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By Tony Bonyata
SANTERIA - The new sound of The South
"One on One"
June 12, 2009
Santeria was born in the summer of '94 in the heart of Louisiana's Cajun Country. It was when lead singer and guitarist Dege Legg simultaneously kicked dope, secured a degree in Philosophy from LSU, got a job as a dishwasher and hooked-up with Krishna Kasturi, a drummer from India living in Louisiana, that the seeds of the band took root. A year later local guitarist Primo caught one of their gigs at a local dive and was moved by the band's brash, loud sound. He joined two years later and, after a couple of remarkable releases (most notably the magnificent House of the Dying Sun released in 2003) and further changes in the rhythm department, bassist Chad Willis joined the current lineup as they're known today.
While their music purposely sidesteps the Zydeco and Cajun folk music of their region, there's no denying the dark and mysterious entity that runs through the majority of their music; mirroring the haunted swamplands and bayous of their homeland.
On the quartet's latest offering Year of the Knife, Santeria combines their hammer-of-the-gods Zeppelin crunch with not only the early punk ethos of The Stooges and MC5's late '60s records, but also the psilocybin-induced soundscapes of post-Syd Barrett Pink Floyd. Throw in the dark and sensual mysticism of Jim Morrison's poetry with an unhomogenized rural Delta blues and what we have here may, in fact, be the modern template for the new sound of The South - or Southern Rock as the case may be [A word of warning though, kids: Don't try this at home].
The band has endured many hardships prior to the release of their latest full-length - soldiering on through car crashes, gun & knife fights, police harassment and even having a cow's heart stuffed in their mailbox - only to emerge stronger than ever. Year of the Knife is proof of this strength and the band's resilience to some truly fucked-up adversities.
We recently tracked down both Dege and Primo to delve into their Cajun roots, personal setbacks and just how their intoxicating amalgamation of hard rock, rural blues and Southern Gothic psychedelia fits into today's music scene.
Livewire: Are you all from the Lafayette area?
Dege: All of us are Cajun boys, born and bred. Raised amongst the swamps and farmlands of southern Louisiana, except for Krishna, who moved here from southern India, at the age of 5, with his entire family. It's an East-meets-South thing...even we don't understand it. You'd have thought we'd gravitate toward a guy who could play a good shuffle, but instead we drifted into an unknown polyrhythmic universe as a foundation for the band.
Primo: Dege is actually from Mowater, a rural country community just miles from Mamou (the Mardi Gras holy-land). You know, where masked men in elaborate costumes ride horseback from home to home in search of Gumbo ingredients. It's quite a sight; drunken Cajuns dressed like psychedelic Klansmen chasing chickens.
I grew up in Crowley, LA, a small rural town of limited ambition and opportunity; the self professed, "rice capital of the world." Needless to say, we both ended up in Lafayette. My last name is actually "Primeaux," which is as Cajun as they come.
Livewire: Do you feel that the unique culture of the Cajun region has permeated into your music?
Dege: Absolutely. Cajun culture is comprised of hard working folks-exiles-with an indomitable spirit and great sense of humor-a righteous combination. They're tough, soulful, and not mean spirited. As much as we may have rebelled against our own culture and gravitated to rock & roll. It is as much a part of us as any rock & roll record we may have bought. We rebelled against the Cajun/Zydeco influence because it was all around us and we wanted to do something other than squeeze accordions. What you realize later is that you can never completely purge those roots-just like religion in some ways. Everything around you is an inspiration-you just have to see the meaning in it. That's the trick-seeing the magic and the meaning in the seemingly mundane people and things around you. Everything on earth is a symbol of something else, reflecting the meaning of something next to it. And everything is a celebration of life.
Primo: In the beginning, we strove to be different. The game plan was to rock hard, take no prisoners, and keep the material original. We actually believed we could "save rock n roll." (laughs)
In time we learned to love the special "uniqueness" of our area; something most notable while away on the road. Though we are only two hours from New Orleans and about two hours from Texas, it's a totally different world both culturally and demographically here. It oozes from the earth around us.
Culture influences life, while art imitates life. So, even if a small fraction of the sights and sounds of Louisiana mysteriously permeates into our song, it's something special and unique to this world.
Livewire: Was there anything unusual about the recording process for YOTK (i.e. opposed to your last record, or different production techniques, weird studio vibe, etc.)?
Primo: Well, things started out real bad. Krishna was involved in a head-on collision with a hydroplaning 18-wheeler; that set us back for a few years. Considering the extent of his injuries, no one really thought there would ever be another Santeria. From that point on, we all carried on with our lives. Dege formed the Black Bayou Construkt. Jay Guins (Bass) moved to NY. Krishna got married and had a son. I went to college and started a organic pepper seed company - Primo's Peppers (Hotter than the Devil's Pecker)!
