To paraphrase a popular bumper sticker, “Things happen.” Just when you think everything's going according to plan, a curve ball comes at you and brushes you off the plate. Life's funny that way. Just ask Mato Nanji, the guitarist, singer, and songwriter of Indigenous. Mato formed the band with his two brothers and sister back in the late '90s. They released their much-talked about debut, Things We Do, in 1998. While the band's growling electric blues was totally legit and truly exciting, the little family band from the Nakota Tribe of South Dakota never expected the incredible, widespread reception they got from the blues and rock communities. “It was really surprising,” says Mato, of the siblings' success. “We never anticipated the band going national so soon.” But so it did, and over the course of five years, Indigenous rode a wave of promise and acceptance they never dreamed of.
Then, after two more studio albums and a live set, life interceded again. Indigenous unexpectedly broke up. “There's always some sort of conflict in every band in the world,” says Mato. “With us, we grew up together in this band, and we were still learning about ourselves and what we were capable of as musicians. After being together for so long, everyone was eager to try new directions.” Following the split, each of Mato's siblings, with the exception of bassist Pte who played on the new disc, had the opportunity to explore their own musical potential outside the already defined stylistic approach of the band.
All of which means that today, despite the changes, Mato is forging his own way as the face of Indigenous, still and again one of blues-rock's most exciting talents. “I feel really good about moving forward,” he says. “There's almost a sense of liberation. And I also feel good that my brother and sister will have a chance to express themselves, too.”
The new Indigenous album, Chasing the Sun, finds Mato expressing himself as never before. His songs and his instrumental skill were always critical to the band's success and this album thrusts his abilities to center stage. Tunes like the opening “Runaway” and “The Way You Shake,” co-written with his sister Wanbdi, have all the trademarks of classic Indigenous: explosive guitar hooks, inventive solos, and an inexorable sense of rhythm ala Jimmy Reed. The six-minute “Leaving” simmers with the passion of Hendrix's slow blues, while “Come On Home” finds Mato's ardent vocals cushioned by acoustic guitar and spicy electric punctuations. “Fool Me Again,” one of the disc's pivotal moments, finds Mato in Robert Cray mode, with a gorgeous guitar motif, some inspired solos, and the record's most memorable chorus.
“For the last couple of years I've concentrated on my singing, rather than my guitar playing,” he explains. The shift in emphasis is evident. As many already know, Mato began his journey as an excitable young student of the guitar and heroes like Freddie King, Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. “I was young and totally in love with the sound of the guitar,” he says. His enthusiasm and his natural born talent turned him into a budding superstar on the guitar scene. But on Chasing the Sun, Mato has balanced his guitar with his other musical strengths, elevating the album on all fronts.
“I gave myself a chance to figure out different ideas,” he says, “and focus on things like melodies and chord progressions. I also sat back and listened to different singers to get vocal ideas.” That meant stepping ever so slightly away from the rough and tumble electric blues Indigenous originally proffered. “Growing up, I was into the old soul, R&B, and it's always been my thing, so we moved a little bit in that direction.”
While he started his singer career late and by default, Mato has since bloomed into a bona-fide vocalist. His newfound emphasis on voice, peppered his nods to favorites like Otis, Marvin, and Los Lobos' David Hidalgo, pervades Chasing the Sun. “The vocals came out a lot stronger on this record,” Mato admits, “and I think it was because I felt a lot more confident.”
Putting Chasing the Sun together tested Mato's confidence. He committed his original ideas to cassette tape by himself, playing guitar and drums, then sent those acoustic-based ideas in to producer and collaborator Steve Fishell. “It was a lot of fun working with Steve,” he says. “He sat back, listened and really let me do what I do. Once in a while we'd retake a solo or he'd suggest a different lyric. But what he really helped with was gear and sound engineering.”
That was particularly important for Mato, who often likes to get things done live in the studio. In fact, Chasing the Sun includes a handful of songs done precisely that way: “I'll Be Waiting,” “Leaving” and the exhilarating instrumental “Out of Nowhere” were all laid down live in the studio.
“I think we all get tastier as we get older,” says Mato. “When you're young, you invest a lot of energy into something. But as you get more experienced, you turn that energy into taste.” Which makes Chasing the Sun a very satisfying dish, even if life did throw him a curve or two along the way.