Guitarist Shana Cleveland learned surf-guitar phrasing by studying the greats like Link Wray, but her songwriting approach is not calculated or tailored to any genre. “I mostly feel out of control when I go to write my own music,” she says.
Photo by Sam Gehrke
Perhaps the most difficult rabbit to pull out of any musical hat is to wring something fresh, truly vital, and contemporary from the bones of a form already steeped in its own history. Authenticity, especially in the ultra-romanticized genres of guitar music, is no small undertaking. Neither is the quest to say something new and relevant that draws heavily from revered, iconic, historic sounds.
Does the charm in retro guitar music live in the music itself or in the nostalgia it evokes? Regardless, these styles are iconic for a reason, and when a contemporary artist does make a unique statement using classic textures, tones, and ideas, it’s usually a particularly compelling one. Seattle’s heiresses to the surf-rock throne, La Luz, have provided a testament to this with the release of their sophomore LP, Weirdo Shrine, a lushly adorned, energetic adventure of an album that fuses surf-guitar, girl-group harmonies, and dark, eerie organ in a way that provides a modern take on a vintage vibe with conviction, sidestepping the irony that plagues most surf-rock bands.
Led by guitarist/frontwoman Shana Cleveland and rounded out by Lena Simon on bass, Alice Sandahl on keys, and Marian Li Pino on drums, La Luz is a gem amid the sea of myopic, reverb-slathered, kitschy garage-rock currently riding the wave of the psych-rock revival. The band’s songs are rife with lyrical depth and an honesty that delivers La Luz’s music far from the novelty surf and shines a new light on the genre as something more than a vehicle for fun guitar playing, though instrumentals like the barreling “Hey Papi” make sure there’s still plenty of fun guitar-fiber lurking in the depths of La Luz’s surf-noir sound to keep you on your toes.
We spoke with Cleveland about her journey into the heart of surf guitar, her influences as a player, and why La Luz is more than the band’s genre-label might put on. Added bonus: Read “Everything in Between” sidebar to hear bassist Lena Simon’s approach to La Luz’s low end.
How did you get into surf music?
I saw this band called the Diminished Men play right after I moved to Seattle. They’ve been around Seattle for maybe a decade, and they’re this really great, dark, strange surf-rock band, and I saw them play at a house show. The show was just so much fun, and I don’t think I’d even consciously listened to surf music prior to that, but I was just so blown away by them that it sparked up this serious desire to be in a band like that. In fact, I was in another band at the time and I eventually just came to the conclusion that I had to learn to play like the Diminished Men and was done with the band I was in.
La Luz guitarists/frontwoman Shana Cleveland jams on her MIM Fender Stratocaster she bought at a small music shop in Seattle called the Trading Musician. "I’m not a gearhead by any means, so any time I need something, I tell the people working there the sound that I’m after and they’re cool with me doing some trial-and-error, so that’s how I’ve come
by most of my stuff," says Cleveland. Photo by Sam Gehrke
Which players influenced you the most when you started getting into surf music?
A big one for me, especially since I started playing with La Luz, is a Japanese guitarist named Takeshi Terauchi, who was in a band called the Bunnies back in the ’60s. That band put out an album, that I believe has been re-released recently, called Nippon Guitars, and that record and his playing has become really my major guitar influence these days. Definitely Link Wray, too. When I first started trying to play surf guitar, I started by trying to figure out how to play his songs.
How did you go about learning to play the style?
It was kind of ridiculous, actually. I had this Link Wray compilation—an actual vinyl record—and I’d pick out a couple of songs a day and sit there moving the needle back over and over again. It would take me like an hour to learn 10 seconds of what he was doing, so it was a ridiculous, super tedious way of learning. But it ended up being a great way to learn because, while it was a lot of work, it was so exciting and rewarding when I would finally figure something out. What I love about that style—and I think this is probably true about any style of guitar playing—is there is just so much you can do with one note in surf guitar. Link Wray in particular used so many tricks and ways to approach playing any one note, whether it was a hammer-on, or a slide, or a bent string, and learning those parts by ear was really satisfying for me.
That’s the only way I’ve ever tried to learn, honestly. I don’t have much patience for things like YouTube tutorials, and I’m not sure if other ways are better or not, but this is what works best for me.
Your playing sounds like someone that has studied the genre deeply. Are you at all focused on authenticity when writing your guitar parts?
No, not really. I really admire a lot of those players and the people who crafted that sound and I certainly try to copy them to some extent, but I mostly feel out of control when I go to write my own music. I don’t know that I’m capable of creating a true reproduction of that style, though it’s cool to hear that it sounds authentic. I think a lot of that lies in the tonal choices. I try not to go for a super clean, modern-sounding tone.