La Luz: Back to Life

Music Features

In a creative burst of guerrilla marketing, complete with homemade posters and the occasional bit of dancing, the members of La Luz spent day after day on the streets of Seattle, hawking tickets to their Weirdo Shrine album release show.

With tantalizingly low $5 tickets, “Luzer” T-shirts and a refreshing anti-rock-star openness, Shana Cleveland, Marian Li Pino, Alice Sandahl and Lena Simon hit spot after spot in the two weeks before the show, setting up outside the main entrance to Seattle’s Capitol Hill Block Party, in parks and at record stores, to drum up excitement for the album’s release.

It’s all part of a confident leap La Luz has taken on Weirdo Shrine. Far more dynamic and intense than their 2013 debut It’s Alive, the new record takes the band’s surf-noir sound in new directions. And the group set an appropriately high bar for the release show, booking a club (The Showbox, capacity 1100) that’s more double the size of anywhere they’ve headlined a hometown show. Then they’ll embark on their longest tour yet, three months across the United States and Europe.

“We really wanted an all-ages show at a big venue so that everybody who wanted to come could come. Hometown shows always feel extra good, and this will be a great start for us,” says guitarist-singer Cleveland.

The Weirdo Shrine release caps two years of lows and highs for the band. Fifteen months after forming, and just weeks after releasing It’s Alive, they were in a severe accident that totaled their van and equipment, forcing the cancellation of a tour with of Montreal. Back on the road in a matter of months, La Luz spent most of 2014 touring, including dates with Ty Segall that led to the Southern California garage-rocker producing the new album.

Weirdo Shrine isn’t about the collision, and Cleveland for the most part avoided addressing it directly, but there’s something in the album’s raw and intense vibe that reflects that moment and its aftermath.

“That experience was such a hard thing for all of us, and when I think about how it entered into the album, it’s just as a phantom that floats through the whole thing. It’s not there literally very often, but I feel it’s there when I listen to the songs,” Cleveland says. “There were definitely a couple songs I wrote that were more literally about the accident, but they felt too literal and I ended up scrapping them. Whenever I felt like it was coming through too strong, I tended to take it out. I don’t fell like I’m ready to talk directly about it.”

Instead, the songs in general revolve around a theme common in both Cleveland’s writing and the early rock ‘n’ roll and soul songs that she’s long held as favorites.

“In a lot of songs I write, there’s a theme of being in your own head, the conflict between your internal monologue and the way you have to exist in the outside world. As a shy person I feel like that a lot,” she says. “I’m always attracted to songs that seem deceptively simple but feel emotionally complex a lot of early rock and roll and soul music does that really well.”

To cite just one example, Cleveland points to “Goin’ Out of My Head,” by Little Anthony & the Imperials. “It’s so simple, but it feels so tragic because it’s about how he’s in love with this woman and can’t tell her,” she says. “A lot of songs are about that. Love songs oftentimes are totally in someone’s head. That’s a sentiment you hear in a lot of early soul music and for me that’s the most tragic.”

The first song La Luz wrote specifically for Weirdo Shrine was “I Wanna Be Alone (With You),” which is similar in sentiment and also encapsulates the dimensions in the band’s new sound: edgier guitar from Cleveland, fluid bass from Simon, Li Pino’s pummeling drums and Sandahl’s ethereal organ.

“Just within that song there are a lot of dynamics. It starts off slow and ends with a screaming solo. It feels like a good example of what the rest of the album was going to be,” Cleveland says. “We’ve been a band for longer. For our first record, I wrote about half the songs before we were even a band, with an idea of what we’d be. This comes after we’ve spent a ton of time in the road touring and figuring out our chemistry.”

The experience of La Luz on stage was the fundamental thing the band hoped to capture on Weirdo Shrine, having focused primarily on tone and mood on It’s Alive.

“I don’t think we really had many conscious choices of how we wanted to grow or change as a band; it just happened naturally,” Cleveland says. “The main difference is just that we set out intentionally to try to make and album that felt to us like it had the energy of playing live. The way that Ty recorded, he didn’t separate the instruments much. We were all playing in the same room, not behind soundproofing screens, and Ty was in the same room too. It felt more immediate, more energetic and playing together as opposed to playing our separate parts.”

Segall and La Luz knew they were on the same page when they toured together last year and Segall got to witness much of what would become Weirdo Shrine performed live, long before the recording sessions began.

“For a while I was listening to a lot of albums that I love and looking at who worked on them and just trying to figure out who we wanted to work with,” Cleveland says. “I really loved the sound of Ty’s albums, so I wrote to him and asked if he had any suggestions about who we should record with. He basically recommended himself and we all talked about it and agreed it was a great idea.”

To record, La Luz journeyed south to San Dimas, California, where Segall set the band up, fittingly, in a surf shop.

“Ty encouraged us to give a performance that felt authentic and not rehearsed. A couple of solos I played differently than I intended to. I wanted to do them over again, and he said to leave it, and more often than not I realized that it was cool to have some things I initially thought were imperfections. They really added to the album,” Cleveland says. “We didn’t do very many overdubs, with the intention of being able to reproduce everything live, keeping it really streamlined and really true to how the album sounds.”

The result is a wilder, looser album—but also with more four-part harmonies—that was named album of the month by Seattle’s City Arts magazine and featured on NPR Music’s First Listen.

So, after the hometown release show, La Luz will do what they love and take Weirdo Shrine out on the road. Short of dying, the band experienced the worst the road has to offer, and Cleveland says she took the harrowing accident as a bit of a message.

“We all felt so low and it was just a moment of ‘OK, what do we do from here? We can wallow in grief or live as much as we can,’” Cleveland says. “The sensation when something happens like that is to withdraw into fear and depression. It’s scary getting back on the road. All that stuff is so freaky now in a way that it never was before. But at the same time, a near-death experience really puts everything into perspective. We just want to do what feels most alive, which is playing.”

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