Before the Billboard chart-topping single, touring with hip-hop heavyweights Lupe Fiasco and Kanye West and receiving praise from the likes of Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake, Matthew Santos was the typical Wicker Park resident down to the faux-hawk and blue Fuji bike.
He's only spent one of the last six months at home, a two-level apartment building he shares with three friends in a less-cluttered segment of Wicker Park where ice-cream trucks still jingle by. At any given moment, the apartment smells of incense or a Tombstone pizza, while a television runs in the background.
Santos, who enjoys painting and reading about Eastern mysticism, splashed into the music scene in 2006 with his appearance on rapper Lupe Fiasco's debut album, Lupe Fiasco's Food & Liquor. However, it was a year later, when lending his ethereal voice to Lupe's sure-shot single, "Superstar," that the world began paying attention. He and his band (Aviva Jaye, vocals/keyboard; Robert Tucker, drums; Graham Burris, bass; and Matthew Nelson, keyboard) were featured in a number of publications including the Star Tribune, Billboard Magazine, Washington Times and Columbia Chronicle, the student publication of Columbia College, where Santos studied music composition after leaving his hometown of Minneapolis. Additionally, The Chicago Sun-Times named he and his band one of Chicago's top 10 bands.
Following "Superstar," Santos performed around the country, wishing Ellen DeGeneres a happy birthday on her daytime talk show and welcoming David Letterman back with the first live performance after the 2007-2008 Writer's Guild of America strike. But it was the call from Lupe last February that would forever change his life. Tucker recalls Santos being "absolutely ecstatic" the day Lupe asked if he'd join him for Kanye West's world-dominating Glow In The Dark Tour with headliners Rihanna and N.E.R.D. "Just to be on stage with a line-up like that, he felt humble," remembers Tucker.
Transitioning from local artist performing at intimate venues like Martyrs' and Double Door, to superstar on tour with Mr. Kanye West wasn't easy. Each day during the tour, he arrives at the venue around 5:30 p.m., grabs a bite and hits the stage. Sometimes he sticks around for the entire show where Lupe and Kanye close it up with "Touch the Sky." Afterward, they attend after parties, tossing back a few drinks before jumping on a bus to the next city around 4 a.m. He wakes up and stumbles out onto some barren U.S. road, unsure of where his hotel waits with fresh sheets and a hot tub. Of the experience, Santos says, "You just realize it's in the service of greater achievement. All the sold-out arena performances...it's all for getting my music out there, getting my name out there and making people aware of who I am and what I'm doing."
With the band's collective Influences—including Paul Simon, Radiohead, Bjork, Chester Thompson, Joni Mitchell and Robert Sledge—forming an interesting fusion of rock-n-roll, jazz, blues, folk, funk and soul, it's almost hard making sense of Santos performing for a predominantly hip-hop audience. So far, even without him showcasing any tunes from his 2007 solo album, Matters of the Bittersweet people have been receptive, clogging his MySpace page with comments from as nearby as Moline, Ill., to as far as Australia, Germany and South America.
Calling from some mountainous region in Southern California heading to Los Angeles, with a copy of Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose within arms reach, Santos takes a moment to answer a few questions.
What are things you take for granted here in Chicago, that you've noticed other cities lack?
Chicago is so diverse. There's so much culture and you don't always find that.
Where are your favorite places to eat and hang out in Chicago?
My absolute favorite place is Earwax Cafe. I like Uncommon Ground in Lakeview and Piece Brewery and Pizzeria.
When you return to Chicago, what'll be the first thing you do?
I'm going to hop on my bike and hit Lake Shore Drive for sure.
Any last quotes?
Eat your vegetables.
Matthew Santos will perform at the WTMX Party in the Park at the Millennium Park Terrace on July 24 and at the Taste of Lincoln Avenue on July 26.