Talking 'Cholo Soul' with S.A. Martinez of 311

Talking 'Cholo Soul' with S.A. Martinez of 311
Photo by Alexander Ferzan, courtesy of Los Stellarians management.

S.A. Martinez doesn't have time to rest. After completing another annual three-month summer stint with 311, (this year marks the band's tenth consecutive summer tour), Martinez hopes to finish three albums of his own before 311 sets sail on a fan cruise to Jamaica.

Martinez's new solo project, Los Stellarians, with Ghostwolf bandmate Ryan Siegel is an homage to Lowrider culture and overlooked Soul music from the 1970s. Cholo Soul, their debut album featuring covers of some of Martinez's favorite tunes, drops August 26.

We caught up with S.A. while he was on the road with 311 to discuss his upcoming albums, his love of James Brown, and his not-so-secret Instagram account. 311 fans may be surprised to learn which U.S. city most tugs on his heart strings.

See also: 311's Nick Hexum Reveals Even More Details About New Album 'Stereolithic'

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OC Weekly (Jena Ardell): Los Stellarians: I like that. Is the name a play on old band names from the 70s?

S.A. Martinez: In a way it is, yeah. Back in the '60s, there was that band Question and the Mysterians and, y'know, like the car the DeLorean. (Laughs). There's something to it. Just throwing the 'Los' in the front. There are tons of bands, especially from back in the day, that might have had that in their band name so it's kind of reaching for that a bit.

How did you select songs for the album?

I've got an incredible record collection and I've been collecting obscure Soul for the past 27 years, and a couple years back I was thinking, 'I need to cover some of these songs' because, outside of the record collecting community, they're not really that well-known. In that community, they're fairly well-known, but outside of that--nothing. So I just wanted to do versions of these songs. 311 has such an incredible fan base; I thought, 'they're going to love it.' Basically, I selected songs that I would love to do and an album that I would love to buy and play all the time. [Cholo Soul] would be 'If I'm going to have a party, I'm going to put this record on because this is the vibe that everyone's going to get into it and have a great time.'

Outside of your own catharsis, are you trying to shed new light on under-appreciated songs?

Absolutely. In this country, there's so much Soul music. You had countless acts, mostly regional things, and a lot of these acts never broke out. A lot of them only had a couple songs or enough money to just record a 45--forget a full-length--and a lot of it was just done for vanity, like, 'I just wanted a copy.' There's just so much of it out there and I thought, it's one thing to appreciate it and it's another thing to, like you're saying, shed light onto it and give it value, like it deserves. It's underappreciated, in my opinion, not because of any rhyme or reason, but because we have so much music to filter through these days and a lot of the older stuff gets lost.  

Talking 'Cholo Soul' with S.A. Martinez of 311
311 Caribbean Cruise, 2012. Photo by Jena Ardell.

What's the most coveted record you own?

Oh man. That's a good question. I've got some great 45s. I can't say there's one I cherish more than the others, but I've got a couple copies of Darondo's "Didn't I" originals. Just a classic song. We did this cover of a song called "Be This Way" by Jimmy Gray Hall, and here's an interesting story: this guy never finished his record; they pressed the single and then [Jimmy Gray Hall] was, like, a bank robber. He robbed over 30 banks and died in a police shootout [after a high-speed chase in Big Bear in 1984]. The odd thing, I come to find out later, was he has a son who's some big-time producer who produced Katy Perry's Roar. Anyway, I got in touch with his son and I sent him [our cover] and he was like, 'Ah man, thank you for doing a version of it.'

It's a great song. I remember the first time I heard that song was at some club in L.A. in the '90s and I remember going up to the DJ and I was like, 'Hey man, what did you just play?' And a lot of DJs, they don't want to give up their songs, so he just sort of showed me it, and I wrote it down later in a journal. He was basically like, 'Yeah, good luck finding it,' and this was pre-internet--so I couldn't find it--but years later, I did find it. I got it in a collection I bought. It's not a rare record, y'know, but it's something that I love and cherish.

Your cover of "I Can't Understand You" sounds very true to the original song, but as if it were remastered and made to sound more lively, crisp, and more alive...

That original song, for example, was not published. There's no ASCAP or BMI information on it. That record that that song came from is a coveted record. In fact, a copy just sold on eBay within the past few days for about $250 bucks. So the records mean something for some people. The guy who wrote it has passed on, and his brother said they never had the money to record it how they wanted to record it.

So you tracked down every band to get permission first?

Out of all of the songs that we did, only two were published through traditional publishing houses so, yeah, we had to get in touch with whoever owned the publishing rights. And that Jimmy Gray Hall song, that song basically didn't exist because when Jimmy died in the '80s, he had no will. Thus, the song kind of died with him and the publishing was never renewed, so we got in touch with his son. It's been a really interesting project, on a few different levels.

