idobi managing editor Eleanor Grace checked in with Nick Santino at the Toronto date of this summer’s Vans Warped Tour to talk about going solo, his former band A Rocket To The Moon’s beginnings and eventual end, the importance of fan connection, and much more. Read on below!
So you’ve just recently made the transition to going solo. I know that A Rocket To The Moon started as a solo project and then expanded into a band, so why decide to go under your own name rather than go back to Rocket being your own thing?
Well, when I started [Rocket], it was almost like an experiment. I was like, “Oh, I’ll put some songs online,” and it kinda got some traction. I was young, and I was like, “Hey, let’s put a band together and make it a band if I’m gonna do this.” So we did it. Over time, just writing all the time, I would always write on my own, stuff that wouldn’t really fit Rocket’s sound. So when Rocket decided to call it quits and whatever last summer, I was just like, “Well, now I’ll really do the solo thing.” I’m moreso into the singer-songwriter music now than I was when I was 18. I was listening to the full-band stuff when I was 18; now I’m into Ryan Adams, Tom Petty, Butch Walker, all that kinda stuff. Stuff that I look up to and I’m like, “I wanna be like those guys.”
Mentioning the early Rocket days, you really came up during the heyday of the MySpace bedroom pop era. Looking back on that now and on how everything has evolved, what are your thoughts on where digital music is now?
I owe everything with where I am now to all that stuff. It may sound stupid to the veterans that are like, “Oh, you gotta get in a van and do it,” but it’s like, I got in a van and did it for seven years, you know what I mean? Just because I had a MySpace doesn’t mean anything. People liked my music and that’s how I got discovered. Labels hit us up and then Johnny [Minardi], who signed me to Fueled By Ramen, he found me because he was on MySpace. Just because you have a MySpace doesn’t mean major labels aren’t looking for that stuff. That was probably the easiest thing for them to do–just jump on MySpace. Even now, Facebook’s kinda like that. Bands have Facebooks, Twitters and all that–where do you think these people go to look for music nowadays now that digital music is everything? It’s like, that’s what it is now. The days of like, sending a mixtape to an address at a record label…probably still happens, but they don’t listen to those, I bet. It’d be easier to just go on a website.
I bet eventually we’ll get to the point where everything is so digital that if you do send in a physical copy, they’re like, “Woah, this is the first CD I’ve seen in two months!”
I did that though! I put together probably fifteen different packages in 2006 or 2007 with crappy Rocket demos on it and a big like, almost binder that I printed out a bunch of times and put in all these envelopes, and I mailed them to all these labels and found their addresses and stuff. I thought that was how it was done. I mean, I don’t think I heard anything back from any of them…I heard back from Fueled By Ramen, which was awesome. Fueled By Ramen was like, my “reach school” when you’re applying to college or something. I never heard anything back on the physical side, but I heard back because he found my MySpace. So it was cool–it worked out.
What would you say is the best music discovery tool online now that the MySpace days are over?
I think it’s kind of ironic cause I started with the internet thing, Myspace and all that. I am so out of touch with the internet now. It’s ridiculous. Like, I feel like my dad or something. I use Instagram and I use Twitter and that’s all I know how to do. YouTube is like Chinese to me–I don’t understand it at all. And I don’t even really know how to use Facebook. I have one and I just use it for my mom to keep in touch with me on tour. Like, that’s it. So I guess I would say Twitter…but you can’t listen to music on Twitter. We use Spotify a lot because you can go on there and hit “similar artists”–like, you go on and type in “Tom Petty” and then you go down and it’ll tell you similar stuff. I do that a lot–that’s how I find new music a lot.
What are some of your latest musical discoveries?
This group called The War On Drugs. It’s kind of like an 80’s like, really washed out, trippy version of like, some sort of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. It’s really hard to explain, but it’s awesome. This dude Corey Brandon that I know, he’s putting out a new record. He’s really cool–he’s just like southern rock, kinda folk stuff. Ryan Adams all the time–we always put on Ryan Adams.
You just put out your debut solo record. Congrats, first off! The response looks like it’s been amazing so far–has it been everything you hoped for?
Yeah! I don’t think I’ve seen anything bad, which is cool, besides like the, “I miss Rocket!” stuff. But that’s not really a negative thing. It’s like, if you miss Rocket, check this record out cause you might like it. Some of the songs on there kinda pick up where we left off. So yeah, so far it’s awesome.
What are some of the biggest lessons you learned from your early days in music and doing things independently that you’re bringing to the table now?
