Silent Civilian: The rebirth of Jonny Santos

Jonny Santos of Silent Civilian

April 9, 2006

Two years ago, Jonny Santos decided he needed a change. Without a clear plan or goal, he left Spineshank, which, as its frontman, he helped sell a million albums
worldwide. It hasn’t been easy, but Santos is back, returning to his thrash metal roots as the singer and guitarist of Silent Civilian. With its debut album,
Rebirth of the Temple, due to hit stores May 2, the band has been on tour since early February, first with Nothingface, now with Bleed the Sky. The road has not been kind to Santos and company, costing them a guitarist after less than two weeks. Then bassist Henno broke his ankle in an onstage mishap. A temporary guitarist is filling out the band now as they search for a permanent replacement. Meanwhile, Henno has kept on rocking, playing his bass sitting on a bar stool on stage. As they say, the show must go on. Santos wouldn’t have it any other way. Prior to Silent Civilian’s recent show at the Colosseum Sports Bar in Wilmington, Del., Greg Maki of sat down with Santos on the band’s RV for an in-depth interview.

Live-Metal: First, I just wanna say I'm really excited about this band. I've been listening to the songs on the myspace page all the time. I'm dying to hear the whole album.

Jonny Santos: Thanks, man. Actually, our distribution company, I think, got a little bit upset that we put that many tracks online. But whatever. It’s our first record, so we just want to spread the word and get the music out to as many people as possible.

So if we can go back to Spineshank for a little bit. Obviously very successful, you sold a lot of albums, Grammy nomination. Why did you leave?

It’s like I said before. I think that moment in time we weren’t getting along the greatest. I was not happy with the direction of the music anymore, and I also think that the band had kind of just run its course. I think that Spineshank did what it was meant to do. I don’t regret ever being in that band. It’s some of the best memories of my life, but I think that the day was up. And I think a lot of it was due to the band taking so long in between albums to make an album. I think it really hurt the band in a way. So I just felt that I didn’t think that the record was gonna do – it still ended up doing good, but I just felt like the band’s days were numbered in general, even if we were getting along great. With the climate of everything, I wasn’t feeling happy about what was going on. It was time to move on, for sure.

Did you miss playing guitar when you were in that band?

Totally, totally. I played guitar for 10, 12 years before I even started singing, so it was nice to go back to playing. I was originally a guitar player in the band that Tommy [Decker] and Mike [Sarkisyan] and I were in before Spineshank, and then when we went to Spineshank I ended up playing bass. I was playing bass and singing. For me, to be able to play again, I feel like I’m still part of the band when I’m not singing.

You’re not just standing there.

Yeah. My biggest heroes play guitar and sing: Rob Flynn, Hetfield, fuckin’ Tom Araya. So I was like, well, it’s not that big of a deal to go back to playing. And I love having gear and tons of stuff that can go wrong.

Were those the kind of guys who inspired you to first start playing?

As a kid, I started playing when I was 7 years old. I really started getting into metal when I was probably about 9 or 10-ish. Back then, I was inspired by guys like, obviously, Randy Rhoads and Eddie Van Halen. Slash was a huge, huge influence on me as a kid. That’s why most of my playing is all in pretty much, like, pentatonic patterns. I stay in a certain box that I feel really comfortable with, and I use my wah pedal quite a bit. Slash, to me, is just, like, God. And Hetfield, of course, early Metallica. Ride the Lightning is still probably one of my favorite records of all time. And Rob Flynn, as well. He’s just amazing.

What was the very first band you were in?

The very first band I was in was a punk band called the Drunk Monkeys.

How old were you?

I was 11. I was 11, and Tommy from Spineshank, we started the band, and he was 13, 14 … 13. Tommy’s two years older. So he was 13. I was 11. We were – basically, back then there was the whole crossover movement with bands like D.R.I. and shit that were doing the punk-thrash thing. It was pretty much three chord fuckin’ punk rock with screaming. The only reason we were doing that was because we really didn’t know how to play our instruments. We wanted to be in a band, and we were having a good time. By the time we were in high school, we actually had a pretty good grasp on what we were doing, and that’s when we started just really leaning more into the metal side of things. And that’s when Sepultura happened to me and Machine Head. And then I was really influenced by a lot of the old industrial shit, like Ministry and Godflesh and stuff like that. I think that’s where a lot of the Spineshank sound originally came from, with the electronic stuff.

