Interview: Carlos Santana

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If the expression says ‘as humble as apple pie’, then Carlos Santana has the humility of an entire bakery. Just before his big gig at the Indoor Stadium, Gerard Ward got to grab a rewarding few moments with the guitar legend, and heard about learning self-trust, jamming with Prince and ‘playing beyond the song’

First published on 7 Mar 2011. Updated on 8 Mar 2011.

Guitar Heaven is a collection of music that to most would seem like the golden collection of tracks. How did you come to choose those 14 tracks?
The idea came from [Arista label kingpin] Clive Davis. So he selected seven songs, and I selected seven, and then it became fun. But again it comes back to trust, you know. At first I didn’t trust myself. I thought: I don’t think I want to do this, this is scary. One song or two songs is okay, seven of them… it’s a little scary. You start thinking: What are other people going to think? That is what stops most people from doing things that are almost impossible to do because you start worrying about what other people will think, instead of what your heart feels. So as soon as I stopped worrying, it became fun.

On your Facebook page it mentions you recently jammed with Prince.
It was funny to jam with Prince because I didn’t bring my guitar, you know. Because I don’t go: ‘Hey man, I’m gonna jam with Prince. I’m going to bring my guitar.’ That’s kind of assuming. I heard that Prince knew the person I call to pick me up from the airport. So he called him up personally and said: ‘Hey, I want you to go pick up Carlos and bring him here.’ It was like that.

How do jams with Prince turn out like? He’s been noted saying you were one of his influences.
So I went to the place where he was playing, and he was very, very approachable, you know. And he says: ‘Did you bring your guitar?’ I said: ‘No, I don’t invite myself. I don’t go, “Hey man, I brought my guitar, I wanna play wit’ you,” you know?’ So he says: ‘Okay, well you wanna play?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ He goes: ‘Well, what kind of guitar do you want?’ I said, ‘Anything that stays in tune.’ And he goes: ‘Okay, we’ll get you a Gibson,’ and then, ‘What colour?’ [Laughs] And I was like: ‘I don’t care what colour it is, man.’

How did you collaborate on stage? Did you agree on a certain song?
What’s really crazy is seeing Prince combine four songs from Santana, and he made them into a sandwich [claps hands]. So it’s very disciplined to learn my own songs the way [Prince] put them together. Because I just get one song and stretch it out, but he glues four songs together into one. So he says: ‘Do you remember the sandwich?’ I said: ‘Yeah, I think I remember,’ so we go onstage and all of a sudden [the thought] dawned on me: Oh my god! I haven’t played Santana music in a while! I only just started a tour and I haven’t been on tour for a while, so I was like, ‘Uh oh,’ and so they start playing and then I realise there’s no monitors on stage, everything’s with the headphones. And I have no headphones. So I’m like ‘Ohhh s**t, umm…’ and they’re waiting for me, you know. So I plug in the guitar, and the thing wouldn’t work. It went [makes screeching noise] ‘eeee’! I’m like, ‘Uh oh, this thing’s a piece of crap, it won’t work.’ So Prince looks at me, takes his guitar and gives it to me. And I was very grateful, you know, but it still dawned on me: I don’t know where they are because I can’t hear anything.

What did you do?
So a voice said to me: ‘Don’t play what they want or expect you to play, because it’s a Santana song. Play beyond the song.’ In other words, bug out, become a hurricane, and instead of going [mimes the start of ‘Smooth’], I go [makes crazy guitar whine] and I went totally bare, and I stayed there. And the band stops, claps and I’m playing right through with it. [Laughs] So then I was on. I just gave the guitar back to him and I didn’t play the song. I just played pure bug-out, freakout energy, you know. The next day people were like: ‘Ohh man, Santana was with Prince, and he was bugging out,’ and I said: ‘Uh oh, they’re gonna like, be angry at me because I didn’t play the song because I just tore it man,’ you know. But actually people really liked it, and it got around. So once in a while it’s nice not to play a song, but just play pure volcano-hurricane, real shredding music. And that was fun. I can’t do that with my band because people expect a song, you know. [Laughs] But with Prince I can do it because they can play the song and I can just bug out, and that was fun.

Santana played in Singapore on 7 Mar 2011 for one show at the Singapore Indoor Stadium.

By Gerard Ward
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