Forget about calling Douglas 'S.A.' Martinez of 311 "Count S.A." anymore; we're appointing him "Emperor S.A. of Modern Funkadelic Soul." We're not sure when — or if — Martinez sleeps; over the past year, he has been laying down tracks faster than Motown.
The 311/Ghostwolf/Los Stellarians singer is especially excited for the upcoming release of Los Stellarians' sophomore album, The Mas Chingon, because the music was derived from his most formative years: the '70s and '80s. Martinez painstakingly crafted the album with bandmate Ryan Siegel to emulate a late '70s throwback (and quintessential summer album) that begins as strong as it finishes and keeps the party moving with every funky beat in between.
During our interview, Martinez's enthusiasm subtly swayed from his usual humble graciousness about his life-long journey with music to a preservative protectiveness about what is important to him (his family, his health, music, expanding horizons, language).
We spoke with Martinez about The Mas Chingon; his short-lived stint as a bassist in an AC/DC cover band; and his love for disco.
The Mas Chingon will drop via iTunes and Bandcamp on June 3. You can listen to the first track, "Primo (Is That So)," after the jump.
OC Weekly (Jena Ardell): I know the handsome young man on the album cover is your father, but who are the other people?
S.A. Martinez: [My father's portrait] is the main focus of the piece. My sister had the [original] photo and my nephew [and Ghostwolf bandmate Evan Anderson] sent me a high-res scan of it. The woman in the lower right hand corner with the hat with the card in it is sort of depicted on a cousin of mine; aside from that, they are all people [artist] Eloy [Torrez] knows or has an association with.
I've known Eloy since '95. Initially, I wanted a wide representation of women on the cover — not necessarily Latinas — and then we talked about it and it just made sense to go in that direction and make it more rooted to give a sense of culture. [Eloy] sent over a sketch and the more I looked at it, I said "Man, do what you want to do." He's just great; he's so talented. He started painting in February and finished a few weeks ago; he's a quick worker. The [original oil] painting is 5 feet by 5 feet.
Where does that painting live?
Here, with me. (Laughs). I haven't hung it yet. I have a few of Eloy's paintings and I have one that is like 10 feet by 5-and-a-half feet. It's monster. It had to be re-stretched because it had some issues — it's from like '95 — and it's had its share of hits over the years: a few moves, and kids in the hallway (laughs), so it's taken some knocks and Eloy's going to retouch it. Myself and [bandmate] Ryan [Siegel] brought it to his studio in Downtown L.A and there's no freight elevator for this thing and I'm thinking 'You're kidding me,' so we humped it up the steps [to the top floor]. We took this thing up five flights. It was a chore.
The title The Mas Chingon has multiple meanings ("The Baddest," "The Shit," the "F-ing Greatest," etc.); which translation did you specifically have mind when you chose the title?
Y'know, just the expression itself. Yes, there's a translation that's identified with [the term], but just how it's said: it's the "Mas Chignon," y'know it's just that. Getting back to the culture thing, it's like living theatre: the music; how you want to experience it; it's a presentation. For me it's "top to bottom," it's "the best thing" — that is what I am trying to put forth: what I think the best should be and what that means and feels like. When it comes down to it, it's about having a good time and feeling good and that's what we tried to engender with the last record, Cholo Soul. We wanted to continue [that vibe] with this record, but with something more modern — production-wise — and more closely to what I identified with when I came of age.
You shared some very personal insight on Instagram about how you felt when your father pursued music and how you dreaded his unsettled life. Not that you're in any way unsettled, but what do you think is your daughters' perception of your musical calling and seeing you leave to tour?
Well, gosh. They're doing it too, but it's different. I'm going away and they know I'm going away and I'm coming back. (Laughs). We're talking the '70s; my father would go all out: polyester suits, super-loose collars, jewelry, cologne, like, 'this is show-time.' Some nights he'd come back, and a lot of nights he didn't, and if he did, he barely made it back. Sometimes he'd even come back from being in a fight. So when you're young and you see that, you don't necessarily want to emulate that. Those memories aren't the best memories and I learned from them and I tried to not be that person.
Do your daughters sometimes travel on tour with you?
Yeah, they come along when we can make the space for it. There are times when we have a few days off in a row — that's what we try to shoot for — or if we're traveling near where family lives. This summer we end in Omaha, so I'm having my wife and the girls come to Omaha for [that show] and we'll spend some time there.
Your daughter Nova has a brief cameo on this album and is credited on the song "Doors". Were her words randomly recorded or was she being told what to say?
No, she was being coached. (Laughs). Getting her to do it was like pulling teeth. I was trying to get my little, little one in there too but, like everything, it's about timing. I forget what was going on that day [we were recording], but she was just a little bit shy. There's always something distracting happening at that age. (Laughs). She's 5. Her thoughts were elsewhere.
