Carlos Santana: the 2011 Beatweek interview
December 30, 2010 by Bill Palmer
by Bill Palmer
“I’m still relevant right now,” says Carlos Santana with a laugh as he heads into 2011 with a successful new record entitled Guitar Heaven which would be his comeback album if not for the fact that he’s had hits in each of the past five decades and has never really gone away. The twenty-first century sees the living legend with a guitar in one hand and now an iPad in the other, as he prepares to kick off a career-spanning Las Vegas residency this month.
Carlos Santana first appeared on the cover of Beatweek Magazine back in 2009. Now, as 2011 arrives, one of my favorite musicians – and interview subjects – of all time checks back in with us for a return engagement.
The last time we spoke was about a year and a half ago. You were between projects and I asked you what you might do next, and the first thing you said is I think I would like to work with Yo-Yo Ma. Now here he is on the first single of your new album Guitar Heaven. Did you know back then that this was going to happen?
Like you, my body responds to when I need a certain nutrient. For example sometimes, like a pregnant woman, you just crave pickle juice and ice cream, or you crave walnuts or you crave an apple. Your body tells you when you need greens or spinach or broccoli or brown rice. All the sudden you can’t get that out of your mind for some reason. And it’s no different than longing to share with Yo-Yo Ma or Andrea Bocelli or musicians like that. I’d like to do something with Sting. I’d like to do something with Prince. Something that is completely different than anything that they’ve done or that I’ve done. I don’t want to play Sting music or Santana music. I don’t want to play Prince music or Santana music. I want to create something more different, reminiscent of Marvin Gaye or Miles.
I’m into mixing it up. And I’m not afraid to, because all my life, if I can remember, I love variety of colors and moods and textures. You can’t tie me down to just playing Mexican music. It’s not gonna happen. Whatever that is, because at this point Mexican music is polkas, waltzes, and pre-Columbian music. So yes, to answer your question, I longed to share with Yo-Yo Ma, and by the grace of God, the opportunity presented itself to do something which is with India.Arie and doing a George Harrison song called While My Guitar Gently Weeps. It’s spectacular. I’m grateful to God that he put that thing in my conscious to do.
Olivia Harrison had some very nice things to say about your version of While My Guitar Gently Weeps. Did you tell her beforehand that you were going to do that?
We just sent the song after we did it, and we said you know, I’d like some feedback, I need to know your blessing or if you want me to stop and decease or whatever (laughs). She was very gracious. She said that as soon as she heard it, of course, she jumped with joy and she was crying at the same time. And that to me is all I need as far as validation from someone who was so close to my brother George Harrison that of course she’s not gonna lie to me. If she liked it, I know that he likes it also.
This album is different for you in that you chose songs that were already great instead of new ones. In this case did you choose the songs first, or did you change the singers first? What was the order in which this came to you?
The order came from Clive Davis’ mind. He saw Rolling Stone and another magazine, and he saw the greatest songs, top one hundred best songs ever, rock and roll songs, top guitar players. So he just said hey, why don’t we put chocolate and peanut butter together, you know? And I was like, I don’t know if I want to do that. So once he convinced me, the third time that he tried he convinced me, he picked seven and I picked seven. Then once we picked out the songs, we recorded them first and then we said you know, Joe Cocker would be great in this song and India.Arie will be great here. Rob Thomas actually, I went to a concert, and I was playing him Sunshine of your Love without a singer, and he goes “Hey.” So all the sudden, because he’s very close to Matt Serletic anyway, he decided why don’t we jump on it.
I think the whole thing about this CD is the word is trusting and accepting that God, the universe, whatever you want to call it, it has something to offer you. This is a gift for me. And the gift of Guitar Heaven for me was it taught me not to be such a nervous nelly and to trust that I have the capacity with the band and the producers and Clive to take these songs into a new place and make them completely new, totally familiar, with grace, with integrity, with honesty, with sincerity, with trueness, and genuineness.
Damn. I can’t believe I just said all that, man (laughs).
Speaking of Rob Thomas, the last time you worked together it was lightning in a bottle. It was one of the biggest hits of both of your careers. Did you guys have to think twice about, hey, if we do this again, whatever we do is gonna get compared to Smooth?
First, Bill, I want to say something. Rob Thomas and I, we should probably do a song called “Lightning in a Bottle” because you’re like the 777th person who actually alluded to that statement. Rob Thomas and Santana is capturing lightning in a bottle. That’s the song to be created right there, and I thank you for it.
Second, no, we don’t think like that. Rob Thomas and I, we don’t wake up to think what other people think. That would be disaster, you know? You follow your heart. Any artist who starts to create something, and you think hmm, I wonder what the people are gonna think, it’s already dead in the water. You can’t think like that. If you think like that you’re not an artist, and pretty much you’re a calculator or schemer. And that’s not gonna go very far. That’s not art. That’s gambling. There’s a lot of chance and fortune. Those are fool’s goals. And then there’s God’s grace.
