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Guitar legend Carlos Santana has enjoyed a tremendous resurgence in popularity and cultivated a new generation of fans over the past couple of decades via his collaborations with the biggest names in pop music. He made a huge impact in 1999 with Supernatural, which featured the multiple Grammy-winning hit “Smooth” with vocalist Rob Thomas, and other guest appearances by the likes of Eric Clapton and Dave Matthews. Santana’s three subsequent releases have followed that winning formula and focused on vocal-driven numbers with a star-studded cast including Michelle Branch, Steven Tyler, Chris Cornell, India.Arie, and Nas, among many others. But while these outings have cast him as a pop culture icon, his die-hard guitar fans longed for some new incarnations of what they consider “classic” Santana—the guy that kicks ass on the 6-string.
Shape Shifter, Santana’s first album on Starfaith Records, finally brings his guitar prowess back to the forefront. The outing comprises primarily instrumentals that Santana wrote from 1997 to 2007. “I felt like it was needed,” Santana says of his re-focus. “I had been appeasing and complying with a lot of major artists and singers from Supernatural on. But I kept hearing from different people, and, from my heart that it was time to do something where we just hear the Mexican playing the guitar,” he explains. It’s the first Santana release in recent memory that doesn’t feature a mega-star vocalist, but the album does feature perhaps the biggest star in Santana’s eyes: His son, Salvador plays piano on the album’s two closing tracks, “Canela” and “Ah, Sweet Dancer.” He heard the latter tune in a taxi in Hamburg, Germany, and was so taken aback that he had two friends contact the radio station and track it down. “It’s a beautiful song, and so I wanted to record it with my son,” says Santana.
You would think that Santana might start taking it easy after selling more than 100 million records and nabbing 10 Grammy awards over 40-plus years—especially considering he turns 65 this July. But there’s no retirement in Santana’s plans. In fact, he’s going stronger than ever. In addition to his new album, he just kicked off a two-year residency at the House of Blues at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. We recently got a taste of what it’s like to be Carlos Santana, as well as an inside scoop on the recent additions to Shape Shifter, his gear arsenal, and how his instrument choices affect his sound.
How did Shape Shifter come about?
Everything comes from the need within. Like John Lee Hooker used to say, “It’s in you, and it’s got to come out.”
Your solo on “Canela” sounds really inspired, particularly with those aggressive overbends and tremolo-picked unison bends, during the last minute of the track, as you play the melody out. What ignited such passion there?
Sometimes you get really … how do you say it without getting weird? Sometimes you get spiritually horny and you have this molecule screaming that you need to be aggressive—but not hurtful. Even though the song is gentle in a certain way, I felt like I had to honor the dynamism and energy. Because at this point, I’m almost 65, man, and what I’m really into more than ever is the thing that I love about Jimi Hendrix and Sonny Sharrock, which is energy. I don’t apologize for it—I’m actually grateful that I have it and it’s just about learning to direct it without harming anyone.
Now, this spiritual horniness, how does it manifest itself? Do you just get the urge in the middle of a song or is it present even before getting to the studio?
You know some days you just wake up with an abundance of energy and you just need to ride a bike, or play tennis, or take a walk up the hill or something. All of us as humans have an abundance of energy and sometimes, if you’re not exercising or doing something with it, it spills over on you. It needs to come out. Some people get cranky, some people talk too much, and some people do this or that. For me, when I’m in the studio, sometimes I need to be aware of this. “Is it okay for me to really spill over with energy?” And I said, “Yeah.” I validated myself and so I went for it.
Listen to "Mr. Szabo" from Shape Shifter:
“Shape Shifter” has several parts that remind me of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” Was that at all an inspiration here?
[Laughs.] We both get bass lines from James Brown [hums a bass figure]. It’s the sequence of repetition. For me, repetition is not redundant or boring. Done the right way, it helps create a vortex that helps your feet get off the ground.
Can you elaborate on what you mean by “the right way?”
It’s intentionality. For example, it’s not so much what chord you play or what amplifier you’re playing through. It’s more about, “What were you thinking or feeling when you hit that chord or that note?” That’s what makes you into B.B. King, Albert King, Freddie King, Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Jeff Beck, or Jimmy Page. What were they thinking and feeling at the time they played those notes? And then it’s not repetition, it becomes like a spell.
You’re turning 65 soon, but instead of retiring, you’re going stronger than ever. What is the secret to your longevity?
I’ve found, in the last four years, that I can shift my perception. When you get out to do things for other people rather than yourself, you get a hundred times more energy. When you wake up just for you, you don’t even want to get out of bed.
It seems most of your energy and focus is on performing and being Carlos Santana. Would you have a hard time adjusting to life without that?
Well, thank God I have a celestial amnesia. If it wasn’t for the fact that people ask me to sign autographs or take pictures with them, I can forget really, really quick that I’m Carlos Santana.
Can you really?
Yeah, and that’s a real gift from God. I’m not into Carlos Santana—I’m into what he does and why he does it. God gave me a whole other incentive, and a crystal clear perception of reality where I don’t get carried away. I know when to get the heck off the stage. A lot of these guys never get off the stage, you know what I mean? When you get into the persona then the same thing that happened to Michael Jackson or Whitney Houston happens to you. Because you start carrying baggage that’s very heavy with illusion and false expectations, and you start feeling like, “Nobody understands my pain.” Then you start hiring psychiatrists, analysts, therapists, and doctors to give you medicine that you really don’t need because your body can actually heal itself if you just give it time.