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Silent Civilian: Jonny Santos strikes back

Jonny Santos of Silent Civilian

July 19, 2006

When last we left singer/guitarist Jonny Santos and his band Silent Civilian, they were on the verge of releasing their debut album, Rebirth of the Temple. But all was not well. The bassist, suffering from a pair of broken ankles, propped himself up on stage on a barstool. A member of Bleed the Sky filled in on guitar. But now, with a new bassist and a new guitarist, and the album garnering rave reviews, the band is as strong as ever. Greg Maki of Live-Metal.net recently caught up with Santos again at Club Mate in Baltimore, Md., during Silent Civilian’s tour with Drowning Pool.

Live-Metal: There have been some changes in the band since you started touring. Who is in the band now?

Jonny Santos: The current lineup still is me and [drummer] Chris [Mora], obviously. We have two guys that are basically on a trial period. We want to take our time, make sure we get the right guys, ‘cause I don’t want to go through this again. Chris and I were pretty much the whole band to begin with, so losing the other two guys, it sucked, but we haven’t missed a show, literally. We even played a few nights as a three-piece. Whatever we have to do, the fans still come out, so we gotta keep it going. Hopefully, everything works out with these guys and we’ll have ourselves some permanent members. You can’t really get to know somebody just from meeting them and saying, “OK, cool. You play guitar? Right on. Yeah.” And then they turn out to be a fuckin’ psychopathic axe murderer. Being experienced in this business a long time, I’ve learned that you don’t really know somebody’s true colors until you’ve toured with ‘em for fuckin’ six months. Then you’ll know if that person’s a keeper or not, and I think it’s just the right thing to do. The other thing is, Chris and I, we don’t want people that think they’re just getting handouts. We want hungry motherfuckers. As of right now, we’re fine, the band’s doing great, we’re on the road doing some decent tours. And we just gotta keep going with that. We still have another year of touring left.

So who are the new guys and where did you find them?

Marcus [Rafferty] is playing guitar right now. We met him, actually, because he was working for Nothingface. So we were friends with Marcus. He really wanted to try out for the spot, and we just said, “Videotape yourself playing the songs note for note—and that means all the leads, too, buddy. This shit ain’t easy.” I mean, I knew Marcus could play, but I didn’t know his capabilities as a guitar player. And he said, “I’ll do you even better.” He’s from Syracuse, New York, and he said, “How about this, how about I drive down”—we were in Reading, Pennsylvania—“How about I drive down there and play for you in person?” I was like, “Fuck yeah, cool.” So he came down and note for note, two songs. And he started playing with us that night. [Bleed the Sky guitarist] Kyle [Moorman] would play the first part of the set and Marcus would finish it out. That’s how he learned all the songs. So that was cool.

Stan [Derby], who’s playing bass, was actually a friend of Marcus’s. I’d asked Marcus, “Hey, do you know any really good bass players, metal bass players?” And he was like, “Yeah, let me make a phone call.” So we checked Stan out. He flew into Spokane, Washington, and has been with us ever since. Disco [Daylen] was playing bass for us at the time, Disco from Bleed the Sky. It was really fun having Disco in the band for a month. That guy’s awesome.

Did you ever play with him and Kyle, both, at the same time?


Yeah.

So half the band was Bleed the Sky?


Half the band. It was Bleed the Civilian.

[laughter]

Yes, it was. It was quite a sight to see. I felt bad for those guys ‘cause they were pulling double duty. I can’t even imagine that, but they really helped us out and they kept us on the road. I owe those guys. Friends for life, for sure.

You and Chris pretty much wrote all of the music, right?

Yeah.

What was that process like?

