Until his band began receiving attention, Danny Amis, songwriter and lead guitarist for rock instrumentalists Los Straitjackets, worked as a stage manager and soundman at a Nashville television studio. And he doesn't want you to know which one. "I'd really appreciate it if you wouldn't say any more about it than that," he says. "I'd really appreciate it."
That's exactly the kind of request you'd expect from a guy who plays tunes without words while wearing a Mexican wrestling mask. But in most other respects, Amis isn't notably secretive or paranoid. In fact, his primary fear seems to be that people will discover that the striking surf-and-psychedelia dished up by the Straitjackets (Amis, guitarist Eddie Angel, bassist E. Scott Esbeck and drummer L.J. Lester) on their wonderful debut CD, The Utterly Fantastic and Totally Unbelievable Sound of Los Straitjackets, was conceived by an exceedingly regular guy. Or, as he puts it, "I guess I like a little mystery."
Too bad for him that he's left behind clues to his musical identity. He was raised in the Minneapolis area and formed his first band, the Overtones, in the late Seventies. The outfit released one single on the Twin/Tone label. "It was an instrumental with two vocal tracks that I sang," Amis recalls. "And looking back, I think doing the vocals was a mistake. We had a unique thing happening, and the vocals made us sound too much like everyone else."
Rock instrumentals, on the other hand, were relatively novel at the time; in spite of one-shots like the 1973 Edgar Winter goof "Frankenstein," the style had been on the wane for the better part of a generation. "I could never figure out why that was," Amis admits. "If you look back at the charts from the Fifties and Sixties, instrumentals used to dominate--not just surf instrumentals, but easy listening and other kinds, too. Some of the best-selling records of all time were instrumentals, so it was strange to me that they weren't as big over the last ten or twenty years."
Looking to become an exception to this rule were the Raybeats, a combo formed by guitarist Jody Harris and other players associated with New York City-based no-wave acts such as the Contortions and Lydia Lunch. Their music, influenced most directly by an English unit, the Shadows, was built from trebly guitars, cheesy organs and saxophone skronks, yet it was accessible enough to charm anyone who ever tapped a foot to Duane Eddy's "Rebel-'Rouser." This unique blend immediately captivated Amis, who became friendly with the Raybeats after the Overtones shared a bill with them.
"Then," Amis recalls, "the Raybeats' original bass player, George Scott, died of a drug overdose. That was around the same time that the Overtones were breaking up, so I gave the Raybeats a call and said, `If you're going to continue, would you be interested in me playing with you?' And they said, `Yeah, come on out.'"
Amis promptly moved to New York and contributed bass guitar to the Raybeats' best recorded moment, the 1981 album Guitar Beat. In 1982, however, Amis was asked to leave, and for just the quality he most likes to hide: his normalcy. "I think I was a little too traditional a player for them," he notes. "But they were on their way to breaking up anyhow. It never took off the way it should have."
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In 1983, around the time the Raybeats were twanging their last, Amis cut an EP, Whiplash!, for producer Mitch Easter on the Coyote imprint. The disc didn't do much commercially, but its straightforward sound laid the groundwork for Los Straitjackets. Moreover, rearrangements of two Whiplash! cuts turned into "G-Man" and "Tailspin," two of the highlights on Utterly Fantastic.
Five years later Amis was in Nashville, wishing he was still part of the music business, when he went to a show featuring Webb Wilder and a band called Jeanie and the Hurricanes, led by Eddie Angel, who'd been putting out instrumental records since the early Eighties. Amis was so inspired by the music that he introduced himself after the show to Angel and L.J. Lester, Wilder's drummer. The trio subsequently dubbed themselves the Straitjackets and played a handful of local gigs. But before anything more could happen, Angel moved away from Nashville and Lester hit the road with Wilder. It took until last year and the addition of bassist Esbeck for Los Straitjackets to emerge. In short order, the band was signed to Upstart Records (a subsidiary of Rounder), and Amis thinks the masks were the reason. "It was an attention-getter," he allows. "Musically, we're not a comedy act or anything; we're a real band. But there are a lot of instrumental bands out there, and we were just looking for a way to get noticed and to make us fun to watch."
By all accounts, Los Straitjackets are--their live shows, marked by Dick Dale verve and Andre the Giant hamming, have caused jaws to drop from sea to shining sea. The band hasn't made Amis rich quite yet, but the money he's earning has allowed him to steer clear of that nameless TV studio. "We've been making this stuff for years," he says about Los Straitjackets' sound. "The kind of music we play just happened to come back into vogue. It's about time.