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An Interview with Mato Nanji

Fans of guitar driven, blues-rock searching for the next torchbearer in the line of Jimi and SRV should give the band Indigenous a serious listen. Lead by guitarist/lead vocalist Mato Nanji, Indigenous lays down songs with deep grooves and plenty of passion. Joining Mato are his sister Wanbdi on drums, brother Pte on Bass, and cousin Horse on percussion. This tight family unit has been playing together since they were teenagers growing up on a Lakota Sioux Indian Nation’s reservation in South Dakota. Inspired, instructed, and encouraged by their late father, the band listened to, and learned from, such legends of rock, and blues as Carlos Santana, Buddy Guy and Jimi Hendrix.

Indigenous drew critical acclaim in 1997 with their independently released debut CD titled Things We Do. Since then, they’ve grown their following through steady touring and recording, releasing five CDs in total. Their most recent CD, simply entitled Indigenous, was released in 2003 and is their strongest recording to date.

Mato’s scorching lead guitar work and soulful deep-pitched vocals are showcased on every tune and can evoke a wide variety of emotions and intensity. His soloing is particularly impressive, demonstrating his complete command of the wah-wah pedal’s power to infuse melodic phrases with a stunning vocal-like quality. He extracts a wide pallet of tones from his Fender Stratocasters. His chords range from chime-y clean, through medium grit, to full-on crunch during rhythm work and his single lines can howl with power tube saturation, quack with a pronounced mid range, or purr with silky smoothness.

Mato graciously agreed to chat with Guitar Noise contributor Bill Cozzo to talk about recording the band’s latest CD, his guitars and amps, playing live, and aspects of the band’s career from early beginnings to playing with legends.

Bill Cozzo: Congratulations on the latest CD. I know that you recorded it mostly ‘live’ as opposed to building up the songs one instrument at a time. Did you set aside time to write and rehearse for it?

Mato Nanji: Thanks. Yeah, we had a couple of songs written already so we went in and kinda broke the ice a little bit and recorded those right away. After that, we had a bunch of other ideas, so we sat down and worked out the rest of the songs with our producers the Davey Brothers. They ended up co-writing a few of the songs with us too.

bc: Do you write when you’re on the road?

MN: Yeah, yeah. A lot of times when we’re doing sound check I get different ideas for songs, or even when I’m playing live, once in a while I get an idea from something I’m jamming.

bc: How do you pick covers that you decide to do, like “Shame, Shame, Shame”?

MN: That was actually our producers, the Davey brothers’ idea. They wanted us to do a cover of something like an old blues track. It was something that we haven’t done in the past, so we decided on that track because it was one that everyone liked. I’m a pretty big Jimmy Reed fan.

bc: Do you ever see yourself getting into instrumentals in different styles like Stevie Ray Vaughn or Eric Johnson?

MN: We’ve done a little bit of that, we did a couple instrumentals on our first two recordings but on this record we strictly went for just songs. I’m not quite sure how that happened. (chuckles)

bc: What are some of your thoughts about recording layer-by-layer versus keeping it mostly live ?

MN: It’s cool both ways. When you do it layer by layer you can get a great drum track and layer over it until your happy with it. When you go in and setup like we do live and just basically jam it out, it’s a lot of fun.

bc: Talk about working with your co-producers, the Davey brothers. What did they bring to the process?

MN: I think a lot of getting that live feel was them coming in and helping us capture that vibe. I really like the way Jesse Davey captured the guitar tone that I got on the record. In the past, it was kinda hard for me to capture the guitar tone that I wanted and he really helped me out with that. Basically, what I did was just set up the way I do live. Well, maybe with a few more amps than usual (laughs). We went through every amp and got a different tone and mixed them. A lot of times, (the final sound) was mixed all together.

bc: The first single from the new CD, “C’mon Suzie”, has mixes a cool, modern vibe with the more traditional blues rock sound of the other tunes on the CD. How did that come about?

MN: Actually, that song was written by an English Band that I met the Davey brothers through, called the Hoax. They’re a really great blues rock band. They had written the song but never got a chance to release it. I really liked it, so I thought “Shoot we can cover that. It’s one of my favorite songs that they did, so I thought we could give it a shot”.

bc: A lot of Guitar Noise readers are relatively new to guitar. Talk a little about how you learned from your father. Did he show you chord fingerings and scale patterns and finger exercises and stuff?

MN: yeah my dad basically taught me how. Actually, when I first started out trying to play guitar the hardest thing I had a problem with was trying to keep it in tune, you know? (laughs). That was the toughest thing for me. After a while he kinda got me through that and showed me the simplest way to tune it. Then he started teaching me more chords. He was really into a lot of different kinds of music – some jazzier stuff, and blues. He could go to a song that I was trying to learn and listen to it once and be able to play it. Just like that, pick it up right away. With me, even now, it takes me a while to kinda pick up on things (laughs)

bc: What are your thoughts on learning to read, write, theory, scales modes arpeggios, etc …

MN: I haven’t really learned that way. I never really learned to read music or write it. I just learned it all by ear. That’s kinda the way my dad taught me. I think it’s a little more of a different vibe if you learn it that way. You get a lot more of the feel, I guess of what’s goin’ on. At least, that’s what I’ve noticed. He also said “If you learn it that way, you’ll never forget it. (chuckles) It’s in your blood”.

bc: Tell me about some of your early gigs. Were you playing for large groups of people? Where you playing mostly covers or originals??

