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Mato Nanji's always provided the heartbeat of the band Indigenous - along with the warm dusty voice and the soaring, spirited guitar fireworks that have earned the group from South Dakota's Nakota Nation a place among roots rock's elite. But with the emotionally charged and musically visceral Broken Lands, the band's second album on Vanguard Records, Nanji makes a transformation from sparkplug to visionary."I've wanted to make an album like this for years," Nanji explains, "but to a certain extent my hands were tied. Now I feel like I've achieved so many things I've wanted this band to be. The songs I'm singing are more personal. The sound of the band has broadened, and we were able to explore all the influences that are woven into that sound - blues, soul, R&B, and even country - more than ever. And the guitar playing is more controlled, to really let the songs speak for themselves. On top of all that, I've grown as a singer.
After being frustrated for a while, all of this makes me very happy. "What it amounts to," Nanji announces, "is that Indigenous is a brand new band."He means that literally. From the group's beginning in his parents' basement through the release of 2006's Vanguard debut Chasing the Sun, Indigenous was a family band. But after that disc was recorded Mato's bassist brother Pte, his drummer sister Wanbdi, and his percussionist cousin Horse left to pursue other musical paths. "Everybody decided to go their own way, leaving me to carry on Indigenous," Nanji says. "Playing with my family for 10 years was a lot of fun, but it was time to grow."So Nanji recruited guitarist Kris Lager, keyboardist Jeremiah Weir, bassist Aaron Wright, and drummer John Fairchild to tour behind Chasing the Sun. They also appear on Broken Lands, joined by drummer Kirk Stallings, percussionist Chico Perez, and Mato's wife Leah Nanji on backing vocals. Producer Jamie Candiloro (Ryan Adams, R.E.M., Willie Nelson, the Eagles) completed the studio team."Jamie shined on bringing out the energy and honest sound we had going on," Nanji says. "He had us set up and play live in the studio as if we were on stage. Some of the songs, like the acoustic-guitar shuffle 'All Night Long,' went down with even the vocals recorded live while the band played. Others, like 'Should I Stay,' are more textured, but benefit from the energy that comes with playing the basic tracks live."Nanji's big-toned guitar on Broken Lands' dozen songs about romance and destiny continues to demand comparison to his idols Stevie Ray Vaughan., Los Lobos, Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana.
His burnished style - full of ringing sustained notes and artfully bent strings - elevates the emotional appeal of numbers like the romantic soul-searcher 'Should I Stay' and the brooding blues-rock masterpiece 'Waiting.' Nonetheless, Nanji kept his gear for the sessions trim: a couple amps, including the distinctive organ-like whir of a Leslie speaker, and his trademark Stratocasters augmented by a Guild acoustic."I wanted to get more slide guitar into the album, too," he says, "which gave me and Kris, who's an exceptional slide player, new ways to have interplay." So Lager added bottleneck to 'All Night Long,' the sweet ballad 'Eyes of a Child' and other numbers. "I've loved slide ever since I found Elmore James in my father's collection of old blues albums when I was a teenager," Nanji says. The other sonic addition is Leah Nanji's harmonies on much of Broken Lands, "I've always been a big fan of women singing backing vocals," Nanji says. "Leah was able to do some of that on Chasing the Sun, but to me her voice is an essential part of Broken Lands."Leah was also essential as a songwriter, co-authoring all of the songs with Mato except his self-penned 'Just Can't Hide.' "This is the first time I've had a hand in writing every song for an Indigenous album," Nanji says. "It's very liberating, because I feel like I've truly invested myself. Leah and I have been writing songs together for years, and we had written about 20 for this album and narrowed it down to the best dozen."One of the most compelling is 'Place I Know,' a riff-rocker that decries the poverty and isolation of Reservation life and gives the album it's title in the line, "all is lost in these broken lands." "I love the way all of these songs came out, but 'Place I Know' is one of the closest to me," Nanji says. "It's important to bear witness about the things that inspire love in your life and about the things that make you sad. "But working on these songs at home with Leah in Sioux Falls was really fun," says Nanji. "I got to just sit and play them again and again on acoustic guitar without pressure, and that helped me develop my vocal melodies and grow as a singer. Because of that, Broken Lands has my best vocal performances."Broken Lands makes me feel like I did when Indigenous was just starting out," Nanji says. "We were excited about making music and making records, and maybe getting to tour all over the United States, which we did."Now Indigenous is a new band again and I feel that same excitement," he continues. "But this time - when we start touring in August - I want to take these new songs and this great sounding band all over the world."