For more than 20 years, Los Straitjackets have embraced the tenants of surf rock while shaping it into a sound that lends itself to Chuck Berry and Scotty Moore as much as it does Dick Dale and Link Wray.
Guitarist and co-founder Eddie Angel swears their vintage sound was anything but purposeful, even though you will not find a single effects pedal in his arsenal. Angel said he opts for the old-school plug direct into the amplifier, relying on tone and reverb to create and mimic a multitude of sounds.
"We didn't do anything deliberately to be retro. That's just what we like," Angel said. "We've been really lucky in that we're able to write our own songs and make something new out of it."
While their sound has captured the ears and attention of fans around the globe, so, too has their stage attire. Dressed in black business suits and luchador wrestling masks, Los Straitjackets have maintained a colorful stage presence since their debut in 1994.
But Angel said the motif, which was done on a whim prior to their first show as the Straitjackets, nearly did not happen. In fact, Angel called the look a "lucky accident."
"(Former guitarist) Danny (Amis) had a big box of these masks because he had been going to Mexico City and would always buy a bunch of masks and bring them back," he recalled. "The very first gig we did in our hometown of Nashville, we were backstage and almost chickened out. We thought, 'Our friends are going to make fun of us, they're going to laugh at us.' But after that first gig, we knew we had to keep them. I'm pretty sure it gave us a career.
I think our music holds up, but it just wouldn't have been the same."
In the more than two-plus decades since that defining night in Nashville, Los Straitjackets have released 20 albums, been nominated for a Grammy Award, regularly appeared on Late Night with Conan O'Brien and TBS' Conan, and played to numerous Musikfest audiences.
Following three holiday tours with singer-songwriter Nick Lowe, the quintet released (What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Los Straitjackets. The album has Los Straitjackets putting their own surfy spin on 13 of Lowe's tunes, including the 1974 single "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," which was later covered by Elvis Costello.
"With Nick, you watch a guy like that; he's a real pro and the way he approaches every show, it's really educational to watch what he does and how he relates (to the crowd) and how prepares," Angel said. "With Marshall, he really writes great melodies and unusual chord changes. Me, personally, that's what I picked up from him."
The band recently embarked on an outing with singer-songwriter and guitarist Marshall Crenshaw, known for the 1982 Top 40 hit "Someday, Someway." (Crenshaw portrayed Buddy Holly in the 1987 film La Bamba.) Tonight, the trek will bring Crenshaw and Los Straitjackets to Musikfest Cafe in Bethlehem.
"I get to play a lot of 12-string (guitar) with Marshall. With Marshall, there are so many guitars on stage, you have to bring something a little different to the table," Angel said. "It just so happens his songs are suited for the 12-string. We share similar sensibilities. That's why we wanted to tour with him. We're big fans of his, so it's a real natural fit."
After 22 years, Angel said he has grown accustomed to the claustrophobic feeling of wearing a tight-fitting mask while performing, not to mention using earplugs due to suffering from . Despite the sometimes grueling nature of the role, Angel said there are still plenty of magical moments to be had.
"They'll be times on the road, you'll be really tired and you drag yourself on stage and suddenly you come alive on stage and you have more energy than you had in the middle of the day," he said. "I get the biggest kick out of watching the audience smile. It's fun playing when the music is good and it has good energy... If it's not good music, it can be bad energy."
Los Straitjackets perform tonight with Marshall Crenshaw at Musikfest Cafe, located inside the ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks, 101 Founders Way, Bethlehem. Tickets cost $22-$28. Show time is 7:30 p.m.