.La Luz Unleashes Surf Rock Without Boundaries

A near-death experience, creepy graphic novels, birth and surviving cancer, make up the arsenal of inspiration that fuels the Los Angeles trio

The Los Angeles outfit La Luz’s 2021 self-titled fourth record opens with “In the Country.” Theremin, tubular bells, retro reverberated guitar riffs and Beach Boys-flavored layered harmonies are like old friends for singer-songwriter/guitarist Shana Cleveland, bassist Lena Simon, keyboardist Alice Sandahl and drummer Audrey Johnson. It’s like the Byrds’ California country sound of “One Hundred Years from Now” making love with their LSD-sodden “Eight Miles High”—a perfect overture for the rest of the album.

“‘In the Country’ encapsulates the mood of the whole record,” Cleveland says. “The pandemic has been a psychedelic time. It’s this big shift in everything we thought we knew about our society. I think that contrast of unease with this place where I live, which is in this little bubble of peacefulness within this wider world of insanity, was creepy.”

An unsettling soundscape isn’t new for La Luz. Cleveland doesn’t think she’s ever made an album that isn’t creepy—their 2015 Ty Segall-produced Weirdo Shrine was inspired by Charles Burns’ graphic novel Black Hole, about teenagers spreading an unusual sexually transmitted disease in 1970s Seattle.

“Also, having recently gone through the experience of giving birth was super creepy and intense and beautiful and terrible, while living in the middle of nowhere [Grass Valley]—it was all those things that contributed to the inspiration for the [La Luz] album,” Cleveland explains. “These isolating factors in my life made for this situation where I felt like I was writing with deeper intimacy and wanted to explore that in the record.”

As they recorded in rural Grass Valley, producer Adrian Younge and the rest of the band didn’t have difficulty locking in with Cleveland’s vision. Midway through the record, “Goodbye Ghost” appears like an apparition of Syd Barrett transmitting a lost track from Pink Floyd’s Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Then comes the cinematic instrumental “Yuba Rot,” a blend of Ennio Morricone spaghetti-western escapade with Claudio Simonetti psych-prog thriller. The well-placed interlude makes for an ideal time for the band and listeners to take a collective breath before going forward. 

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While the trio’s 2012 debut It’s Alive is catchy and fun, Cleveland admits that the band was initially born out of self-indulgence—it was a genre-oriented platform she built so she could play guitar like all the garage rockers who inspired her.

A decade in, La Luz’s development and the overall mentality of the group have shifted, and Cleveland and her bandmates let it unfold naturally.

“[Our music] has become a weird creature,” Cleveland says. “All of the ways that the band has evolved are fun. I feel like it’s harder to put your finger on [the type] of music we play. The best Beatles records are the weirder ones, like the White Album. You can’t say that it’s just rock ’n’ roll, but it brings you into [another] universe and tells a story.”

When the band is going to a gig by car or flying to a gig, Cleveland is often asked at security checkpoints what kind of music they play. 

“I always say rock because I don’t know what to say,” she says. “I like how it’s been a progression to get to this record, and I think the records we’re making invite you into their unique universe without being as easy to pinpoint in terms of genre.”

 The secret to a band’s longevity, aside from being able to churn out music that people want to hear, is “boring,” according to Cleveland. Some of the best bands have trouble lasting for five years, let alone a decade. After 10 years, La Luz still has a lot of music in them and, more importantly, the desire to stay together. 

“We all like each other,” she says. “We’re respectful, kind people. I think we have a good time and enjoy each other’s company; we’re also diehard musicians. Once you get to the point where you’re making a lot of money, you can be a little more comfortable and get nice hotel rooms every night and travel on a bus. Everything gets a bit easier, but at the level that we’re at, you have to love what you’re doing because it’s not going to be comfortable.”

 La Luz’s ability to create an ever-changing smorgasbord of tender and potent music might be stimulated by their ability to overcome adversity and endure discomfort. While on tour in 2013, the band’s van slipped on black ice and crashed into a highway divider; a semi-trailer truck slammed into them. The group suffered significant injuries, and their equipment was destroyed. Most recently, Cleveland was diagnosed with breast cancer, which led to canceling most of their tour dates this year. 

“As the days fly by/ Just remember I am here on earth to love you,” Cleveland croons on “Here on Earth.” The dusty Ry Cooder-esque lament is an obvious love letter to the singer’s 3-year-old boy, but it also echoes the band’s perseverance. 

La Luz with Naked Giants performs Sunday, Nov. 13, at 9pm. Moe’s Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. $28/$32 plus fees. folkyeah.com.

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Adam Joseph
Before Delaware native Adam Joseph was brought on as managing editor for Good Times Santa Cruz in 2021, he spent several years with the Monterey County Weekly as a music writer and calendar editor. In addition to music, the award-winning writer has covered film, people, food, places and everything in between. Adam’s work has appeared in Relix Magazine, 65 Degrees, the Salinas Californian and Gayot. [email protected]
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