It was pretty—I don’t know. It was pretty painless. We didn’t really put too much thought into it. We wanted to write good shit. We weren’t anticipating having a record deal or anything. We just said, “Hey, let’s write, see what happens and if a deal comes along, a deal comes along. If not, we’ll have a good time.” And it just snowballed. It became something completely out of hand. We got so into it. We were just every night at my house. Chris would be at work all day and I’d be home writing riffs. I had a little drum machine and I’d basically build skeletons of songs all day long. We got to a point where we were pumping three or four songs a week. I’d write all this shit, he’d come in, he’d help with arrangements, we’d figure out the actual body of the song, then we’d track it that night and then the next day I’d go in and lay down vocal melodies, just ad lib lyrics or whatever just to get the melody down. One in the bag. We just did that and we ended up having, like, 30 songs. We had so much to choose from and we were still only able to put 14 songs on the actual record—only 13 songs. We wanted to put 14, but there wasn’t enough room ‘cause we wanted to do an enhanced CD. I really wanted the fans to get their money’s worth. I’m so sick of bands that put out a record for $22 and it’s only, like, 35 minutes long. It’s like, what kind of shit is that, you know? And people wonder why people download some of this shit all the time. The labels and the bands are ripping off their own fans. So we put on an hour’s worth of music, a video and it’s also got a 10-minute documentary on the making of the record. And I think at Best Buy you can get our record for $13.99. I think for 14 bucks, that’s what it should be.

How many songs did you end up recording?

Sixteen, two of which are covers that we don’t know where they’re gonna end up yet. We did a cover of “War Ensemble” [Slayer] and we also did a Death Angel cover. We did “Seemingly Endless Time,” which I was really excited about ‘cause they’re one of my favorite bands ever.

Some of these guys with you now had never really toured before going out with Silent Civilian. Did you give them any advice?

Well, it’s rough on new guys. You see, this is the problem with why we lost the first two members. They had never toured before either. The thing about this life is it’s not made for everybody. I lost [guitarist] Tim [Mankowski] because Tim can’t tour, can’t handle it. He’s a phenomenal, phenomenal guitar player who just is not that guy. He’s already 30 years old, never toured before and he’s set in his ways. He owns his own house. He lives by himself, so—you know, people that are used to being alone and then you stick ‘em in a RV with seven other people? He just couldn’t hang and I respect that. With these other guys, sometimes they get really down and homesick, and I’m like, look, this is part of the gig, man. I do, too, but this is the life that I’ve chosen. Hopefully, some day—think about it, is your life really that bad? You make a living playing rock n’ roll and getting free booze and chicks every night. Is it so bad? You get to do what you love to do. You get to travel, meet tons and tons and tons of people. Like, right now, we really want to go home for, like, a couple of days. That’s it. I just want to go home. I want to sleep in my own bed for a couple of days, play with my dog and OK, let’s go. But then again, I’ve been doing it for eight years. I’m used to it. But they’re learning very quickly that it’s not as glamorous as some people actually make it out to be. I think they’re gonna be alright. I know for a fact Chris, that kid was made for the road. I got lucky with that guy. He’s a road dog.

What is it like having your wife on tour with you?

It’s actually really good. She’s keeps me out of trouble, man.

[laughter]

I found that as far as for chicks and the drugs and all that shit, man, I did that before. I got it out of my system. She keeps an eye on me. She keeps me from doing stupid shit. She’s just a really awesome person. I love being with my wife. She’s like my best friend, you know? She’s got her dog—our dog—out with us, as well. It’s just kinda cool because now I’ve got everything I want. So many guys don’t have the opportunity to bring their significant other on the road and they give up one for the other. I’ve seen this life beat up a ton of relationships. It’s beaten up a couple of mine. So it’s kinda cool, like I have everything I want. That’s why maybe I’m so comfortable now. I’ve got my wife with me, I’ve got my band, my music, I’ve got my vodka every night.

[laughter]

Is that your drink of choice?

My drink of choice, vodka and Coke, “Brown Eye.” Rob Flynn from Machine Head, he coined that term. He actually gave me my first Brown Eye ever and I’ve been drinking it ever since.

How long did it take you to get used to playing guitar and singing at the same time again?

You know, it took me about 10 minutes. I mean, I was guitar player for 13 years before I ever sang a note, so I’m always gonna be a guitar player at heart. I started playing when I was 7. And when I originally started with Spineshank, I was playing and singing with Spineshank. They came around and they were like, “Look, we just want you to be a frontman. We want you to be able to jump around and get in the crowd’s face.” I was like, “I’ll give it a shot.” And it was fun for a second and then I just felt empty. So when I got out of Spineshank, the first thing I did was pull my guitars out of the cupboard. I mean, I wrote so much of the actual Spineshank music anyway. I just never played it live. And that stuff was cake compared to what I’m playing and singing now.

