As artists' careers get hotter, they become much tougher to pin down. Example? Santi White of Santogold, who headlines the Wednesday, October 1 MySpace Music event at the Gothic Theatre co-starring Mates of State, Low Vs. Diamond and Trouble Andrew (click here to learn more). Several weeks back, I contacted her PR rep and asked about her availability. The publicist replied that because of White's incredibly busy schedule, she didn't have time to speak on the phone -- and the maximum number of questions I could send via e-mail was three to five, since she'd probably be answering them on her cell phone. Yep: I was being offered an interview by text message.
I anticipated disaster but sent five questions anyhow, writing them in a manner that I hoped would preclude one or two word answers. Fortunately, White responded in the kind of detail that implies she used a computer, not a phone. The results made the experiment worthwhile, as you'll see in the unexpectedly substantial Q&A below.
White discusses the impact of her punky musical past on her Santogold work, epitomized by the project's self-titled debut album, which was released earlier this year; recalls her time as a major-label A&R staffer and offers her take on the music industry's downturn; critiques the current state of hip-hop and pop music in general; and talks about themes of change and hope in two of her recent tunes. She proves so interesting that it makes me wish I'd been given the chance to ask her more than five questions.
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Westword (Michael Roberts): Prior to making your latest album, you were part of a ska-punk band, Stiffed. What influence did that group have on your current work – and is there a song or two where you can point to a punk influence that others might have missed?
Santi White: My band Stiffed was a post-punk new wave band, not really a ska band. I still have the same influences that I had when I was in that band, but when I was in Stiffed, I was writing all the songs for a live four-piece band. For Santogold, I incorporated even more of my influences (more dub and electronics), so the sound is broader while it still builds on the initial influences that Stiffed was built on. It was through Stiffed that I really learned a lot about how to use my voice in different ways and about production and songwriting in general. A Santogold song that has strong punk influence would be “Say Aha,” from the grimy guitar sounds to the surf rock guitar riff at the end to the Danzig-like chorus melody. It may not be obvious, but it’s in there.
WW: Did your time doing A&R for Epic give you an indication why the record industry is having such a difficult time these days – and if so, what problems did you see that are still impacting the business today?
SW: Well, it was a different era for the music industry when I worked at Epic, but the things that were taking place then have definitely played a part in the problems they’re experiencing today. Part of the problem, obviously, is that people aren’t really buying records anymore. But other than that, major labels started running themselves as these massive corporations run by businessmen (rather than boutique labels run by visionaries), trying to commodify art in the same way it might do a product like toothpaste. It just doesn’t work that way.
When you think you can make a pop star by creating a TV show (all marketing and no talent), it makes for artists that have no staying power and a really volatile industry, where there’s no foundation and the whole thing can just come crumbling down at any moment. There is no artist development anymore, and labels don’t work records for more than a couple months without giving up on them. What artist wants to sign up for that? And now with MySpace, artists don’t need major labels like they used to. Indie labels have realized this and started picking up on where majors have been failing, using the Internet and the new market to work in their favor, while the majors still spend too much money on the wrong things and continue to fall apart.
WW: Does it bother you that you’re often described as a hip-hop artist even though your music has so many other influences – and are you disappointed with the current direction of the hip-hop genre?
SW: I’m not often described as a hip hop artist. But hip hop as well as most commercial music right now is in a pretty sad state. It’s cheap, sounds like fast-food music, and isn’t about anything. Of course, there are some great songs, and some amazing beats, especially coming out of the South right now. But I’d say pop music in general needs a face lift.
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WW: In “L.E.S. Artistes,” the lyrics include the lines, “Change, change, change/I want to get out of my skin.” Is constant change a big part of your approach to music, and if so, what's the most exciting part of not knowing where your creativity will take you next?
SW: Yes, I think change is a big part of life. If you’re not evolving, what’s the point? If I always knew where I was headed, I think half the time I wouldn’t want to go!
WW: In “Shove It,” one of your most political songs, one line says, “We think you're a joke/Shove your hope where it don't shine.” Of course, “hope” is a big part of Barack Obama's campaign theme. Do you think politicians who promise hope shouldn’t be trusted any more than those who don’t, because they're only trying to manipulate people to their own ends?
SW: This song was written way before Obama's campaign, and I’m a supporter of Obama. It was about the current administration’s propagandist tactics (I can’t believe how much that shit still works on people, it’s ridiculous!), and about the power of people and the need for us to speak up. The “hope” I’m speaking of in this song is just a metaphor for all their bullshit talk.