Mato Nanji Interview: Indigenous Rocks On
Adam St. James

B.B. King was a big fan of Mato Nanji’s guitar playing. The late blues legend heard Nanji’s band Indigenous early on and brought the band out on tour with him. Likewise another blues legend, Buddy Guy, has often played with Indigenous. And it was at a show featuring Guy and Indigenous that John McDermott, director of the Jimi Hendrix catalog and producer of the semi-annual Experience Hendrix tours, first discovered Nanji.

Impressed as he was, McDermott has had the Native American blues rock guitarist on every Experience Hendrix tour since 2002, playing alongside artists such as Eric Johnson, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Jonny Lang, Buddy Guy, Zakk Wylde, Billy Cox, Chris Layton, and many more greats.

Nanji was born in 1974 on the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, the son of a traveling musician and, later, international spokesman for native peoples, Greg Zephier, Sr. By the late ‘90s Mato had put together the band Indigenous with brother Pte on bass, sister Wanbdi on drums, and cousin Horse on percussion.

Indigenous recorded a handful of albums with that lineup, even scoring a Billboard Top 40 hit with “Now That You’re Gone.” After the group’s 2006 release, Long Way Home, Nanji’s family members left the band and he recruited other musicians, carrying on with the Indigenous name.

Since then Nanji has recorded six powerful blues rock albums, as well as a collaborative effort with David HIdalgo of Los Lobos and Luther Dickinson of North Mississippi All Stars, titled 3 Skulls and the Truth, in 2012. His most recent release was Time is Coming, released in 2014 on Mike Varney’s Blues Bureau International label. It was Nanji’s third album with Varney, who is widely known for his Shrapnel Records label and long-standing ear for exceptional guitar talent.

In this exclusive interview, we talked about the newest incarnation of Indigenous, Nanji’s early influences, and what playing on the Experience Hendrix tour means to him -- a life-long Hendrix fan. We also spoke about his guitars, amps, and love for Mojo Hand FX pedals, and much more. Hi Mato, this is Adam with

Nanji: Hi, how are you doing? Good, how are you?

Nanji: Good, real good. So where am I calling?

Nanji: I’m been back home in South Dakota. South Dakota, OK.

Nanji: Yeah. I was just out in California over the weekend. Doin’ some shows?

Nanji: Yeah, doin’ some shows out there in Northern California, the San Francisco area, in Petaluma. Isn’t that Mike Varney’s territory?

Nanji: Yeah, yeah. He actually came out to see us. Did he jam with you?

Nanji: Didn’t jam, but he came out. Did you ever record at -- I don’t know if he used the studio all the time, but a long time ago I was at a studio in Petaluma called Prairie Sun.

Nanji: Yeah, that’s where we did our last, three or four records, at Prairie Sun. Okay, you did do them there....

Nanji: Yeah. That’s a great studio man, really is. They got a lot of stuff. Yeah, and I don’t know if it’s still the same kinda neighborhood as it was. I was there in the early ‘90s with Richie Kotzen, and It was all just beautiful farmland at that time. Is it still like that?

Nanji: Yeah, it’s pretty much still like that. They’ve got a chicken farm or something around there. I don’t know if that was there before but yeah, a lot of roosters and stuff walking around [chuckles]. So tell me what you’ve got goin’ on right now. I know your Time is Coming album came out in 2014, right?

Nanji: Yes. That’s the most recent one so far. And I’ve been pretty busy actually from the very first record I did with Varney back in 2012. We do CDs pretty much every year. And then I did one with David Hidalgo and Luther Dickinson called 3 Skulls and the Truth. We also did that with Mike Varney, and that was really cool. Right.

Nanji: And we’ve just kinda been playing around, working, and trying to get those records out there, and promote ‘em a little bit. And we’re talkin’ about doing another record in the near future. So the band members that you have with you now, that’s Levi and everybody right?

Nanji: Yeah, Levi (Platero, guitar) and Doug (Platero, drums), and Bronson (Begay, bass), three young artists from New Mexico. I actually met Levi and all of them really young, like 15 years old. I met them a long time ago and they actually opened a lot of shows for the old Indigenous back in the day. So I’ve been in touch with them since then and decided to have ‘em play with me within the past year or so. So they’ve been goin’ out with me and touring with me now. Are you writing new music, or are they writing with you -- how is that working?

