by Rick Suchow –
“There’s a little Woodstock museum, and the actual Bethel Woods concert venue is next to it,” says Santana bassist Benny Rietveld, recalling a particularly eventful gig the band played there two nights earlier. “So you’re driving up and you see the actual Woodstock site, and it’s really cool, I had no idea. The original stage area is right there.” Considering the fact that four decades ago the tiny music festival-turned-movie called Woodstock rocketed Carlos Santana to fame, thanks in no small part to the guitarist’s now-legendary performance of “Soul Sacrifice”– an acid-influenced, hair-raising eight minutes that wowed the rain-drenched Woodstock crowd of nearly half a million– I asked Benny if the band felt any sense of the history during their most recent concert. “Well, Carlos said he got chills when he drove by it. I asked him if the chills were a flashback!” laughed Rietveld.
In the wake of fame that followed that 1969 event, Santana released a remarkable twelve albums in ten years, racking up record sales in the millions and rightfully earning their place among the top in the rock pantheon. Although the band’s arc of success would be a bit choppier throughout the eighties and nineties, Carlos maintained his status as one of music’s preeminent and most respected guitar masters. The Santana legacy took an interesting turn in 1999 with their release of the album Supernatural, which became the most honored recording in Grammy history with nine awards, selling nearly 30 million copies and spawning a Santana renaissance. The band’s momentum rolls on this month with their latest offering, Guitar Heaven: The Greatest Guitar Classics Of All Time, which like Supernatural and the group’s follow up albums Shaman and All That I Am, features a host of high-profile guest vocalists contributing.
(Image: © Erik Kabik/ Retna/ erikkabik.com)
No less significant an element in the band’s current resurgence is the presence of Rietveld, who has been Santana’s low-end man for the last 14 years. It is a position that had previously been filled by many stellar bassists including Alphonso Johnson, Stanley Clarke, and Doug Rauch, all of whom contributed to the band’s discography at various times. Although Benny joined forces with Carlos and company briefly in the early nineties, it wasn’t until 1997 that he made a full-time commitment, effectively closing the revolving door to the Santana bass chair. He has been there ever since.
Born of Indonesian descent, Benny’s life journey began with a road map of twists and turns. The Rietveld family fled from Indonesia just prior to his birth, fearing for their lives when the Sukarno regime took control of the region. As a result, Benny was born in Holland, a political asylum taking in refugees from Indonesia. The family stayed there for about a year, were processed to go to America, and relocated to Hawaii, where Benny would spend his entire youth. It was there that he discovered and developed his talent for music and the bass, eventually attending the University of Hawaii and picking up much playing experience in all genres of music. After moving to San Francisco in 1983, the bassist was hired for a tour by Sheila E. who at the time was riding high on the charts with the Prince-produced album The Glamorous Life. By most accounts, it was the Prince connection that eventually led Rietveld to what could be considered at the time the ultimate achievement for any musician: playing with the great Miles Davis. Miles, who had already turned his sights toward the rock and funk world more than a decade prior with his landmark Bitches Brew album, had just come off a five-year hiatus from performing and recording. Heavily influenced by the current musical trends pioneered by Prince and Michael Jackson– and perhaps motivated by the pop success of both– Miles asked Benny to join his band. It would be one of the last incarnations of the Miles Davis band; the trumpet legend passed away in 1991.
(Image: ©2008 by Marnie Ann Joyce)
Nowadays whether he’s slinging his Lakland 4-94 or MTD 5-string, Benny Rietveld is a veteran player whose groove runs deep, and though he can go chops for chops with the best, he has the taste to know what to play and what to leave out. As bassists we all go through that same learning curve and ultimately settle into our own voice on the instrument, but the fact that Benny’s own development has been accelerated under the tutelage of Miles Davis and Carlos Santana puts him in a class by himself. On a hot summer afternoon in New York City, I sat down to chat with Benny in a small cafe in the East Village. Although the cafe was his choice, the subject matter was mine, and I relished every moment of the hour-long conversation I had with Santana’s bass master.
Speaking of the Woodstock era, were you a fan of Santana back then?
Oh yeah. I was in Hawaii when that first album came out. I was in a band at the time and we were all big Santana fans, especially Carlos. We saw him at the Crater Festival, where he recorded the live album with Buddy Miles, I was at that gig. I was also there when he did the John McLaughlin Love Devotion Surrender tour, I saw that band in Hawaii.