You’ve reinterpreted all these rock songs and they still sound like rock songs, except Black In Black which you’ve turned into more of a hip hop song. Where did that idea come from?
Yours truly. I always felt that Whole Lotta Love and Black In Black can go into, here it goes, 2.. 3.. 4.. [scatting the opening riff]. So that’s how I think. Because that music is very vibrant. Think about rap when it’s really, really hit hard, it has a vibrancy that I love. Like Chuck Berry at his peak, or Little Richard at his peak. So what I look for in these songs more than anything is the frequency or vibrancy. I want it to be extremely effervescent and really vibrant. Even the ballads, Little Wing or Guitar Gently Weeps, as my friend Bill Graham would say, there’s chutzpah in it. It’s not wishy washy, you know? Not one song on this Guitar Heaven album is easy listening music, background music, like bathtub jazz. Not one song.
When you first started jamming on these, did it have that aggression right away, or did you have to get over yourself?
Once I got past myself then I had to motivate the musicians in the studio, and it only took one time for me to say it: with all respect, let’s not play this stuff like LA or New York studio session musicians. Let’s not play it like that at all, because these songs were not written with that kind of energy. These songs were written like a mangy junkyard dog. This is not a pedigree. This is not a poodle that you want a little speck to land on. This is a mother, mmm, energy. That’s what I want.
I stopped the session and I told them this is how we’re gonna play it. We’re gonna be a bunch of MF’ers who are roaring lions and we’re gonna attack. I only said it once. And everybody thanked me for it. They said you know, we really thank you for saying that. We don’t want you to think that you insulted us or you demeaned us. You just put fire under our butt, and we love playing with this kind of energy. We just needed a direction.
Last time we spoke, you had mentioned that you had just gotten an iPhone and I think it was your first cellphone. You had said that before that, you were using smoke signals to communicate. Now that you’ve had some time, is the whole digital thing getting more normal for you?
It has become really normal. I have a lot more access to the things that I love to do, which is art, whether it’s Picasso, Dali, or Miles or Coltrane. I have an iPad and I got it as soon as it came out, and because of the iPad I watch hardly next to zero TV. Because there’s the same energy of fear and vulgarity and crassness, only from different people. So I’d rather play with my iPad. If I’m gonna watch TV, I only watch sports, like tennis or basketball or football. Other than that, I really don’t need anything from television at this point. Because people who manipulate every channel, cable or satellite, they treat people like the lowest denominator of intelligence. They might as well just puke in front of the camera and laugh at you because you’re watching. So because of the iPad, I choose a lot more consciousness, a lot more integrity, a lot more elegance, a lot more excellence. It’s there.
I love being sixty-three, and I wet my finger and put it on the pulse of my wristband, and I’m in touch. Some hippies, they’re back over there. I’m very current. I don’t necessarily listen to everything that’s on the radio, but I’ll say it like this: I’m still relevant right now (laughs). I’m not a yesterday guy. I’m not a mañana guy, and I’m not a yesterday guy. I’m right now, this instant, can I touch my heart, can I touch your heart? And if I can motivate you to in a gentle way, as an invitation for you to accept that you’re significant and meaningful, that you matter and you can make a difference in the world, that’s the ultimate goal. Whether it’s Bob Marley or John Coltrane, that’s the ultimate goal, to utilize music in the media and this interview for. We remind people that everyone is significant, meaningful, that everyone matters and everyone can make a difference in the world. Stop saying my little opinion, my little two cents, and just my little this. There ain’t nothing little about you, except your perception of yourself. And that’s not arrogance. That’s claiming that you are alive and you can create miracles like Jesus. It ain’t just Jesus. Jesus kept telling us, you will be doing things that I won’t be able to do. Jesus didn’t create the Golden Gate. Although we’re all one, he was very clear that you, Bill Palmer, are capable of touching people’s consciousness with this interview. Because you’re one hand and I’m the other. The questions that you ask me allow me to invite people to say, look beyond Guitar Heaven. Just look at your life in the mirror and say, right or wrong, Carlos went after it. Can you go after it with the same zest and the same passion?
I know you just put Guitar Heaven out the door. But can you see yourself doing a Guitar Heaven II in the same form, or do you now need to go on a different path?
Those are questions that I think are up in the air because they depend a lot on the mind and the heart of Clive Davis. If he convinces his superiors that we can do it again in a different form, and I believe it’s successful enough to warrant so. But we don’t want to do a thing just because it’s successful. We want to break new ground. So my answer to you would be it’s up in the air. I have willingness and passion, and with that I can just about do anything and everything.