Nanji: I still have been doing it myself, writing myself, and of course, with my wife.   she’s kinda been my songwriting partner for a long time -- my wife, Leah. I think eventually we’ll probably get together and do some stuff, do a few tracks together. We’ll see how it all comes together. How do you work on writing? Do you have a home studio to record ideas?

Nanji: No I don’t have a studio. I just use my phone to get the idea down and that’s it. Once I get it down, I take it into the musicians and we’ll work it out in the studio. It’s a lot easier just to lay it down on the phone than to have an actual studio. Right. Everybody I talk to says they’re laying their ideas down on their phone.

Nanji: Yeah. It’s just that it’s real convenient. If you get an idea, you just hit record and record it. Yeah, I’m doing it too.

Nanji: And the way I have always written, for most ideas I’ll just have an acoustic and get home and be kinda jamming a little bit, and every now and then get an idea. But sometimes when I’m on the road with the band, or touring, or whenever I get an idea for a song -- or just a riff or anything like that -- I just kinda let it happen to me in all kinds of different ways,  ? I feel like that works best for me because if I sit down and think about it, and say “Oh, I think I will write a song.” something like that, it never happens. Yeah.

Nanji: You’ve got to just kinda let it happen and feel it. Yeah. Does your wife do most of the lyric writing? Or all of the lyric writing?

Nanji: Well, she does a lot of the lyrics, yeah. And   sometimes she’ll come in with maybe a verse and a melody. She’ll sing me the melody and then I’ll work out the music behind it. And then sometimes I come in with the whole music -- the whole song, basically -- with no lyrics. And I’ll have the melody idea and she’ll write lyrics for it.   it kinda works. Sometimes I come up with the lyric idea for a chorus part or something and then we’ll just get together and kinda hash it out.

So it’s really cool to work with somebody like that who is really close to you. I know it didn’t work out so well trying to deal with my family [with the beginning lineup of Indigenous], like my brothers and my sisters. But now it’s a little different vibe. I guess people kinda have that connection about what they want to work on, or if they’re able to work together. That makes it fun and easier to come up with ideas and all so, so I enjoy it. So, do you have any kind of a deadline or a planned date when you’re gonna get back in the studio for the next album?

Nanji: Ah, no, we’re still kinda figuring it out. We’re on tour the rest of the summer so we’ll be doing that. And maybe in the fall or something, we’ll probably get back in the studio. That’s when it slows down a little too. It gives you a little more time to concentrate and focus on writing music. So you also did an album with Otis Taylor a couple of years ago, right?

Nanji: Yeah, that was fun. I was on the Hendrix tribute tour and he came down while we were in Denver. I’ve known Otis for a long time, since I was about 19, kinda when Indigenous got goin’, probably like 1997 or ‘98. I got to know him when that first record came out and just stayed in touch. Then I didn’t see him over the years, and then he came to the Experience Hendrix show, and we sat down and talked.

And I guess he got an idea from the conversation and so he went and recorded it, then he just called me one day, “  I got this record done, and I want you to play on it.” It’s called “My World Is Gone.” He said he got the idea from our conversation. It’s about indigenous people. So I was like, “Oh cool, yeah I’ll come down to play.” And so we just went from there. I think it was about six tracks I played on, and singing on another couple of tracks. It was really fun. I bet it was. So that was Taylor’s 2013 album on the Telarc label, and that was the title track.

Nanji: Yeah. He pretty much had the record done, so it was a little more laid back, at that time, when I got there. So we went in there and just laid it down and played it, and it was cool Right. And then you also did something with Jonny Lang. Did you write a couple of songs with him?

Nanji: No, he was actually on one of the records that I did with Mike Varney, I think it was the first one. Right, the album just called Indigenous, on Varney’s Blues Bureau International label.

Nanji: Yeah, with the can on the cover. I just asked Jonny to play. We’ve known each other forever, from when we were real young, and he was just starting up too when we were starting out. We were opening for him back then. He was really young, 14 years old, maybe 15. But yeah, I just asked him to sing and play on one of the tracks on that record, and he said he would. So we got him in and he laid it down, it was awesome. Cool. So have you done just about every Experience Hendrix tour?