Let’s talk about the new Santana album coming out in September, Guitar Heaven: The Greatest Guitar Classics Of All Time. What was the recording process like? Was any of it done live?
It was all done live, that’s the cool thing about this album. Not with the vocals, but the band, the tracks, on all of the songs actually. They’re all live tracks pretty much.
The same players on all the tunes?
Yeah, and we had a ton of fun. It’s a really different album, and you know, whatever happens with it is fine because all I know is that it was a lot of fun to play on. The two producers, Matt Serletic and Howard Benson, were good. Great bass sounds, we recorded some of the bass at Bay 7 in Burbank which is the studio that Howard has had for about five years, and that studio is so tricked out for guitar and bass, it’s just nuts. There’s almost every head imaginable and speaker configs of every sort. And any bass sound, any description, bang, patch it in. Howard’s staff keeps up the amps and they’re all tuned, it’s amazing, and the bass sounds are so fun to pick.
What basses were you playing?
I was playing my Lakland 4-string. When we first started I had a bunch of my basses on hand including my MTD 5-string. The Lakland seemed to fit better in the tracks for what we were trying to go for, it seemed to cut more. It has a little bit more of a rock and roll sound.
When you record do you generally go direct, or through an amp, or both?
I probably should be more picky but I’m not. If they get a good sound, if they know and understand the bass, and the type of song it is, I don’t mind as long as they know what they’re doing. I do like the direct / amp combination when they can get it right, but the engineer has to really know how to keep those things in phase, because we’re talking lower frequencies. If they don’t get it right I always end up not using the amp signal because it’s not quite matched up phase-wise, but when it does work it’s fantastic– the latest example being at Bay 7. I had a sub going on, and there were four channels of bass, one with some SansAmp distortion in it. Normally people can’t handle that, and that’s why they never do it. I’m like, you know, just one channel is fine. But those guys had it tuned and it was just really fat with a lot of great presence. They’re really good.
We rearranged a lot of stuff, for example “Back In Black”. AC/DC’s version of it is already a classic, you know, so for us to try and play it like them would be ridiculous. Nobody can play like that, you know? (laughs) Even Carlos said, “Why would we want to do that, they already did it really well.” That’s still one of my favorite rock albums, Back In Black, that’s definitive right there. Our version is actually pretty rockin‘ too, but in a totally different way. So we definitely did a lot of different things with some of the songs, but kept the flavor and added some newness, some modern bass sensibility to it. Some of the songs are close, but not really. “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin'” is sort of close.
You did George Harrison’s classic “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”.
(Image: ©2008 by Márta A.Császár)
Yeah, that’s different. That’s one of my favorites. India Arie sounds so amazing on that, and it gives me goose bumps every time I hear it. I’m blown away. I think by now it’s my personal favorite. It sounds great, that track is mixed so well, her singing is great, and Carlos’ playing is phenomenal on it.
Have you been playing any of the Guitar Heaven tunes live?
We’ve been playing “Sunshine Of Your Love” since we recorded it.
How were the grooves on the album worked out, did you discuss them with drummer Dennis Chambers?
A lot of it was Matt’s direction. We’d say, ok how about this, or what if I left this note out, or whatever, and he’d suggest something and I’d try it. It was pretty organic, it was a really good mix. Sometimes he’d say, well let’s just see what happens. So basically it was Carlos, Matt, me and Dennis as far as working out the rhythm tracks.
In general, how much input does Carlos have on what you play? Does he give you free reign with your parts?
Sometimes he is very specific, and sometimes he just really wants a certain vibe. Every now and then he’ll give me certain actual note choices, you know, or whatever. But generally, he lets me go. I know fairly well now what he needs, what he wants for his vibe, and so he just lets me do stuff, and it’s great. As long as it keeps within the vision of that song and the feel it’s supposed to have, because one thing Carlos is very particular about is feel. He’s highly sensitive to feel things, that stuff you can’t write down. He’s very aware of when something is off feel-wise. He doesn’t even mind if we screw up an intro or some arrangement type thing, as long as the groove and feel is there, because that’s what gets people off. And actually those brain farts are funny anyway, I laugh, you know. But yeah, he wants the feel and it’s very specific, so it’s been great for me, you really have to be on your toes all the time.
How has Carlos influenced you, both musically and spiritually?
