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Carlos Santana says if you’re not willing to die for your music, be a plumber

“Carlos is not playing with his head — he’s playing with his heart.”

At a festival filled with nonstop legend-making performances, six relatively unknown musicians from the San Francisco area took to the stage at Yasgur’s Farm in Bethel, New York. It was around 2 p.m. on August 16, 1969, and the members of this young group weren’t quite sure if they could overcome equipment problems, mounting nerves, and the very distinct possibility of peaking too early on ingested substances to be able to deliver the goods for an audience about 400,000 strong.

By the time Santana walked off the Woodstock stage a mere 45 minutes later — their set highlighted by the blisteringly blissful instrumental Soul Sacrifice (watch the absolute joy of it in the seminal 1970 documentary Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music) — the band’s legacy had been sealed. “If you were there, you had a career,” keyboardist/vocalist Gregg Rolie told Digital Trends. “That was how it worked. It was a phenomenon that has never been repeated, and I don’t think it ever will be.”

That triangular pick said to me, “This is who you are and what you do. You’re a guitar player. Play.”

The visionary guitarist Carlos Santana himself admitted, “At Woodstock, I had to trust that I could find a way through all the layers and vortexes of psychedelic colors and madness around us. What made sense to me was I had this triangular pick in my hand, and that pick said to me, ‘This is who you are and what you do. You’re a guitar player. Play.’ Everything I did onstage that day centered around that.”

The triumphant collective was able to soldier on together in simpatico for a few more years, creating some masterpieces along the way, including worldly wise tracks like Oye Como Va and Black Magic Woman, before inevitably splintering.

Sometimes, however, band chemistry has a way of rearing its head again sooner or later — albeit very much later, in this case — but that’s how Santana IV came to be, an album that brings together musicians who hadn’t played together for 45 years. From the percussive bliss of Anywhere You Want To Go to the ethereal jamgasm of Fillmore East, which spotlights Santana’s guitar interplay telepathy with Neal Schon (who joined the band post-Woodstock when he was only 16) to Forgiveness, the soul-cleansing album closer, Santana IV shows age ain’t nothing but a number.

Digital Trends sat down with the full Santana IV band in New York to discuss quantifying band chemistry, how this integrated band essentially pioneered world music, and what the best way to listen to Santana is. We also filmed four exclusive video Q&As you’ll only find here.

Digital Trends: What were your original goals for the band, and how does it feel being back together after all this time?

Carlos Santana (guitar, vocals): We were dreaming that we could be onstage with Cream, Jimi Hendrix, and Sly Stone. Whenever I hear Anywhere You Want to Go, it brings me back to that dreaming, and the vision of playing the Fillmore [in San Francisco] — the feeling we could be relevant and we could actually fit in with bands like The Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin.

I just don’t ever want to lose that innocence — of being 17 years old, forever. Age is not something dictated by a watch or a calendar — it should be your mindset. You can just park yourself with that sense of innocence and wonderment.

For me, it’s easy, because I hear what I hear, and I immediately go to my “Rolodex” — my portfolio of melodies — whether it’s Wes Montgomery or Otis Rush or Miles Davis. I love melodies, so when I hear Gregg or Neal or anyone start playing the music, my world is to create a melody with the guitar that can hang with Gregg’s vocal. Some people want to be drummers, and some people want to be singers. I want to be both! (laughs)

Age is not something dictated by a watch or a calendar; it should be your mindset.

We learned that from the people we love — they really, really give it up! You don’t get that sound unless you play like that. It’s not the amplifier or the expensive keyboards; no, no, no. It’s your intense intentionality. And that’s what we have here. We’re trying to enter that kind of constant commonality — where there’s no separation between Irish, Apache, Yoruba, or Italian; there’s none. You play one note, and everybody goes, “It feels so good to be alive.” (smiles) That’s what music should be — it should remind you what a miracle and a blessing it is to be you.

Neal Schon (guitar, vocals): As guitar players, Carlos and I have always had a special chemistry. We’re intertwined on this record even more than we were on Santana III (1971) or Caravanserai (1972). You can hear us “talking” to one another. Our playing together is very natural, but we do try to mix up the tones a bit. The rhythm takes you there. And Carlos plays from the heart, with true emotion.

Santana IV has been an amazing ride back to the beginning for me. It’s full circle after all these years. When I first joined the band from late 1970 through 1972, I was a kid — and, well, I’m still a kid! (laughs)

Gregg Rolie (Hammond B3, keyboards, lead vocals): When we started out, we wanted to be an international band. The music came from various places — it was blues-based, jazz-based, Latino, African. That’s where it came from. We put it all together and ended up playing what we wanted to play. Everything we did came out of jamming, and that’s what happened with Santana IV as well. Carlos is not playing with his head — he’s playing with his heart.

