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Hearing Voices 

Los Straitjackets, America's greatest masked instrumentalists, sing the body eclectic on their fifth LP.

Los Straitjackets kick out the karaoke on their latest album.
  • Los Straitjackets kick out the karaoke on their latest album.

Los Straitjackets have never done anything by degrees. When they formed as a surf-guitar/twangabilly instrumental band in 1988, they birthed the absolute best act in the genre. When they later took a hiatus, it was six years long. When they looked for a stage persona, they settled on garish Mexican wrestling masks to make their statement. So it comes as little surprise that, when the band members came up with the idea to add vocals to their twangy, tangy surf-and-roots sound, they took the concept to their own unique level.

For their fifth CD, the aptly titled Sing Along With Los Straitjackets, they invited not 1, not 2, but 12 different vocalists to contribute amazingly diverse textures to their already rich sound. Some of the singers were logical surf-rock choices (Reverend Horton Heat, El Vez, Dave Alvin); others were strange picks -- even considering the band's penchant for the offbeat and slightly surreal (former Raider Mark Lindsay, Sixpence None the Richer's Leigh Nash, the Heartbreakers' Mike Campbell, Nick Lowe).

"We noticed that there are a lot of bands out there that include singing," says guitarist Danny Amis, with tongue planted firmly in masked cheek. "We thought that was a unique idea. It turned out that we had a lot of friends that sing, so we decided to try it. We asked our friends, they were happy to do it, and we're happy with the results. There wasn't really a lot of thought put into who [would sing], just who we knew."

This isn't the first time vocals have appeared on a Los Straitjackets record. The band had released a pair of Spanish songs -- "La Plaga" and "Que Mala" -- as a single in 1996, with Big Sandy (frontman for the Fly-Rite Boys) on vocals, and had briefly flirted with the concept of doing an entire album with Big Sandy at some point. That idea evolved into the multisinger format of Sing Along.

The other departure on Sing Along is the exclusive reliance on cover songs. Although Los Straitjackets are no strangers to interpretation (their "Sleepwalk"-spiced version of Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On," from The Velvet Touch of Los Straitjackets, is priceless), the band has drawn primarily on original material. With Sing Along, Los Straitjackets had already broken the instrumental format, so an all-covers album seemed like the next (il)logical progression.

"We pretty much asked the people who wanted to be on the record if they had any ideas, and we let them pick the songs," says Amis. "We asked them, 'Is there any cover song that you've never done, that you always wanted to, but it didn't really fit in with the band you were in?' Usually, they were songs that we knew."

Indeed, hearing the band rip through Los Bravos' "Black Is Black" with Raul Malo, Roy Orbison's "Down the Line" with the Reverend Horton Heat, and Nick Lowe's "Shake That Rat" with none other than Lowe himself on vox sounds as if Los Straitjackets knew the material like the back of their hands, which they then used to slap the originals in the face.

The band divided its time between studios in Nashville and Los Angeles to accommodate the various vocalists and their infinitely hectic schedules. Obviously, with so much new input, there were surprises along the way.

"I was surprised at how good Mark Lindsay's voice still is," says Amis. "We've all been fans of his for so many years, and it was a thrill to not only meet him, but to really hit it off with him. We were really surprised, hanging around with Reverend Horton Heat in the studio. What a versatile guitar player that man is! He's unbelievable -- and very knowledgeable."

In typically atypical Los Straitjackets style, even the simple process of initially previewing the record to the band's fans became a spectacle.

"Earlier this year, we did a tour of Spain, and we offered a vacation package and took a busload of our fans with us on tour," says Amis. "We actually previewed the record with them, and the response was great."

As Los Straitjackets prepare to take Sing Along out on the road in an extravaganza they're calling the "Los Straitjackets Rock and Roll Party," which will also feature world-famous hoofers the Pontani Sisters for a number of dates, some obvious adjustments are being made to accommodate the vocal portion of the show. The band's performances will be split into instrumental and vocal sets, and Big Sandy, who has two tracks on the album, will do a number of the other selections as well (Big Sandy will also front the band for an appearance on Late Night With Conan O'Brien on November 2). If the timing is right and travel dates coincide, special guests from the album could appear at select shows.

"Whoever happens to be in town in those cities that we're playing in, we'll invite them to come on up and join us," says Amis. "That's certainly going to happen. We're just spreading the word to the people who were on the record and letting them know our tour schedule. If it works out for them, they can show up."

Depending on the overall reaction to Sing Along, another covers collection could happen. A number of extra tracks were generated at the Sing Along sessions, and for a limited time, a bonus EP will be offered with the disc. The band also has a single in the works, featuring some of the songs they cut with the Trashmen. Moreover, there were several vocalists who were invited to the Sing Along sessions, but were unable to arrange their schedules to accommodate the recording timeline.

"Brian Wilson was interested at one point, then changed his mind, then was interested again, then changed his mind, so we decided to maybe do something with him at a later time," says Amis, who then answers an inquiry into the possibility of a Sing Along 2 with a phrase that has defined Los Straitjackets since its inception: "Oh, anything is possible."

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