For the last two years, Santeria has been laboring under a curse. They’re banking on their new album to break the spell.
November 6, 2002
It doesn’t matter that it’s been raining all week or that the water is rising in the streets. It’s a joy ride for Santeria. Things haven’t gone their way for so long that it’s just part of the journey. If the clouds parted, the sun shined and the water subsided, it would be just plain weird.
They’re cruising down Bayou Milhomme, just outside Morgan City, on an aluminum party barge. They have a gig later that night at the Hi Ho Lounge in New Orleans. Dege Legg is the band’s singer, songwriter and guitarist. He sits at the helm of the boat with his acoustic guitar. Bassist Jay Guins and guitarist Troy “Primo” Primeaux are also at the front of the boat. Drummer Krishna Kasturi and percussionist Rob Rushing lounge in the back of the boat.
It’s taken Santeria two years to record their third album, House of the Dying Sun. They’re convinced they’re living under a curse, and they don’t know their way out of it. What they do know is how to rock. They believe if they play hard enough and long enough, then maybe they’ll break the curse. Maybe the dark clouds won’t always stalk them. Maybe.
The band takes its name from the Santeria religion. John Laudun, folklorist at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, says Santeria is a synthesis of Western African religions and Catholicism. When West Africans were enslaved and indoctrinated with Catholicism, they were able to maintain their beliefs by grafting them onto the beliefs of Catholicism. In Santeria, Laudun says, “there’s a belief that there is a creative force behind the world, but you don’t have access to it. You have access to the pantheon of gods, which is not much different than having saints to pray on your behalf.
“As you get increasingly involved and move up the ladder in the practice,” Laudun says, “you get to the point where you don’t just interact with the god, the god possesses you. The god becomes you and speaks through you. In some ways, you make the god available for other people to interact with.”
Santeria is often perceived by outsiders as an animal-sacrificing cult. It utilizes animals, particularly chickens, in its rituals. It’s not a religion that’s open to everyone, and the closed and secretive nature of its practitioners contributes to the suspicions of those on the outside of Santeria.
Legg chose the name for the band not for religious reasons, but for metaphorical ones. He says the band is a synthesis of people and styles, much like the religion is a synthesis of what may at first appear to be opposing beliefs.
“It’s a cool sounding name,” he says. “It sounds kind of heavy metal, but it’s kind of cool.”
Apparently, there are some believers of Santeria who don’t find it too cool. On a number of occasions, band members have received answering machine messages and e-mails from strangers demanding that they stop using the name. But the most startling message was when they found a cow’s heart in their mailbox.
There have been other strange occurrences that have strengthened their belief in the curse. In the course of a month, each band member’s car either died on them or was totaled in a wreck. During another month’s time, they were all evicted from their different homes.
Kasturi says he would have a hard time believing in it if he hadn’t had firsthand experience with it, but he doesn’t think the curse will follow the band forever.
“It could be just random events,” he says. “You never know with these kinds of things, but it’s probably more colorful to believe that this stuff is going on.”
But if there is a curse on the band, could it be broken simply by changing the band’s name?
“I don’t know,” Legg says. “It’s such a cool name and we’ve been banging it out for so long. In reality, I think it’s just a string of bad luck we’ve attributed to this thing. But at the same time, the subconscious mind takes over and you start making inferences, thinking that maybe we are cursed and doomed.”
Legg spent most of his childhood as a military brat, born in Rayne and raised in Georgia, California, Mowata and Baton Rouge. The only music he listened to was whatever his parents had playing on the radio. At the age of 13, though, his musical interest was piqued when he heard the hardcore, post-punk music of Hüsker Dü, Black Flag, The Dead Kennedys and the blues of Son House, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Blind Willie Johnson. “It’s all the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll,” he says. “It just keeps reincarnating itself and people give it a different name.”
While living in Baton Rouge, Legg was enrolled at Louisiana State University, but admits he spent more time studying drugs and crime. “It was an education in the underworld,” he says. “It was nasty. It’s nothing I’m proud of. I don’t walk around bragging about it, wearing it like a badge of honor. It’s an experience I went through. I don’t regret it. I learned a lot from it, but I had to get out of that town. There was a lot of negative shit.”
