When's the last time a surf song made you contemplate your mortality? "Sleep Till They Die," from Seattle band La Luz's excellent 2015 LP Weirdo Shrine, is exactly the kind of song that'll do that through sea foam licks coupled with dread-inducing lyrics from songwriter Shana Cleveland: "I wake up in the middle of the night/Toss and turn in the dim white light."
The lyrical darkness isn't at odds with the dripping guitars, but it is a study in contrasts: one that comes naturally to Cleveland.
"I've always been drawn to duality in music," Cleveland says. "I don't really like music that's all one thing. That feels phony to me, because in life there's always a complicated mix of emotions."
Raised by blues musicians, she was drawn to that music's more haunting fare—not the house rocking stuff so much as the Dark Was the Night kind of stuff. She eventually heard the same spookiness in surf music, from groups like the Diminished Men and Japanese surf guitarist Takeshi Terauchi, matched with the guitar sounds she'd always loved.
"I've always been into old R&B, soul, rock 'n' roll," Cleveland says. "The guitar tones are my favorite. Anything that has that kind of twang resonated with me."
For Cleveland, it came naturally to combine "the most fun party music I could imagine" with the kind of end-of-the-line lyrics she heard in old blues songs. "There's so much about life and death, heaven and hell—at the same time," Cleveland says.
She admits to being a little preoccupied with death, but it's not totally coincidental. 2013's It's Alive was inspired in part by a tragic mass shooting at the punk coffee house Cafe Racer in Seattle. Then, in 2013, the band was hit by a semi-truck, barely escaping with their lives. Most of Weirdo Shrine was written after the car accident, "but, I can't really say that [what was written] before that was less death-focused," Cleveland laughs.
"I feel like it's just kind of a thing that's been going on [in my writing]. I don't know if it's because I'm getting older, but I just feel like there's always something that happens that's going to put me into that mind state," Cleveland says. "Every time I talk out this I'm like, 'Shit, I hope nothing happens to me now.' I'm writing the next album now, and so far so good."
She's thinking about the next record, drawing from a catalog of dreams she's had. She wonders if it might be a concept album centered around the things swirling around in her mind.
"I don't know if my dreams are any weirder than anyone else's, but I tend to try and record them when I wake up," she explains.
Like dreams, Cleveland's best songs are impressionistic, open-ended and always allowing room for the listener.
"That's always what I'm going for, if not on a conscious level, then on a subconscious level," Cleveland says.