When Carlos talks about how universal his life is and that he wears no flags — there are no boundaries. The band was one of the first multiracial bands, if I have to use that term, that crossed all those boundaries. Somebody said to me, “So you had a black bass player.” And I said (incredulously), “I did?” That really wasn’t the point. It was about playing. We came from so many different cultures ourselves, so the music would have to reflect that.

Neal Schon

Michael Carabello

Gregg Rolie

Michael Shrieve

Michael Shrieve (drums): There’s a special gift that comes with us all playing together. We’ve always been different, without trying. We got in a room and started playing together, and found the actual chemistry still works after all these years. We can play improvisationally, but we definitely weave this tapestry, this web, with the rhythm of the way everybody puts themselves in the song — even before it becomes a song. It’s got a sound where everybody finds their place.

I remember when I was 19 or 20, and we had just finished an intense rehearsal. I said, “Hey Carlos, you want to go to the movies?” We’re walking along, but then he stops dead in his tracks and says, “What do I want to see a movie for, man? I want to be the movie!” (both laugh) It’s true. That’s when I realized, “This is a different cat.” (smiles)

Michael Carabello (congas, percussion, background vocals): It’s a miracle. It comes down to the chemistry in the band, whenever we get together. We all bring something to the table, and everybody has a piece of it. We come up with this incredible sound that we’ve had since the beginning.

With compressed files, I always wonder, “Where are the cymbals? Where’s the acoustic guitar? Where are the keyboards?”

Michael and I play off of each other the same way Carlos, Gregg, and Neal play off of each other. If you were to have an artist paint a painting, there always has to be a landscape. We’re part of the landscape that lets them paint the picture of the whole thing, and Michael and I have to be as one to support that, before they get into it.

A lot of it has to do with the individuality of who we are as musicians. You have to learn how to play with that other person. Michael and I started something I haven’t heard anybody else do the way we do it.

What’s the best way to listen to Santana IV — vinyl or digital?

Schon: True vinyl lovers claim it’s better than anything. But I’ve gotten so used to listening to HD Pro Tools files, and I’d put that up against 2-inch tape. I think it sounds just as good. If you’re going to go completely organic, you have to have all of the old equipment to do it. You can’t mix new digital gear with old analog gear, at any point. It has to be all or nothing. And then you’ll see real analog results. If you record in analog and then go, “OK, now we’re going to check it in HD Pro Tools, because we can edit it easier that way” — there’s just no sense in that.

Shrieve: I’m a big fan of the analog sound over the digital sound; that’s for sure. I love surround sound too, and I have a new record, Drums of Compassion, that I’d like to mix that way. On it, I’m playing 16 drums standing up in a circle. It’s very ambient, so I’d really like to hear it in surround sound. I like to make records for the geeks who love that kind of stuff. (both laugh)

I’d like to honor them by giving them music in the way they love it. You know what else I’d like to hear in surround sound? Bitches Brew [Miles Davis’ 1970 jazz-fusion masterpiece]. And Dr. John, too — Gris Gris (1968), and Dr. John’s Gumbo (1972).

Carabello: I love vinyl to this day. I’m not into the compressed music you hear while walking around with earbuds. I think you lose the essence of the music that way. With compressed files, I always wonder: “Where are the cymbals? Where’s the acoustic guitar? Where are the keyboards?” Not all music is like that, but with Santana, we’ve always come off as having a blanket of sound, not a wall of sound. It’s not about turning up the guitar and just cranking up a guitar solo; you also need to hear the congas. We’ve always looked at it that way.

Rolie: For me, there’s something about holding a piece of artwork where you can actually see the pictures. In that era, it was like a social event. People sat around, got stoned, put them on, and looked at the albums. But you couldn’t see the band until they came to town. Who were they? You didn’t know. There was a mystery and a romance to it all — but that’s gone now, because it’s too accessible.

What’s the legacy of this band? We don’t know yet! Everybody’s into it right now, so we’ll see where it goes. Things can change tomorrow. The point is, we did Santana IV, and it’s a joyful event. I’m honored to be playing with those guys, and it’s a great amount of fun.

Santana: Some players have played to the point of reducing themselves to embers, but we’re not embers; we’re more like a tornado fire. We love to ignite ourselves and burn in front of you. Seriously. A lot of people don’t play like that anymore. When I watch these guys play, it ignites me too. If they’re going to give it up like that — if they’re willing to die right here, right now, for you — that’s a badge of honor. Why should it be any less?

When you’re playing music and you hit that note — the one that brings spirituality and sensuality together, to orgasm — it’s the same thing. If you don’t play like that… be a plumber. (both laugh) Do something else. We’re in the business of giving people chills, and reminding you on a molecular level to go beyond what you’re thinking, and go into that place where you can validate your existence. I love that this band can remind everyone, “You’re magnificent. You’re significant.”