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Photo by Brandon Day
Photo by Brandon Day

Surf music isn’t a thing of the past, and La Luz can prove it to you. Ever since it formed in Seattle in 2011, the four-piece group–comprised of singer/guitarist Shana Cleveland, keyboardist Alice Sandahl, bassist Lena Simon and drummer Marian Li Pino–has been bringing the sunny, California beach vibes to the rain-soaked, forest covered northwest, mixing the sunshine with a their own unique dose of lyrical rainclouds and reverb-soaked thunder.

Originally founded by Cleveland–who says she was drawn to old surf, blues and rock and roll music growing up because it always had a dark side mixed with light–the group of friends came together after becoming slowly acquainted in the Seattle music scene. Their 2013 release, It’s Alive, won critics and audiences over with its infectious, garage pop melodies. But that same year, the group was involved in a highway collision that destroyed their van and most of their equipment. Since then, the four-piece’s music became a little more urgent, with their latest tracks more immersed in topics like running out of time and death.

Almost as much as their dueling dark side/light side songs though, the band is known for their fun and energetic live shows, encouraging crowds to dance with their own 1960s inspired dance moves (think kicks, spins and twirls around the stage while they play). In fact, they even coined a phrase for the audience participation side of their show: The “Soul Train,” which sees the crowd split apart at the middle, with a continuous line of one or two people dancing their favorite moves down the line until they reach the front of the stage. They describe it as “A river of dancing” and try it at most every performance.

Their latest release, Weirdo Shrine, out August 7, is a continuation of their pre-established sound, only this time, with a little more reverb and the pointed decision to sound a lot more live, like listening to the band play in front of you in your living room. Still a precisely crafted yin and yang of bright, jangly guitar riffs, dreamy doo-wop harmonies and booming crashes of cymbals, the 11 tracks also reveal dark, occasionally twisted lyrics covering topics about love, obsession and people’s weird quirks.

During an interview by the river at Timber! Outdoor Music Festival in Carnation, Washington, ELEVEN caught up with La Luz to learn more about their new album.

Photo by Brandon Day
Photo by Brandon Day

ELEVEN: Can you tell me a bit about Weirdo Shrine now that it’s close to coming out?

Shana Cleveland: We recorded it in February in L.A. with Ty Segall and also Cory Hanson [of the band Wand]. He kind of sat in for half the time we were there. He’s great though, he really, really knows his stuff. Probably about half the album we’ve been playing live over the past 6 months or so, just to get the songs ready that way by just really honing them in as a group.

11: How did you get connected with Ty and Cory?

SC: We played a show together a year-and-a-half ago in Portland. We just opened that show and met him there and he just said he liked our band a lot and so we ended up going on tour with him and then we were looking for someone to record our album and asked him if he had any recommendations and he recommended himself. So he followed through on his ideas.

Marian Li Pino: Exactly. He was like “I’m going to take you on tour” and he took us on tour. “I’m going to record a record with you.”

SC: He’s a good man.

11: And then you recorded it live in a surf shop, right?

SC: Yeah. It was not a live album in the sense that we were just in one take, but yeah, we didn’t separate things, we did it all together. And then if someone really fucked up, we’d do another take.

ML: Yeah, and it was a coincidence.

Alice Sandahl: Even when I showed up, I was like “What? No way…” But it was really cool.

SC: Yeah. It wasn’t planned to be in a surf shop or anything like that, it just worked out that way.

ML: We were supposed to record at Ty’s place and then the city wouldn’t let him, I don’t know what it was. I think it was zoning? And so he was in a bind and his friend has a spot where he makes surfboards and so he cleared out his equipment and let us record there.

11: A couple of articles that I’ve read have mentioned that you’d leave in a couple moments of improv or small moments that you messed up. Are there any moments there that people can listen for on the album?

ML: I would say there were definitely variances to how we normally play it that we allowed to stay.

SC: My favorite stuff that we left in that were sort of almost spur of the moment but not quite were the vocal things. Like there was one moment where we were like “somebody should scream at this part” and Ty was like “you should say ‘Nighttime.’” I don’t know why. There was no reason for that word. So she [Marian] went to the far corner of the room and just at this one part screams “NIGHTTIME!” before the guitar solo starts.

AS: That would be a fun thing to listen for, if you could find it on the album.

ML: “Nighttime.” We won’t tell you what song. You’ll just have to find it. [all mimic the scream and laugh]

11: You mentioned some of the “things that you allowed to stay.” Why did you decide to let them stay on the album?

SC: Those were more of the things that were last minute ideas that we threw in. The things that we allowed to stay were just coming from that we wanted it to sound live. And live you don’t always hit the guitar solo in the way that it is in your dreams, but maybe that makes it sound more live. That has a certain energy, you know? It not being pristine.

11: A lot of your music feels really fun and poppy when you listen to it and then has kind of a dark twist. Is that a conscious effort to you? You mentioned not really being able to write straight happy songs.

SC: It’s not really conscious I guess…It seems sort of boring having a song that’s like “I feel great! And everything is great!” I mean, some people can do that. There’s an Otis Redding song that’s just about being happy. But a lot of really good old soul and rock and roll is really catchy but it’s just so sad and heartbreaking. You listen to it and you’re like “Oh, shit.” To me, that makes me appreciate it even more, because music, for me at least, is all about making a connection. If you can sing a song that’s more nuanced emotionally…that seems like the more meaningful connection than just being like “We’re here to fucking party!” People aren’t going to be like “Oh, that song really helped me through a hard time.” You don’t always feel like partying.

11: I also read that this album was influenced by a comic.

Photo by Brandon Day
Photo by Brandon Day

SC: The title track, “Black Hole Weirdo Shrine” is influenced by this…have you read the comic Black Hole?

11: I haven’t, I’ll have to check it out.

SC: It’s based in Seattle. An epidemic sweeps the community that just happens to be Seattle and kids are getting infected and dying and sort of mutating and…a lot of mutated teens live in this park, Ravenna Park, which is right next to where I live and it’s kind of a creepy place. It’s a really expansive park in the middle of the city and it’s really dense, just greenery everywhere, ferns and moss. I’ve had a lot of creepy experiences in that park and, I don’t know, I was just thinking about that book when I wrote that song. But like all songs, it’s about a lot of things at once.

11: You’re pretty well known for your live shows and for making people dance. When you formed, is that something you were like “we want to be really good live,” or was that something that’s just kind of come up?

ML: I think we had the feeling that we wanted to be fun, we didn’t necessarily think that we would make people dance in the way that we did. But it came kind of naturally. Usually it starts with us joking about something, and then someone’s like “we should really do that.” Or we’re like “wouldn’t that be funny?” and then we do it. I mean, it happens all the time. We’re probably going to do something like that today. We usually just use inside jokes and sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t.

SC: We do this all the time now, we just play shows, and so why wouldn’t…we just want them to be the most fun that they can be. I feel like just encouraging people to have a good time. I always am a little disappointed if I go to a show and the band is just really serious and they don’t seem like they’re really interacting with each other. It seems like the point of playing live is to make a connection with people. One way to do that is just to encourage them to be with you. Like, we’re having fun, so you should have fun, too.

ML: We thought of this crazy thing, want to try it with us?

AS: Will you entertain us?

SC: We’ll entertain you and then maybe you can entertain us? »

– Kaitie Todd

Catch La Luz live in Portland with Will Sprott + Is/Is  August 8 at Wonder Ballroom