My interview with Shana Cleveland, guitarist for Seattle surf-noir quartet La Luz was conducted in four parts. At different points in the conversation our cellphone connection was lost, a casualty of the no man’s land east of West Texas, where the women – Cleveland (lead vocals), Marian Li Pino (drums), Alice Sandahl (keyboards), and Lena Simon (bass) – played to a “not-as-crazy-as-other-shows”-El-Paso-crowd the night before.
There are worse things that could happen to a band on the road. In late 2013, La Luz was involved in a horrendous van accident while on tour in support of their album It’s Alive. The accident, which destroyed the band’s gear and injured the members both physically and mentally, brought the tour to an abrupt end.
During our conversation, Cleveland was hesitant to attribute too much of the vibe of the band’s new album, Weirdo Shrine, to the lingering effects of the crash. But she did open up enough to admit that subsequent listens revealed the accident to be “hovering over the record like a phantom.” Cleveland, though, didn’t care to discuss it any further. Which is fine, because, with the way things have gone for the band in the last few months – recording in a surfboard shaping bay, kicking off an extensive North American tour, a New York Times write-up, and almost universal acclaim for the aforementioned new album – there’s plenty to talk about (if only we can maintain service as the band whiles through the vast West Texas wasteland).
Both on stage and off, La Luz’s timing seems impeccable. California has never been cooler. L.A. is the new Brooklyn, S.F. is the new Manhattan, and New York art galleries, which have long reacted to washed out California aesthetics with upturned noses, have gone surf crazy, featuring art and photography from So. Cal’s classic era. Coincidentally, perhaps, there are a lot of bands – particularly ones hailing from the Pacific Northwest – playing the kind of rock n’ roll that could’ve been included in the score of surf film classics like Ride the Wild Surf (1964) or John Severson’s Big Wednesday (1961).
Though Cleveland – whose brooding and complex lyrics reveal a background in poetry – says it’s all just rock ‘n’ roll, she’s certainly underselling the intricacies of what La Luz is doing with their surf sound. On Weirdo Shrine the quartet deploys haunting harmonies, introspective songwriting, high energy, and ownright mean musicianship, all of which positions them as probably the most interesting of any of the new wave of retro rockers.
In between the intervals of dead-air waves, Cleveland talked to Folio Weekly about the new album, California cool, the band’s use of harmonies, recording with garage rocker Ty Segall, and how to crowd surf with a keyboard.
Folio Weekly: Congratulations on the New York Times write up. That’s a big deal.
Shana Cleveland: Yeah, thanks. Jason, who works for our label, texted us probably like a week before [it came out] and he was just like ‘New York Times, Bitches!’
Has all the press and the glowing reviews of the new album surprised you?
I wouldn’t say I was surprised. I think just because we’ve been touring a lot and it’s like every time we go out, I see that we’re reaching more people. It’s been really awesome and I’m really excited by it, but I wouldn’t say I’m surprised.
There seem to be a lot of bands right now playing kind of retro-style garage rock, with a lot of California influence. Do you guys see yourselves as part of a scene?
I think there is a scene. Kind of a loose scene, but yeah, definitely on the West Coast there are a few bands that have that vibe. A lot of bands that draw from garage rock and use vocal harmonies, which can have a retro sound. But, I don’t really like the word retro to be honest [laughs]. It feels like it implies you’re trying to be something that you’re not. I think with a lot of that music, especially surf music, there’s a guitar tone and a lot of drum beats that are just basically rock ‘n’ roll. It’s all just rock ‘n’ roll.
Do you think there’s something about ‘50s/’60s California aesthetics that is appealing to this generation?
I don’t know why it would be particularly appealing right now, but to me, yeah, mid-sixties California beach culture: that sounds like pretty much the best thing ever [laughs]. It seems like kind of a no brainer. Who doesn’t wanna be on the beach in California at a time when the music was that good?
In what ways did Ty Segall leave his mark on the record?
The big thing that was different [than the last album] was that he really made an effort to make a recording that felt live and captured the live energy of the band. So we recorded it all in one room and he paid a lot of attention to capturing how all the instruments sounded individually and then together.
One of the things that really stood out on this record is the use of harmonies. As a group you use them quite dynamically. Is everybody contributing and is that something that came natural to your voices?
Yeah all four of us sing on almost every song. It takes practice, but everybody in the band just seems to be naturally really good at it. But, yeah it was really important to us that everybody could contribute to that sound.
Let’s talk about the stage diving. Who is crowd surfing and how did that get started?
Everybody is doing it! We started doing it when we went on the road with Ty. He told us the first person who jumped into the crowd with their instrument would get a hundred bucks. Since then we’ve all done it. Although I don’t think Alice has. You can’t crowd surf with a keyboard. Or I guess you can, but we haven’t figured it out yet.