By Jordan Reisman
Photo courtesy of La Luz.
The ladies are surfing. The ladies I’m referring to are La Luz and the “surf” I’m referring to is of the Pacific Northwest variety. La Luz is an all-female surf rock band from Seattle and they’re currently exploring the surf rock sound , carving out its darker sides. BTR was able to snag an interview with the band’s guitarist and girl in the front (everyone sings in La Luz), Shana Cleveland, as they were fresh off a festival visit to Orcas island off the northwest corner of Washington.
La Luz is only a year old, getting their start appropriately during the legendary summer of 2012. According to Cleveland recounting the band’s beginnings in a simpler time when we still had the same president, her and La Luz’s drummer, Marian Li Pino formed the group out of the ashes of their previous band together, Curious Mystery. They joined forces with Abbey Blackwell and Alice Sandahl, formerly of The Pica Beats (of the same label as La Luz, Hardly Art).
Cleveland describes the Seattle music scene that Luz is part of as huge and incestuous, with “seemingly 100 venues and 1,000 bands”. To emphasize her point of the incestuous nature of Seattle garage rock/surf music, she references a website called the Seattle Band Map which, according to the site itself, “explores how bands from the Pacific Northwest are interconnected through personal relationships and collaborations.” In order for a band to make their map on the map, “a) they share band members or b) two artists have collaborated on a project.”
The Seattle Band Map’s standards for qualifying to be a band are pretty low though, you must have one song out and have played at least one show. The map itself looks like coordinates from Goldeneye, accurately evoking just how active the scene really is. If one were to look up Cleveland’s name on there, they’d find Curious Mystery, La Luz, and her solo project, Shana Cleveland and the Sandcastles, though she says that “La Luz has definitely eclipsed any of our other projects.”
The surf sound is one that’s getting a lot of love these days with bands like Best Coast and former Discovery Artists Cayucas getting their songs played in commercials and movies. Not to say that’s La Luz’s overarching goal, instead merely playing surf rock was a goal of Cleveland’s while she was living in (unsurprisingly) Los Angeles.
“It had been something that I really wanted to teach myself how to do for a long time and I just had so many other projects going that I kind of it off. I started listening to that kind of music probably seven or eight years ago when I was living in LA briefly and I found a compilation of old surf/garage stuff at a used CD store and got insanely into it. So all these years I had been wanting to play in a band like that and just never getting around to it. It seemed fun and exciting but also kind of dark and creepy. Those things together really appeal to me.”
The interesting thing about that statement is that there are literally hundreds of other genres to pick from that are known for their “dark sides” (post-rock, hardcore, Norwegian black metal). Making sense of it now, it seems that Cleveland instead wanted the juxtaposition of pop and maudlin, presented in a reverb-heavy four chord song. Cleveland can only really describe this dark sensation sonically though.
“I don’t really know how to describe the dark side of surf I guess, I haven’t really put a whole lot of thought to it. It just seems like something that immediately comes to mind when I hear it”, says Cleveland, giving us a tour of her mind.
Moreover than having dark surf influences, La Luz is creating music that directly speaks to their darker thoughts and instincts.
“I think most of our songs have death in them, I didn’t really realize until after I was transcribing all of the lyrics for our new album. I’d say probably over half of them talk about death at some point. I like it when musicians get deeper than just their personal stuff” Cleveland says, citing friends of hers that were killed in a mass shooting in Seattle.
What makes surf rock so enjoyable to Cleveland and presumably the rest of the band is just how simple the music is. Looking for long-winded metaphors referencing Kafka? La Luz might not be the band for you. But if you like simple yet effective pop songs played by badass ladies, then you’re in luck.
“I feel like it’s (surf rock) accessible in that way, it doesn’t exclude anybody. It’s like, you hear it and you get it in a way that a lot of people who hear psych-rock or any sort of newer genre, it’s kind of, “I don’t know if I get that, I don’t know if this is for me.” Early rock n’ roll has an accessibility that I think is kind of cool”, Cleveland explains.
As well as taking influences from early rock n’ roll, they also pay tribute to the girl doo wop and R&B groups of the 1960’s. Cleveland says that Marian and Alice (keyboards) were the ones most heavily influenced by groups like the Shangri-Las and the Shirelles. They kept in mind the vocal harmonies of these groups and combined the lush harmonies with their own surf garage style.
La Luz wasn’t originally set out to be a girl group though, it mostly happened that way when they were looking for members and stumbled upon other girls with a similar vision.
“We realized that pretty early on, me and Marian hadn’t set out to do that originally but then we met Abbey and were looking for a keyboard player we decided that it would be cool to keep it all female. Part of it is just that we really like, it’s really cool how women’s voices sound all together. But then also it’s just been really awesome to tour with all girls.”
One unseen perk of keeping your band all female according to Cleveland is that, “We can share clothes, we can change in front of each other and it’s not weird. All the weirdness of sharing your space every day with a bunch of band mates is just a little less weird when it’s all women.”
One unfortunate assumption about girl groups to the old guard rock n’ roll patriarchs is that they use the band as a means to push their “agenda”. With movements like Riot Grrrl that came and went and changed everything, it leaves the question open whether or not La Luz took their cues from Kathleen Hanna.
“Our goal isn’t to prove anything but I mean, if we do and people see us and don’t think that women can be really awesome or something, it happens every now and then where men are like, ‘Wow, I did NOT expect that from you guys!’ and it’s like, ‘What am I supposed to say? Thanks for being a jerk?’ but also liking us, it’s weird.”
The early-90’s movements left an impression but it seems that the new agenda for the girl group is having no agenda. Post-modern, right?
To be a part of La Luz’s movement, click here.
Check out La Luz’s music and interview on the newest episode of Discovery Corner on BTR.