Carlos is really an amazing character. First of all he’s like a legend, and pretty much unique in the pop music pantheon, in all of rock history basically. And he’s really tried hard not to become a victim of having that demigod status. I know you’ve probably talked with some stars, and it’s not like they even mean to be, but as a product of being idolized for so long they’re a little bit off sometimes, you know? Because there’s no escaping some affectation, their life is totally different and I get that. But Carlos has made an amazing effort to keep his equilibrium as far as the human element goes, he’s definitely strived to maintain a balance. He’s very approachable, very transparent, and he has helped me in terms of being a better human being actually. He’s taught me a lot of things about music, about feel, about how to capture a feel and then maintain it, simply by virtue of being near his playing. Sometimes he’ll want something from the band and he’ll get a little frustrated, and whereas most guys in a band would just say it’s cool, it’s how we play and it’s fine, I already got the whole thing from Miles that you don’t fool around at all, and to always be totally present and play like it’s the first gig ever. And Carlos has been an extension of that Miles thing, in all walks of life. Even when we’re playing a big huge festival, you play like you’re in the basement, like you’re back in your high school days. Play like that, you know, that’s what he wants. Sometimes all the accuracy and all the chops that we’ve acquired get called into service for that instead of showing off all the time.
Playing with discipline.
The discipline, yeah. And it’s amazing, he’s clearly gotten us to stay loose, but be incredibly self-disciplined.
That’s a talent in and of itself.
Oh man, yeah. Exactly. And because I’d come from Miles’ band, I sort of got where Carlos was going with this. Even before Miles, in fact. One of my first musical mentors was my high school band teacher Henry Miyamura, and under his tutelage we had the best high school band in Hawaii all the time, every year. One of his things was to rehearse a couple of pieces all semester for the winter-spring concert, and then like a couple of weeks before the concert he’d introduce another piece. And I’d ask him, “Aren’t you worried about adding a new piece that nobody knows?”, but he’d say, “Yes, but it’s better to keep the band on its toes.” Instead of being too complacent, so that you have that fire, and so even with him I kind of got that. It has to be like it’s gonna fall apart.
Another great thing Miyamura told me was when I had a fusion band playing all this chopsy stuff, I was like 18 years old or something. He didn’t know anything about jazz whatsoever, he just enjoyed music. He saw us play, and had never heard me play bass before because I’d been playing tenor sax and percussion in the school band. He said to me, “You’re pretty good on that Fender bass, you have the rhythm down good, but sometimes the notes aren’t really there.” What he was saying was that I was just playing fast and there was no substance there, that was his way of saying it.
Were you from a musical family?
No, not really. My mom played a little piano.
What was your first bass?
My first electric bass was a Hagstrom. It’s the one that had the plastic body and wood on the other side, but a plastic top. At least it seemed like plastic, or fiberglass, and the back was like Naugahyde. And to make that bass even weirder, the guy that I bought it from was some dope fiend, you know, and he had put wallpaper on it. He basically wallpapered it with his black and white felt wallpaper! (laughs) It was nuts. And it had black nylon strings. At the time I was just getting into Yes and a lot of progressive rock– I was a prog rock fan, so that’s a big dirty secret. And those guys were all using roundwounds, Rotosound had just come out with roundwound strings. I saw them at the local music store and they were incredibly expensive. So I noticed that on the ends of my nylon strings, where the nylon stopped, the strings actually looked kind of roundwound to me, so I was like, ahh! I scraped all the nylon off the strings with a razor blade! (laughs) It was a little bit laborious, but I was like wow, I’ve got round wound strings! But only two of them actually had that sound, the other two were kind of dead.
Better than having to buy them from the store I guess.
Well, at the time I was only fourteen, so I didn’t have enough money.
So let’s fast-forward a few years. You’re playing in Hawaii with a lot of jazz cats, you attend the University of Hawaii, and then you’re playing with Sheila E. before finally joining Miles’ band. What would you say prepared you the most for playing with Miles?
I don’t know. I don’t know if anything prepared me quite frankly. Maybe that I played mostly jazz standards live, I was playing upright bass.
Miles saw you play with Sheila E.?