I was kind of wondering about that because it doesn’t really fit with a lot of the other influences you mentioned. How long were you in Spineshank?

I was Spineshank from ’96 to 2004, so I was in the band for eight years.

After you left, did you know right away what you were going to do next?

I had no clue. I knew I wasn’t happy, and I left. I had some friends I had grown up with that wanted to jam, so I figured if I was gonna go back to playing guitar and singing I wanted to screw around for a while to kind of really become comfortable being that guitar player and singer again. I stopped playing and sang for so long that to put on a guitar and stand in front of a microphone, it was a little weird at that point again. So I started messing around, jamming with a lot of local bands, friends. I had some other things going on. I was an engineer, so I was doing a lot of engineering and production as well. You gotta do something to pay the bills. So I just started jamming around, doing things and getting my life back on track, because after I left Spineshank of course I lost everything. It was like, fuck, I was pretty much homeless again, fuckin’ couch surfing from friend’s house to friend’s house. I wasn’t making any money because I wasn’t in Spineshank, wasn’t on the road. It took me a while to get my head straight, get on my feet. Then one day it hit me. It’s like, OK, let’s do this again. I started from scratch, and I wanted to find the best musicians that I could’ve possibly found and put a great band together, a great thrash band together. And I found my guys.

How did you find them?

Well, Chris [Mora] found me on, of all places, MySpace. I had put the ad out for a drummer, and I was getting hit up by tons of people. Then this guy did probably the smartest thing anybody could ever do when you’re trying to get an audition for a band. He emailed me a video of him playing drums. And I saw the kid play and I was just like, “You can’t be for real, dude.” I said, “Yeah, come on down.” So he came down and within the 10 minutes, it was like – he was the first guy to audition and he got the job.

Did you audition anybody else?

No, that was it. I knew as soon as he started playing, I knew that he was my guy. He was just super, super talented and hungry. It’s one of those things that you can see in somebody. He had it. So I was like, yeah, he was the guy. And I’m glad I didn’t go on and audition anymore people. I didn’t want to put myself through that much confusion. Chris and I have been [tight] ever since. Me and him pretty much write the brunt of all the music. So him and I have just been hammering away. Henno was in a band from Australia called Cryogenic. They did really well in Australia, and then they came here to America and they lost their singer. They were working with Mudrock for a while or something, and then somehow they lost their singer. They were looking for a new singer. I went down to audition for their band. They were a good band. It just didn’t feel right for me. But I really liked Henno’s bass playing, and I liked his whole persona and his style and his attitude. He got in touch with me and joined the band, and that was that. As far as our other guitar player situation, well, that’s an ongoing issue right now. We’ve been through two guitar players and we’re still looking for the third guy. The guy that actually played on the record [Tim Mankowski] decided it wasn’t right for him 10 days into the tour. It’s not right for everybody, and he felt that he wasn’t going to be able to do this. We wished him the best of luck, and he went home. Right now we have Kyle [Moorman] from Bleed the Sky. He’s filling in because we’re going to be out on tour until the 30th. We’re still taking video auditions from people on the road. We’ve got a guy coming down tomorrow night, bringing his guitar. We just want to take our time and make sure we find the right guy this time.

It’s not just about how well he plays, right?

Exactly. We had a guy like that and it just didn’t work out right away. There’s gotta be some kind of – his personality, the guy can’t be a slimebag. We need to find the guy that has not just the talent but the ability to coexist with six, seven other people in a RV or a van or whatever it is and someone’s that’s hungry, that’s not going to be in two weeks, “Oh, I can’t handle this.” We’ve got to find somebody that really wants it that bad and has the talent to boot. So if anybody out there thinks they got it, hit us up.

Where did the name Silent Civilian come from?

