The surf rock show you need to see in Las Vegas on Wednesday

If you knew the sounds that first shaped Shana Cleveland, it would surprise you.

Based solely on listening to the music she makes with her band La Luz (“the Light” in Spanish), it would be natural to assume that Cleveland subsisted solely on surf rock and songs from the Eisenhower era early on. Turns out, though, that’s actually a lot closer to what she listens to now. Her most recent discovery, in fact, she says, is a band she found through Mississippi Records’ mixtape series called the Aquatones, a doo-wop group from the ’50s.

Growing up in Michigan, says the singer and guitarist who helped sculpt the satisfying surf rock sound of La Luz, she was drawn to decidedly different acts of another era, each from separate ends of the spectrum and whose influence can be hardly heard today in the music of La Luz.

“When I was really young, I listened to a lot of newer soul music,” she recalls. “I would VHS R&B music videos, like SWV, TLC, stuff like that. I think when I got to high school I started listening to grunge music, so it was kind of like a big switch. I went from R&B music to all of the sudden really getting into the rock ’n’ roll that was really popular. Some of it was really bad. But some of it was Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins and stuff like that.”

That last part is harder to reconcile, mostly just from the distinctive reverb-soaked guitar sound that Cleveland seems to favor these days. None of those distorted influences appear to have made their way into the band’s music. Now while granted, some fuzz has been added to the guitars on “Weirdo Shrine,” the band’s latest effort, that was reportedly at the behest of her friend and former tourmate, Ty Segall, who recorded the record. But even then, it’s very slight.

“Yeah, there’s not very much,” Cleveland says in agreement. “I did add it to our live show, and we added it to the album, but yeah, it’s only in, like, three songs, for maybe 10 seconds. For me, I just love the guitar tones from the ’50s and ’60s. I try to not get too much into anything that sounds too modern. That’s just not really what I’m into for guitar. But yeah, I did add a little bit of fuzz. I think that it’s cool. I enjoy it now, but I use it in extreme moderation. I just like to keep it really simple. The guitar stuff I’m most drawn to is always the sound from before those effects were used very much.

“I just kind of have an aversion to effects in general,” she goes on. “I usually just feel like there’s so much you can do with just the guitar and of course a little bit of reverb — like, I’m pretty hooked on the reverb — but other than that, I just really like to keep it simple.

“Even the reverb that I use is like a vintage reverb. It’s sort of a stubborn thing that I carry around that’s old. Just that sound, I feel like, is even different from reverb nowadays. It’s really deep, but it’s also got more of an attack to it, so I feel like not as drowned out as some of the more popular reverb pedals nowadays.”

Everything from that bygone era just appeals to Cleveland. There’s just something about it that strikes a chord. “I don’t know, I just feel like in music, I don’t feel like there’s really been an era that America has put out so much great popular music,” she observes. “It’s kind of amazing to me. The popular music now is not really anything that I’m interested in.

“But the popular stuff back then was stuff like the Ventures, whose instrumentals were popular, which is insane to think about now, and all the girl group stuff, the Ronettes, and stuff like Smokey Robinson, Bo Diddley. Everything that was going on, that was popular in rock ’n’ roll, and soul music, and country music, just sounded a lot better than I feel like things sound to me today.”

The music being made by Segall is of course an exception. He’s made “some of my favorite rock ’n’ roll that’s going on at all these days,” Cleveland says of her friend and former tourmate, who signed on to record “Weirdo Shrine” when she reached out for recommendations on whom La Luz should consider working with on its next album. Segall did a great job of capturing the outfit’s vintage sound, which Cleveland has been steadily honing with her bandmates since first forming the band in Seattle in 2012.

Cleveland landed in the Emerald City a half-dozen years earlier after stints living in Chicago, where she stayed during college, and Southern California, where she moved after she graduated. Of all the places she’s lived (Cleveland and her bandmates just moved back to California less than a month ago), there was just something about Seattle that struck a chord.

“I had this idea that there were a lot of bands in the Northwest,” Cleveland says. “My idea was … I always knew that I wanted to start a band, and I was kind of just floating around and trying to decide where the best place to start a band would be, and I figured there would be a lot of musicians in Seattle and a lot of record labels and stuff like that.

“So that’s what brought me out there, and I was right,” says Cleveland, who joined the Curious Mystery, her first band, in Seattle. “I still think it’s a really great place to play music, because there’s so many musicians there, and people are really willing to play with you and try out ideas with you. It’s just easy to find people to collaborate with. It’s easy to find places to play. It’s just kind of an easy, entry-level place to play music, I feel like, with a lot of opportunities.”

It’s also filled with people who are incredibly supportive. When the band was involved in a nearly tragic accident a few years ago that totaled its van, the community instantly rallied around Cleveland and her bandmates. From the sound of it — and pictures of the mangled metal on the back of the van — it was absolutely harrowing.

“The short version is this,” she wrote on Tumblr in November 2013, a few days after the accident, which occurred as the band was returning from a show in Boise, Idaho. “First I woke up from my backseat nap screaming as we lost control on some black ice on the freeway that sent us flying all over the road until we crashed into a concrete blocker. We managed to get the van to the side of the road and we were scared but we waited for help. Then we sat in terrified silence. About 20 or so minutes later I heard Marian (who was looking in the rear view mirror) say something like, ‘Oh no, it’s coming,’ and the next moment it happened, in a horrifying instant a semi truck flew into the back of our van.”

By now, many people have heard about the accident, but what happened next, as Cleveland remembers, hasn’t gotten a lot of press, and it sounds a bit surreal. “The morning after the accident happened, we were in an old folks’ home because that’s where the hospital took us to to rest after it happened,” Cleveland recalls. “Pretty weird. It was a really small town, so they do things like that. And they’re used to seeing people get hit on that freeway. There’s a stretch of it where we got hit called ‘Dead Man’s Patch’ or something. So they’ve seen a lot of car accidents.

“I remember just being at breakfast. They put us in our own room for breakfast and these two old women, both named Norma, came in and they were talking to us. The whole thing, when I try to remember details from that day, it feels like a David Lynch film or something.”

Not too long after that, La Luz got back on the road, but the outfit hasn’t been the same since. “It makes touring scary,” Cleveland says now. “Touring was never really scary for me before. But now, there’s definitely more anxiety around touring, just kind of always feeling like I’m about to be hit from behind. That’s what happened to us. We were hit from behind. I didn’t see it coming. It’s a really hard feeling to shake. It’s been years, and I still feel that feeling every day.”

Luckily, making music has helped her and her bandmates deal with any lingering fears. “The four of us,” Cleveland says, “this is what we live for.”

Read more from Dave Herrera at reviewjournal.com. Contact him at dherrera@reviewjournal.com and follow@rjmusicdh on Twitter.

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