I think as I’m getting older–I’ll be 26 at the end of this month–it’s really easy to fall into like, the whole negative thing while being on tour. “Oh, there’s nobody at my show, no one likes me,” that kind of thing. And I think in order to keep it entertaining for yourself and keep doing it and want to keep doing it and have that drive, you just stay positive through the whole thing. Like, you’re gonna have good days, you’re gonna have bad days, but you’re making music for a living and you’re travelling around the world. And it’s like, if ten people are at your show listening to you play a song with your acoustic, those are ten people that are sitting there listening to you play with your acoustic, you know? For me, it doesn’t matter if I’m playing in this amphitheatre or if I’m playing in someone’s bedroom. I’m still doing what I want to be doing. Or else I could be working at like, a fast food restaurant somewhere. Whether the dream is in front of ten people or ten thousand, it’s still the dream. So I think it’s just staying positive and actually having motivation to keep doing it.
What’s been the hardest thing for you to stay positive through?
Well, we had some turnarounds with our label at the end of Rocket, and it was just hard to see eye to eye. We had a lot of people changing over there, new people coming in that didn’t know who our band was, so they were just like, “Yeah, they’re not really a priority. We’ll focus on these bands.” And then we’re just sitting there. It feels like they don’t look at you as people–they look at you as moneymakers. And it’s like, we weren’t making the money. Everybody in the band, we sat home for a year all sinking into depression, like, “What the hell are we doing? I don’t have any money in my bank account.” I think Andrew [Cook, ARTTM drummer] even started working at a bar for a while. Like, that’s not the dream [laughs]. And so it was just frustrating. Now I’m with 8123 and it’s fucking awesome. It’s and everything that I wished you could do in the music industry, and we are doing it, and The Maine’s doing the same thing. Nobody can really tell you, “No, you can’t do that. You can’t release an EP–you just released a full-length.” It’s like, I can do that now. We played in Brazil together, me and The Maine, and one of the days we recorded my set–they came out and played three songs with me, so I played three songs acoustic, they came out as my band, and then they left and I played one last song, and we recorded that. And then like a week before Big Skies came out, Tim [Kirch], my manager, hits me up and he’s like, “Hey, we’re gonna release the live show from Sao Paulo tonight at midnight for free, you think that’s cool?” And I’m like, “Fuck yeah, that’s cool. The record’s coming out next week; this will hype it up.” And I think he said we got like 700 downloads the first night. And that’s the kind of thing that’s cool. A label would be like, “Oh, we have to approve this by a hundred people,” and then it would just get so lost that people would forget about it and it would disappear, and then you’d be like, “Hey, weren’t we supposed to release something?” [laughs] Like, we went through that so many times. Now it’s like, everybody is so excited and on board to do anything. The Maine dudes do crazy stuff all the time, unexpected, and I think that’s why their fans are so involved with it and everything that they do–it’s cause they’re like, “I never know what The Maine’s gonna do next. They’re always keeping me on my toes.” Being a part of that is awesome cause I’m already seeing that turnaround for myself.
It definitely seems like going the independent route is so much more of a viable option now than it was even five years ago.
Totally. I think what it is, too, is what we do with 8123 and everything is try to look at everything through the eyes of the fans and what fans want from the bands, and labels don’t really do that. They’re just like, “Whatever’s gonna make us money, go do that.” And with Tim and Chelsea [Dunstall] and everybody from 8123, we’re always thinking of these crazy ideas. Whether it might be sometimes inconvenient for the band to do, the outcome is awesome. Like, the day that my record came out, I flew to a kid’s house who preordered the record and I played the record for him and his friends in his living room–in Florida, and I live in Boston. Like, that kind of thing–bands don’t do that stuff. But bands with 8123 do because we’re weird and we come up with crazy ideas. And that’s the stuff that keeps kids buzzing. They’re like, “Dude, I don’t know what this band’s gonna do next,” because the possibilities are endless. We like to be on the same level as everybody and we don’t want to be above anybody, like, “Oh, we’re too cool to do that stuff.” No, I’m gonna come to your house and play in your living room. That’s awesome; that’s what I’m gonna do.
I bet you made that kid’s entire year.
Yeah! And it turned out that he’s been a fan since I was making electronic crappy music before Rocket. Like, he’s been a fan. So it was really cool, and his mom was awesome and it was great. I love doing that and that’s the reason why we do this stuff.
What’s been the best part of you being on Warped Tour this summer?