Legg moved to San Francisco. He lived in a motel room for $100 a week and wrote music. “That place was just as bad,” he says. “As much as you want to go to the big city and vibe with the higher octane of culture, you see that everybody in the big city is from somewhere else and really doesn’t have any roots. It was a rootless kind of existence.”
He decided to devote his life to music and to move to Lafayette. “I’ve been to hell and back, man,” he says. “What the f**k do I have to lose? I may as well do something I’m interested in.”
In the summer of 1994, at the age of 22, Legg moved to Lafayette. Moving back was a strange experience for him. He says he felt like “a wild beast of sorts, like a weird animal that wandered in out of the woods.”
Legg soon met Kasturi, who was the drummer for the now defunct group Bubba Daddy.
Kasturi says of meeting Legg, “I didn’t know if I could trust him or not. He’s shaky, man. He’s shady. Dege is a strange character.”
With bassist Ricky Williams, the three began jamming in Kasturi’s garage. A month later they had their first gig at Metropolis. Santeria was born.
Kasturi was born in Hyderabad, India. As a child, his parents immigrated to Lafayette so his mother could work on her doctorate at UL. He started playing drums at the age of 15 in the high school band. He says he wasn’t really drawn to any particular style of music, but rather music as a whole. Whether it was the music of the marching band or the music of D.R.I., Kasturi liked it all. In high school, he played with the hardcore band, Zen Bastards.
Kasturi says the early version of Santeria tended to meander quite a bit, without a focused direction in the music. “Dege would come up with riffs. I would come up with rhythm and he would sing over it. We really had no preconceived idea of what a song should be or how it should be done. Things would kind off just go off in their own direction and we played a lot faster.”
Legg says in the early stages, Santeria was “this big, noisy, demented, art-core thing. It was a big, heavy noise fest. We had the reputation of hooligans. Most of it was deserved. We were really loud and insane. We totally gave ourselves to the music.”
In 1996, Williams left the band and was replaced by Ryan Pankratz on bass. Matt Gautreaux also joined the band as the percussionist and djembe player. The djembe is a large African drum made of wood, and the head, which is played with the hands, is covered with goatskin.
Legg says it was around this time that the band began making a transition from “the art damaged noise stuff.” Santeria drove to Colorado where friends of theirs were assistant engineers at a recording studio. They recorded their first, self-titled album in three days. They released it on their own label, Golar Wash Labs.
Primeaux heard Santeria live at Metropolis for the first time that same year. After the show, he introduced himself to Legg. “I remember checking out these guys and thinking they were totally brash and very noisy, but there was something unique about them,” Primeaux says.
Primeaux admits that he was leery of Legg to begin with, but still accepted Legg’s invitation to jam one afternoon. “He comes to the house,” Primeaux says, “and I’m watching him ’cause he looks crazy. He’s cuckoo-eyed, and I’m hoping he doesn’t steal anything out of my house.”
“I would have,” Legg says, “but it was all too shiny and new.”
Primeaux was reared in the south side of Crowley. He grew up listening to the monster rock sounds of Grand Funk Railroad and Van Halen on his parents’ stereo console. The first time he strummed his Sears guitar, he didn’t understand why he didn’t sound just like Eddie Van Halen. “Then I learned how to tune the damn thing,” he says.
As a teen-ager, though, the group that influenced him the most was Guns ‘n’ Roses. He saw them at the Cajundome when they opened for Mötley Crüe. “There was something punk about it,” he says. “I didn’t even know what punk was. It had that classic rock with something new. I remember loving it and hating it, but going out and buying the album.” Primeaux would later meet guitarist Slash and have him sign his Gibson Les Paul guitar. It’s the guitar he plays today.
When Primeaux met Legg, he wasn’t ready to be a member of the band. Legg coaxed him into Santeria, but he has no regrets. He says, “Everybody wants attention, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t in this for the attention. I’d rather have the attention than the money. People get in plays and drama to do it. They join sororities or fraternities to do it. Everybody wants to be a part of something, and I think we’re part of a very cool group of guys that love music and love people. Of course, on the surface, I’m sure we look like a bunch of scraggly idiots.”