Did it take a long time to figure out how to work it all out on stage with all the complicated parts?

You know, there are certain parts that I play and sing that are kinda like doing this [pats his head and rubs his stomach], that kind of a thing ‘cause I’ll write a riff and then without playing it, I will find the best melody to put over it. Chris will be like, “Are you sure you can sing over that?” And I’ll go, “If I can’t, I will figure it out.” So it’s almost like motor skills, what drummers go through. A few things, I would sit at home for hours upon hours just practicing singing it at the same time. And then you finally find that niche at that part and you’re like, OK. And now it’s just like I don’t even have to think about it or anything.

Do you do anything to take care of your voice, because you do a lot of screaming and really melodic parts?

I’ve never been that guy. So many singers I know, they have very sensitive voices and they will either do their special warm-ups or they do all this stuff And it’s like, for me, I smoke like a fuckin’ chimney, I’m a full-blown fuckin’ alcoholic, I usually have about four or five drinks before we even play ‘cause I have a theory here: I wrote the songs wasted, I recorded the songs wasted, gotta play ‘em wasted. So that’s my theory. As immature as that may sound, that’s how I roll.

[laughter]

It seems to be working.

Yeah, you know, it’s like the old thing in high school. If you’re in class and you’re stoned, you better do your homework stoned and take the tests when you’re stoned, too.

[laughter]

So the album has a gotten a pretty good reception so far, a lot of critical praise. What does that mean to you?

It’s awesome because I didn’t expect any of it. Amazon called it the best metal album of the 21st century. I’m like, “Whoa, I don’t know about that.” But it’s really cool because for once, I finally worked on a project where I didn’t really put too much thought into it as far as where I wanted it to go. I mean, I just said, “I want to write fuckin’ kick-ass thrash metal tunes.” I wasn’t like, “It’s gotta be fit for radio and MTV.” We did not compromise anything for either and we’ve gotten radio and MTV. And I think that’s the thing. I don’t think it’s about having a radio hit. If the song’s good enough, you know? We’ve been getting a lot of really good reviews. There’s a couple of shitty ones out there, but I don’t pay attention to those. What of it? You can’t please everybody.

Do you have plans to do any more videos?

Yeah. Actually, when we get home at the end of the month, we are going to shoot a video for “The Song Remains Un-Named.”

What’s the story behind that one and the title?

The song is about somebody that I really, really hate profusely and imagine actually lying in a pool of blood sometimes, and I didn’t want to give that person the justice of having their name or anything anywhere near it. I couldn’t think of an appropriate title, so somebody said, “What’s that song’s name?” And [producer] Logan [Mader] said, “The song still remains unnamed.” And I’m like, “That’s it. That’s the name of the song.” Kind of an interesting little tidbit there.

Have you kept writing music on the road?

Yeah. Chris and I are already probably about four or five songs into the next record and this one just came out. I firmly believe in writing over a long period of time ‘cause that’s why so many bands have awesome first records and horrible second records. They spend the first two years writing that first record and then they tour forever and they go home and write a whole record in, like, two months. I just don’t think that, for us, is really a possibility.

Are you going to work with Logan again on the next one?

Oh, most definitely. Yep, and we’re trying to find a really cool spot to do the record. We don’t want to do it in L.A. this time. We want to go to, like, New Zealand or somewhere. I don’t know. Not that we’d be able to afford it, but it’s always a fun idea. Logan’s exclusive with us, man.

He did a great job on the first album.

And it’s good for him because he’s produced a lot of stuff and nothing that he’s done yet has really taken off, and this is the first thing that he’s done that has actually, like, taken off and selling thousands and thousands of records right now. So he’s really, really stoked, as we are.

Ideally, how long would it be before the next album is out?

Well, we plan on touring until the end of next summer. We continue touring for the rest of this year, next year and then hopefully get on some kind of festival tour next summer. This is our first record. All bands need to tour the shit out of their first record. And when all is said and done, we will hopefully have the record written, come home, we’ll probably take a couple of weeks off and go straight into pre-production, two weeks of pre-production, do the next record and it will either come out late next year or early 2008. And it’s just because we’re planning such an extensive tour on this record. Bands, on their first record, just gotta stay out, man. They gotta keep touring, hitting the same fuckin’ towns six times in one year.