Obviously, you and [Ghostwolf bandmate] Ryan Siegel have previously worked together on a few different projects, but how did this particular collaboration come together?

I was wanting to do another Ghostwolf record, but [Ghostwolf bandmate] Evan [Anderson] decided to move in with his girlfriend in New York. (Laughs). I had an idea for this [Los Stellarians] project and then Ryan really got into it, and we started writing original stuff too that coincided with what we were doing, so we plan on putting another record out, hopefully this year. We'll see how it goes as Cholo Soul unfolds but, yeah, we've got other material, as well, that's been inspired by all of this.

Will your album of originals have the same 1970s soul vibe?

Some of it does. Some of it is more modern and '80s, like modern Soul. We definitely have some cruisers and more of the oldies style. Basically in California, a lot of the Mexican Lowriders, the Bombers, have kept the music alive, in a lot of ways. A lot of that sweet soul--that maybe came out of Chicago, or Philly, or Ohio, even--these guys trade this stuff for big dollars. Some 45s go for thousands. It's crazy. But there's such love invested and attached to all of these memories.

Memories mean more to me than they meant 10, 20, years ago. It's funny how time and the passing of it affects your life. We all attach memories to our music; that's why it means so much to us. You put on some of these forgotten songs from these forgotten times--that are still kept alive in another part of our culture--and it's really cool and interesting how that all works and relates and connects to each other. It's a part of our cultural legacy, really.

Is Ghostwolf on hiatus right now? Or will there be another Ghostwolf album in the future?

We almost have another album done. It's pretty cool. There's going to be more of a concept behind this new Ghostwolf record. Again, with the passing of time, it's like, 'Hey man, I'm not going to be around forever,' and there's so much music I want to do, and there are so many ideas. It's hard to get it all out, but I'm going to try my best to do it.   It seems like every member of 311 is involved in some sort of side project besides [guitarist] Tim [Mahoney]. Is he doing anything we should know about?

He did something; I think he played guitar on our studio tech [Jason T. Walters of PengusKhan]'s album. I don't know if he worked on their new record, but he's definitely played with them before and he's definitely played with them live too. It's probably going to just be a matter of time before Tim does something because he's got tons of ideas. But then again, it's all about making the time to do it during our downtime. We'll get home in a few weeks after this [311] tour and we'll be home for a few days but, mentally, our minds are going to be on the road and it takes a bit to unwind. But once you're there, and stumble back into your home life and home groove, myself, I'm like, 'OK, let's do some music, Ryan.' (Laughs). 'Because we've got some ideas we've got to finish here.' It's all about what you want out of life and what you want to share.

Talking 'Cholo Soul' with S.A. Martinez of 311
S.A. with 311 at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, NJ, 2013. Photo by Jena Ardell.

I know James Brown is one of your all-time favorite idols. I just recently watched his T.A.M.I performance from 1964, which was incredible. I think at least 50% of his appeal was his showmanship. What about him and his music resonates with you?

It's James Brown. I think he's above and beyond where we place him in cultural icon status. He is The King; he's my King. He had it harder: growing up in Georgia when he grew up. That was a difficult time to be that person--I'm not saying it's any easier these days--but you can't deny his talent. He played multiple instruments. He slayed at what he did and was considered the 'Hardest Working Man in Show Business' for a reason. He put on a killer show and demanded a lot from his band. When [311] played with him in Japan, his dancers--his whole crew, in fact--were still held to a high standard: no cussing, you had to look presentable. There's something about that that's kind of cool. I have so much admiration for James Brown and so many others like him that really made an effort because it's easy to not make an effort. It takes a lot more gumption to put some other energy toward your show and your whole package.

Are you and Ryan going to go for a certain vibe or look when you're performing as Los Stellarians?

I don't know. We haven't really discussed that. We're going to put together a lineup when I get back. There's a lot to sort through, but yeah, maybe, why not? That's the music the project is identifying with, so I think it would be kind of cool to maybe go that route.

And you are releasing a Los Stellarians vinyl?

Yeah, the vinyl pre-order on bandcamp.com is going bonkers. It was #1 for the week the past week. I've got this DJ in the UK who already pressed the 45s of "Didn't I" and one of the other songs. [In the UK], there's a big Soul scene and it's been that way for a number of years. There's a market for this type of music. No one really sells for these people. No one sells to the Lowriders--they have to search out the old stuff. There are some throwback artists these days but--on a larger level--no one is really doing it.

Do you have any tour plans for this upcoming album?

Wherever [Cholo Soul] is reacting, is where we'll try to hit. I'm down to do anything: anything, anywhere; it really doesn't matter. I love music, and I love to share it, and I love performing. (Laughs). Like, James, son!

