Born in Memphis in 1959, Danny Amis relocated to Minneapolis at the tender age of four. Several years later, he was introduced to instrumental music through his oldest brother, who “had a pretty good collection of Ventures records, as well as a few Link Wray 45s.” These records soon became his favorites “over anything else I’d heard,” and, to this day, for Amis, the Ventures “define what an electric guitar [is] supposed to sound like.”
The first instrument he tried to learn to play was the drums, but he “failed miserably” and after a few months traded in his drum kit for a guitar, which he found “much easier” to play. After high school, he enrolled in college, but his life was so consumed with music, he dropped out after seven weeks, got his hack license, and supported himself by driving a taxi while trying to establish a musical career. In 1978, he pieced together a surf pop/instrumental band called the Overtones, consisting of himself on guitar and vocals, Jim Thompson on guitar, John Wilson on bass, and Steve Foley on drums. The Overtones were the first band Amis had that played in front of people.
“It was a great time to be in the Minneapolis scene,” Amis recalled, referring to the wave of bands that were coming up at that time, like Husker Du, the Suburbs, and, shortly after the Overtones’ heyday, the Replacements. “We fared pretty well. It was a very nurturing and encouraging music scene in which everyone was given a chance and in most cases did something pretty cool with it.”
The Overtones made one record, a 45 RPM on Twin/Tone Records, recorded in February 1980 and released in May of that year. It consisted of three songs: “Red Checker Wagon” (an Amis original with vocals), “Surfer’s Holiday” (a cover tune written by Brian Wilson, Gary Usher and Roger Christian) and “The Calhoun Surf,” an Amis original instrumental that has become a neo-surf classic.
After the Overtones disbanded in the summer of 1980, Amis spent approximately two years with the Raybeats. Shortly after his expulsion from the Raybeats, he journeyed to Winston-Salem, N. C., where he hooked up with Mitch Easter to record an all-instrumental solo EP, Whiplash!, at Easter’s Drive-In Studio: “Mitch is one of my favorite people, and his studio was one of my all-time favorites, so I was dying to record there . . . [but] the only thing I can really remember about it is that I was still pretty new at recording. When I go in the studio now, it’s so much different. I don’t take certain things so seriously, I just try to make fun records now.”
Even though Amis may have had his serious face on when he recorded Whiplash!, he turned out a fun-to-listen-to five-song EP that proved to be a forerunner of what he would do more than a decade later with Los Straitjackets. Unable to secure a major label deal (”Big surprise there!”), he contacted his friend Steve Fallon, who issued the disc on his own label, Coyote Records (also responsible for such classics as Chris Stamey’s Christmas Time EP and Will Rigby’s Sidekick Phenomenon LP).
In 1984, Amis, who had grown pretty tired of “the credibility New York was giving to techno music,” headed for a place where they still played guitars — Nashville. (Amis’ love for country music came via Pat Irwin, who would play country tapes in the van when the Raybeats were on tour.) He actually went there looking for work as a soundman, and he happened to be “in the right place at the right time and found myself working at the Grand Ole Opry and TNN [The Nashville Network] as an audio engineer, my main gig being Nashville Now.”
Amis really enjoyed his days on the country music series, a major perk being that he was able to meet several of his musical heroes: “Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins told me stories about the Sun days. I remember one night doing sound for Les Paul, Chet Atkins and Duane Eddy, together! One night I found myself sitting at a picnic table, waiting for the show to start, with Scotty Moore, D. J. Fontana and the Jordanaires. Roger Miller told me some of the funniest jokes I’ve ever heard, I sat on a couch between the Smothers Brothers watching the 1992 presidential debates, and I was the only person I knew that Bill Monroe trusted with his mandolin.” After five years of audio engineering, Amis became a stage manager for Nashville Now, spending another five years with the show in his new position.
Shortly after the show was cancelled, he left TNN to get back into music full-time, hooking up with Eddie Angel, Jimmy Lester and E. Scott Esbeck to form Los Straitjackets. In 1995, Los Straitjackets issued their debut album, The Utterly Fantastic and Totally Unbelievable Sound of Los Straitjackets, to rave reviews, respectable sales and loads of fanfare. They found themselves media darlings, donning their wrestling masks on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, among other outlets. It was a far cry from the hand-to-mouth existence Amis had eked out with the Raybeats a decade and a half earlier.
“There are so many differences now,” Amis said. “The Internet has played such a strong role in getting music to people that the industry, for whatever reason, tries so hard to play down. Even today, the industry likes to label Los Straitjackets as ‘Retro,’ as if 25-year-old rap and techno are something ‘new’ . . . Years of [the music industry] force-feeding products on the public really backfired when the Internet came along. Today, an artist on an independent label can easily outsell major label artists without the overhead.”
More than a dozen years after their formation, Los Straitjackets are still going strong, and Amis has secured a solid position for himself in the instrumental world. His years with the Raybeats proved to be a good training ground for what he later accomplished with Los Straitjackets, and he views his time with the Raybeats as a predominantly positive experience. And, despite having been ousted from the Raybeats, he harbors no animosity toward his former band mates: “I really looked up to those guys, I still think the world of them, and I’m very grateful to have had the experience of working with them. I owe them a lot.”
UPDATE: Danny Amis has encountered some serious health concerns of late. Read more about it here.
“Going Strait” – 1995 article where Danny talks about joining the Raybeats
Interview on WUSB FM