Nanji: Uh, yeah, ever since -- I think they started back in like, 2002. And when they started stretching it out more and doing little tours -- I think it was maybe 2003 or 2004 maybe, when they did like 3 shows on the West coast. And me and my brother and sister were still playing, so we went and did those shows and it was pretty good. That was kind of the start, I think, of the touring, and ever since then I’ve done every pretty much every tour. That’s gotta be a good time to play with all those people: Eric Johnson, Kenny Wayne, Jonny...

Nanji: Oh yeah, it’s awesome. For me it’s great. Personality wise, they’re just great people. They’re nice people to be around and so it’s just really fun and makes you really eager to go out there. Plus the experience of just playing with all those great players and gettin’ to jam with Chris Layton, or Billy Cox. It’s awesome. Awesome and really, really cool. Right. I thought they were gonna do a spring tour this year but they didn’t do it.

Nanji: No. I think the guy that puts the thing together, John McDermott -- and I’ve known him from even before the Hendrix thing. I met him a few years before that and I think he kinda became a fan of my band awhile back, because he came to a festival that I was playin’ with Buddy Guy and Los Lobos. That’s where we’ve met. I think he kinda stretches Experience Hendrix out. So there might be one comin’ next year. Maybe he does it one year, then he takes a year off, and then maybe does it twice the next year, and then take another year off or something. Oh, OK. I thought he was getting around and basically doing it every fall and every spring. But I guess it’s not quite that consistent, is it?

Nanji: No, I think he breaks it up a little bit. And I think at times too, they have to work around everybody’s schedule. Like when everybody’s out touring and on the road. Yeah. So you mentioned playing with Chris Layton and Billy Cox. And so, obviously, those two, Hendrix and Stevie Ray were big influences on you, weren’t they?

Nanji: Yeah, yeah, right. Right from the start, like when I was really young, probably my biggest influence is my Dad’s record collection. He had probably everything from like the ‘60s and ‘70s. He listened to a lot of Hendrix, Santana, and the guitar player from Chicago. He listened to a lot of Chicago, the old Chicago, the original guitarist. Terry Kath.

Nanji: Yeah. He is one of my favorites, from the beginning. So I listened to a lot of those guys. My Dad’s the one who brought home the records,  ? He was like, “Check this out!” That’s when I first heard of Stevie. That was kinda later on. But before that I was listenin’ to, like, of course, BB King -- one of my favorites. Right.

Nanji: And Albert King -- all the blues guys. And Buddy Guy. All that stuff My Dad was the one that kinda brought home Stevie and introduced me to him. He must have been always on the lookout for guitar players. Your dad was a touring musician too, right?

Nanji: Yeah, he used to play back in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. He also played with his family. He had two brothers and a nephew that played together. And the band was called Vanishing Americans. Right, and you dedicated an album to them in 2013.

Nanji: Yeah. They played all the Top 40 stuff, and he said they started to write their own stuff and then they split up after that. So, I don’t know what happened then. They just started to try to write together and make music together and then that didn’t work out, so... So he didn’t really push you on guitar, right? You just had the music around and it just influenced you a little?

Nanji: Yeah, yeah. He never sat down and said “I want you to play guitar.” He never said anything like that. He just sits there and he had his amps and his guitars in our basement. And when I got to a certain age I just got interested in it. So then once he found out that I was really into it and really interested, then that’s when he kinda went for it. Yeah.

Nanji: He really got supportive and really got behind it. And then I think, as I kept playing it over the years, that’s when my brother, and my sister -- they were a little younger than me. So when they got a little older, that’s when we kinda decided to become a band. So that’s kinda how it all got started. And I’ve been doin’ it ever since. Uh-huh. Do you still have some of your Dad’s guitars?

Nanji: No, actually they all -- when our old house, probably back in early ‘90s, our old house burned down, so we lost everything. All the old records, all the old everything. Wow, that’s a bummer. So what kind of guitars did he used to play?

Nanji: He had electric Gibsons, like the old 335s. He had a couple of those and some Fender amps. I used to use them too, like Super Reverbs and Vibroverbs and stuff like that. But yeah, everything we had when we started off, it was all gone. So we basically had to start over. So what are you playing now? I see a lot of videos with you playing a Strat.

Nanji: Yeah, there’s this Strat I had since I started, I think. It’s like a 62 Reissue. And then I’ll just bring that. I got that early on and I’ve been playing that ever since the beginning, since I started, probably ’98, ’99. And that’s kinda been my main guitar. I’ve had a few Strats and another guitar, a Benedict. It had humbuckers in it. A guy up in Minneapolis makes them: Benedict guitars. Right, Jonny Lang has mentioned them to me too.