Nevertheless, when Krishna called and said he was finally healed up and ready to record, Dege and I were a little leery of his abilities. Yet, Krishna was adamant; it was utterly important that he prove to himself and to the world that he was back. Our original engineer Tony Daigle was busy working with Sonny Landreth, so we tracked the basics with another local engineer.
Chad Willis (Black Bayou Construkt) was recruited to play bass.
Basically, all the basic tracks were recorded in just three days; not bad considering we hadn't played together in three years and never with Willis. To our surprise, Krishna pulled it off like he had never been gone. No edits and no studio tricks. By the time we had most of the overdubs done, Tony had become available. From that point onward, Tony and I mixed the album and added the flourishes.
Dege: We track fast and we do it live. We treat it like religious ceremony...and attempt to align ourselves spiritually with one another. Vocal and some guitars come later.
I think Pro-Tools is great as a compositional tool, but has aided in divorcing musicians from the idiosyncratic sound of their own souls. The x-variable has been nullified to an extent.
Livewire: Can you explain what went into the writing process for this record?
Dege: The songs are our experience of the South, rather than the version that is continuously beaten to death by bands the world over. With us, there's an odd sensitivity that has NOTHING to do with being "bad boys." We see the Deep South as the haunted, national subconscious of America. Like an unspoken species of guilt, quietly manifest in the subtext of America.
All of the songs are mysteries. Like telepathically transmitted enigmas. I don't know where they come from. Or why. But we've always been blessed...and lucky.
Primo: Most of the material was left over from our last album in 2003. So, those songs had somewhat set arrangements that only needed minor tweaks. We had played them live and had a good idea of what they should sound like in the studio. Some songs such as "Leave Something Witchy" dated back to the original Santeria circa 1994, others such as "My Right Thing Can't Go Wrong" were written recently. Though scheduled for inclusion on our last release, the song "House of the Dying Sun" didn't make the cut. We knew it would take too much time and money to record it the way it deserved to be recorded. Besides, we already had "Zixox", which clocked in at over 20 minutes.
The process is the same as it's always been. Dege brings to the band a riff or a near finished song. We then collectively tweak the arrangement and add our parts (leads, rhythms, melodies). He writes all the lyrics. When we lived together, I used to go through his riff tapes and pick the songs I thought would work for Santeria (Deathtrip, Laredo, Strung Out on a Dream, My Right Thing Can't Go Wrong, Come on Baby, etc.) Dege is such a prolific songwriter; what doesn't work stylistically for Santeria usually ends up on one of his other projects (Black Bayou Construkt or Brother Dege). Dege lays the egg, we color it.
Livewire: What are some of things (perhaps even outside of musical influences) that helped steer the direction of this record?
Dege: Some of it has nothing to do with music. Faulkner. Junkyards. Celine. Literature. Fan boats. Sunrises. Richard Brautigan. The bayou. Alligators. Trailerparks. Shit jobs. Survival. Hurricanes. We aren't re-inventing the wheel-just trying to spin it in three directions at once-the future, the past, and our own.
Where we come, art is a luxury. So you've really got to want it.
Primo: The need to leave behind that which transcends mortality. Isn't that what we all want? It's a lasting sonic document meant to outlive ourselves. To hopefully influence, enlighten, and to enjoy for a long time.
Livewire: Is there any unifying theme (subject or music-wise) on YOTK?
Dege: Yes, a mystifying desire to escape the surroundings of home in Louisiana-things we're familiar and even repulsed by-yet it is buttressed by an equally bewildering love of this place and a desire to honor it. In our own way.
Livewire: What's behind the meaning of the album title?
Dege: Each album title is precursor or a hint toward the next evolution of the band. It is a call to arms for those that possess the true soul and consciousness to see beyond the programming and lies...of governments and institutions that seek to contain and limit the human spirit.
Primo: To myself, it sums up the issues we face as a nation and as a world. State of the union, state of mind. The tattered flag on the cover sums it up. For Krishna, I'm sure the title signifies numerous surgeries and a hard road...that he crawled to just be able to walk again.
Livewire: How do you feel your music fits into what's going on today in music?
Dege: In short, we've never fit in. Either we are too heavy for the indie rock crowd or too wimpy for the metal heads. Or not dumb enough for the radio rockers. But it has kept us pure. Because we've never felt compelled to please anyone of them.
Nowadays, I feel like we're the rock & roll Grateful Dead of the south. Or even a more rocking Flaming Lips.
We feel more connected to real people-working folks living humble yet silently epic lives -than to any aspiring musicians with cloaked, careerist ambitions (i.e. Kings of Leon...who I think are way over rated but somehow ended up as progenitors of the "new southern rock.")
Primo: We make music that we enjoy and fortunately people seem to like it as well. The band has never tried to follow trends or be imitations. Let those waves crash and then recede into the sea; if God's willing, we'll still be doing what we do best.
For more info on Santeria and to order their latest album Year of the Knife, along with other previous releases go to: http://officialsanteria.com.