We did a show [as Ghostwolf] at Molly Malone's [in Los Angeles]. That was awesome, so maybe a Los Stellarian show will happen there, but I want to get another record out so that we could have a 16 song set that people could get into and at least know the songs. That's why I'd love to get another record out. We're kind of halfway done with it. I'm hoping we could have that out in October or November, to be honest. I don't mess around. (Laughs). I don't have time to mess around!

Can fans expect to hear Los Stellarians on the 311 Caribbean Cruise this March?

I don't know yet. I [performed] with Ghostwolf on the last cruise and it was great and I had a great time, but with all of the scheduled 311 events, it's really, really tough, and then trying to work in [time for] rehearsing... I don't know yet, we'll see. I would like to, but I would sort of have to tough it out a little more. It's possible though. I'm not going to rule it out.

You're currently on tour with 311 and you still have the Northwest to go but, so far, what is your favorite memory or moment from this summer tour?

Y'know, honestly, gosh man. When we play in Atlanta, it is as if we are playing to our... you would think we're from there. (Laughs). Not only from there, but that we just did everybody more than right and they can't thank us enough, y'know what I'm saying. And I'm not saying we don't have great fans from everywhere, but there's something about Atlanta--I don't know what it is--and it's always been that way, and man, it's like... I'm getting emotional now even talking about it. It's so special. It's beyond comprehension. You can't put your finger on it--and I'm glad you can't--because I don't even know if I would want to know what it is about that place or the people there, but there is something there that is palatable and very special to the band. Those Atlanta shows were killin' shows.  

Talking 'Cholo Soul' with S.A. Martinez of 311
S.A. with 311 at Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford, CT, 2014. Photo by Jena Ardell.

Can we talk about your stage stamina: how do you maintain such a high level of energy?

I don't know. It's a mental thing, I think, as well. We're exhausted out here--I'm not gonna lie--all of us, we're beat. (Laughs). You just get into this frame of mind and come showtime--bam!--I'm up. I want people to enjoy themselves.

Here's the thing you hear from people all the time: I've been looking forward to this show for months. That night means so much to people and that is what really inspires myself to give a great show night after night; because it's important for people not only to escape from life, but to life. We always say we want to get away from life, but I think seeing your favorite band--or something that means so much to you--that brings life out of you. It's life affirming, in a lot of ways. And I think that's important to remember: let's zoom out. There's a bigger picture to all of this. I think when we are gellin' and everyone's gellin'--the band, the fans--it's one of the greatest feelings. That's why we have the fans that we do. That's why I have the shows that I have. Even in the band, I may be like, 'Man, that was a fucking sweet-ass show!' and maybe Chad [Sexton of 311] will be like, 'No man, that show fucking sucked.' (Laughs). 'I hated that show.' Everyone's got their own perspective, even in the band. Some nights we're totally on the same page and other nights are more fractured.

I know fans are dying to know what 311 plans to do with the stockpile of unreleased outtakes...

We've talked about it. Again, it's a time thing. We have to make the time to do it. Y'know, right now we're touring... We almost need like a curator--even like a producer--whose one job is to go through all of it and be like, 'Here's my idea, guys...' because it takes time to really [package] how we want to present this. But, yeah, we have talked about it, and I'm not going to say with certainty that's in the foreseeable future, but in the future, for sure. It's going to happen. At some point, it will.

I just discovered your Instagram feed and I 'liked' the shit out of it this afternoon and I am sad there isn't more stuff on it.

I've had that thing for awhile and just in the past few months I thought, 'Y'know I really need to put more energy into this.' Y'know, it's funny: I signed up for it and then I'm like, 'How do these people know I'm on this thing?!' (Laughs). Because I didn't put it out there. I didn't tell anyone I was out there.

It's not like it's even your name.

It's not my name and I just wanted to kind of share photos with my family, like what everyone is on there for, really. And then, I guess word gets out, obviously. I'm not social media savvy. I just think it's interesting and I just want to give fans another perspective and to throw other tidbits their way that they might enjoy.

ETSD on a small level.

On a micro level, absolutely. When I first got on it, y'know, I was like 'OK, put a picture on, OK.' {Laughs). It seemed kind of corny. But you have that space to write a little bit, and now I see it differently. I think it's kind of really cool, to be honest.

Y'know what's so funny... it's not like we're The Beatles or Bieber or anything like that. It's weird how fans see us--and we appreciate it--y'know what I'm saying, but it boggles the mind at the same time.

You're somebody's James Brown.

That's right. (Laughs). I guess you're right. You don't think of it in those terms: you were someone's coming of age, a crucial time in someone's life, and your music was a part of that. It's super cool to have that deep impact and impression on people.

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