Exclusive Interview: Fantastic Negrito Hits The Road With Temple Of The Dog


Photo credit: Dan DeSlover

(PCM) The year is certainly ending on a high note for Bay area singer/songwriter Fantastic Negrito. After completing an incredibly success fall run of headlining shows, he was asked to open up for the legendary Temple Of The Dog on a historic run of dates that span across the U.S.

Fantastic Negrito is currently touring behind his absolutely stellar debut album “The Last Days Of Oakland” and his track, an interpretation of the Lead Belly classic “In The Pines” is currently is currently featured in a docu-narrative film directed by Rashidi Natara Harper that focuses on the impact of gun violence in America.

He also recently appeared in the season finale of the hit FOX series “Empire” performing his single “Lost In The Crowd”, the song which garnered him national attention after winning NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert Contest, and also the hit song “Good Enough” along side Empire character Jamal Lyons.

We caught up with the engaging Fantastic Negrito prior to his performance opening up for Temple Of The Dog at the historic Tower Theater in Philadelphia, PA.  His show was spectacular and he had the audience hypnotized with his solid blend of soulful blues, funk rhythm and the perfect touch of rock and punk. Talk about a genre-defying artist! Fantastic Negrito was just amazing!

His performance was the recipe for creating a delightfully energetic and engaging show. He found a connection with the audience immediately and once he started there was no stopping from beginning to end. Seriously an artist we could jam with all night long!

We spoke to Fantastic Negrito about a variety of subjects including winning the Tiny Desk Concert Contest, changes in the music industry, his relationship with rocker Chris Cornell and just where he would like to see the future of music headed!

Reflecting on winning the NPR Tiny Desk Concert Contest last year Fantastic Negrito says,  “The thing about winning the Tiny Desk Concert is you can win it and then its over and you must have legs to stand on by yourself because you can only be the winner for so long. Now there is a new Tiny Desk Concert champion and she’s amazing. You have to stand on your own, so you have to have good music, you gotta have a good show and other things have to happen so, I think it was a great catalyst, but it only lasts a certain amount of time.

Fantastic Negrito’s incredible album “The Last Days Of Oakland” was released back in June and reached number 4 on the Billboard charts, an amazing feat without the backing of any type of record label.  We were curious to know if he felt that was the way to do things now, without worrying about a label and having full creative control. Fantastic Negrito tells us “I think as artists there’s only one way to do it and that is the right way to do it and that is the real way to do it. That is to be genuine and that’s how you do it. I don’t care if it’s 50 years ago or it’s now, you do it that way … in my opinion … that works for me. It may not work for everyone else, but it works for me. As an artist my goal is to be a contributor.

When speaking about putting the album together and the mindset in the studio Fantastic Negrito reveals “For “The Last Days Of Oakland” I remember I was coming up with the concept and I had been on tour to a bunch of cities and we just noticed that every city was going through transition. I like topic matter and I thought this is something interesting to kind of touch on and as far as the songs, they were different. I would go out into the street and actually talk to people and record them with an iPhone and those are a lot of the different voices you hear on the album’s interludes.

I wanted to hear the voices of everyday working people.  That was kind of the theme of the record. These people living in this transition where the cities that they were born in and grew up in had suddenly become unaffordable. For artists a lot of these cities have become unaffordable, so a lot of the songs touch on that.

I was writing “Working Poor” and I think I interviewed by brother who is a historian and that’s how I really got the lyrics of that song and “Scary Woman” came from an obsession I had with a Robert Johnson song called “Preaching Blues”, just an insane energy from that song. ”

We told Fantastic Negrito that one of our favorite tracks on the album was “Rant Rushmore”. He commented “That song came from the idea as a vocalist to have the kind of conversations that people don’t want to have and I really enjoy that.”

We feel that Fantastic Negrito’s music really makes people think and that is refreshing. So much of what we hear on top 40 is very generic and cookie-cutter, as people mindlessly hum along and don’t think about what the music is actually saying. Fantastic Negrito says “Well, that’s how we got Donald Trump. Quite frankly, you get people not to think and not to engage and you end up in a very precarious and dangerous situation. People will then be led by anything. I think the more informed we are and the more thought-provoking artists are it’s a healthier society.

I think as artists, the more we are contributing, it’s better for us because we’re quite self-absorbed as artists. I always call myself a recovering narcissist and I take it seriously. We must find ways to circumvent the greediness and selfishness.”

We comment that music is almost like a therapy of sorts. Fantastic Negrito agrees saying “Thank you! I call my concerts group therapy. It’s group therapy mutha f**ker.” “I always have to throw a mutha f**cker on there” he concludes with a laugh.

