Featured Interview – Gino Matteo

Had it been around back in the 1930s when Charles Francis Richter came up with a way for measuring seismic waves, it surely would have had its own rating and been at the top of the charts.

It sure would have placed higher than a 9.0, which according to the Richter Scale is ‘At or near total destruction – severe damage or collapse to all buildings. Heavy damage and shaking extends to distant locations. Permanent changes in ground topography.’

The conversation here is not centered around some kind of newly-minted atomic weapon or state-of-the-art earth moving machine.

No, we’re talking about guitarist Gino Matteo’s rafter-shaking, earth-quaking, un-holy vibrato.

Damn!

For those who have not had the good fortune to witness Matteo’s spectacular technique in the flesh, this is no run-of-the-mill, shake-your-left-hand-slightly vibrato.

Matteo’s comes from all the way down on the bottom of his soles and moves ever so intimidatingly up through his body – coiling and constricting in his left arm like a deadly viper – and out his left hand with all the force of something that should have its very own fault line named after it.

“Well … my vibrato was kind of developed by listening to a lot of B.B. King growing up. B.B. was the best at it, so I studied the way that every guitar player I saw, used their vibrato,” the Southern California born-and-bred Matteo recently said. “I couldn’t really learn B.B.’s because I didn’t grow up hanging around him. I always think that the most organic traits of your playing come from things you see in person, right in front of you. What I would do when I was at a blues jam or something, I would pick four or five guys and I would watch and learn from them, because they were right in front of me.”

Matteo – along with his supernatural vibrato – have been extremely busy lately, with plenty of days and nights spent playing the blues filling up his calendar.

“This year has probably been the best on record, actually. I’ve done a lot of traveling this year and I didn’t even have an album out,” he laughed. “I’m getting ready to do my next album right now. I keep getting halted on that because I’ve been producing other acts when I’m not on tour. But this winter, I should have a chance to do my own new record.”

One of the first things that merits noting – other than the stellar musicianship – of Matteo’s latest release, 2013’s Sweet Revival (Rip Cat Records) is the care and attention that the album was assembled with. In this case, ‘album’ harkens back to the glorious days of the ’60s and ’70s when song placement and flow on a record was as important as the songs themselves. Sweet Revival, along with 2008’s I’ve Been Thinkin’ both seem to give a tip of the hat to the days when we had a ‘Side A’ and a ‘Side B.’

“I’m really kind of obsessive about that. I like albums … I like concept albums and I like albums to be cohesive and I think the order (of the songs) matters to the story,” he said. “I mean, Pet Sounds and Sgt. Peppers were the two template albums for the world. I always think about an album as opposed to a single, or whatever. But it is harder these days, since everything is so quick. People can put out a single and have a career off of that. And I’m like, ‘What’s the rest of the story, man?’ The only way that I listen to music is on my phone and on the massive stacks of vinyl at my house and it’s always been that way.”

Though he’s only 33-years-old, Matteo seems to be endeared with the soul and wisdom of a guitarist that’s been playing the blues for three or four decades now. He’s old-school to the core, but that doesn’t mean that he’s completely turned his back on modern technology. When asked if he considers himself to be a bit of a gear-head, there’s a slight pause, a small chuckle and then an enthusiastic response of, ‘Hell, yeah!’

“I am a gear-head, but I’m also incredibly selective. When I get excited about a piece of gear, I get excited because I realize how sturdy it is,” he said. “A lot of guys think in terms of vintage tones and are chasing an old sound, but sometimes the things that make those old sounds so brilliantly are so fragile that you can’t fool with them. That’s why all my gear is designed to be thrown around in airports. Not to mention, I’m heavy on my feet and I break things easily.”

One of Matteo’s favorite effects pedals – the one piece of equipment other than his guitar and amp that he says he could not do without – is the Oddfellow Caveman.

“Oddfellow effects is a company that was started in my hometown of Riverside, California. The guy who started it had this ad up on Craigslist for fixing pedals and I had some that needed work. He came over and did such a great job, so I asked him if he ever built any pedals. He said he had one that he had built and he said he would bring it over so I could try it out,” Matteo said. “He did and it was the most amazing thing … my head just exploded. I couldn’t believe how good it was. Literally, six months later, it was one of the best-selling overdrives on the market. He actually started building them in my garage, because he didn’t have a shop yet. I’m a big cheerleader for Oddfellow effects, because that pedal really did help me out, as well as a lot of other guitarists. I’m really, really proud of him and he’s a great friend of mine.”