I think the climate of the world in the last several years, I think, there’s so many people out there that seriously have so many opinions on issues, whether it pertains to life, politics, any issue. So many people, it seems like they don’t voice their beliefs. They stay quiet and kind of run with the grain of society just because that’s the way it’s supposed to be. And I think that we live in a nation full of silent civilians. A lot of different angles of it just kind of fit. I also didn’t want to name the band something like, you know, As the River Runs Through Winter on a Wednesday. You know what I’m saying? Silent Civilian is a pretty convicting name, I think, and it’s got somewhat of a voice to it. This is a metal band. It’s not a fad band. We’re in it for the long haul because as soon as all the River Tuesday heartbreaking bands are gone, metal’s still going to be around.

Is what you were just talking about the overall lyrical theme of the songs?

No, no. I mean, I definitely express some political views in the songs, but it’s not just about that. There’s a lot of different – the song “Falling Down” I actually based after the actual movie that Michael Douglas was in. I love that fuckin’ movie. That fuckin’ movie is rad. I just kind of see how that could happen to so many people in society today, where they’re just going through the motions every day and they just snap. I thought it would be fun to write a song like that. I had never done anything like that. There’s a lot of songs of empowerment and, basically, positivity because there’s so much negativity lyrically in metal that I felt like I wanted to write a few songs that really were based on what I went through after I left Spineshank, hence the title of the record Rebirth of the Temple, as in the temple, the mind, body and soul is your temple. It was rising from the ashes of yesteryear. Basically, you can’t change your past, you can’t change anything that you’ve been through, but you can change where you go in your future. Lyrically, I think that will send a certain message to a lot of kids out there. I know that when [producer] Logan [Mader] did that record, I know that song personally touched him because he kind of went through similar phases after leaving Soulfly. He was like, “Yeah, man, lyrically that song really hits a note with me.” That kind of became the anthem to where I wanted to go with this record. Then there’s songs on the record that are just straight up full of hate. I didn’t want to make a one-dimensional record. I wanted to make a very diverse but yet thrash metal record.

I think just from the four songs on MySpace, I think you can tell that. What did Logan as the producer bring to it?

He just brought so much to the table. It was such a pleasure working with him. The guy is amazing, and I really think that he’s gonna be one of the biggest producers of this decade. I’ve worked with Jay Baumgardner. I’ve worked with Amir Derakh. I’ve worked with some really, really great A-class producers, and to do this record with Logan was like – when I started this band it wasn’t like it was right away, “Oh, Jonny Santos has a new band.” It wasn’t like the industry was beating down my door. But I wasn’t gonna settle for somebody that just wanted a paycheck, and Logan came after the band. He was like, “I’ve gotta do this.” He was really super, super, super excited about it, and he brought so much to the table. Just in general, everything he brought to the table was so creative and helped open my eyes. I was really standoffish about working with any producers again because of just some of the shit that I went through with working with some guys. He was so mellow. He was so like, “Hey, Jonny, you know what? Why don’t you come here for a minute?” And I’d come in, and he’s like, “Yeah, I’m not so sure this is working. Why don’t we move onto something else and why don’t you think about this part for the next day or two, and if you need some help, I’ll sit down with you and go over it with you.” And also, Lucas Banker, Logan’s partner, he co-produced the record. As far as melody and shit like that, that guy is just super, super amazing. So, yeah, it was awesome working with Logan. He’s doing the next record, for sure.

Are you happy with the way the album turned out?

Extremely happy. Extremely, extremely, extremely happy.

You shot a video for the title track. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Scott Culver directed the video. He did Yellowcard. He did Mikoto, Hit the Lights. He’s an up-and-coming guy, and just a fabulous director to work with. Once again, he wanted to work with the band. We didn’t do anything super fancy for the video. We basically shot it at the house that I grew up in and called up about 50 of my friends and said, “Look, guys. We’re buying a fuckin’ keg of beer and we’re gonna barbecue, and we’re gonna shoot the video.” And then last minute we put a bulletin out, like two hours before the shoot. “If you’re in the L.A. area, if you’re a Silent Civilian fan, show up at this address.” It was crazy, dude. Another 30 kids showed up just, like, last, last minute. Because I knew if we put it out earlier my dad would have been like, “Who the hell are all these people?” It was basically just a good time video. We’re playing in the back room. There’s people hanging out, drinking, playing poker. Wayne from Static-X came down. He’s in the video. Roy Mayorga from Soulfly, now Sepultura, he came down. He’s in the video. Logan was in the video. We shoved a bunch of kids into a tiny little back room, and just went for it, no permits, no nothing. And the video came out just amazing. That video would’ve cost us $100,000 with anybody else to do it. Scott just really believed in the band and said, “Look, when you guys sell a gold record I can start charging you then.”