MN: I think the very first gig we did was mostly in front of families and friends.. we did mostly covers back then. We did some Santana, some Hendrix. Actually we even did a few Ventures songs. We did all kinds of stuff. We did some Lonnie Mack. It was a pretty wide range. Back then, when we first started doing the shows, my dad told us right from the beginning to start writing our own stuff. One of the first songs I ever wrote was “Things We Do” back when I was 17 or 18.

bc: Tell me about what it’s like playing with family. What does it bring to the recordings and the lives shows as opposed to guys who just form up a band with people they meet, or friends?

MN: Yeah, I’d say that it’s a lot different. Even from the beginning when we were just first starting out playing together it felt really comfortable right away. A lot of times when you play with other people you have to build that comfort together. From the beginning, there was something there, you never could see or explain what it is, but you can feel it. Even now when we go out to play we never have a set list we just get up there and kinda go with the flow.

bc: What are some of you favorite memories of playing with superstars like BB King, Carlos Santana, Dave Matthews. Besides the thrill of it that any fan would feel, what is the experience like on a musical level?

MN: It’s just totally awesome. Just being able to see B.B. King every night, getting the chance to get on the bus and talk to him a little bit was really great. His thing that he always said was “Just stay high on the music. That’s what it’s all about”. And then playing with Santana was really awesome. Realizing that this is one of the guys I grew up listening to, and learning from, and then seeing him right there, trading licks with him back and forth was a lot of fun.

bc: Let’s talk “tech” a little bit. Are your guitars and amps modified or stock?

MN: My Strats are modified a little bit. I’ve been swapping out different kinds of pickups, trying them out, trying different tones. Right now I have Texas Specials, which I think are pretty cool. Who knows, I might try something else (chuckles).

The amps are all stock. I’ve got an old Fender 75 that’s one of my main amps. It’s an amp head and I play it through a Matchless cabinet with four 12″ speakers. It sounds pretty awesome. It’s one of my favorites. I think the guy who made that amp only made it for one year, and then he went on to make Rivera amps. I still have the old Super Reverbs and the new Vibroverb that they modified after Stevie Ray Vaughn’s Vibroverb. I really like that, with the 15″ speaker. I also use a Mesa Boogie once in a while for the clean sounds. I’ve been using a new Marshall JCM 2000 and I really like it. Sometimes I use it for an in between overdrive sound, and it also sounds real good on the clean channel too. I like to try out different amps to see what kinds of different tones I can get out of them.

bc: Talk a little about singing and playing at the same time.

MN: (starts laughing)

bc: Does it come natural for you or does it take practice?

MN: (still chuckling) It takes a lot of work for me. I’m still working at it. For some of these newer tunes, it was tough in the beginning to get ’em down. Of course, in the studio, you just lay ’em down live then you go back and do the vocal track. But even now, it’s a real job … (laughs) to keep that rhythm going and to sing.

bc: Are you mindful of that when you’re writing, to not put a lick in the middle of a verse that you’ll have to sing over?

MN: yeah, I try not to get ’em too intertwined so I won’t have to (laughing)

bc: Do you use the Internet much for things related to music?

MN: A little bit. I’ve been getting into it a little more lately. My sister (Indigenous’s drummer, Wanbdi) has really got it down way better than I do so a lot of times I’ll just go to her and she’ll look things up for me. I’ve bought some pedals over the Internet and on E-Bay.

cc: Do you have any thoughts on music sharing across the Internet?

MN: Yeah, it’s a bit tough because I see both sides of it. You have musicians like us, just like everyone else, who want to go out there and make a living. But in a way I think it’s also kinda cool to get some new fans that might be interested in what we do. So while it’s good to get our music out there, we’d also like to make a little something out of it. Hopefully they’ll come up with something that works for everybody.

bc: Talk a little about the differences for you in playing smaller clubs, larger concerts, and outdoor festivals?

MN: Well, I like the outdoor stuff when you get a good festival going on and a lot of people there. You get a pretty cool vibe. But on the other hand, I also really like the more intimate clubs with 200 to 400 people packed in there all jamming together. I like both ways actually (chuckles). Each kind of show has its own kind of energy that I like to take in and then turn around and give right back through my playing.

bc: About 20 yrs ago, David Bowie tapped Stevie Ray Vaughn, who was then relatively unknown, for a recording and tour sideman gig that set SRV on the path to superstardom. If some multi platinum star offered you a similar gig today, would you do it?

MN: I guess it would be fun to play with them on the record. But I really dig playing with my family. It’s a lot of fun and it feels like we’re really starting to get going, especially with the new record. It’s getting released in Europe, which is the first time for us. So for right now, this is what I want to do for as long as I can. But maybe if I get a little older and somebody decides they want me to hang around (chuckles) and play with them a bit it’d be fun.

bc: If not music, what career path would you have taken?

MN: (pauses and then chuckles) I don’t really know. Maybe something weird, like a lawyer (laughs). I probably would’ve gone to school.

bc: Well that wraps it up. Thank you very much for taking the time to talk today. Best wishes for continued success with the latest CD and tour.

MN: Thanks a lot

Mato is a very easygoing guy to talk to. He is generous with his time and he had no hint of a ‘rock star’ attitude. With his skills, dedication, and positive attitude, one can only hope that the future holds wonderful things for, and from, this rising star of the guitar world. Guitar Noise readers are heartily encouraged to catch Indigenous live this summer on their tour dates throughout the Midwestern USA, to check out their website, and have a listen to their CDs.