As much as he loves toying with new gear, Matteo is not shackled to a bunch of racks and processers that have the final determination on how he sounds. Instead, Matteo views outboard gear as something akin to the tasty ice cream that can add a bit of an extra punch on a sweet piece of cake. If he ever needed convincing of that, hanging out with the great Chris Cain re-enforced that point.

“Chris is the best guitar of all-time, in any genre, as far as I’m concerned and I’m not exaggerating. He’s mind-numbingly talented … I’ve never heard anyone do what he does on guitar … he’s a mutant. I think he was grown in a lab,” Matteo laughed. “I was playing with him one night and he broke a string. When he went to change his strings – his amp was right next to mine – so I unplugged my guitar real quick and plugged into his amp to see what his secret was. The settings on his amp are so screwed up and when I played through it, it sounded like crap. That’s when I realized that as much of a gear-head as I am, the gear has nothing to do with it. His magic comes straight from his hands. In the end, gear ain’t got crap to do with the way you sound.”

With the resume that he’s already created, Matteo could simply just lay back and play the 12-bar blues all evening long and would probably find nary a complaint from any member of his audience. But thankfully, although he is certainly immersed deep in the blues, Matteo uses that as a starting point, instead of final destination. At one of his shows, in addition to the blues, you’re likely to hear some gospel, a lot of soul and some Grateful Dead-inspired musical passages, along with some down-and-dirty grunge-styled, nasty rock.

“My favorite thing about blues is not the chord progressions, or the lyrics, or the artists, even. My favorite thing about the blues is the honesty of it. If you’re faking it with the blues, it’s pretty obvious,” he said. “So I’m not an 80-year-old black man who grew up picking cotton in Mississippi. I’m 33 and grew up in the East L.A. area in the ’90s. I never wanted to be something that I wasn’t. The influences in my music reflect where I grew up and the music that I listened to.”

He’s by no means a contrarian or someone who doesn’t understand the viewpoints of others, it’s just that Matteo has never been content to toe the company line.

“I have a lot of friends who are hardcore blues traditionalists and they’re purists about it. They’re great people, but that’s never really what I strived to do,” he said. “It was never my thing. For me, that’s not who I am. Also, as soon as I see five people doing something, I’m doing the other thing. If there’s a hundred people in the theater turned one way, I’ll be the guy turned in the opposite direction. I always wanted to play the blues, but not straight. I wanted to do them a hybrid way.”

Sugaray Rayford is another artist who’s profile has been on a rapid rise the past couple of years. The soulful and deeply talented Texas-born front man (who is also a member of the super-group, Mannish Boys) is up for the prestigious B.B. King Entertainer of the Year Award, as well as Contemporary Blues Male Artist, at the upcoming 37th annual Blues Music Awards in Memphis. Matteo and Rayford go way back and the guitarist is a member of Rayford’s band and played on his last pair of albums – Southside (NimoySue Records, and nominated for Contemporary Blues Album at the BMAs) and Dangerous (Delta Groove).

“As much as I’m not trying to chase the ‘blues purist’ thing, the depth of honesty and magnetism that Muddy Waters or Junior Wells had – that plain, dead-balls charisma – is what Sugaray has,” said Matteo. “I saw in Sug something that I couldn’t do and I was really, really interested by it, which is why I originally took the gig.”

It didn’t take long for the magic that Rayford and Matteo are capable of to manifest itself. Matter of fact, it seems like it was almost pre-destined.

“The chemistry between Sugaray and I is pretty natural, because we’re both complete hams and are both complete show-offs … hopefully on the cusp of being annoying, but not quite there,” laughed Matteo. “We’re both brutally honest and you can tell how we’re feeling by how we look on stage; it’s very clear. We wear everything on our sleeves, Sug and I, which is good. I’ve known him for about 20 years. I met him when I was playing with my old band at Café Boogaloo in Hermosa Beach. Him and his wife (Pam) showed up and we met and stayed in contact. When Sug called me to play guitar with him, at the time, he had Kirk Fletcher playing with him. I don’t know what happened, but Kirk couldn’t make a gig and Sug called me and I went down there and immediately realized that I wanted to play with that dude. Everyone in his band are such intense pros, but we all get along really well. We’ve really stood the test of time – as to whether we really hate each other – because we’ve spent so much time … I can’t even count how many miles we’ve traveled together. It’s all-for-one and this is the best touring situation I’ve ever been in.”

When he’s not been playing or recording with Rayford or his own, Matteo has managed to keep the candle burning by producing albums for other artists. Look for that to continue in the future, as he’s well on his way to leaving his mark on the other side of the studio glass.