Do you know when we’re going to get to see it?

It should be going to MTV in about two weeks. Somewhere in April it should be hitting Headbanger’s Ball or something like that.

Are you enjoying being back out on the road?

Yes, actually, as rough as it’s been lately. It’s been two years since I’ve been on the road. A week into it, it was like I never left. These guys are having the time of their lives. They’ve never really toured before, so they’re learning the ropes of the road real quick.

The first night of the Nothingface tour there was the big snowstorm.

Oh my god.

Did you have to travel in that?

We had to drive through that. We had to play Cleveland the next day. Five miles an hour. Zero visibility. And just cars in ditches everywhere. But we made it. Teamwork.

Did you have any trouble adjusting going from Spineshank to playing to people who have never heard you before or never heard this band at least?

When we set out on the Nothingface tour, I knew that if this band was gonna fly, I would have saw it right away. And from the first show, it was just like we killed it every night. And the people, the fans have been super receptive. A lot of the Spineshank fans are still coming out and they’re like, “Wow. Thank you, Jonny, for still playing music. You guys are fuckin’ absolutely amazing.” And all the new fans are out there going, “I heard you used to be in a band called Spineshank or something.” There’s a whole new batch of kids out there now that have never heard of Jonny Santos or Spineshank, which is actually good for me. Now it’s like I’m gonna get all these new fans and they’ll be able to go back if they want and buy my old records. Yeah, it’s cool, man. The band’s been, seriously, with all that we’re going through, we’ve still been killing it every night. We’ve got our bass player on a fuckin’ bar stool because he can’t stand up. We’ve got Kyle from Bleed the Sky filling in. He learned six songs in two days. And we’re still making it happen. Going home was not an option for us. We’ve gotta finish this out. Bleed the Sky are our boys. I’m not gonna do this to them.

After this tour, what’s next for Silent Civilian?

We don’t know yet. There’s a bunch of things up in the air. We’re submitted for all kinds of stuff. This tour’s still gonna run for about another six weeks, so hopefully we’ll have something locked in within the next month because this band has absolutely no intention on going home. I’d like to once the record comes out, a couple months after the record comes out, I’d like to go out and do a headlining run, just do really small venues and just pack the shit out of them. I want to establish the band as a headlining act. That’s one thing that Spineshank never really did. We supported every band under the sun, but we did in the entire career of the band maybe like four headlining tours. And they were very short ones.

So May 2 is the release date. Are you excited for people to hear it?

Yeah, I can’t wait. I’m gonna go out and buy 10 copies myself. And I’m gonna listen to all 10 of them. Another thing, too, is I’m so sick of bands putting out records that are only 25 minutes long. You go and you pay 15 bucks for a CD and you only get 25 minutes or half hour’s worth of music. This CD is 64 minutes to be exact. So you got an hour’s worth of music, plus it’s enhanced. It has the video on it. This way, I want to make sure the fans get what they’re paying for.

You said you want to establish the band as a headlining act. Is there anything more, like an ultimate goal beyond that for the band?

I think at this point we just really want to have a career in this. Of course, everybody wants to be a great metal band, and I look at some of my heroes in bands that really just took their time with everything. I want to make sure that the band grows and develops the proper way and not end up selling ourselves short and cutting our career short just for a quick payoff or whatever our label tells us. I want this band to still be around in 10 years. Whether we sell 50,000 records or 2 million records, as long as the band can keep its longevity and maintain everything, maintain our ability to make records and continue to tour and travel the world, man. That’s what we love to do.

That’s all the questions I have for you. Is there anything else you want to add?

Well, thanks for your time. I’d like to say to all the fans out there, thanks for coming out to the shows, May 2, and if you come to a show and you see me hanging out at the bar or the merch table, come up and say hi, and we’ll have a beer.