The next tour is with Nonpoint?

Yeah.

I think you’re coming back to this same place.

This actual place?

Yeah.

Oh great. I’m not too happy with this actual place today. Kicked my dog out.

I heard you were thinking about doing an album of covers.

We’re gonna do an EP. It’s gonna be like a Bay area tribute EP. We’re gonna cover a bunch of old Bay area stuff, Sacred Reich, fuckin’ Death Angel, Exodus, Testament. It’s something really cool for the fans while we’re—it’ll probably get released right before we finish touring. We’ll take like two weeks off, go home, track it and then put it out. I just really want to bring thrash back. There’s so many –core bands, this band and that band and I just want to bring the whole thrash—it’s, like, the punk beats, man, with the metal riffs, it drives me nuts, dude. Old Sepultura, Beneath the Remains and fuckin’ Arise.

Are there plans for you to do a headlining tour yet?


End of the year. We’re planning on November-December. I mean, unless something really big comes along, I do want to establish the band as a headlining act. I think that’s gonna be the perfect time to do it because by that time the record will probably be somewhere around 40,000 or 50,000, and I think we could go out and do a small club tour.

It’s seems like that with the long songs and everything this band is really meant for that.

Yeah. We could go out there on our first record and headline and play for over an hour. That’s awesome. How many bands can say that on their first record? Because their records are only 25 minutes fuckin’ long.

What are some of your favorite places to play?

We seem to do really, really, really well on the East Coast, like all of the East Coast and the South and the Midwest. The places that we really haven’t even hit are, like, the Northwest. We’ve done Portland and Seattle a couple of times. But Texas, some of the shows in Texas are un-fuckin’-believable. We played this fuckin’ little shithole in Odessa and 800 kids, I looked out over the crowd and they were just, like, killing themselves. It was like fuckin’ what is going on here? There were, like, three pits, there was an all-girl pit. That’s cool. The last time we played Baltimore it was fuckin’ awesome, the Recher Theatre. And that was our first show ever.

Yeah, I was gonna go to that, but the snowstorm kept me away.

That was our first show ever as a band. It was crazy. I came out and I was nervous as all fuckin’ hell. Nothingface sold it out.

It was there first show in, like, three years.

Yeah, me and [Matt] Holt [of Nothingface] were walking around the back [shaking].

What do you think about the state of metal today? Is it any better or worse than when you were starting out in Spineshank?

It’s kind of a double-edged sword right there. I think that as far as bands are concerned, as metal bands, true metal bands, I think it’s cool to see it come back and see actual musicianship and actual entertainment come back to the forefront again. There’s so many really, really talented, awesome bands out there right now. And then at the same time, we’re starting to hear these scenes come again. There’s so many bands that are so heavy, but they’re really more worried about how tight their pants are and if they’ve got a white belt that’s gonna work for ‘em. I see what’s going on here and I’m young enough to still be in a band and tour, but I’m old enough that I’ve seen enough genres, enough fads of music come and go. And I’m just saying that metal is one thing that has never ever died. Maybe it got a little scary there in the ‘90s, but Pantera and Metallica were still going strong. I think that for music that’s going to stand the test of time, metal is always gonna be around. You’re gonna see these scene bands come and go, different styles, this-core and that-core, blah-blah, blah-blah-blah. But why is it that fuckin’ Ozzy Osbourne still sells out goddamn arenas to this day? It is what it is. Metallica can come to the fuckin’ Coliseum in L.A., play three nights in a row, sold out, with no opening act. There’s a lot to be said there.

Is there anything else you want to add?

I just want to really thank all the fans that have been really supportive, all the old fans, all the new fans, all the fans to be. If you guys keep coming, keep supporting the band, we’ll stay out. I hope to see this band stand the test of time of longevity and pull a Slayer off, you know? I’d like to be around for fuckin’ the next 20 years. That would be ideal for me, not to sell a million records overnight but to have a family all over the world, possibly.