Sometimes the areas in which an artist records an album can have a huge impact on the overall theme or feeling behind the music, almost like a character. Fantastic Negrito reveals “Totally. Travelling and playing in different venues and just talking to people, you get lyrics by just watching and talking to people. It’s important. I think what I do is I gather these different parts and pieces and then when I’m ready to sit down it all makes sense.

Wherever I’m going, I’m making notes. When something interesting happens I put it down and then it becomes part of the conversation that you want to have for the album.”

We were curious of there were any songs that were leftover and didn’t make the cut for the album. Fantastic Negrito says “There’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t make the cut and that’s how it should be. I’ll revisit stuff because sometimes you just never know what fits.

There’s a song on “The Last Days Of Oakland”, one that I may not have written for “The Last Days Of Oakland”, and I’m trying to recall which one, there is a song called “Nothing Without You” on the end that I thought really didn’t fit, but in the end it went on. I didn’t think that would make the record, but it did because I really felt like yes, as a person and as an artist, as a human being, my liberty and my freedom evolved out of that philosophy.

Like I’m nothing without you, so I need to treat you right and I need to treat this guy right, and this person right and that’s what makes for a stronger me and a stronger society. The message is what I was really interested in and you know, an album is an interesting thing and it has to tie together and make sense.”

When speaking about being surprised at which songs fans tend to gravitate towards, he says “I’m surprised sometimes that people are really into one song and I really didn’t see it coming. I know that when I have a song, is when I feel a little uncomfortable about it and I go ‘that’s it’! When I think ‘whoa, should I really sing this’, that’s when you got a song.”

While writing music can be therapeutic at times, it is definitely an emotional process and reliving those emotions while performing can be difficult. Fantastic Negrito comments “When I’m performing I try to give everything. I don’t drink coffee on days of performances just tea. I don’t want any stimulants, I want to be as naked and as raw as I can be and to convey that and connect with that audience because ultimately that’s what it’s all about for me. For me, personally, that’s my therapy.  Nothing without you means I need to connect with you all for this life to make sense. I need to do it and in doing that you embody the song and just give it up.

I try not to do it the same way always. I like it to be organic and let it happen. I don’t like to rehearse too much. Rehearse to the point that you know it, but not too much. There’s a lot of punk rocker in me and I love to let that loose.”

We love the imperfectly perfect sound sometime and those little nuances just work. Fantastic Negrito concludes, “I want to be surprised.”

When discussing the approach between smaller club show versus larger festival environments Fantastic Negrito reveals, “Opening for Temple Of The Dog is huge. It’s even more magnified because they never really toured. People are coming to see Temple Of The Dog and they are like ‘who’s this dude up here with the scarf around his neck?’, so it’s okay and I love it! I love the challenge of trying to connect with an audience. It doesn’t matter if there are ten people or ten thousand because to me if you make that connection with people that’s what matters the most. It’s always different, it never feels the same and it shouldn’t.

I don’t know if it’s so much “size matters”, it’s just people. The intensity and the connection … that’s what matters. As an artist, that’s our job to make that connection happen.”

When talking about what it was like when he got the call to do this Temple Of The Dog tour, Fantastic Negrito reflects, “I communicate always, just me and Chris [Cornell], there’s no agent or anything like that. He’ll just send me a little email like ‘hey, would you like to open the Temple Of The Dog tour? Of course, if you’re not busy.’ I’m like ‘Geez, that’s crazy!’, it took a minute, but Chris Cornell has been such a major part of my 2016. 2016 would be different without Chris Cornell, I mean, he took me to Europe to do the acoustic tour and then we got back and I got the email like ‘hey, do you want to do the States?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah! Let’s do the States’ and we’re going to Canada and the Middle East and then to get the Temple Of The Dog email was just nuts. But he’s a loving, giving person and a true artist, a man that transcends genres.

He’s just a brilliant and amazing singer and I like that it’s just musician to musician. Chris Cornell isn’t asking me for anything. He’s just like ‘I like the music … be part of my show’ and I think that’s what we need to do as musicians. Let’s help each other. If we think somebody’s got something, let’s introduce them to our audiences and it’s a great lesson for all artists.

We comment that with so many changes taking place in the music industry over the years it is refreshing to see two artist be able to come together without a whole lot of business stuff to work out. Fantastic Negrito says, “We don’t have the same managers, he’s not getting a piece of my publishing or anything like that, he’s just like ‘man, let’s do it’ and that’s what it should be! He’s been amazing and a huge part of how big my 2016 is because, as he says with a laugh, Chris Cornell .. if I have another kid, I’m going to name him Chris Cornell, I’m not going to name him Chris, I’m going to be like ‘Chris Cornell! Come here!’ there will be no space … just ChrisCornell! That’s my next kid’s name, girl or boy, doesn’t matter!”

