The first time Shana Cleveland played an open-mike night at Cafe Racer, five years ago, she was trying to catch a guy's eye. "I was super-nervous," she recalls, sitting in a booth in Racer's gaudy OBAMA (Official Bad Art Museum of Art) Room. Soft-spoken, with a slow, drawling voice, she's bundled in layers of stripes—thin black and white lines on her T-shirt, thick rainbow ones on her sweater.
LA LUZ With Yuni in Taxco, Invisible Shivers. Columbia City Theater, 4916 Rainier Ave. S., 722-3009. $7. 8 p.m. Thurs., Jan. 24.
"I played a song, and Drew was like, 'THAT WAS AMAZING!' He was flipping out. I came here by myself, scared and trying to impress [some other] guy, and [Drew] flipped out about me. Drew was the heart of this place." She's referring to Drew Keriakedes, a musician killed last May when a gunman opened fire inside the restaurant.
In the days after the shooting, Cleveland found herself haunted by a series of dark lyrics she'd written just before the tragedy: "As a boulder slowly gaining speed on down a hill/In your path, nothing I can do" and "As sure as spring coats our little piece of land in green/The turning earth takes all of what it brings."
The songs became the impetus for a new surf-pop band called La Luz that she formed last August with three other girls. Cleveland's psych-rock outfit, The Curious Mystery, had quietly broken up after six years, in part because she was ready to move on and try something she'd had in mind lately, a band that fused the music she loved best: '60s garage rock and girl-group pop. Marian Li Pino, The Curious Mystery's drummer, shared Cleveland's vision; to flesh themselves out into a foursome, the two recruited bassist Abbey Blackwell and keyboardist Katie Jacobson, both of whom Cleveland was used to watching play at Cafe Racer's Sunday-night improv jazz jam.
Jacobson, petite, quiet, and stylish in a beaded scarf and dangling earrings, and Blackwell, laughing and lively, sit next to Cleveland in the booth at Racer. Both split their time among avant-garde jazz, folk, and orchestral projects. Cleveland says La Luz is the band she's always wanted, for three main reasons: It's surf-rock, it's all-girl, and all the girls can play. "It just feels really awesome to me when I see women really kicking ass onstage," she says. "A lot of times I hear bands [that just learned how to play] . . . and I'm like, 'Man, I could never sound that raw.' I'm kind of envious, almost. But I really did feel like there was sort of a lack of really awesome musician girl bands."
La Luz played their first show last October at the Funhouse; despite their experienced backgrounds, all three girls remember it as "awkward," "nervous," and "the worst." "Abbey hit me in the head with her bass before we even started playing," says Cleveland. "I had a gash in my head."
Blackwell gasps. "Really? I didn't know that!"
"It was a small gash," Cleveland says. "I didn't want to freak you out before we played."
La Luz's debut EP, Damp Face, was recorded inside the cinder-block laundry building of a Bothell trailer park, and is being reissued on cassette by Burger Records on February 5 (a two-song 7-inch with Portland's Waterwing Records is also in the works). The songs, particularly the instrumental title track, bear an obvious reference to the Northwest's most famous surf purveyors, the Ventures—Cleveland's electric guitar descends into woozy vibratos, the genre's signature "wowwwoww" sound that was thought to be reminiscent of waves crashing against a beach. The sounds of Blackwell's juddering bass, Jacobson's Farfisa-esque combo organ, and Li Pino's gentle, straightforward drumming all enhance the music's vintage aura. But it's kept modern by Cleveland's style of singing—an airy croon that belies her sonorous speaking voice, as her bandmates' fawning backing vocals cascade behind her—and her existential lyrical matter. "When they told me/That I would die/I stared at the open page of Highlights," she sings on "Clear Night Sky," the EP's most poignant song, "I wasn't ready/For the other side/Stretched out like an endless/Clear night sky."
Cleveland, who has a degree in poetry from Chicago's Columbia College, has a refined and touching way with words; their elegant effect combined with the band's bright, listenable sound gives La Luz a resonant, easy appeal. "I really wanted this band to be something that everyone could understand right away," she says. "We've played at the Conor Byrne, and this girl I know, her mom was like, 'I've been waiting to see you guys!', and she was up front dancing the whole time," says Cleveland. "So that to me—it sounds weird—but I feel like we're doing something right if hipsters and parents are into it."