Legg says Primeaux didn’t know it at the time, but while they were jamming, he and Kasturi were auditioning for a new guitar player and a bass player. Pankratz had left Santeria to start his own group, Ice Pick Revival. He was replaced by Guins. Primeaux also joined Santeria as the lead guitarist. Gautreaux would later leave the band and was replaced by Rushing on percussion and djembe.
Legg says, “It’s more important to me to be able to get along with somebody in the band rather than to be impressed with the amount of musicianship they demonstrate. You’re going to be friends with the person. You’re going to be around him a lot. It’s like having four girlfriends at the same time. If you don’t get along with that person, no matter how good they are, you’re not going to stay together. If you don’t get along with them on a personal, friendship level, it’s not going to last.”
Two years later, Santeria released its second album, Apocalypse Louisiana, a compilation of demos, live tracks, readings from Legg’s self-published novel, The Battle Hymn of the Good Ole Hillbilly Zatan Boys, and a radio interview. Legg says, “It’s like a scrapbook.”
After the release of their second album, Santeria began working on their third. Their first recording engineer left town with their work. It took them months to track him down and get the recordings back. Then, after finding a second engineer to work on the project, he soon left town as well. Luckily for the band, the second engineer had been working on the project as an assistant to Tony Daigle at Electric Comoland in Lafayette. Daigle took over the engineering and ended up producing the album.
“This is a good representation of us at this time,” Kasturi says. “This was a great learning experience working with Tony Daigle. It’s a whole different art involved with recording as opposed to just playing. It’s an art unto itself, and I think I have a little more insight into that now than I did before.”
From the first lick of the album, a sustained and defiant chord on a crunched guitar, you know you’re about to see the underbelly of a beast reared in Lafayette. But the creature has more than one head and it exposes itself throughout the album, sometimes blatantly and sometimes subtly. There are no power ballads on this album. They are songs of contradiction, frustration and, ultimately, an acceptance of the whole big, hairy situation.
Legg has written all the songs for Santeria. He says about his music, “At first, you’re at odds with your place in life, feeling like you’re trapped in Louisiana. Then you open your eyes and all of a sudden you realize that, man, this is a beautiful place. It’s really interesting. I like it here. I’ve been to other places and I end up coming back. As soon as you give up trying to escape, you realize you’re home.”
Legg says House of the Dying Sun is more in line with what Santeria had intended to do with Apocalypse Louisiana. At the same time, he says he believes the record is an honest depiction of the band’s development over the years.
“I don’t know,” he says. “We might sell fucking 15 copies. It might sell 2,000. Who knows? I mean, fuck. It’s just like a book in itself about a group of guys growing up in Louisiana, being on the outside of everything, coming home to roost and writing about it and making it our home. You know what I mean? Like staking your claim on this place, like this is what it is, and staking your claim on your own artistic vision. Sometimes it’s a hard thing to do. This isn’t high art, though. It’s rock ‘n’ roll.
“Sometimes people are in it for the chicks and the drugs or maybe pipe dream delusions of cashing in a bunch of money. You have people that are maybe into some of that, but are more concerned with the artistic nature of it, doing something interesting, and staying productive. It really sucks not doing nothing, letting your life pass you by and not being a productive part of society. It’s not like we’re running for mayor or anything. That’ll never happen. But like I said, we’ve got a reputation as hooligans, but this record is based on a lot of traditional elements of rock ‘n’ roll. We’ve come to stake our claim on it.”
Dave Hubbell has been a fan of the band since its inception. Hubbell owns Toys Music Center and hosts the radio programs Out on the Fringe on KRVS and Now Hear This on Planet Radio.
“I love them,” he says. “They’re straight up rock ‘n’ roll. No tricks. I love the way that Dege writes and the way they incorporate the guitars in their sound. It’s new guitar rock steeped in the classic rock tradition. They have new music attitudes but the music is straight-up rock.
