Jonny Santos of Silent CivilianSilent Civilian
By Naughty Mickie and Dave Schwartz
Photos by Dave Schwartz

As a musician there are times that make you feel on top of the world. Playing in front of a packed house, touring the world, being nominated for a Grammy Award-- I guess these are but a few examples. But sometimes being in a band isnít all spotlights and awards. Sometimes the imagined dream becomes something else, something that causes you to struggle in your heart, to weigh your wants with your needs. And ultimately anyone whoís honest discovers that thereís more to music than an hour on stage each night.

Jonny Santos, former lead singer of Spineshank and current guitarist and lead singer of Silent Civilian has lived that story. It was January of 2004. Spineshank had been nominated for a Grammy and, at a time when most bands are trying to capitalize on newfound fortune and fame, Santos had come to a decision.

"I kinda felt like the band had run its course," Santos admitted. "I felt the ship was starting to sink. We werenít getting along so well and we werenít able to work together the well. I figured that if there ever was a better time to actually leave the band it was best to leave on a high note. I feel like I made the best decision by getting out when I did. I quit a Grammy-nominated band and everyone thought that I was nuts! Everyone asked, ĎWhat the fuck are you doing Jonny?í It just wasnít right for me. Of course you know that when I left the band I left with nothing. I kind of went from playing sold out shows in London to trying to figure out where I was going to sleep. That was a hard pill to swallow. I kept asking myself if I had made the right decision. In the end I know I did, but I had to work really hard. It made me appreciate what I had before and what I have now. It made me understand the gift of having a life and career in music."

Santos took a year off to get his head straight and try to figure out what he wanted to do. After leaving Spineshank he started doing production work and producing other bands. In his off time he jammed with friends and went on a few auditions, never really finding anything that he felt passionate about. And like so many of us, he for that perfect fit only to discover that it was in him all along. For Santos that meant going back to his roots. Growing up in Duarte and Baldwin Park California, Santos was fascinated by Southern California thrash metal. Being true to his heart, in January 2005 Santos formed Silent Civilian, the next great thrash metal band.

"I got into thrash when I was really young," Santos explained. "All the bands I was into during Spineshank and high school were thrash bands. So this isnít something thatís new to me. The original Spineshank material was pretty close to what Iím doing right now. I think that, due to the climate of the times, the music evolved into something that was pretty far off of what we originally intended. The original Spineshank had two guitar players and stuff like that. The original Spineshank sounded a lot like Sepultura meets Godflesh. When I started this band I could see that there had been a resurgence in metal and musicianship so it was right up my alley. Iíve been playing guitar since I was seven years old. So I saw this opportunity to start this kick ass thrash band. Because I was starting over I didnít have to feel the pressure of major labels asking me for radio singles that are only 3:35 long. I wanted to make a true thrash metal record and I feel Iíve accomplished that."

The new record, "Rebirth of the Temple," was released on May 2nd and, as we discovered, Santos wanted to make an album devoid of boundaries. He just wanted to have fun playing music and for the first time since long before ever being signed, he accomplished that. When Santos signed his most recent deal he found himself, for the first time, with full creative control.

Jonny Santos of Silent Civilian"I mean that was the one thing about this label. They gave me full creative control over this record. They gave me a budget and said, ĎMake the record the you want to make.í And thatís exactly what we did," Santos admitted. "There were no boundaries. We sat down and we wrote and if the song was eight minutes long then it was eight minutes long. It was important for us to produce the best product we could. I mean, what ever happened to going out and buying a record and getting your moneyís worth? Kids just arenít getting what theyíve paid for. No wonder theyíre downloading shit all the fucking time. With this record youíre getting an hour of music, you get a video on the CD with the record and you get a 10-minute documentary on the making of the record. And I think thatís worth $16, $17, $18 bucks. We donít want them to feel like theyíre getting ripped-off. We wanted to make the record that we wanted and not what someone else wanted us to make. I think the fans will appreciate that."

We asked if there was an underlying significance to the title of the new record.

Santos enlightened us, "When we started the band I was over a lot of things. I was definitely over the re-election of Bush. And on the political side of things, at the time there was so many people out there who had certain opinions and certain beliefs about our national issues and our world issues, but nobody ever says anything about it. I feel like sometimes that we're just a nation of silent civilians. I think a lot of people go `Yeah, yeah, yeah. Blah, blah, blah,' but they don't want to vote and use their American rights to speak for what they believe in. For me that's depressing."

And while some of the songs do have political undertones the subject matter isnít beat to death. Santos took great pride in writing for the song, not just promoting an agenda. He would rather that his fans develop their own opinions.

"I think a lot of the record promotes free thinking and actually having your own opinion. It's a healthy attitude for the kids that listen to our music. They should have their own opinion for better for worse, at least they own it and it's theirs."

Although primarily known as a singer, Santos began playing guitar at the tender age of seven and was in his first band by 11.

"I played a guitar for 13 years before I ever sang a note. Iím a guitar player at heart," Santos declared. "Iím a guitar player that became a singer out of necessity."

For the past two years Santos has been finding as much as reinventing himself. And he feels Silent Civilianís new record holds some surprises for his long-time fans.

