he said. “We’re not doing anything particularly groundbreaking, and we’re not trying to.”

What does set the group apart, however, is its quirky stage uniform. Along with the matching suits and guitars inspired by old rock groups, each member wears a brightly-colored wrestling mask. Angel described the origin of the ensemble as a “happy accident.” When the group formed in Nashville in 1994, the other founding guitar player, Danny Amis, had been going to Mexico several times a year, where he accumulated a collection of masks purchased outside a wrestling arena.

“So, (Amis) had a big box of them at his house where we were rehearsing,” Angel recalled. “We just thought they looked cool. … Honestly, at the time, I didn’t think we were going to be doing it for a living or anything. … I didn’t think it was possible to play guitar instrumental and make a career out of it.”

When the band members wore the masks for the first time – opening for fellow surf-rock group Man or Astro-man? – they almost chickened out.

“We thought, ‘I don’t know, man, our friends are … going to laugh at us,’ ” Angel said. “But we decided to put them on and after that it was a big hit, so we thought we’ve gotta keep wearing them.”

In the unexpected 25 years since, the group has produced 14 studio albums and eight live albums, recording largely original compositions, but also instrumental covers of favorite tunes. The current lineup includes Angel, Greg Towson on guitar, Pete Curry on bass and Chris Sprague on drums.

The latest EP released in June, “Channel Surfing,” brings the vintage rock flair to favorite TV theme songs like “Game of Thrones,” “The Andy Griffith Show” and a mash-up of “Dancing with the Stars” and “Sex and the City.” Angel also contributed a surf-song rendition of Jay Ungar’s waltz “Ashokan Farewell,” the theme song to Ken Burns’ 1990 miniseries “The Civil War.” He put together the arrangement when the group was recording with Lowe in Woodstock, New York, not far from the Ashokan Reservoir for which the song is named.

“We’re always trying to come up with different ideas,” Angel said of the tracks. “You gotta do something that’s a little different” when working with guitar instrumentals.

Angel said the band wants to continue releasing EPs on vinyl here and there whenever the group has material ready. “Again, it’s a new idea that’s old,” he added. “That’s what they (bands) used to do, record and put a 45 out. And when you had enough 45s, you’d make it into an album.”

Eventually, he said, the group wants to record some originals it’s been performing with Lowe, and then release a full-length album of a “real kind of basic, stripped down rock ‘n roll combo” of tracks. The challenge is to be able to write a three-cord rock song that is still compelling to the audience, but Angel said the group’s knack for turning out melodies has stayed with them since the beginning.

“We’ve been able to do it for 25 years, that’s pretty mind-boggling to me,” Angel said. “And I think we can keep doing it. There’s no end in sight.”

This story has been updated with corrected event information

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