Mato Nanji of Indigenous: A Blues Master In The Making

Now one of the very hottest blues-rock groups around, Indigenous was formed by four Nakota Sioux Native American family members-Mato Nanji on guitar and lead vocals with brother Pte on bass, their sister Wanbdi on drums, and cousin Horse playing percussion. Encouraged by their musician parents, Greg and Beverly Zephier, the group started out playing local gigs near their home in South Dakota, then ventured off to tour throughout the country.

With its recently-released third disc, Indigenous [Indigenous/Silvertone Records], receiving a favorable amount of radio airplay, the group is enjoying a higher level of success with a string of catchy singles-"C'mon Suzie," "Want You To Say," and "What You Do To Me."

While the group's records are certainly impressive, the experience of seeing Indigenous perform live is even better. The band serves up an extra hefty buffet of fiery hard-rocking blues, and when Mato Nanji cuts loose, you'll be wondering why all the mainstream guitar magazines have not yet caught on to tout this outstanding player and award him the praise he truly deserves. caught up with Nanji between gigs, while Indigenous was on the road. Modest and soft-spoken, he filled us in on his musical influences and development as a player, as well as his choices in gear. Nanji also gave us the inside scoop on the group's new album and its plans for the future. Who were your earliest influences as a guitar player?

Mato Nanji: My dad was probably the biggest influence on me as a player, and over all. When I first started out, I wanted to play drums, but I never went through with it. My dad had guitars and amps in the basement of our old house, so that's where I picked it up. He sat down with me and pretty much showed me everything about it, and taught me to play. What type of music did your father play?

Nanji: He played everything, pretty much. He could just sit down and learn different songs. He had a band in the late '60 and early '70s, and it was also a family band with two brothers and a nephew. They played a pretty wide range of stuff, but I think his favorite music was probably blues and rock. So that's what we ended up growing up listening to. Which artists were you listening to back then?

Nanji: Early on I had a lot of Hendrix, B.B. King, Jimmy Reed, Cream. Then in the early '80s, my dad brought home Stevie Ray Vaughan, and that was like another revelation. There really wasn't anybody that I'd heard back in the '80s who was doing the kind of thing that Stevie was doing. So it probably hit me the most over any of the other kinds of music that were out there. How have your influences changed since then? Who else have you discovered since Stevie Ray Vaughan?

Nanji: I've been listening to a few rock bands that came out in the early '90s which have also had a lot of influence on me, like Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, and the Black Crowes. I like rock bands that are blues-based. The newest band that I'm listening to is also one of my favorites now-Audioslave. So it's a pretty wide range of music. Were you also a fan of Soundgarden and Rage Against The Machine?

Nanji: Oh, yeah! I was a big fan. I liked them a lot. Have these artists influenced you as both a player and a songwriter?

Nanji: Yes. They definitely influenced me as both a musician and a songwriter. There are a lot of different people that I listened to and I think that's how my music comes out. There are a lot of different influences in there from the song "Things We Do" to "Blues This Morning" [both from Things We Do, 1998]. It's like two totally different kinds of music. I think the new record also has a lot of different influences all put into one, and I think that kind of shines through. You can hear all the different kinds of music that I grew up listening to and that I listen to now. Where do you see the greatest change in yourself as a musician from the release of the first record to now?

Nanji: I'm getting a little bit more comfortable with it now. I'm able to go out on the road and be comfortable, and I'm able to go into the studio and work a little bit more comfortably. In the beginning it was a little bit nerve-racking. I didn't really want to hear it because I was still learning. Even now, I'm just a student of all these great players. I feel like I'm still learning a lot. I just feel a little bit more comfortable now being in the studio, in the working process, and being out on the road. In all the years since Things We Do was released, we've been out touring. So it feels a little bit more comfortable. Is that the same with songwriting?

Nanji: Yes. I think that with the songwriting, I just tend to have fun with it and write about how I feel at the time. A lot of times when I write a song, it may become a different song. You often get another idea from other songs. It's pretty fun, actually. How do your songs typically emerge? Do they start with a riff or a lyric?

Nanji: For me, it's usually a riff that kind of sets it off. Then after that, the lyrics and everything else kind of falls into place. I just kind of let it flow, rather than trying to think too hard about it. I've done that a few times before, when I just would think too hard about a song and lose it. Basically, I'd end up forgetting about the whole song and then going on to something else. If I think about it too much, then I lose the thought. I like to let it flow out and express what I'm feeling at the time, and just go with it. I think it's like that with everything, even playing live, and when you're playing a solo. You just have to let it flow. Have you discovered what you would consider to be your ideal guitar tone or are you still searching?