“As a producer working with other artists, the biggest thing that I want to do is, obviously, make them sound the best that they can. But hopefully, I can also draw something else out of them that they didn’t know was there,” he said. “I’m a big fan of the way that T-Bone Burnett produces. To me, it’s all about getting something out of them that they didn’t know was there and to make everything sound as ‘live’ as possible. I hate records where everything is matched up to a grid and is locked in place and sounds robotic; that’s not my favorite thing to do.”

Growing up in Southern California, Matteo was certainly exposed to the pop sounds of the day, but he found himself more interested in a different set of sounds than what could be heard on standard FM radio. He was turned on by gospel, Mexican and Afro-Cuban music. Those styles still permeate his music several years later. They also helped him to create one versatile arsenal, an arsenal that has served him well over the years.

“Some of that rubbed off, for sure. When I was learning how to play, I wanted to play everything. I never felt like I needed to choose a genre,” he said. “This is true and I did this for years, seven nights a week: Monday I would play with a blues band somewhere. Tuesday I’d play in a rock band. Wednesday I’d do a jazz gig. Thursday I’d do a Latin-jazz gig. Friday and Saturday it was blues or funk. Then every Sunday morning I’d play Pentecostal gospel and in the afternoon, I’d play in a Mariachi band and in the evening I’d play in a blues band. I did that for years … salsa gigs, congas … just whatever. When I realized I could make a dollar playing music, I didn’t want to do anything else and the best way to do that was to play everything and be as useful as possible. I didn’t want the Crayola box with six colors in it; I wanted the big box with the row up at the top with all the beiges in it.”

Most of the guitarists that had a major impact on a young Matteo have an East L.A. connection.

“Yeah, guys like Joey Delgado, from the Delgado Brothers – he’s one of my biggest influences and is like an uncle to me. He even married my wife and I. Victor Consuella, another local East L.A. guy, was another one that I really latched onto,” he said. “Danny Diaz was another, and then of course, there’s Chris Cain. But I was never really a guy that chased down a lot of guitar players, because I don’t like re-treading ground. There’s nothing worse than a copy of a copy. If you make a copy of a copy in a copy machine, they start to get watered down three or four copies in. That’s how I pretty much feel about everything and that’s why I want to tread new ground; that other ground is too soft.”

A good many music enthusiasts first learned of Matteo through Guitar Center’s King of the Blues competition. Matteo played his way to the event’s Grand Final Performance back in 2006. Although he did gain some nice exposure on the national level through the annual showcase for up-and-coming blues guitarists, Matteo wasn’t completely enthralled with the way things went down as it reached its climax.

“That was kind of a trip. It did have a positive impact in some ways, but I’m really not a competitive person at all … competition sometimes grosses me out. I entered that contest because the grand prize that year was a car and I didn’t have a car. That’s why I did it,” he said. “There are different levels before you get to the Grand Finals and at the lower levels it was really fun and really cool and everyone was really cordial. Then at the Grand Finals – when it reached the corporate level at Guitar Center – it became really ugly and was not personable and not fun anymore. I really don’t like contests and that’s why I don’t enter the IBC (International Blues Challenge).”

While it might be hard to get him to wax poetic about his own vocals, the bottom line is that Matteo is a lot more than just a competent singer. His vocals are downright soulful and have all the passion and depth that his guitar playing does. Though he won’t brag on his own vocals, he is quick to cite a couple of his favorite vocalists and as luck would have it, they’re not hard to locate.

“My wife Jade is the best singer that I know … and that’s not bias, either. She’s like, ‘You have to say that because you’re my husband.’ And I say, ‘No. When it comes to music, I’m a producer first, which means I’m not biased and if you suck, you suck.’ You can imagine how intimidating it is to be in a band with Sugaray and with Jade, my wife,” he said.

Matteo has no doubt worked hard to get to the point that he’s at today and as far as he’s concerned, if things continue to go the way that they are now, that would not be such a bad thing at all.

“I’m not a greedy person and I’m definitely not a capitalist. I think money is ugly and I hate that it’s even a human concept. When God made us, I don’t think that money was a universal plan for our species,” he said. “My rule in music is to just do a little better every year. If you do too much better, it can go bad, pretty quick. I enjoy having the niche audience that I have … you know, I have a small group of people that like my music and that’s what I like. There’s this old joke that kind of sums up me. You know when you make microwave popcorn and you see those little kernels at the bottom of the bag that aren’t popped yet? Those are the ones with integrity. All the flavor sinks to the bottom and I hope that’s me.”

Visit Gino’s website at http://ginomatteo.com/

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