"My father is from Española, but I grew up in Los Lunas and I got out at 17 and landed in Austin for the last 11 years," musician Zay Santos says. "I don't want to say I was spinning my wheels out there, but you can definitely get trapped in the whole Austin runaround."
Santos has been living back in New Mexico for a year this month, which might explain why not a lot of people know him just yet. But you probably will soon, because I promise he does the kind of stuff this town likes—bluesy rock in the vein of Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan, but maybe a little dirtier than either—and, at 31, he's young, too.
Santos is one of those self-taught kind of guitarists, developing his own methods by studying a chord chart when he was just out of high school and, he says, by playing along with the radio (a time-honored tradition for guitar newbies). "If I could play that same chord I was hearing, I knew I was doing alright," he says with a laugh. "I just put my ear to any style out there I could."
From there, it was a matter of transferring his already-present love of the written word into lyric form, a move that he says was easy since he already wrote a lot of poetry. Musically, however, he gravitated toward the rock side of blues. "I always liked the more soulful stuff, musically," Santos says. "I mean, I jammed out to Green Day, and I still do, but I always liked the influence of older people showing me what they liked, and that meant guitar stuff from the '70s."
By the time he got to Austin in 2006, Santos was a different person. He'd hone his skills by grinding often, and by sitting in as a session musician or booking and producing other artists to establish himself as a member of the community. And to learn. "You start to gain this maturity, which was lacking for me early on," he says. "My biggest advice for people when they ask how they might get better? You listen."
Of course, before he got better or matured, Santos would record an EP in 2009. "It was not good. It was very amateur and I just wasn't ready," he says. "It was back to the drawing board, writing better songs, feeling comfortable with what I'm putting out, which was professionally tough for me at first—I'm writing from the depths of myself—but now I'm feeling comfortable and gaining confidence."
This meant putting a band together featuring members like Albuquerque drummer Mo Roberts and young Santa Fe blues rock shredder Jake Montiel, but also enlisting seasoned musician-producer Jono Manson and his Kitchen Sink Studios for help with Santos' upcoming full-length debut. There's no title yet, and no specific release window; they're really only recording two songs at a time, Santos says, because this is an era of singles. "When was the last time you went to a store, not a concert, and bought an album?" he asks—and rightly so.
Next steps would obviously include making a name for himself in Santa Fe, a trick that's not always easy to accomplish for a newcomer. "I'm a firm believer that I won't get anywhere if I'm not a part of the community," Santos says, "but at the same time, I'm totally cool with people just showing up to my shows so long as I get out there and grind and enjoy what I'm doing."
And he's worth it. Lord knows I've trashed my fair share of wanky blues rock bands before (and definitely will again), but Santos has a certain something that not only sounds tight as hell, but somehow bridges a gap between the roots of blues rock and a younger slant without resorting to endlessly masturbatory guitar solo tomfoolery. If you don't believe me, that's fine—just pop by his El Farol show this Friday night. And then, someone please throw him on an opening slot for something (I'm looking at you, Jamie Lenfestey and AMP Concerts). If nothing else, I just kinda want to see how this plays out.
8:30 pm Friday March 9. $5.
808 Canyon Road,