Nanji: I've been buying different kinds of amps and pedals, and doing different things to search for different guitar tones. I think that on this latest record, Indigenous, we stretched out a little more. I brought in all my amps-about ten of them. On certain songs, I'd play solos through all of them to get different tones. I'm pretty open to trying different things and different pedals to find different tones, What are you using in your live rig?

Nanji: I've got an old Fender 75, which is a 75-watt amp head. I've got a Matchless 4x12 cabinet. I've got a reissue Fender Vibroverb with a 15" speaker in it which is really cool. I think it's like one of the amps that Stevie used to use a lot. I also use a Leslie, and a Fender Tonemaster to run that.

Once in a while, I use a Marshall 4x12 and sometimes some Mesa/Boogies. I also have a blackface Fender Super Reverb. So there are all kinds of different amps that I've been messing around with. The Fender amps are really warm and really clean sounding. The Marshall is a little more crunchy and out there. I mix them together and get different tones. I'm usually running two or three amps onstage, and the Leslie. The Leslie adds a little of the organ feel to it. I have all of that on that road with me now. So I kind of go back and forth with the rigs, and do different stuff for different tones. How are the tone controls on your amp set?

Nanji: It's pretty much cranked all the way up. Once in a while I'll mess with the tone a little bit, depending on what the room sounds like. A big venue is real echoey and it tends to bring out a lot of the high end and a lot of low end, so I try to find an in between somewhere. Sometimes I feel like the tone is really there and other nights it's not. I think that sometimes it may be due to fluctuations with the voltage going to the amps and different things like that. If there isn't enough power, you're not getting enough out of the amp. Which effects pedals do you have onstage?

Nanji: Right now I've got a Roger Mayer Octavia, a couple of old Tube Screamers-a TS808 and a TS9, a Fulltone Deja Vibe, a Vox reissue wah wah and a Boss Tremolo pedal. How do the tones of the TS808 and TS9 differ?

Nanji: One seems to be a little warmer and the other is a little bit more crunchy. Sometimes I switch between them or sometimes I'll use them together to get a sound that's a little heavier. The TS808 is a little warmer and the TS9 is crunchier. I like them the most out of any distortion pedals. I also have a Dallas-Arbiter Fuzzface that I use once in a while, too. It's kind of the old Hendrixy kind of thing, but actually, a lot of the '60s and '70s rock used the old Fuzzface, so I had to get one of those. Where would you use the Fuzzface? Do you use everything together?

Nanji: I just kind of go back and forth on different tones. I really just mess around with it. If I'm covering a Hendrix song, I may use the Fuzzface. Once in a while, if I'm playing an old blues thing or a slow blues, like a I, IV, V, I'll kick it in and it sends the traditional blues thing to another level. A lot of blues players are kind of straight-through-the-amp, so it just kind of kicks it up a little bit. Tell us about the guitars you play onstage.

Nanji: I have a sunburst '62 Reissue Stratocaster, and I've got a couple of the Tex-Mex Strats, which are made in Mexico. They're actually really good. Those are my main Strats that I have on the road with me right now. I tune a couple of them down half a step, and one of them is in standard tuning because on the first two records, everything was in standard tuning, then on this record, everything's a half-step down. So we're just going back and forth on tuning for different songs onstage. Why did you tune down on this record?

Nanji: I think everything seems to sound a little fatter when it's a half step down. It's a little bigger and it just feels better. I think it's a little easier to get the notes out vocally when you sing higher notes. How are your guitars set up?

Nanji: I use .011-.058 gauge strings. I get some from Fender, GHS, and Dean Markley, so it varies. They're all really good strings. The action on my guitars is set kind of high. I think that's cause I really like to feel the strings and I tend to play really hard. I have the bridge set flat against the body and that way, when I break a string, it stays pretty much in tune. For me, it seems that the lower strings tend to break a lot, like the low E, the D, or the A. What type of picks are you using?

Nanji: Heavy picks. The standard type ones. Do you use a wireless onstage?

Nanji: No, I'm using all cables. How does your stage rig differ from the setup you had in the studio for the last record?

Nanji: Well, in the studio, all the amps were set up in one room and we'd just kind of try each one. A few times, we just plugged them all together and ran straight through them with no pedals, which was pretty cool for different tones. I think it tends to make the sound beefier when you run straight into the amp, and a lot of times I just ran straight through the amps. When I went back in and did the solos, I'd sometimes run through one Tube Screamer and a wah wah or something. So it was pretty straight forward in the studio. How did the band go about recording the tracks on Indigenous? Did you record the basic rhythm parts together, then go back, replace tracks, and overdub the leads?

