Interview: Matthew Santos

Two weeks ago, when Kanye West's "Glow in the Dark" tour rolled through town, fans and critics salivated over West's enigmatic stage presence and high-caliber show. But the bigger story for local music fans was that hometown singer-songwriter Matthew Santos, a Minneapolis native now living in Chicago, was performing for his first time on the Target Center stage with opening rapper Lupe Fiasco. Santos sings vocal melodies on several of Lupe Fiasco's tracks, including the hit single "Superstar," and has been touring with Fiasco as part of the "Glow in the Dark" entourage of supporting acts.

Santos took some time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions about his musical background, his discovery of hip-hop, and what it's been like living on the road.

City Pages: Do you still consider Minneapolis your home base, even though you live in Chicago now?

Matthew Santos: Minneapolis is where my dogs are at. It’s where my parents and my brothers are at. It’s where I grew up. That’s where my heart is, that’s where I grew up, that’s where I’m from. But Chicago is a platform from which all of my success has been had, for the most part.

CP: How old were you when you picked up guitar?

MS: About 14. Started writing songs when I was 15.

CP: Were you taking lessons?

MS: Nah, my brother taught me some chords and then I started playing by ear again. I had no idea what I was doing, I was just playing what sounded good and interesting.

CP: Is your brother still an active musician?

MS: Oh yeah, he’s in a band called 2Wurds, from Minneapolis. They’re working on their first album right now.

CP: Who were some of your favorite musicians around that time? Who would you consider to be your influences?

MS: Around that time, it was Martin Sexton, Ben Harper, Radiohead, Bjork, Dave Matthews. Dave Matthews’s song “Satellite” is what inspired me to pick up the acoustic guitar. When I was in high school, Dave was my favorite musician. I’ve kind of grown out of him as a musician since, but it’s true, I’ve gotta give him credit.

CP: Who are some of your more current favorites?

MS: Jeff Buckley, Andrew Bird, Feist, Fiona Apple—God, I love Fiona Apple. There’s a lot of them, too many to list to be honest.

Matthew Santos plays a mean piano.

CP: As you’re on the road, have you had the opportunity to meet any of your favorite musicians?

MS: I met MC Hammer the other day. I wouldn’t call him my favorite musician, but that was pretty tripped out. I used to listen to 2 Legit 2 Quit in my basement when I was young. I got to meet Andrew Bird and Damien Rice. I ran into Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z, they’re not really influences of mine but it was just pretty tripped out to meet them. Especially when they had really encouraging things to say.

CP: What are some of the most exciting things that have happened to you since you’ve been out on the road?

MS: I’ve grown about three feet. That’s about it. [laughs] No—Everything is exciting, the whole lifestyle is exciting. It’s exciting because you get to meet amazing people everywhere you go, for the most part, and every night you perform in front of 30,000 people, so it’s such a thrill. The people in the family, the people I’m traveling with are just such good people, as well. The whole experience has been amazing.

CP: Are there any difficult parts about being on tour?

MS: Yes. It’s not a very stable lifestyle. I mean, it is in a sense, because a stability is in the constant movement. But you can’t really set your roots anywhere. You meet amazing people, but you meet ‘em and then you leave ‘em. It’s difficult on that level, just because it can be kind of lonely at times, but at the same time the pros outweigh the cons. You’ve just gotta realize that you’re here for a reason and you’re fulfilling your life’s purpose, and it’s worth it.

CP: How do you stay balanced and sane amidst the whirlwind of shows and publicity?

MS: There’s a lot of reflective time—I don’t want to say quiet time, that sounds a little pre-schoolish—but there literally has to be, for me anyway, some time alone to reflect on everything. Write a little bit. I’ve got my guitar with me. So every now and then I find myself hiding on the bus strumming away, writing a new song. Music has such an emotional power. Music is the closest thing I can think of to magic. When I’m feeling shitty or when I’m feeling overwhelmed by something, I have all sorts of music that is designed to sort of—these calming spells that sooth you out. Music is magic, and that’s why I’m in the business.

CP: Are you able to retain that feeling of magic, even when there are industry people everywhere and interviews every day? Does it ever feel like you are bombarded by the industry?

MS: Yeah, definitely. The industry tends to kill the magic a little bit, because they want to bottle it and sell it. It’s unfortunate that that’s the way it is, but there’s so many people that are involved in the industry that are just trying to make a living, and it’s such a hard time to be making a living in this industry. Very hard time. So it’s—people gotta do what they gotta do. I found my perspective on the industry changing as well, when it comes down to making money, because it’s a hard industry right now. It’s a hard world to live in right now, I mean gas prices are completely fucking our economy, especially when you’re trying to be on the road and tour, and you gotta pay five dollars a gallon for gas—that’s going to kill a touring musician, especially when they don’t have a label behind them. So you gotta, unfortunately money is something that we need to make. So you gotta look within yourself and say, what are you willing to compromise to make a living and support your family?

CP: Tell me what it was like to play the Target Center. Did you have a lot of friends and family there to support you?

MS: Yeah, it was definitely by far one of the craziest concerts of this tour. Lupe was, he kind of made a spectacle of it. He made me blush a little bit. He was talking me up in front of my hometown, so it was cool. My family was there, everybody was proud and very supportive, and I was so happy to have everyone there. I used to see like Disney on Ice at this place, it was like—I couldn’t believe I was performing on that stage. You could just feel the love from Minneapolis. It’s an amazing place, and such a supportive community. I’ve got nothing but love for that concert at the Target Center.

Watch Santos performing an acoustic version of "Superstar" with Lupe Fiasco.

CP: You’ve been playing some solo shows on the road. Have you found that there is any crossover between the people who come to a Lupe show and the people who come check you out?

MS: There is a crossover, ever since “Superstar” hit it so big. The demographic has widened considerably. There’s a lot of Lupe fans that come to my shows. It’s surprising to see hip-hop fanatics that come and rock out on acoustic music, but I think I’m most surprised when they come to see the solo shows, just me and the guitar. It’s really interesting to see how open minded Lupe’s fans can be.

CP: Do you ever feel like your music influences Lupe, or that his music is influencing you as you are performing more together?

MS: I think so. I think we’re definitely rubbing off on each other. He’s showing more of an interest in singing, and I’m definitely looking more at the performance aspect of music, and what makes a hit, and sort of digesting what popular music is and all that jazz.

CP: Did you always have an interest in hip-hop, or was this a new development?

MS: Noooo. No. Hip-hop was not an influence of mine until recently. It’s such a strange to be in, at first. But there’s beautiful things about hip-hop, very beautiful things. It’s just a matter of taste and many situations—there’s a lot of hip-hop that I completely hate, because it’s crap. It’s ignorant. But there’s a lot of hip-hop that’s trying to expand consciousness, so I’ll support that.

CP: Who are some of your favorite hip-hop artists right now?

MS: Well, obviously I’m loving what Lu does, and I might be a little biased, but… The message that Talib Kweli brings across, and Nas has some amazing talent as far as flow goes. I’ve gotta give love to Atmosphere, of course, and Eyedea and all those Minneapolis cats. Doomtree. Dessa Wander is a friend of mine from Minneapolis, she’s an amazing MC.

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