When Shana Cleveland wanted to learn to play surf guitar, she took an old-school approach. She listened to vinyl records and put the needle down on guitar parts she liked, over and over until she figured them out. Hailing from the Midwest, Cleveland hadn’t heard surf music until she moved to Seattle, which itself is not exactly a hotbed of surf culture.
“People don’t generally associate Seattle with surf,” she says. “But the Ventures are from Tacoma, and they’re one of the most well-known surf bands.”
Though Cleveland, frontwoman for the band La Luz, may not have heard surf music growing up, she was surrounded by just about everything else. Both of her parents are musicians who played in Western swing, country, soul, rock, and blues bands. She spent her childhood being “dragged around to their shows and practices” and “messing around with different instruments that were laying around.” Cleveland had a brief stint playing bass and learning Hole covers, but she feels most at home playing guitar.
Once she had her surf guitar riffs down, she joined forces with drummer Marian Li Pino, keyboardist Alice Sandahl and bassist Abbey Blackwell to form La Luz. The four-piece quickly established itself on the local music scene as a Link-Wray-inspired indie-surf-noir band. Their songs combine the feel-good surf grooves associated with summertime and freedom with dark lyrical content that explores loneliness, death, longing, hopelessness and infatuation. The dark and layered songwriting style comes naturally to Cleveland.
“I’ve never been interested in music that felt too one-dimensional,” she says. “I’ve never been interested in music that just sounded like a party or sounded like a good time. I’ve always liked it when there was some kind of duality—that you could dance to it, but it was really sad, or you could hear somebody’s heart coming through.”
The Northwest has plenty of venues, bands and industry pros to help young indie acts get traction, and La Luz became a standout of the region. The band garnered national attention and hit the road touring. In 2013, however, things came to a screeching halt when the band was in a serious accident while touring in support of rockers Of Montreal. While traveling from Boise, Idaho back to Seattle, La Luz’s tour van slipped on black ice, crashed into a highway divider, and was hit by a semi-trailer truck. The band members were injured and their instruments and merchandise were destroyed. They canceled the remainder of the tour.
Blackwell, who was already conflicted about being on the road all the time, left the band and was replaced by Lena Simon. The members then moved from Seattle to Los Angeles. Cleveland says they’re all still recovering from the trauma of the incident, but they found they had a new level of dedication.
“It’s hard to tell how much was directly a result of the accident,” says Cleveland, “but I’m sure in some ways it made our resolve stronger.”
Cleveland found the accident and emotional fallout from it indirectly influencing her songwriting for the band’s sophomore album, 2015’s Weirdo Shrine.
“I definitely see it when I listen to that album,” she says. “I don’t know if I ever directly address it, but it feels like it’s just drifting through the album in different ways, lyrically and in the mood.”
Weirdo Shrine was produced by garage rocker Ty Segall. For Cleveland, a longtime Segall fan, the experience was surreal, but the two shared a vision for the album and the La Luz sound, which included capturing the raw energy of a live performance and boosting the fuzz-factor and low-fi aesthetic Segall is known for.
“It just kind of all tumbled together,” Cleveland says. “We had a similar vision of how it should be recorded, which was to do it mostly live. I really wanted to try something like that.”
The album, which garnered critical acclaim, showcases the smart instrumentation, catchy hooks, tight harmonies and tough emotions so commonplace in Cleveland’s writing. It was described by one reviewer as “visceral to an astonishing degree, meant to force idle bodies into sonic submission.”
“It’s a nice balance,” Cleveland says, “when you’ve got four really pretty female voices, to have it go someplace more dark and mysterious.”
La Luz will perform at 9 p.m. on Thursday, March 23. Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. $10/adv, $12/door. 423-1338.