Cosmic Carlos

Carlos Santana on 'Supernatural,' meditation and why he compares himself to a great waiter

Carlos Santana backstage at the 41st Annual Grammy Awards, February 25th, 1999. Credit: Ron Wolfson/Getty

One of the greatest guitar stylists of the twentieth century — and a pioneer of world music — has staged a remarkable artistic and commercial comeback with his new album, Supernatural. The album, his debut for Arista, finds Carlos Santana collaborating with a new generation of artists, including Dave Matthews, Ever-last, Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean, Mana and, on his current hit, "Smooth," Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20. Yet Santana has bigger things on his mind — lots of them — as he sits in the conference room of his office in an industrial stretch of San Rafael, California.

Among other things, Santana dreams of an Excellence Network — a perpetual celebration of non-evil ways. "I invite everybody who has deep pockets to create a brand-new TV channel, like ABC, NBC, CBS, that people don't have to pay to look at," Santana proposes this morning. "Twenty-four hours a day. You show Jesse Owens when he beat Hitler in Berlin. You show Bob Dylan, Curtis Mayfield and Smokey Robinson — great poets of the twentieth century — and Billie Jean King and Steffi Graf. Just show the excellence and the beauty. This would accelerate the world to a place beyond the corruption of politics and the corruption of religion. That's what I want. That's why I did this CD."

Tomorrow, Santana takes off on a Hawaiian vacation with his family before heading back on the road — taking time off is one way he's keeping centered in the middle of all the renewed attention. Does he feel pulled in a million directions now?

"We stick to our agenda of four weeks of work, four weeks at home, five weeks of work, five weeks at home," Santana explains. "I don't care what they dangle in front of me. As long as everything's balanced, there are still bubbles in you. You are not flat. You are still effervescent."

How do you feel about all the talk in the media recently about how Latin culture is all the rage?
I view it as a positive thing. Because of that, the industry and the system will learn to accept the Spanish-speaking people, from California all the way to New York. We have a right to be looked at with respect, the same way you look at Irish and Italian and everybody else. In California, we pay $5,800 per student per year. We pay $27,000 per inmate. I am quoting you dead-on, serious numbers. So we like to see Spanish-speaking people, from Mexico all the way to Miami and Spain, presented in movies as other than pimps, dope dealers, murderers or prostitutes. But the Latin-explosion thing, a lot of it is media hype: "We don't have Clinton caught in his zipper, so we need something. Let's exploit this." They are into exploiting; I am into exploring. From the beginning, Santana has proved we can sell African music, which is what I play. People are going crazy with the Latin frenzy and the Spanish frenzy, but it is really African music that Ricky Martin is playing and Jennifer Lopez is playing and I'm playing.

Clive Davis signed you to Columbia Records in the Sixties, and now he's brought you to Arista. In the three decades between your professional relationships, were the two of you in contact a lot?
No. None. Not until '95, when I was on the road with Jeff Beck. I was asked to do a sound-bite video and acknowledge Davis' contribution to the arts. I said he and Bill Graham were generals commanding a new wave onto the radio. Because of Clive Davis, there was Janis Joplin, Santana, Chicago. Mr. Clive Davis believed that quality and quantity can go together. Because of him, Miles Davis was able to do Bitches Brew, because he convinced him to come to the Fillmore and see how the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers could reach the youngsters with a new dimension of music that wasn't shallow bubblegum. There's good bubblegum and there's shallow bubble gum. For me, bubblegum is still Nat King Cole and "Mona Lisa." It's pop music that is forever. Then there's shallow bubblegum — the flavor of the month. Three years from now, who cares?

Had there ever been a falling out between you and Clive?
No, no. I received instructions in my meditations to be patient, gracious and grateful. I know it sounds New Age and mumbo jumbo, but in my meditation, this entity — which is called Methatron — he said, "We want to hook you back to the radio-airwave frequency. We want you to reach junior high schools, high schools and universities. Once you reach them — because we are going to connect you with the best artist of the day — then we want you to present them a new menu. Let them know that they are themselves, multidimensional spirits with enormous possibilities and opportunities. We want you to present them with a new form of existence that transcends religion, politics or the modus operandi of education today" — which is like, you buy something, you sell it for more. That's economics. This country was founded on a Bible in one hand and guns in the other. We have genocide because we've killed a lot of people on this planet, on both perimeters, for the last 2,000 years. The worst wars in this planet have been religious wars.

