What Doesn't Kill You

La Luz surf misfortune, carve out sway in L.A.


Boise will always be important to the members of La Luz, because it was almost the site of the last show the harmony-laden, surf-noir, all-female quartet would ever play. Heading home to Seattle after a show at El Korah Shrine in Nov. 2013, the van the band was in hit a patch of black ice and crashed into a concrete barrier.

While Shana Cleveland, Marian Li Pino, Alice Sandahl and Abbey Blackwell waited for AAA, a semi-truck rear-ended the van, totaling it and all the instruments inside. The women walked away okay, though they had to cancel the remaining dates of their tour with Of Montreal. The whole experience made the band tighter.

"It's funny how that happens," says singer/guitarist Shana Cleveland. "It really does take traumatic events to kind of remind you what your values are and what your goals are and how you want to go through life. I think sometimes you can't see the light unless you're in the dark."

Things have brightened considerably for La Luz since then. For its second album, Weirdo Shrine (Hardly Art, 2015), the band added richer tone and more stylistic elements to its surf-based sound, earning it a raft of positive reviews. The band has also made several palate-cleansing returns to Boise.

"It's made me like Boise more in some ways, because we had this horrible experience and the next time we went back, we played at the same venue we played the night before we got in the accident. It felt really cathartic," Cleveland says. "The audience was awesome, so it sort of left me with a special place in my heart for Boise."

For Cleveland, music and touring have long been intricately connected. Her parents were musicians and her path was going to run parallel to theirs for as long as she can remember.

"My parents tell so many stories about traveling in a pickup truck and sleeping in the back, living off a jar of peanut butter and stuff like that," she says. "To me, it all sounded very romantic."

Cleveland and drummer Li Pino played together in the band The Curious Mystery before forming La Luz with keyboardist Sandahl and former bassist Blackwell—current bassist Lena Simon replaced Blackwell three months after the accident. Stylistically, the La Luz is informed by Seattle-based surf trio Diminished Men.

"That was the first surf band I ever saw," says Cleveland. "Really the first surf music I ever knowingly heard and identified as that genre, and it was so much fun. It was so dark, and I've always been drawn to moody dark music."

Putting its own stamp on the genre, La Luz blends surf guitar tremors with airy harmonies descended from '60s doo-wop acts like the Shirelles, and combines hazy reverb and organ-driven strut with smoky vocals, creating an eerie yet appealing quality.

"I always think of the sirens in the Odyssey ... beautiful voices luring you to your death," Cleveland says.

La Luz's sound is haunting at times, which plays well against the subject matter, particularly on Weirdo Shrine. In "With Davey," a woman's dedication to her lover is tinged with darkness: "I know life is short / No one knows you when you die / I go where I go with Davey." Echoing vocals turn psychedelic on "Black Hole, Weirdo Shrine," which concludes with the observation, "My mind is hazy, but these freaks are crazy / Drink their Coca-Cola / They act like they own us."

Though Cleveland isn't as trained as her bandmates, many of the harmonic ideas are her. She brings a fresh, somewhat left-field approach.

"A lot of times, I'll come up with something that doesn't make any sense, you know ... but that's why it's cool. It's weird ... like, when you say a word too many times, and then the word doesn't make sense anymore ...That's how harmonies can feel sometimes."

After coming of age as a band, Cleveland, Li Pino, Sandahl and Simon moved from Seattle to Los Angeles in Dec. 2015 to challenge themselves.

"Comfort and security [aren't] always the best friend of creativity and inspiration," Cleveland says. "I feel like a little bit of struggle is really good for an artist."

For Cleveland, it was.

"Some days I'm sitting in the sunshine on my front porch drinking iced tea, and I'm like, 'I don't know if I'm really struggling here.' It feels pretty luxurious sometimes," Cleveland says, laughing, "Sometimes the living feels super easy, and sometimes it feels terribly overwhelming, but that kind of variety is definitely welcome."

Late last year, La Luz finished recording its as-yet-unnamed third album. Unlike previous releases, which focused on capturing the live vitality of the band, this is a studio album, laden with overdubs and ambitious ideas.

"We can't really talk about the next record, because we don't even know when it's going to come out yet," Cleveland says. "We all feel it's our best record, and it definitely sounds different. There's more attention to producing an album as opposed to capturing a live thing."

In the meantime, Cleveland is trying to enjoy the California vibe.

"I feel like so much of the music I'm drawn to is out of California," she says. "I don't know exactly why, but I feel like it is sort of notoriously laid-back here ,and it's like you can just rock 'n' roll without putting too much thought into it which is good. Too much thought is often a bad thing for rock 'n' roll."