“These guys have been plugging away at this for so many years. If anyone on this scene deserves a modicum of success, they do. They take what they do very seriously, but they don’t take themselves very seriously. That’s a beautiful thing.”
“I believe we can be a success,” Primeaux says. “I don’t believe I’m living a delusional life, but some people in town tell me that. ‘What are you doing, man? Why don’t you go to school and be a doctor?’ Who’s to say those people are any happier? Making music is an extreme joy for me and the other guys. It’s a brotherhood. It’s like a club. I really want to get a record contract and to get the music out there. That’s a joy if I can comfortably make a living spreading music and having fun. Maybe that’s an irresponsible lifestyle to some, but the world needs people like us.”
Kasturi believes Santeria has the potential to bring Lafayette’s local rock to a larger audience. He also knows that rock ‘n’ roll is a business, big business, even in a sour economy. “I’ve realized that you almost have to make your band a viable business before you’ll ever get a record deal or succeed,” he says. “The state of the music business is so screwed up right now. You almost have to be self-sufficient before anybody else will even try to give you a deal or a break of some kind. If they’re going to spend a dollar, they’re going to want to make 10. There’s no more losing propositions in that business.
“But that’s the beautiful thing about doing art as opposed to anything else, you never lose. You never go back and regret, like why did I play last week in New Orleans? If something good happens and you can sustain yourself, that’s great, but the key thing is to keep it together. The second you give it up you have zero chance. That’s one thing we’ve been able to do, just keep it together, regardless of all the ups and downs. And it’s been crazy.”
Legg is also skeptical of the music business beast, but just as confident. “I know that this music industry is a crap shoot, and there’s a lot of elements that come into play,” he says. “Sometimes it’s luck. Sometimes it’s having a fucking big money management company to sell you to the kids. Look at all the crap that makes it now. But to be honest with you, I know if we had a good-sized record label that could give this record a push, there’s no doubt in my mind that we could rock it. I know we could. We rock live. If we just had a couple of opportunities and things would align in the proper order, not necessarily perfectly, I know we could do it. I’m not saying we could be Led Zeppelin or anything like that, but I think we’d have a pretty good chance of succeeding. I think we could do something interesting.”
Kasturi knows that the business end of rock ‘n’ roll is brutal. But Santeria doesn’t mind. “We like being the underdog,” he says. “We’re like Mr. T in Rocky III, Clubber Lang doing sit-ups in the basement while the rest of the world is watching Rocky Balboa flashing off his sports cars.”
Back on the boat in the bayou, Santeria is gliding across the stagnant water, making their way back to the dock. The dark clouds are starting to move back in. They want to make it back to dry ground soon, to start making their way to New Orleans for their gig.
Then the boat quits running. There’s no bump, no hiccup of any kind. It just dies. They check the fuel, but there’s plenty of gas. They pull up the engine and check the prop, but nothing’s tangled around it. The fuel line is even clear. They try restarting the engine and for a few tries it catches, but sputters out and dies. After a while, the engine turns over but won’t catch.
Rushing is sitting in the front of the boat. While his friends try to figure out what’s going on, he looks out over the water. He doesn’t look the least bit concerned.
“It’s the Santeria curse,” he says. “There’s no explanation needed.”
Legg breaks out the guitar and Kasturi starts beating on the djembe. The whole band is singing a song from their new CD, “Strung Out on a Dream”:
Perfection’s an addiction
That I ain’t got time to play.
I’m broke and out here stranded
Trying to kick a dream.
Guess I got to find a way
To make some money soon.
I’ve been staking claims
In dirty motel rooms.
Strung out on a dream
In the ghetto of heaven.
Santeria on Stage
Santeria is throwing a party at Grant Street Dancehall Saturday, Nov. 9, celebrating the release of House of the Dying Sun. Santeria will perform live with special guests Deadboy & the Elephantmen. The doors open at 9 p.m. and the music starts at 10 p.m. Admission is $5. For more information on Santeria, including photos, sound clips and upcoming show information, visit www.santeriaband.com.