Well, as far as how I got the gig, this is the story as I know it: Apparently Darryl Jones was going to leave, Miles was looking for another bass player, and at the time he was really enamored of the whole Prince vibe. So he wanted somebody from that camp, I guess. Alan Leeds, who was Prince’s tour manager at the time, called me and said “Hey, you wanna play with Miles Davis?” I thought it was a joke. Apparently Sheila and Prince had recommended me to Miles, that’s what I heard, but you’d have to talk to Alan as to how that actually went down. So he gave me Gordon Meltzer’s number, who was Miles’ manager at the time, and I called him up and he puts Miles on the phone. At that point I was pretty much in shock.
For me it was a big eye-opener as to how to approach the bass and how to approach music, because I came from an entirely different background.
Entirely different than Miles?
Than most of my favorite bass players. I came from Hawaii where life was totally different. I didn’t come from Chicago or Philly, you know, so in addition to the culture being totally different, there wasn’t a lot of seeing great bass players or hearing great live music, because I was stuck out in the middle of the Pacific ocean and didn’t get to see a lot. In New York you see masters all the time, you kind of find out through osmosis how they do this or do that. There was none of that in Hawaii. So I was just taking things off of records and kind of focusing on the wrong things like the chops and all the solo stuff. I always say I relearned the music in Miles’ band because that was the first time I realized that this is how you’re supposed to be playing music. You’re supposed to be present at every moment, and your first job is to create the feel. And it was hard for me.
Did Miles ever verbalize to you at any point what he specifically wanted you to do?
Once he said, “You have to put a little lift on it.” And like anybody who played with him will tell you, Miles would say things and we were, like, what? What did he mean? (laughs) It often was like that. But he did say once, in one part, to put a little lift in it. But that was the only thing he actually verbalized. He would do more physical things, like if it wasn’t feeling right he would look pained.
At anybody in general, I think all of us. Then sometimes he would tap his foot on the beat and point to his foot at the same time. And that kind of gave me this sense that he wants me to just be a little bit more in the pocket or something, you know.
Was it intimidating?
Well at first I was freaked out, I was like oh my god, what if I don’t well? And a friend of mine, Wayne Wallace, said to me, “Hey, if you get fired at least you can say you got fired by Miles Davis.” And for some reason that really worked and it helped. He said just do the best you can do, and so I kind of went in and said fuck it, if he doesn’t like me then he doesn’t like me. And that totally worked. Because one thing that I learned after this was that he totally didn’t like anybody kowtowing to him in the least. Oh man, he hated that, it really bugged him, that butt kissing. So it was actually a good thing that I just came in and said, well that’s me, instead of like “hey is this ok?” So he was totally fine with me, and he was funny, and I learned a lot. Ricky Wellman helped me a lot too in that band.
Yeah, because he was trying to tell me about feel, trying to get me to have a little bit more of a good low end happening. And with Ricky that backbeat was so intense, plus his go-go feel in that Baltimore kind of sound was so definitive, so just playing with him constantly night after night was like, ok, that’s kind of how you do it. Again, it’s osmosis. Especially in terms of feel, in terms of any kind of rhythmic music, whether it’s Afro-Cuban or anything dance oriented where the feel is very important, you can’t learn that stuff from a book. You have to play with those guys often. For example I knew how to play a tumbao but I couldn’t do it with any real conviction until I joined Santana and was playing with Armando Peraza. When you play with someone like that, who has the history there, and you feel where the stretching thing is and where the compressing thing is within a bar, or within 2 beats, you learn by osmosis. You can’t write it down, if you notate it you’re going to have a lot of weird little symbols.
If there was one lesson you learned from your time with Miles that you could pass along to other musicians, what would it be?
Be yourself and be present. It’s one of those things that seems simple, but it’s hard to do.
Over the years, have you changed your concept of what you consider the perfect bass sound to be?
I think I have a better idea now. I think a lot of people– myself included– probably go around trying to find a good sound and I think as you grow up you kind of learn to zero in on what it is you like. And basically it doesn’t change much, because bass is a functional instrument. It’s really a backbone of most types of music, so generally a good bass sound is going to be a bottom fundamental and, you know, that’s about it. It’s not rocket science but it is incredibly elusive, and you’re constantly trying things like maybe this is a better place to play on this string, or maybe this particular amp combination is better for what I like, but at the end of the day you’re supposed to be there filling in that sort of low to midrange, and moving, driving the music, making people dance basically. If you’re in another register you’re just in the way of other people musically (laughs).
Can you envision a time where you would leave Santana to do your own musical thing, or are you settled in and happy with this gig?
