Featured Interview – Brandon Santini


Cover photo © 2024 Bob Kieser

imageVeteran bluesman Brandon Santini was upfront and honest when asked if he was excited about getting back out and touring. “Yeah, I’m kind of losing my mind here at home, you know. I’m not used to redundancy a lot of time. My girlfriend would probably kill me for saying that. But I miss (performing). My last gig was January 5th and that was here in town (Springfield, Illinois). But before that, it was in December, so I haven’t been on the road in almost seven months now.”

In early February, Santini elected to have spinal fusion surgery on the L5 S1 disk section of his lower back. “The main problem was a sciatic nerve that was getting pinched. And it’s been kicking my butt, you know, over the last few years and then last year (2023) I spent touring most of the year just lying in the bench seat in excruciating pain. So last year was really challenging for me.”

Santini attributed his back problems to a musician’s life on the road—being on stage, rushing around from gig to gig, traveling long distances by van or car, and years of lifting equipment. Prior to his surgery, Santini and his band toured extensively, sometimes logging upwards of 200 shows a year from one side of North America to the other, with European dates as well.

“I’ve always been touring…I’m one of those guys that just road dogged it. So, it’s odd for me to be off this much.” He said he appreciated all of the love and support he’s received online and in text messages from fans and fellow blues musicians while he’s been home. “I really do miss getting out there (and) being on stage. There’re so many great folks that we’ve met over the years and a lot of fans, and those fans who have become friends. You really get used to seeing them in person, rather than just on social media or through phone calls.”

During Santini’s recovery, he’s kept himself busy writing new songs, scheduling studio time to record those songs for a new album, planning for the upcoming tour, and signing on with a new management company. As he said, “It’s nice to be at home with my girlfriend and my dogs, but there are only so many episodes of In the Heat of the Night that you can get caught up on before you’re done with it.”

Santini and his bandmates are scheduled to hit the road in early August and plan to tour steadily through November and into early December. Planning for the tour has helped keep Santini from going stir crazy. “I look forward to getting back out and, I’m getting excited, seeing all the dates come in, and the business is starting to (pick up). My daily administrative tasks are landing on my desk for things for me to do.

“Being on stage is where it’s at for me and being able to pour emotion into it and to try to lift people up because, in turn, they lift us up whether they know they’re doing it or not. So, I really miss that.”

imageSantini has a reputation for dynamic high-energy performances and is considered one of the finest frontline harmonica players on the current blues scene. Raised in North Carolina’s Piedmont region, Santini discovered harmonica at the age of fifteen and learned to play by “trial and error,” listening to blues greats such as James Cotton, Junior Wells, Little Walter, and Paul Butterfield.

While he prepares to return to the road, Santini also intends to get into the studio and record new material. The plan is to record in August in between tour dates. Santini is eyeing a recording studio in Memphis with long-time friend and fellow bluesman Jeff Jensen as the producer.

Jensen, who lives in Memphis, is known for his intricate guitar work and his explosive playing style. He and Santini were once bandmates and had a side project called Tennessee Redemption. Jensen was the first person Santini thought of when the label asked him who he wanted as producer.

“We understand one another and can almost complete each other’s sentences. It’s that kind of thing. He knows how to get out of me what’s inside…he can pull that out of me. We have such a near seamless way of working together, and, musically, he’s such a great, great musician.”

For the recording sessions, Santini will be joined by members of his band, including Timo Arthur on guitar, Ron James on the drums, and bassist Cliff Moore.

“We’re looking to get in the studio and have a new release out sometime early next year. So, I’ve got about thirty songs that may or may not be fully complete and demoed here at home, but we’ve got a good pool to choose from and, I imagine, there will be a few more that are partially written before we actually get into pre-production. So, I’m excited about it.”

Santini said the new album will be with MoMojo Records, a label imprint of Nola Blue, Inc. According to Santini, MoMojo has been a “godsend,” which began a few years ago when the label picked up distribution of his back catalog. “They’re going to be doing more (once I have) new music come out, and they’ve been great to work with and they really believe in what I do and I believe in what they do.”

As Santini reflected on working with a new label and recording new songs, he talked about the focus of the upcoming album and the new sound that fans can expect to hear.

“My last album that I released was called The Longshot. It came out in 2019. That was a departure from the more traditional aspect of my sound, and I wanted it to kind of be a gateway to set up…a second album with that label, which was American Showplace Music out of New Jersey.”

imageUnfortunately, as Santini explained, his producer, Ben Elliott, died from cancer during the height of the pandemic, which ultimately led to the shutdown of American Showplace. As a result, Santini was unable to record the second album.

“That second album was meant to be even more of a stretch from the traditional stuff…that twelve-bar blues, heart blowing, you know, blow like hell kind of harmonic all over it. Not to say that stuff’s not there, it’ll always be there for me. I’m huge traditionalist when it comes to music. It’s the music I love, those old Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters records, Little Walter, all that stuff are what got me into what I do, but for this upcoming material, it’s even more of a step further towards the contemporary, I don’t want to say blues rock, but (the) more contemporary blues scene.

“Not only am I a huge fan of the old blues artists who influenced us all, (but) I was born in the early eighties…my formidable years of music were in the nineties, so I was listening to a lot of rock classic rock. I’m a huge fan of Blues Traveler…that was my gateway into playing.”

