.Salinas’ Mystery Lights Closes in On Stardom

Skyrocketing record sales, packing venues throughout New York City, a major record deal—the infectious garage rockers are just getting started

A little more than 15 years ago, my love affair with the Mystery Lights began. The Monterey County music scene had been buzzing about the Salinas band; Sam Martinez of the Chicano All Stars, for instance, would regularly praise the band—“These kids the Mystery Lights just have something,” he would tell anyone listening. A good buddy who had been covering the scene for a while constantly hyped the Salinas outfit, as well. “Man, you gotta see these guys,” he told me. “They play this killer cover of the Kinks’ ‘I Gotta Move,’ and their lead singer jumps off the stage. They’re rowdy!”

When I walked in to see them for the first time at the now-defunct Jose’s on Cannery Row—which was a Mexican restaurant upstairs and a live music venue downstairs—the shoebox-sized venue was already packed. The small stage in the back of the room had several floor-to-ceiling mirrors lining the walls, making it seem much larger. The Mystery Lights were in the middle of a soundcheck, jamming out on what sounded like a cover of “Lovin’ Machine” by the ‘60s Aussie group the Easybeats. The band members were the youngest four people in the joint—each had a large Sharpie “X” on their hand, indicating they were under 21. 

No one needed to point out who the frontman was; Mike Brandon’s presence was enough. He sported pencil-thin faded black jeans, a red-and-brown striped Freddy Krueger sweater and a burgundy scarf wrapped loosely around his neck—though it felt like it was 90 degrees in the room, with 100% humidity. When the soundcheck was over, Brandon didn’t turn the volume down on his seafoam Telecaster; it continued to reverberate feedback as he leaned towards guitarist L.A. Solano to shout something before yanking his scarf off. 

“Two, three, four,” former drummer Steve Miller shouted as he clanked his sticks together. And the quartet was off to the races. The hour-long set was a hyperactive whirlwind of covers and originals; the crunchy garage rock bled seamlessly into pop-punk, then dripped into Nuggets-era early ’60s grooves layered in the 13th Floor Elevators’ brand of psychedelia. As Brandon tore through his catchy original “Don’t Look Back,” he’d punctuate the chorus with Mick Jagger leaps with air splits, slamming his noggin into the low-hanging grid of ceiling tiles. Aside from a quick, “Oh, fuck,” the head collisions didn’t faze him or interrupt the pace of the music. He ran a hand through his sweaty mess of dark brown hair and shook out the perlite he knocked from above as the band closed on an abrupt E chord wrapped in fuzz and feedback.

I was hooked. I knew the band had that “it” factor—the indescribable force that record execs would explain as “you know it when you see it.”

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The Mystery Lights outgrew Monterey County quickly, and Brandon and Solano moved to New York City, where they took the band to the next level. The explosive live shows that hooked me ignited throughout Brooklyn, the Bowery, Queens and beyond as they regularly performed seven nights per week, using various drummers and bassists along the way. By 2016, the band had the attention of Brooklyn’s Daptone Records—now based out of Riverside, California—the indie funk and soul record label home to greats like Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, Lee Fields and Charles Bradley. 

But what the hell would a funk and soul label want with Salinas garage rockers? When Daptone co-founder Gabe Roth, aka Bosco Mann, heard the Mystery Lights, he sensed that “it” factor. While it can’t be verified, the band’s understanding is that Daptone’s subsidiary Wick Records was formed because of the Mystery Lights. 

“[Daptone] told us they are starting a subsidiary and gearing it towards psychedelic rock and roll, ’60s style, timeless sounds,” Brandon explains enthusiastically. “They said, ‘Why don’t you guys be the guinea [pig]?’ And we were like, ‘Hell yes! Let’s do it!’ We did a 45 [“Too Many Girls”/”Too Tough to Bear”] that sold out, and everyone was excited. Then we toured, and people were even more excited. Once the first [self-titled] album came out, it got a lot of buzz. Those guys at Daptone like all kinds of music, and they grew up on just as much punk as I did, so Wick has scratched that itch.”

Their sophomore 2019 release Too Much Tension! is a slight departure from the messy punk sound. It’s heavily influenced by Television, namely Marquee Moon, and synth-heavy groups like the Normal. Still, it’s irrefutably the Mystery Lights, especially on “I’m So Tired (of Living in The City),” laden in undertones of the Kinks and the MC5. 

On Nov. 10, the group—also featuring Lily Rogers on keys and Zach Butler on drums—heads to the West Coast for a brief six-show tour that kicks off at Seattle’s Freakout Festival; they’ll continue south to Los Angeles, hitting Santa Cruz on the way. The tour is not in support of anything new—the band will begin recording their next album in February 2023. 

“It’s been at least 10 years since we played our hometown,” Brandon says. “So, this is a homecoming tour. I’m sure the West Coast would like to see us do our thing again.” 

The Mystery Lights (with Bigrig and Winter Wind) performs Friday, Nov. 18, at 9pm. The Catalyst Atrium, 1101 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. $16/$18 plus fees. catalystclub.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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