Actually, this is one of the best gigs in the world. First of all it’s a good paying gig and it’s with someone who is a legend. But not only is he a legend, but he’s someone who allows us to play and he actually wants us to play. Most of the time with other gigs, you’re pretty much resigned to punching a clock and playing the same thing every night basically. And that’s a good gig too, but my bass gig is unique in that I get to play, you know, really play hard, and I get to play with the best drummers in the world. I’ve played with Rodney Holmes, El Negro Hernandez, Steve Smith and now Dennis Chambers and so this is stupid great actually. And Carlos is a totally cool guy, you know what I mean? It’s the perfect gig. I hate to say that, maybe I should knock on wood because I don’t want to jinx it or anything. But I mean, I’ve won Grammys, gotten decent pay, played with nothing but really good people, played really prestigious gigs, and the recordings are good. Any other stuff is going to be my own music, and my personal musical tastes don’t run very commercial so it’s not like I’m going to make a killing off of my stuff. So in terms of reality I would rather support my family and myself doing this gig, and my own music is going to be for fun
The Las Vegas show is nice. It’s a little bit more hits-oriented, but we still do all kinds of crazy jam things in the middle, just shorter. And it’s a great room, it sounds great on stage and in the house. The low end is tight. It’s a pleasure to play in there and it allows us to really have fun. And the people really dig it.
What’s your current rig?
Aguilar. They’ve been great, they just have a feel for bass sound. They don’t do anything else but bass sounds, and it kind of shows. I’ve been with them for a while, and their stuff just sounds good. I don’t have to do a lot, they have it voiced, they understand the problems that have to be solved. It’s always a full low end and they understand the different types of bass playing, which is important.
How many cabinets are you playing with?
Right now I’m playing with two 4 x10’s and two 1 x15 cabinets. And this is the other thing with the Carlos gig, is that he really does want an onstage vibe. It’s not like it’s all in-ears and the onstage sound doesn’t matter. He still plays off of feel and vibes so I actually have to have a decent rig. I’m also using my Line 6 M13 pedal now, it’s like all their stompboxes in one programmable foot switch. It’s perfect, it’s really great, and quiet. I’m also using a Dunlop Bass Wah, which is fantastic.
What are the current projects you’re doing other than Santana?
I’m working on a second instructional video. The first is purely an instructional, bare bones, typical “inarticulate musician talking about things they never even think about” video. I think I look kind of dorky in it, but it just came out, it’s on Hot Licks. This second video is more of a performance piece. I took Dennis and some other musicians, with six cameras, an HD shoot at Skywalker Ranch, and we recorded seven songs live and filmed at the same time. It looks beautiful. The guy that directed that shoot, or part of it, was Jon Fine, who did the Bill Withers documentary and Herbie Hancock’s Possibilities. Great guy, great eye. And in between the songs I’m going to have interviews with people on the street and other musicians — not bass players– asking about what they think bass is and what the bass means to them.
I’m also looking into doing more film scoring, and also directing films, music films. That’s a passion of mine. It’s an interesting transitional time because I realize that life is changing and music is changing. You can’t really be a studio guy anymore, there’s no such thing, or hardly at all. For me it’s exhilarating, because with filmmaking it’s like I’m starting a whole new field. And bass playing for me now is just this passion, it’s been whittled down to pure passion, instead of that struggle– and you have to do it, you have to go through that struggle in anything—but now it’s interesting because it’s really just about the passion of it all.
Which is really the ultimate goal anyway.
I know! You go around just to get back.
Yeah, but you have to go through that circle. It’s pretty cool, I mean I’m incredibly lucky. I’m incredibly blessed. But at the same time, you still have to keep moving. I mean I could, if I wanted to, just move to Hawaii and play in Santana’s band, and be done with it and make a decent living. But then you just get atrophied, you know, and as human beings we have to keep moving like sharks. That’s how we remain vital. It’s challenging to do something totally crazy and new, but that you also have passion for.
Any advice for bassists?
Be present, be yourself and have fun, because if it’s not fun it’s not worth doing. Play with people that are better than you always, as much as possible, because that’s how you get your ass kicked, and that’s how you learn. If you’re not challenged you’re just not going to get better. People ask me how do I get this gig, how do I get that gig, how do you learn this, how do you learn that? Just keep playing with guys that are really good, because they’ll teach you.
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