So this strategy wasn't coming from the A&R department but from some spiritual presence?
Yeah. It's sort of like the Blues Brothers: It is a mission from God — but it's not a cartoon, like that movie. I know it sounds very New Age and far out, but that's my frequency. That's why they call me Cosmic Carlos. I feel really, really grateful, because I am receiving messages on e-mail from seven-year-olds, six-year-olds, seventy-three-year-olds, and they are saying, "Hey, man, we're getting it."

Were you ever afraid you might be pushed to do something purely for commercial reasons?
No, I wasn't afraid, because when I sat down with Mr. Clive Davis at his bungalow in Beverly Hills, he said, "I would never ask you to do anything crass. I'm not a crass person, anyway," and I believed him. I don't get caught up in commercial success. I am a person, first, second and last. Somewhere between there I happen to play the guitar, and if the people like it, great. I equate myself with some great waiter: My napkin is tucked, my apron is clean, the water is pure, and the flowers are fresh.

And what you're serving is always tasty.
Yeah, exactly. I hope you're hungry. If you're not, no problem. I'm going to commit suicide because people don't like me? I have seen a lot of musicians go through that, and it's really pathetic.

I wonder if, at fifty-two, you think about the fact that unlike so many of your own favorites — like Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix — you have a chance at a second act.
Believe me, I thought about it really deeply and by meditation. I am really grateful. One part of me is a little scared, because I have been enjoying my cake and eating it, too. I get to play, walk down the street, and nobody gets in my face. I don't need bodyguards and stuff like that. However, now it is going to start changing, because some people may like you and somebody may hate you for your views. See, my views are very, very radical. When I say, "Put the Bible aside and put the guns aside," that is threatening to a lot of people, you know. Before, I could just play the guitar and just shut up, like Frank Zappa said to.

Are you finding that all of a sudden your kids' friends are responding to you in a different way?
I went to pick up my daughter the other day in her school, and this little girl looked at me and looks at my daughter and goes, "Hey, is your father famous, or what?" Angelica is just like, "It's OK, Dad." I am really proud of my kids, man, because they're not swellheaded kids. The kids turned me on to all the new music and the people on the record. Truly, my kids are my main teachers now.

I heard a rumor that the album was going to include a collaboration with Mick Jagger.
Mick Jagger and Dave Stewart. They had this song called "Blind Leading the Blind," which sounds like a thousand percent Santana. What happened was, I was invited to play for [Internet entrepreneur] Paul Allen in Venice. Quincy Jones was there, and John McEnroe and Dave Stewart, and Dave heard that we were doing an album, so he wanted to submit a song. It sounded like Santana 1973. Mick Jagger had the beautiful lyrics on it. It didn't work out, because I don't think Mick wanted to sing it, or he wanted somebody else to change the lyrics. It almost went to John Popper. On the other hand, we felt the song was a little too Seventies.

Supernatural is not a retro album.
I didn't want Santana to be a Seventies jukebox. I want to be relevant today — or, as Wayne Shorter would say, "Completely new, totally familiar."

Has Prince ever spoken with you about your influence on him?
Yeah. I just played with him in Minneapolis about two, three weeks ago, and he was very gracious. I wanted to say something to him, but I didn't, so I am going to say it now: I believe that if the Artist would find the time to do an album with Michael Jackson, put the ego aside, put the personalities aside and, as two supreme entertainer-musicians, collaborate on song for song, note for note, dance for dance — this would be amazing, a whole new dimension of creativity. So this is an invitation for him and Michael Jackson, and for Quincy Jones to produce it and create something we are all ready for.

And you'd be willing to add a guitar solo?
I'll be the roadie.

How do you see the music business changing since you started?
It is still better than "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?" and the Fifties with Fabian and all that cute, plastic stuff. At least now we have bands that want to be like the Doors, which is like Pearl Jam. You have bands that want to be like the Police, which is like Mana. You have Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Jonny Lang, who kind of want to be like Stevie Ray [Vaughan] and Jimi Hendrix. The bad things is when the companies are run by heartless, shallow people who want more Kids on the Block, which don't really last that long. It's OK; they are just exploiting the pimple generation. Out of that you might get a Ricky Martin, who can act, who can sing. He understands the industry. I'm sure in time he will be mature enough to say, "OK" — like Frank Sinatra — "it is time to put that aside; now really, really sing." Cute and clever is great. There's a market for it, but don't forget that quality and quantity can exist together in America. America is a teenager that refuses to grow up.