The lyrics are distorted and worked into the music, so they're a little ambiguous. Can you share with us what she's saying?
She says: "Hey sailor," "open door," "come inside" — she says that twice — and at the end she says "pretty ladies"; that's the one thing you can't really hear what she's saying. You try to make [children] a part of [creating music]. Just having my daughters around music at all times is important. It's important to them and to my wife, especially. [My wife] wants [our kids] to see our shows; obviously, I do too. I think it's important for them to know what daddy does, and they do. They know.
Musician Ryan [Siegel] is a bit of an overachiever; he plays nearly every instrument on this album, right?
The only thing he didn't play were the horns. (Laughs). Ryan is mad-talented. Not only his playing ability, but his production skills too. In order to be a musician these days, you have to be this sort of… super-tool. (Laughs). You have to be able to put on many hats, and he can. He can play bass, drums, guitar, sing and he's great at mixing. We had Evan [Anderson] master the record and he's getting great at that. Everything was done in-house and thankfully we're able to do it with very few people and by not having much of a budget. There's no label — essentially I am the label. We really utilize everything we can. I think we do that pretty well.
One day I was outside doing some yard work, and Ryan had the studio doors open and I could hear [music] and I was like, 'Man, what is Ryan playing? It sounds pretty cool,' and after awhile I went down to the studio and asked what it was and it was just something he was messing with. I whipped out my phone and recorded this idea I had and Ryan sent me the track and I sat with it a bit and we recorded it that night. I wrote the vocals for it, we fleshed out the rest of the melodies and that was ["Primo (Is That So)"]. From that point, [Ryan] just went on a tear of instrumentals and just sent them my way and we assembled a record. We didn't really take that long. We could probably put out another Los Stellarians record — if we wanted to — within days after dropping this record.
You've included two cover songs, "Move For Me" [by Output] and "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" [by The Smiths]. Both fit seamlessly with the flow of the album, but they're pretty unique choices. Why did you choose these songs?
I just think "Move For Me" [originally by Output] is a great song. That era, the '80s, there's just so much that came out that people don't know about. I think that song is one of them. It's a banger. It moves people. It gets you to dance. It's just a killer song. The dude who wrote it [Jerome Prister] had a following in France, but not too many knew about him stateside, outside of the disco community. Not a lot of people give love to disco, per se, but man, you put that music on and it will still rock a party! That shit came out in late '70s, early '80s, but regardless, it's timeless. That is some good-ass music. (Laughs). And people dogged on it because really it was sort of a racial thing at the time, to be honest; it was crowding out the white rock genre, as far as radio play was concerned. Every genre has some cheese that comes with it and for disco, you had the Village People, and people got sick of Saturday Night Fever, so it just became this unexpected joke in ways.
[Then] I had this idea: We should make a lowriding ballad out of one of The Smiths' songs. How badass would that be? And then Ryan and I just started going back and forth. We actually had a few songs in mind and we [recorded] three Smiths' songs and chose one for the record. We took "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable" — which is more classically melancholic like a lot of The Smiths' music is — but we wanted to make it more of a danceable anthem, a reinterpretation that a lowrider would want to hear.
Will you release the other two Smiths' covers?
Oh yeah, at some point we'll put them out, maybe on the next record. Even with 311, we cover songs in our set and some of the most requested songs are cover songs, like Who's Got The Herb?" and "Love Song." With Los Stellarians, I want to make [covers] a part of every record — a song that means a lot to me that people might not know a lot about. I mean, heck, with a new generation of kids out there, a lot of them might not even know about The Smiths, and I think that's an important band to know about. Just to put that music out there and turn some people on to something else, I think that is very valuable.
The Smiths have a notoriously large Latino following. Why do you personally feel Latinos gravitate toward Morrissey?
There's obviously something in the music that is appealing. There's a lot of longing in the music, and there's a lot of longing in Latino culture. I was an altar boy for awhile growing up and I would serve the Spanish mass as well as the English mass, and during the Spanish mass, you had people basically confessing right there. In the Catholic religion, confession is a big part of it and during the Spanish mass, you'd have dudes fresh from Mexico coming up and trying to absolve themselves in front of everybody. I think in a way there is something akin to that in The Smiths' music and Morrissey: saying a lot, but not saying a lot. It's in their music. I think that's one of the big appeals.
