La Luz is a study in contrast. The Seattle quartet melds '60s girl-group harmonies with boys-club surf guitar, and the band's buzz-garnering debut 2012 EP, Damp Face, would feel equally appropriate as the soundtrack to a Quentin Tarantino movie as to a Frankie and Annette beach romp. The group's new single, the jangly earworm "Brainwash," is sun-dappled dream pop projected through the cloud-covered skies of the Emerald City.
Despite those contradictions, guitarist Shana Cleveland says the quartet knows precisely what it wants to be—at least, more than her previous group with La Luz drummer Marian Li-Pino, the psych-rock outfit the Curious Mystery.
"I guess we're more focused," Cleveland says. "La Luz has a clear vision of what we're doing and what we want to do, how we want to make people feel."
Cleveland says La Luz's sound was a natural evolution from her days growing up in the Midwest, harboring equal fascination with the beach and rock 'n' roll. "I would spend every moment I could on the shore of Lake Michigan, just by myself, watching waves," she says. "When I taught myself how to play surf guitar, it was a revelation, because I felt like I could merge the two things I loved."
For her part, Li-Pino credits her mother's obsession with oldies and girl groups. "I was constantly singing along with her or learning dance moves," she says, citing the Shirelles, Dusty Springfield and the Beach Boys among her favorites.
"Back when it wasn't 'white music' or 'black music,' it was the music of the poor and the young and the wild and the perpetually unsatisfied," adds Cleveland, who writes the band's lyrics. "Growing up as I did, half-black and half-white, I was always told that I wasn't supposed to like certain types of music, like rock and country, because they were 'white.' That always pissed me off, because as far as I know, black people invented rock 'n' roll. So I think part of the reason I gravitate toward early rock 'n' roll is because it was an era when the music wasn't limited by being attributed to one race or another."
It's been barely a year since Cleveland and Li-Pino formed La Luz with keyboardist Alice Sandahl and bassist Abbey Blackwell, taking their name from a church on Seattle's south side. Within a few months, the four women were in the studio—a friend's "little music cave" in a trailer park—cranking out a tight batch of atmospheric bursts and Ronettes-style ballads. Damp Face is a hooky, lo-fi gem, featuring assured psychedelic textures and retro riffs awash in swooning, reverb-soaked vocals, with each member taking a turn on the mic. A full-length is due this fall.
Having been in co-ed bands before, Li-Pino calls the immediate attention given La Luz because of its all-female dynamic "an interesting social experiment. I've had a guy look at the drum key I usually wear around my neck and ask if my boyfriend played the drums. Or just the mildly annoying comments on our media pages, like, 'I knew there would be a day when I liked a girl band.'
"But my favorite comments have been from girl fans," she continues. "Nothing catty or envious, just really supporting us for our musicianship. It is probably the best feeling ever to hear genuine comments like that."