Besides cruising with my buds in The Maine–and then Eric [Halvorsen] is out with us too, who played bass in Rocket–the whole tour is awesome because everybody’s like a friend. If you don’t know them, you know them the second week in. We’re hanging out with Saves The Day–Saves The Day has been my favourite band since I was 12 years old. Now I’m gonna be 26 and I’m sitting here hanging out and like, they’re just hanging on the bus. Like, those are the moments on Warped where you’re like, “This is a cool life.” But I honestly like walking around and finding bands that I’d never heard of and listening to them. I’ve been so out of touch, since Rocket split, of what the current music situation is, and so walking around and reconnecting with that is really cool. Bands like Vanna–they’re from Boston and they’re a hardcore band and I’d never listened to them before, even though I’m from Boston. And I caught them the other day and I’m like, “Yeah, I’ll probably be watching them a couple more times.” It was badass. So it’s cool–stuff I wouldn’t normally listen to, you see it live and it has more of an impact on you.
What have been some of the highlights of the bands you’ve been checking out?
Saves The Day play a different setlist every day. They have like, 90 songs that they’re rotating. And so one day they’ll play Can’t Slow Down, their first record, front to back in a half hour set. And you’re like, “Did they just…?” And then the next day, they played Stay What You Are, which is the big popular record that a lot of people like, they played that record but backwards. So you just never know. And for me, I’ve been a fan of Saves The Day for half of my life now, you know? So to go out there and see them every day playing a different set and sounding amazing–that’s awesome.
Hell yeah! What about bands you weren’t familiar with prior to the tour?
I really like Real Friends. They’re really cool. And State Champs. Those bands, like, I never listened to them on record, and then I saw them play this and I thought that was really cool. The whole pop punk revival thing is really interesting.
When are we gonna see you front your new pop punk revival band?
It’ll be me and John [O’Callaghan, The Maine vocalist], and Eric will be in the band. We’ve already talked about it, seriously. [laughs]
Kids are still gonna ask for Daisy every night, even if you do that.
Oh yeah, exactly. [laughs]
Someone in The Maine is doing pop punk again! “DAISY!”
I asked them to play Daisy last week. They ignored me. We were on the bus. I was like, “You guys gonna play Daisy?” They just didn’t say anything. [laughs]
One day they actually are gonna play it, just to fuck with everyone.
I’m gonna make them play it.
Back to you: what else are you hoping to accomplish on this album cycle and in the next few months after Warped is done?
I just want to try to reach out to as many people as I can with the music, you know? People that were fans before and haven’t heard it yet, I want to get those people on board. But I also want to branch out to crazy fanbases that have never even heard of me or my past projects before and try to reach as many people as I can. Tour, tour, tour–that’s gonna obviously help. And just keep doing that until I do the next record.
What’s the most rewarding thing for you about that fan connection?
I’m noticing a lot on this tour, more kids than I was expecting are coming and watching my set That’s the thing about Warped Tour, too–those kids will walk around, not know that you’re on the tour, and then walk by and poke their head in and be like, “I wanna watch this kid.” And then you get a new fan out of it. I think that’s the cool thing–noticing the crowd getting a little bigger as you play, every day getting a tiny bit bigger. And you’re like, “I think I’m doing something right!” I don’t know why–I’m just a weird, awkward, embarrassing person, but these people seem like they’re into it.
It’s cause we’re all weird, awkward, embarrassing people too.
Exactly. That’s why back in November when Tim called me and was like, “Wanna do Warped?” I was like, “You know what, sure, we’ll do it! I’ve gotta get those kids on my side again.” So we’re doing it and it’s definitely the best decision I think we’ve made since starting this process.
What’s the biggest difference you’ve noticed in playing Warped solo this year and doing the tour with Rocket in the past?
Well, besides the stage–I’m playing in a tent on a little stage with a PA, so it’s really intimate. They can squeeze like 200 people in there. So that’s obviously a big difference. We played on the same stage as The Maine today and that’s what Rocket did in 09. But it’s different. I feel like I’m not being rushed for time; when you’re on a stage, you’re looking around at the three other dudes in the band like, “We gotta go, we gotta go! We have five minutes!” And me, I’m just sitting there with my guitar. I play a short set only because it’s acoustic–I can’t drag it on that long. So I know I have time and I can just sit there and have conversations one-on-one with people in the crowd. You can’t really do that when you’re in a band playing a big stage. I would love to do that again, but it’s a lot easier when the person’s standing right here and you’re talking to them while you’re playing. I love that one-on-one connection. And being a singer-songwriter, I think it definitely goes hand in hand with that and the whole intimacy thing.