In high school, all of my friends loved The Smiths. [We lived in a] working class neighborhood and we liked The Smiths and The Cure. I started out liking more stoner-esque bands — our term was "hessian," that's what meant "stoner" — those bands were like AC/DC, Black Sabbath, Uriah Heep: a bunch of bands that are still considered "blue collar." In fact, I played bass in junior high in essentially what was an AC/DC cover band. We were called Heist. We were just kids in seventh and eighth grade and we played a talent show and we had a gig lined up at a skating rink in the summer, in the early '80s and, for one reason or another, that gig fell apart and then I got turned onto The Smiths. The guitarist in the band, Dennis, he was my best friend and we would stay over each other's houses. we'd order Domino's pizza. [We'd] dream of becoming rockstars. Long story short, I got turned onto The Smiths and started listening to Prince, and Dennis thought this was completely foreign. You make lifestyle decisions at that stage in puberty where you [either] stay on the course [that you're on], or start wearing different clothes or just start wearing your clothes differently and making [different] musical decisions. I'll never forget I was in the hallway freshman year and we hadn't really talked that summer and I saw [Dennis] in the hall and he said, "Hey man, just wanted to let you know Dave is playing bass now." On one level, I was shocked and on another level I was relieved and on another level I just knew that was going to happen.
So you just got quietly kicked out of the band?
Quietly kicked out of the band. (Laughs). Totally. I totally remember where and when it was and being fine with it. And shortly after, I started another band with some friends that ended tragically, too, because our drummer got burned severely in a fire [right before] our first show. So that band ended. I've had some band traumas before 311 came to the rescue. (Laughs).
I'm assuming Dennis never became a rockstar. Is he pissed about that?
No. (Laughs). He's an undercover police officer outside of Omaha. We reconnected after our 10-year high school reunion and had a few laughs about it. It's screwy and a lot of factors go into making any band a success. Coming from Nebraska and [achieving success] is saying something because there aren't a lot of musical acts doing that.
There are a lot of shout-outs to different cities in track two, "Somebody to Love," and you've told me in the past that you specifically feel a lot of love from Atlanta when you're on tour with 311. Are these shout-outs directed toward the 311 community, the Lowrider community or neither?
I think [it's directed towards] just communities in general. Large populations are there for a reason. There is just a lot to love about a great city. I've had lots of great times in all of those places. Just in general, [the song is] saying "what you mean to me." There are other songs [out there] that [give shout-outs]; I think it's a device that resonates and I just wanted to shout-out.
So the album isn't specifically catered towards your 311 fan base or the Lowrider community?
It's more about being at that one party where every song that was played meant something. It was just the perfect playlist — that is what I'm trying to create with Los Stellarians –something you can put on from start to finish and you're just going to have a good time. And yeah, that's going to appeal to 311 fans because they love to have a good time (laughs), but this is a different genre than 311 and it speaks to music that I dig. It's something that means a lot to me. I'm a record guy; I love records. This is the type of music that is in my record collection.
There are a decent amount of slang words in the lyrics on this album. Can we assume you stay up-to-speed with Internet slang? Do you have a favorite slang word?
It's funny, with the Internet, you have all of these different words that pop up daily like "bricked" or "dedded." I love words — there's nothing better than to scroll through the Internet and pick up some different ways of saying things. Nothing comes to mind as a current word I love to say. [Slang] is endless; it's the evolution of language. People are always talking about how the Internet is bad for language, but, man, language is always evolving and people know that. There are people who just aren't open to flavor and variety and that is what makes the world exciting and fresh. I love incorporating slang or different terminology in whatever I'm doing creatively. Words should be fun.
As far as I'm concerned, you are the only person who can pull off using the word "bae." I can't stand that word, but it didn't bother me in "Somebody to Love." I actually liked it.
(Laughs). I'm kind of that way with "fam." I sort of dreaded whenever I would come across people using "fam." It's like, 'Dude, you're not that close to that person!' Quit saying that. And it's "family." (Laughs).
OK, are you ready for a few questions from fans? Jonathan Frank wants to know: Who has been your biggest influence with the music writing process on this album?
There's not one artist in particular… I like to think of The Mas Chingon as how the '80s would sound today, how I think that type of music should sound today — this uplifting vibe. If the '80s could be considered the inspiration — the artist formally known as the '80s — I would say that. (Laughs).
John Leslie would like to know why you don't go by "Count SA" anymore, but you actually have a line in "Jenny (Miss U Like Crazy)" where you refer to yourself as the "Count of Cosmic Dancing," so you do call yourself a Count…
Good catch there! (Laughs).
I actually don't know the story behind the origin of "Count SA." Is there a story there?