According to Santini’s bio, after hearing Blues Traveler’s John Popper play harmonica, he was instantly hooked and soon gravitated towards listening to blues harmonica greats like Paul Butterfield. He was also a huge fan of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Creedence Clearwater Revival—both groups known for their harmonica riffs—which also influenced his playing and writing style.

“I like writing ‘song songs,’ rather than just 12-bar blues all the time. I think there is more on that canvas. I picture my career as an artist as a huge open canvas like an actual artist—a painter—or, someone (who) draws. I picture a huge canvas painted (with) different parts.”

Santini went on to explain that this huge canvas is highly influenced by those bluesmen from the past, the rockers of his youth, and the current state of the world.

“(This album) will have even more song-oriented material…there’s a lot going on (in the world today) and there’s some angst in there of things that I just need to get out.”

Musically, the upcoming album will continue Santini’s creative evolution that began back in 2019 with The Longshot album.

“I think there’s going to be even more structure and utilization of different tones on guitars, and maybe even less harp. Some songs may not even have harp, and it may just focus on my vocals. I think we got some really cool stuff that can be relative to today’s music scene. Not to say that I’m turning my back on traditional blues. I’ll always be rooted in that.

image“But things evolve, right? And music evolves. A good example of that is in the harmonica world. I’m not one of the traditionalists that will say that the harmonica needs to still sound like the 1950s. There are men and women who have done that (played harmonica) very well, and I’ll never be able to top that. I carry that spirit on, but I think we’re getting farther and farther away from those generations. Music has evolved, and I would like to think that if Little Walter were alive today, what would he have done? He probably wouldn’t have kept it just that 1950s Chess Records’ tone.

“Having said all that, I am immensely grateful for the path that they (blues harmonica legends) set me on. Being a Blues Traveler fan, it really had me be more open minded to more contemporary music.”

Santini added that, obviously, Little Walter and those guys didn’t have all the music of the eighties and nineties as an influence.

“I also appreciate people that stay in that (traditional) realm and carry on that tradition at a very precise level. I think of guys like Dennis Gruenling and guys like that who can play that stuff so well and much better than I play it…and Rick Estrin, guys like that.”

Santini is also excited about working with his new management company—Mediaforce Management, based outside of Philadelphia. He said that having an agency handle his social media, those daily administrative tasks, and develop long-term growth strategies will free up Santini to “actually get back to putting more time into creating music. I’ll tell you what, man, there’s a lot of (administrative) work behind what we do. And the things I get to do least is sit down and write and play my instrument.”

Steve Hill of Mediaforce Management will be Santini’s manager. Mediaforce also works with Amanda Fish (Samantha’s older sister), Billy the Kid and the Regulators, and the Jake Walden Band out of South Florida, among others.

“I’m really looking forward to being able to kind of breathe and not be under all of the work,” said Santini.

Ultimately, Brandon Santini is a road warrior who loves touring and performing.

“I was (talking) just yesterday about how much I miss being in the van and being with the band, and just the great memories we’ve made and the laughs we had…and the goofy things we do. Yeah, I really, I really do miss those guys.”

The tour will be called The Comeback Tour 2024, and Santini said the name started as a play on words and then added “we’re tossing (it) around…and I was like, ‘I like that.’ Not only is it a play on words, but it is really a comeback because I haven’t been on the stage since late last year.”

imageHe went on to say that a buddy of his questioned using the term “comeback” because it implied that Santini had been gone or had been down for a very long time.

“I’m like, well, you’ve got to have something to push nowadays, and I’m very much into humor. I think humor is something that is important, and, I can laugh at myself with the best of them. I’m proud of that fact. I thought that we’ve got to do something like this because, why not?”

Santini then laughs.

He’s eager to get back up on stage and reconnect with his fans. Blues may be unique in that its fans can have tremendous access to the artists they love to listen to and watch perform. Whether it’s a blues cruise, the Big Blues Bender, the Durango Blues Train, or the International Blues Challenge.

That accessibility, Santini said, “creates one-on-one special moments, and the access we have to them, in return, is wonderful for us.”

Blues fans have “always been a very nurturing community,” he added.

“This might be a stretch but they can see them themselves in us because most of, if not all, the musicians work hard and, at the end of the day, we’re just ordinary people who, essentially, are trying to pay the bills. We go through the same struggles and things affect us the same way.”

Blues, Santini explained, is a very relatable music being a form of American roots music. “Our fans are mostly hard-working individuals, and it’s not easy out there today. So, I think it’s really neat (the accessibility fans have to blues artists). We’re all just mixed into one big barrel and that’s the (key) ingredient to what I think today’s blue scene is.”

Regarding his back, Santini says that, after almost six months, he’s having more good days than bad, and that he wants to give himself plenty of time to heal. “I have a tendency to get back to work too soon, and I don’t want to do that.”

He knows once he’s back to work and on the road, Santini will have to continue to take care of himself. “I just need to be a little more cautious and not digging in or lifting too much.”

Santini reflected on his time away from performing and the healing that remains.

“It’s a daily thing. Like I said (earlier), there are more good days than bad days, and I’ll take that.”

Visit Brandon’s website to see where he is playing near you at https://www.brandonsantini.com.

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