Short but Sweet Songwriting

Somehow Seattle launched the all-female surf sounds of La Luz

In sound and attitude, La Luz draw inspiration from older tunes, the early rock, surf and girl groups of the 1950s and 1960s.

The result is what the band's label, Hardly Art, calls "surf noir," built from four-part harmonies, the catchiness of doo-wop, the jangle of early garage and the edgy reverb of surf-rock guitar.

"I was listening to a lot of old garage rock and pop music and girl groups from the '60s. It seemed like everything I really liked from that period had really cool guitar tones and group vocals and harmonies, so I wanted to emulate that sound," says guitarist Shana Cleveland.

The band formed after Cleveland and drummer Marian Li Pino finished a long tour with their previous band, Curious Mystery, a psychedelic project that released two albums on K Records.

"I did some of the songwriting and tried to incorporate some vocal harmonies and surf guitar in that band, but it didn't really work," says Cleveland, a poet and painter in addition to singer-guitarist-songwriter.

Embarking on their own project to indulge those surf and doo-wop impulses, Cleveland and Li Pino recruited Alice Sandahl on keyboards and Abbey Blackwell on bass, forming a Seattle powerhouse that found an audience immediately.

"Alice had played in a band with Marian before, so they were already used to playing together. Abbey I met at an improv night at a café down the street from my house. I'd go there every Sunday to watch people improvise and Abbey was one of the people who got up to play," Cleveland says.

Performing around Seattle, La Luz built a following and attracted enough attention to start recording. The band put out three releases rapid fire: 7-inch singles on Suicide Squeeze and Water Wing and a cassette EP, Damp Face, on Burger Records. One early enthusiast was Ruben Mendez of Seattle's Hardly Art, an offshoot of Sub Pop.

"We were playing all-ages shows and Ruben was talking about us around town. When it came time for us to decide what label we wanted to go with, we'd already talked with him, so (Hardly Art) felt like a good fit," Cleveland says.

Hardly Art released La Luz' full-length debut, It's Alive, on Oct. 15.

"A lot musicians I like a lot put out music really fast and are really prolific, so that's something I wanted to emulate," Cleveland says, mentioning Ty Segall and the spate of records he's released, both solo and in different band combinations, the last few years. "I feel like with pop music, there's no reason not to be prolific with your output."

La Luz recorded their EP in a one-of-a-kind homemade studio in Bothell, a suburb northeast of Seattle, and Cleveland says the response was so good they went back to record their full album.

"Our friend Johnny (Goss) had lived there forever on the outskirts of town," Cleveland says. "He has this weird little concrete bunker that's attached to a laundry room in a trailer park. He has a bunch of this cool old recording gear, so we went there.

"I wanted it to have a feel that wasn't defined by any one time in particular, that sound that you really couldn't place. We went for the lo-fi thing and recorded to tape. It's great to work with Johnny. He's really relaxed and doesn't try to overproduce stuff. We get to mess around and redo things."

It's Alive, spurred by the singles "Big Big Blood" and "Call Me in the Day," has a vibe of effortless cool, packed with pop songs that are easy to fall in love with.

"I like short songs. A lot of tracks from the '50s and '60s, that early rock style that was all on 45s, was short and hooky. It was pretty purposeful. I was really drawn to the shorter, catchier tracks," Cleveland says.

Between the slinkier surf songs and the more upbeat organ-driven tunes, what ties It's Alive together are the harmonies. But even Cleveland admits the band is just getting a handle on what the four women can do together vocally.

"We all really like the way our voices sound together. It's such a different thing to have four female voices than a mixed group. But we're still working on that. It's kind of a new thing for all of us. Alice teaches voice lessons in Seattle and she kind of coaches us in practice sometimes," she says. "I hear a lot of vocals when I'm writing songs and everybody is great about figuring out how we all fit together. We're still learning, but it's coming together."

From the outset, La Luz drew comparisons to the latest wave of all-female groups, like Brooklyn's Vivian Girls and the Los Angeles-based Dum Dum Girls. The all-female makeup of La Luz was by design and while Cleveland welcomes the comparisons, she didn't want to use the band's name to highlight that fact.

"We thought it would be cool to only be women's voices. Now I can't see it any other way," Cleveland says. "But we try not to make a big deal about it. I honestly would have felt kind of silly choosing a name with girls in the title. I really love those bands, but it's not really our style to have that be at the forefront."

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