This is some 311 history here: The original Brodel Trevor anointed me "Count SA" for a silly reason. He's the grandson of Lord Buckley, who was a psychedelic M.C., so Trevor carries himself… well, he has this legit heritage to '60s counter culture, so there is this royal-ness to the original Brodel Trevor, if you will (laughs). So a fan had sent this [street] sign that said "County SA" way back in the day and [Trevor] was like, 'Hey man, let's just take off that "y", and we're going to call you "The Count"; you're the "Count SA."' That was that. That's why that started. We get these signs [sent to us] all the time — [like] 'Mile Marker 311' — that are everywhere. I can go in the garage and pull some out, I'm sure. Someone at one point in time found a "County SA" one and sent it our way. That's your 311 history of the day.
He just wanted to make you sound as royal as he was.
Exactly. I think he thought I was, so there you go. (Laughs).
Austin Lerman wants to know: What is your pre-show ritual or warmup?
We just played in Salt Lake City and it was the coldest-ass show we have played in ages. Rainy and cold. I typically warm up before every show but, for this show in particular, I did a lot of warming up. I got a sweat going before the show and kept it going and I was able to stave off any chill. It was cold, man. We had a stationary bike in our dressing room, so I got on that for a little bit. I did some push-ups, shadow boxing and imaginary jump roping, and I was good to go.
That is actually one of the questions! (Laughs) Adam Cantando wanted to know where you bought your invisible jump rope.
Yeah, where I bought my invisible light saber — same store. Yeah, I never travel without it. It's always there, man. (Laughs).
I recently watched a YouTube video where you did an insane amount of push-ups in a short amount of time and got up like it was nothing…
I try to do some pushups every day — at least 100. Y'know, to be active is so important to your health. It's so easy to not be active. When you're in your 20s, your metabolism — for men especially — is just kicking all sorts of ass. You really don't have to do a lot to stay in shape, but as you get older things start slowing down and [your metabolism] sort of reverses and you have to do more to stay in shape. There are so many bad options as far as diet is concerned, especially in our culture. It's all about eating the right foods and being active and staying healthy. I always say this: As long as I am healthy, I don't care what is going on, I've got it good, because if you don't have good health, man, life could be an uphill battle and that's something I don't ever really want to experience.
Meredith Newsome wants to know: Can we expect a Los Stellarians tour?
Yeah, we're talking about that. We'll probably start in California, obviously, after we put together a lineup that we feel good about. Hopefully this fall. There are a lot of horn arrangements here and there, so we're [probably] going to have to have an utility keyboardist.
Are there any particular things you ask for on the tour rider that you need before every show?
I'm pretty low-maintenance when it comes to the tour rider to the point where I'm like, 'Man, that's still on the tour rider?! I haven't touched that in years.' I'm trying to think…something that I need-need? Other than water? No. If there's a good taco around, yeah, I want that, but y'know. (Laughs).
Hard or soft shell?
Soft shell. That's where it's at.
When we last spoke, you mentioned you had almost completed another Ghostwolf album. What's the status of that album now?
Evan's actually here now and we've actually been working on that for the past couple of days. We have a lot completed. We had a lot leftover from the last album that we really never finished for whatever reason and we rekindled that whole fire. We're going to try to release a Ghostwolf record late fall.
For me, it's time of year; I'm a time-of-year record person. Growing up, I remember getting new music in the fall. I remember, for example, 10,000 Maniacs. It seemed like school would come around and maybe one of their records would drop. I sort of equate times of year to records. With the new Los Stellarians record, it was the same thing, like, this has got to be the summer record; this is people's summer album. I like Ghostwolf to be more of a fall/winter-type experience. I think there's more of a contemplative mood in a lot of the songs, so I want that to reflect the season.
That's interesting because both bands are mostly comprised of the same people, so really you have a spring/summer band and a fall/winter band.
(Laughs). That's so true. It is though. Evan has a large input into Ghostwolf and he has a certain palette that he puts together musically and it's so interesting. When we first started working together, it was the same sort of thing: The music felt like fall or winter.
OK, last question: Which song from The Mas Chingon are you most excited for people to hear?
I think "Jenny" is such a cool song. Y'know, it's a great song to cruise to and you don't hear a lot of those types of songs anymore; not a lot of those types of songs are being written, and that's kind of what we were going for, and I think it's fitting. I like that song a lot.
Did you name the song for your wife, Jennifer?
Yeah and it just worked. I don't think I ever used a name in a song, per se. It's a device used by musicians countless times, and I just felt like it worked.
Well, if you're going to choose a name, you better choose that one!
Yeah, right. (Laughs).
Martinez also revealed 311 is currently working on their 14th studio album.
311 is celebrating 25 years as a band by releasing a special box set on June 30. "Dude, the box set is killer," Martinez told us. "How it's packaged is so cool. Fans are going to trip because it's bad-ass. I'm not a box-set purist, but how we've complied it, it's like a treasure trove. Talk about an emotional roller coaster."
311 will be performing at the KAABOO Festival in Del Mar, CA, this summer.