This whole thing has been like a dream. Opening up these last few nights, I’m like ‘wow, it’s Temple Of The Dog’ and I remember the whole Seattle movement back in the 90’s when I was just mostly listening to hip-hop and then the Seattle movement came and got my ears, my head and my heart involved in some music that was real.

That’s why everyone universally could understand what was going on in Seattle at that time because Soundgarden, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam were the ones keeping it real when rock n’ roll had gotten so big-hair corporate cookie-cutter and predictable. Art should not be comodified on that level where big business can, and I’m not going to say will all the time, ruin a great thing.”

When speaking about the way that the shroud of mystery has been lifted on the world of rock n’ roll thanks to social media and other factors, he comments “We’ve become a transparent society. We’ve become a society where there aren’t too many things that are that special, as it’s all right there on social media. The only thing that’s not transparent is our government. If we could get them to be more transparent, but that’s just the way it is.

There’s always some opiate for the masses and now its social media, but you can take that bullsh*t and turn it into good sh*t, as I say everyday. You can take social media, and it’s just a tool,  it’s just like a hammer. You can bash people on the hands with a hammer or you can build a house you can live it, it’s just the tool.”

Discussing some of the biggest challenges facing artists today, Fantastic Negrito shares, “I think one of the biggest challenges facing artists is, you may have generations of people who are calling themselves artists who just want to be famous. And that ain’t where it is! You may have artist’s who are just being artist’s so they can get a million followers. That’s crazy. I think being an artist and we’re talking to the biggest narcissist of them all by the way, and I’ve said it before, it’s all about contributing. Contributing to the medium, contributing to society, contributing to the human family.

That’s when it happens … when artists are doing that. I think that’s the biggest challenge because the power of social media has also made everyone gain a major feeling of self-importance. It’s a slippery slope. You shouldn’t just want to be famous, you shouldn’t just want to write hit songs, you should do something amazing. Do something that’s great or different. That’s just from my perspective and someone else may feel differently and they can feel the way that they feel, but as a creative person and an artist that’s how I feel.”

We asked Fantastic Negrito if there was anything on his bucket list that he would still like to attempt. He jokingly replies, “I’d like to be a puppy and be cuddled”.  He then reveals, “I’d like to do a mix tape. Kind of like a black roots blues mix tape the same way that rap artists do mixtapes, but instead a mix tape the way I would do it. Hopefully, we will see it happen in 2017.  I don’t think anyone’s done a roots music mixtape. All these kids who sell beats for a hundred bucks, take them, deconstruct them, and just play live music all around it. Just something interesting. Heck, maybe I’ll get Chris on it! Just so it’s like ‘whoa, what is this?’. It’s a blue mix tape mother f**ker!”

When speaking about the blurring of genres, Fantastic Negrito tells us, “Genre has never mattered. All genres are, are a place to hide. Music transcends or it doesn’t. The true genres are: This is amazing great or it’s not. Those are the genres in my view. If the music has power it transcends. The way the Seattle sounds transcends to a kid from Oakland, who was not trying to hear no rock n’ roll necessarily, but when I heard these cats I was like, ‘whoa’ and it didn’t matter because the art was real. The message was real and it did not matter.

I just spoke to you. Do you think only country people like Johnny Cash? No, he transcended it all just like others such as James Brown, Bob Marley, and The Beatles. If your songs are great, they’re great.”

We explain that we feel music is a universal language that we can all speak and understand. Fantastic Negrito tells us that music first began speaking to him because he was the eighth of fourteen kids and he never got enough attention.  He says, “I was in a dance contest once and I won when I was seventeen. I was like ‘wow, this is attention … I never got attention from anyone’ so, I thought I can do this for a living but I didn’t know how to play an instrument, so I had to go and learn how to plan an instrument. It just came from growing up with fourteen people in a house and feeling left out. It was that need for some validation or attention and then I did the work and learned the instruments and inside there was a singer and an artist that I didn’t know.  I didn’t grow up playing music at all.

Fantastic Negrito taught himself to play various instruments, he comments, “I took the easy and I really wanted to play what I wanted to play. I learned some covers, of course, but I didn’t go out and try to learn everyone else’s songs. That’s part of the disease of self-importance. I heard things and I wanted to play them. ”

When looking to the future and just what next year will hold in store, Fantastic Negrito tells us “You know, I’ve been touring since March non-stop. Two tours in Europe and two across the States and this is my third one across the States, Canada, Middle East, Australia … after this one, unless I get a call from Chris, I’m just going to hopefully take it easy if I can. I usually can’t, but I’ll try. I am looking forward to waking up the next day and being grateful for that. Hopefully in 2017 a blues mix tape!

“Last Days Of Oakland” is still going pretty strong. Some people are still getting to know it and it’s got legs, so I’ll let it walk. I really never stop creating. The beauty of touring is that people get to discover something they haven’t seen before!”

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