"I know a lot of people that are shocked right now because Iíve come back with this new band that is completely the opposite direction from anything that I did in Spineshank and now Iím playing guitar too. So itís not like Iím doing Spineshank Part Two. I really feel that weíre bringing something new to the table for everybody. Sometimes this is what youíve got to do. Youíve got to really work harder and prove yourself rather than just come back and repeat yourself," he states.

We spoke with Santos at length about the state of the music business and we agreed that thereís been resurgence of old school metal. I find it interesting that we have a generation of guitar players that didnít have many, in the sense of musicianship anyway, many mentors to show them how to press the bounds of music. For at least a decade there just wasnít a whole lot of guitar solos or complex arrangements happening in contemporary music. Obviously thatís all changing. The younger players have latched onto the older styles and made them their own.

"I think we're at the cusp of something here, Santos acknowledged. "I think we're about to see another huge change, especially in metal. We're about to see what happened when grunge first happened and then what happened when the whole Korn/Deftone thing happened. I really think that we're right on the edge of a huge blowup of this whole thing- acceptance of metal once again. You're really going to start to see actual metal as far as musicianship come back with guitar players with guitar solos. I think it's a good thing.

Silent Civilian"When I was growing up I saw this happen. When I was in junior high and high school I saw how the whole Nirvana thing really killed metal in a way. I think maybe it was the timing too. It had been so decadent it kind of killed itself too. The '90s was a weird decade for music. I remember the first day I heard the song `Teen Spirit,' I was in eighth grade and I was like, `Uh-oh,'" Santos laughs. "I was the kid with long hair going to school every day wearing an Angels shirt. That was me, you know, `Uh-oh.'

"I spent so much time as a kid learning how to become a guitar player, like Randy Rhoads; Dave Mustaine, and then all of a sudden it wasn't cool to play guitar solos any more. It was like, 'Woah, what happened here?'" Santos continued, "When I started this band I didn't care, I was just going to have fun and it's surprising how well the band is already doing. Months before the record is going to come out people are really accepting the band. Every night it's like, `Wow, dude, the guitar work was amazing' or `Dude, the drums were absolutely killer.' Some of our songs are six and a half minutes long. I didn't write a record for radio or anything else, I wanted to write a true thrash metal record and I feel I have accomplished that. Growing up where I did, the San Gabriel Valley, back then when I was in junior high, '88; '89, the thrash scene was huge. Every weekend it was, `Party in Covina, there's a party in Duarte, oh, there's a party in Azusa.' All these old school thrash bands in the San Gabriel Valley I remember all that. I feel privileged to have witnessed that.

"I feel fortunate that Iím old enough to have caught the ass-end of metal in the late '80s, early '90s. I can remember being 11 years old and my favorite band being Death Angel and old Metalica. I saw Metalica on the 'Master of Puppets' tour. Iíve seen Testament, Exodus, Kreator. Iíve seen all of these bands when they were in their heyday. I feel fortunate to have that because those guys were my heroes. And thatís where my playing is derived from. Iíll be real honest with you. A lot of the riffs that I wrote on this record, I wrote when I was about 13 years old. Iíve had this stashed away for years. The opening track, ĎFuneralí, that first riff I wrote when I was 13. Itís just always been there in the back of my mind. Itís cool that this style of music has come back. I think a lot of the kids these days that are playing, I think itís good that they are striving to be great musicians again. Thereís more to this than three chords and a shit-load of pedals!" Santos concluded.

And what does he do when heís not on tour?

"I'm a motorcycle freak. I have two bikes, I have a CBR900 RR that I've had for several years, probably since '98. Then I have a chopper that I built while I was home."

When asked about his other bike, a Harley Davidson, he replied, "It's all custom built from the ground up. It's a rat-style chopper. It looks like something Indian Larry would build. It's really cool."

Santos also spends a great deal of time with his wife, two kids and a pair of dogs.

But for now Silent Civilian has a year of touring ahead of them. Santos hopes to hit Australia, Japan, Europe and New Zealand in the coming year. While on the road he plans to continue working on the next record. And not that he wonít be busy enough, Santos hopes to do a tribute EP to thrash bands such as Violent, Megadeth, Testament, Exodus.

As the interview was drawing to the end we asked Santos if he had any closing thoughts. He was eager to share his experiences filming the video for their first single, "Rebirth of the Temple."

Jonny Santos of Silent Civilian"We shot the video in Baldwin Park at the house I grew up," he explained. "We had all the neighbors come over. We called up about 50 of our friends and put up a last minute bulletin on My Space for fans to show up and we ended up with about 100 people packed into this house. We jam-packed everybody into the back end of the house and we shot the video."

The video features members of Static X and Soulfly in cameos and it will be shown on "Headbanger's Ball" on MTV and you can call and request it there.

Santos continued, "Whoever goes out and buys this record will definitely get their money's worth. I wanted to make sure that happened because some of these kids they don't have money, especially where I grew up. It's like if they do save up enough money, when they do starve and don't eat and keep their lunch money all week and go out and buy the CD, I don't want them to feel ripped off. I want them to feel like, `Wow, I can't believe I got all this for 17 bucks.í"

We would like to thank Jonny Santos for taking the time to talk with us. Be sure to check out the Web sites. 

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