Nanji: I played those for a little while. I used to have a lot of equipment that I just slowly kinda got rid of because I don’t really use it. And now I just use my main guitar pretty much on the road, which is a Stratocaster. I do have a couple of nice acoustics that I play, a Martin 12 string, and a Martin acoustic. And I actually got a First Act -- I guess it’s like a higher upgrade. They sent me one and I’ve been using that. It’s really nice. So when I go on the road I usually use that, the First Act. It’s a pretty nice acoustic.

And then I’ve got a couple of Stratocasters, of course, and all kinds of amps. And I just recently got -- I’m doing an endorsement deal with Carvin, so they sent me some Legacy amps and I’ve been using those. I like them, I think they’re pretty cool. I think Steve Vai designed them or something . Uh-huh.

Nanji: Of course I think I get a different tone than Steve Vai out of them. But I like them. You can switch the wattage and the ohms and all kinds of stuff on it, play through different cabinets and use different wattages with them, from 50 to 100 to like 15 watts. I mainly just use a clean channel but it’s a really a good sounding amp. That’s kinda my touring amp right now. I just have a 4x12 and a Legacy amp head, and then I have my main Strat and just a few pedals. What kind of pedals are you using?

Nanji: Right now I’ve got a Mojo Hand fuzz and one that’s kinda like a Tube Screamer. It’s pretty nice. And I do actually have all kinds of older pedals and stuff, but I don’t really take them out. I keep them, mainly, in the studio. I’ll take all my gadgets out in the studio, and try them out. Vintage stuff?

Nanji: Yeah, I kinda like Tube Screamers and Fuzz Faces, and stuff like that. Yeah, that’s pretty much it. Just a couple of pedals when I go out the road. That’s all I use. So wait, on the road, the Mojo Hand is your overdrive?

Nanji: Yeah, there’s a Mojo Hand -- I think they call it the Rook [Rook Royale] -- and then I’ve got another Mojo Hand called the Crosstown. The Crosstown is a fuzz, kinda like a Hendrix Fuzz Face thing. And the other one is kinda like a Tube Screamer but with a bass and treble tone, so you can tweak it a little bit.
I’ve also got a Univibe -- I think it’s the Fulltone Dejavibe. I think it’s one of the newer ones that I’m using, the black one. But I’ve actually got an older one, the big gold one. But I like the Dejavibe. And then there’s the tuner. And that’s it. So do you sometimes have the fuzz and the Tube Screamer on at the same time?

Nanji: Yeah, sometimes I do that, because when I use the Tube Screamer, it’s mainly just kinda like a boost. I don’t really have the distortion cranked all the way up. But then the fuzz, I’ve got that cranked a little bit more, so I can get more of the Hendrix sound I guess. And the Terry Kath sound. Yeah, right, the almost out of control feedback sound...

Nanji:  Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, my favorite -- still my favorite sound -- will come from Terry and Jimi. So have you done anything to the Strat? Are there special pickups in it or anything like that?

Nanji: Yeah, I think it’s got Texas Specials in it. That’s all I’ve done. Oh I changed the pickguard on it. I don’t know what they call it, it’s kind of like a red tortex-like, kind of a sunburst, sparkly thing. But other than the pickups, it’s just the normal electronics?

Nanji: Yeah, it’s just all original stuff. I just switched out the pickups. And what gauge strings do you use?

Nanji: I use like a .058 on the low and then a .013 on the high. Really?

Nanji: Yeah. That’s pretty thick.

Nanji: Yeah, I like it. I’ve used .011s and .012s before but the .013 just seems to pierce through a lot more, especially on the high string. I did an interview with Stevie Ray’s and Santana’s guitar tech, Rene Martinez, do   you know him?

Nanji: I haven’t met him but yeah, I know who he is. If you go on and you search for him there’s an interview I did with him probably like 12 years ago on there.

Nanji: Oh yeah, cool. And he talks about a lot of things that he did for Stevie to keep him from breaking strings and to keep him from tearing up his fingers, and all kinds of other things too. You should go check it out.

Nanji: Yeah, yeah. Will check it out, yeah. Cool. Well hey man, thank you so much for spending this time with me and giving us some insight into your playing and your gear and everything.

Nanji: Yeah, no problem man. Thank you for talking with me, it’s much appreciated.