Soulquest LAB #6 - An interview with Javier Santiago

This week, we interviewed one of our favorite up and coming musicians: Javier Santiago. For this 6th episode, the 31 years old San Francisco based producer and piano virtuoso gave us a moment to chat about his work, his inspirations and his great ability to blend genres.

Hey man, Happy new year !  Thank you for being here, it’s great to have you. How are you ?

HNY ! I’m doing well! Best that I could be during this crazy time. Thanks for having me!

Sure ! Can you tell us a little about your beginnings in music? When and how did you start making music and what first got you into it, especially music production? Any favorite producers or musicians?

I started playing piano when I was 5 years old. My parents are both musicians. Ever since then I’ve loved creating all kinds of music. As far as production goes, I got my first DAW - FruityLoops - when I was 16. Since then I used Reason for years and finally switched to Ableton 2 years ago. What first got me into it was hip hop producers from the “golden age” i.e. Dilla, DJ Premier, Pete Rock, etc. But also at the same time was playing a lot of piano and getting deep into jazz from Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock… Noticed a lot of the samples in production were funk and jazz anyway so each medium informed one another if that makes sense.

In 2019 you released a jazz project called ‘’B-Sides: the Phoenix Sessions’’. Less than a year later you released ‘’Javi’s Beats’’, a Hip-Hop beat tape of  old (yet amazing) beats of yours. Can you tell us a little about this beat tape and what the main differences between approaching a jazz project and a beat tape are?

Yeah so the beat tape was actually a compilation of old beats I had put out on Bandcamp around 2012-2014 but I had first made a lot of them in high school (around ’07-’08 aaah I’m old). Around that same time and in college I had written a lot of songs that would be on B-Sides as well. So both projects were a long process time-wise you could say. For the beats I really just focused on making a great loop and extending it from there - all in solitude basically with no other collaborators. For this approach I could choose every sound - and modify and arrange everything how I wanted it, piece by piece - definitely had more control creatively in that way. For the jazz project, they were longer ideas but they were developed and interpreted by other people. The other folks on the project had a big part to do with the overall sound (and it was mainly acoustic instruments). The approach from a creative standpoint was pretty similar in that they were ideas and visions of mine that I really wanted to see come alive and these were the first compositions/beats I had ever made really.

You’ve been active on Soundcloud for a very long time. Releasing remixes, original compositions, experimental tracks, future beats inspired edits etc.. Did Soundcloud (as a platform and community) spark your love for this kind of music or where you already into hip-hop production beforehand ?

SoundCloud had come out later after I had been making beats and it was a great way to find community and like minds. I always love to see folks I’ve never met from all over the world hearing my music and sharing it. And I did find a ton of great artists through SoundCloud.

It seems like 2020 was quite a productive year for you. You released 3 projects including two EP’s ‘’Are You There’’, ‘’ReBirth’’  and the previously-mentionned beat tape ‘’Javi’s beats’’.  You’re obviously an amazingly talented pianist and producer.  Do you have a daily work and practice routine or just go with the flow ?

It was productive! I usually just go with the flow. I have phases where I’m cooped up in my room for days working on things and then sometimes I’m never home and take long breaks. But there’s always music happening - in recent years I’ve been playing a lot of piano - before the pandemic I was playing gigs every night. 

There’s more coming in 2021 ! At least 3 EPs worth if not more lol.

Can’t wait to listen to your next projects !  There many examples of tracks on which your blend genres and inspirations effortlessly and in pretty unique ways. My question would be: Is your music the fruit of a conscious choice of mixing jazz with more recent styles of Hip-Hop beat or is it just completely hazardous?

Thank you! Gotta also give credit to my brothers Proper-T and Miguel Hurtado for that record/song.  It’s mainly just hazardous haha a good choice of word btw. I think part of being an artist is experimenting and just going for stuff. I guess it’s somewhat “risky” but that’s part of what could potentially make good art. As far as mixing more recent styles of hip hop with anything it’s just that it usually hasn’t been done much and it’s not in the mainstream. So I always ask the question: “what if we mixed jazz harmony with modern style A or B” because I always have loved extended harmony (not just 3-note chords but 4 and 5 note chords) that you would find in jazz, Black American Music (#BAM) or Brazilian music for instance. So it’s consciously subconscious (???) because I naturally just go for chords like that - one of the symptoms of being a piano player I guess haha.

In terms of production, what’s your process like ? Your drums always sound immaculate. Can you tell us about your workflow ? Any special tools or plugins?

Thanks ! For my workflow for beats I use Ableton (sometimes with Reason) and just get lucky with nice sounding wav’s for drums. Lately I’ve loved using XLN Audio RC-20 Retro Color on instruments and stuff to give it this sort of tape grit. But yeah it’s all software. Of course I love Fender Rhodes on everything. For when I can’t find a real instrument I use Keyscape for keys. Sidechain compression has become my best friend in recent years.

It’s really great to see amazing musicians such as Anomalie, Rob Araujo, Telemakus, Slowya.Roll and yourself pushing the boundaries of what's possible in terms of blending the beat culture with Jazz compositions. Do you sometimes produce sample based tracks or do you stick to your own compositions?

Both! The thing about samples is that some of that music (from older recordings) was recorded in the most unique and professional way - sometimes with most expensive analog gear - so I can’t really compete with that in terms of sound quality. When I have been able to get a great recording of my own composition sometimes I’ll sample that. But also those older recordings just have a unique sound to them that I love to hear in a beat. It can give it a whole other dimension that my recording capabilities cannot. That being said, there’s pros and cons to both. I definitely love to hear my compositions in a modern sort of context - that context being hip hop/electronic music.

We love discovering unique and forward thinking artists here. Is there any underrated artists that you like and that we might have not heard of ?

That last question you mentioned Telemakus - he’s the truth! Also Daoud Anthony who helped produce my last project - he’s one of the greatest producers/musicians I’ve ever met. DJ Harrison and his brainchild Butcher Brown ! - now DJ Harrison is one of the founding fathers of this lo-fi hip hop/jazz movement that has so much popularity today! Also King Klave - great drummer/producer based in NYC…. So many… The Jazz Thug aka Giulio Xavier, Kassa Overall, Wonway Posibul, So-So Topic, Iman Omari

What’s next for you? What have you been working on lately?

Putting out another project called “Verses Vol. 2” (Vol. 1 was in 2018) in the next couple months! And some more projects after that ! A lot of music I’ve been hoarding over the years…

Also some acoustic piano trio with a group called East Middle West; and a debut release from The Jazz Thug aka Giulio Xavier. There will be plenty of live streams of me performing with friends that you can find on my social media channels !

Thank you so much for your time and very interesting insights. We wish you continued success in your future projects, which we can't wait to listen to.  Anything else you’d like to add?

Thank you for having me ! Let’s make it through this pandemic ya’ll ! Stay positive and keep the love flowing. Peace !

Follow and support Javier on Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Spotify and Instagram.

Photos by Jack Davis and interview by Karim Chibani.

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