Nanji: On a lot of the album, all the rhythm parts were actually done live-the bass, drums, and the guitars. A lot of times the percussion was added in later just so you could get a clear sound on it. But a lot of the main stuff was pretty much captured live. This was unlike on the last two records we did, where we basically went for one good solid drum track, then come back in and do bass, and then lay everything on after that. But this time I think it was more of a live thing, where we were all set up in one room. We wanted to capture more of the live sound and I think we came pretty close. There are actually a couple of songs that we all recorded together and I did the vocals live, too. The slow blues track ["I Wonder"] was pretty much live-solos and everything. Also, "Hold On" was pretty much all live. I went back in and overdubbed a guitar solo on that one, but the vocals were live. What do you like and dislike most about recording and playing live? Which do you prefer?

Nanji: The cool thing about recording is that you can always do it again. But when you play live, it's spontaneous and you've just got to go with it. I kind of like both, actually. I like being able to go out and just go for it. If your amp gives out, you've just got to keep on going with it, and get another amp up there. In the studio, you have a lot of time to sit down, think about things, and work on it. A lot of times when I hear it back a month after the record's done, I think about how I could have done certain things differently. If you have a problem onstage where an amp goes out or the tone just isn't right, will that affect your performance?

Nanji: No. I just go with it and put another amp up, then go for it from there. I don't get real down. I just kind of go with it. The show is going to happen whether I like it or not. So I just make it the best I can with what's going on. I always try to do my best. How do you warm up for a gig? Do you have any set routines to get yourself ready?

Nanji: No, not really. Actually, we're all kind of laid back before a show, then we'll go up there and go for it-no set list, no nothing. We just call off the songs and go for it. Will the group tend to play the same songs every night?

Nanji: It's different every night. A lot of times we'll do some of the same songs, but they never turn out the same way. A lot of times I'll get live recordings because people will bootleg the show and send us copies of it. Sometimes it's the same set, but the songs always turn out different. The solos are never the same. So it's pretty spontaneous. We just go out there and it's like a big jam. Do you do much practicing to work on technique?

Nanji: Oh yeah. I still play every day. I go back to Freddie King, and the Jimi Hendrix stuff I haven't figured out. I sit down and try to figure some of that out slowly but surely. It's pretty cool to go back and listen to great guitar players like Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy. You'll hear something in those songs the first time, then you go back and listen, and you'll hear something different. So there's always something new and different to learn. When I'm at home I pretty much practice with acoustic guitars. I guess that's probably the reason why I like the action so high on my electric guitars. On the acoustics the strings are pretty heavy and it's pretty hard to bend. But that's what I'm used to playing, so I just end up trying to get my electrics to feel pretty similar to that. I've got a Guild 12-string, and a Martin Eric Clapton model 6-string, which I like a lot. It's got the smaller-size body and it's pretty light. It kind of reminds me of an electric guitar. Do you usually write on acoustic or electric?

Nanji: I pretty much use the acoustics. What advice would you offer to other guitarists on developing their own style and tone?

Nanji: Just keep an open mind, listen to different guitar players, and figure out what they play. B.B. King plays one amp and he's got a great tone just doing that. I think that once you get the guitar you like, you should try out different amps because they've all got different sounds, and a lot of them are really good. Find the ones that you like best and then find the ones that work best for what you want to do. What advice would you offer on becoming a better songwriter?

Nanji: Just keep an open mind and listen to a lot of different songwriters. I listen to a lot of different songwriters- a lot of the old R&B stuff and a lot of rock stuff, like anyone from Big Head Todd to Marvin Gaye or Al Green or something like that. So there are a pretty wide range of songwriting influences in there. Just listen to people who you like and get different ideas from everyone. What have you been listening to for enjoyment? What would we find in your CD player this week?

Nanji: This week I've got Audioslave in there. I pretty much listen to everything, but I don't really listen to the radio too much. I've been listening to everything from Audioslave to Jimmy Reed, and he still has a lot of influence on me today. Hearing the old stuff is pretty refreshing because what I hear on the radio today, a lot of it's really cool, but it seems like everybody kind of follows in the same trends. I wish radio was a little more open like it was in the '60s or the '70s, where they had Santana or Hendrix. Once in a while you'll find a good station that plays a lot of classic stuff. It's cool if people dig the new stuff, but I pretty much listen to what I've got-Stevie Ray, Hendrix, and stuff like that. What goals has Indigenous set for the future?

Nanji: The biggest goal now would be to try to get overseas to places like Europe, the UK, even Australia, and Japan, and try to get our music out to them. Canada is the only place we've played outside the US. We haven't been to Europe yet, but I know we've got some fans there and in other parts of the world because they call in and order CDs. So there are fans in Japan and different places around the world. I think it would be great to get out there and play for them.

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