Chris Santos on Blacklight Media Records’ NYC Showcase and Passion for Heavy MetalThursday, 1st March 2018
Though many more may know Chris Santos through one of a number of different cooking and food avenues, such as his New York City restaurants or judging appearances on the Food Network’s Chopped, he has also been a life-long heavy metal music fan. As his culinary experience and résumé has grown, his metal résumé has followed suit. He spent time on the Mayhem Festival through a partnership with Jägermeister, and two years ago he began his own label – Blacklight Media Records, for which he partnered with Brian Slagel of Metal Blade Records.
Next week, on March 8, 2018, Blacklight Media Records will host their first ever showcase at the Gramercy Theatre in New York City (more information/tickets HERE). In part a celebration of two years of existence, it’s also a chance to catch some of heavy metal’s rising stars in action. But this is merely the beginning for Santos and Blacklight Media, as his aspirations for the label and genre are instantly palpable as one can read below. There’s some genuine excitement in hearing him talk about discovering new bands, as well as his vision for the label and his thoughts for the future of metal. With his level of ambition and passion, it’s clear he’s rightly set on becoming an even bigger player in the field as the days unfold.
Dead Rhetoric: To start, could you talk about your passion for heavy metal music?
Chris Santos: I’ve been a life-long fan of course. I’ve been a super-passionate metal guy since I was twelve years old. If I’m not working, I’m completely surrounding myself with music in some way, shape, or form. Whether it’s being at a live show, which is my favorite thing to do on Earth, but reading and researching as well.
Kind of a silly hobby I have is trying to find unsigned music, and that was long before I had a record label. I would typically do that by playing a game of six degrees of separation. I’d start with a band that I was in the mood to listen to that day, whether it’s Slayer, Mastodon, or whomever, and then go into different websites or traditional routes like Spotify, iTunes, or YouTube and glance at things like, “If you like this, then try this” and continue to go down that path. Twelve bands later, I’m listening to some band from some remote part of the country or world that has 56 views on their YouTube channel and I’m the 57th view and I’m like, “This is so amazing!” So that’s kind of how I unwind after a long workday [laughs].
Dead Rhetoric: Finding unsigned bands is something I love doing as well, so I’m curious – when you do that, what are you looking for? What kind of draws you towards one band over another?
Santos: On the one hand, there’s a common denominator in that I like the syncopation of metal. I like the power of the riff. That’s what it all comes down to. But I look for bands that sound a little bit different. It’s really hard – there’s a lot of bands that are derivative, because it is difficult to reinvent the wheel. You have the same six strings, drums, bass guitar, and vocals. I think I’m just drawn to things that sound a little bit different. Ultimately, I have an appreciation all things metal. I can pretty much appreciate all genres. I grew up in the ‘80s, so my life changed the day I heard Mercyful Fate. I grew up loving early Slayer, Possessed, Dark Angel, and stuff like that. But I also had equal love for hair bands. I was a huge Dokken and W.A.S.P. fan. So I think today, it’s almost the same principle. I don’t really stray too far outside of the metal landscape. I don’t listen to a lot of mainstream rock or pop. I don’t listen to a lot of EDM, though I do listen to some, believe it or not. I stay within the wheelhouse of metal for the most part, but within that wheelhouse I like it all.
I think I’m constantly looking for a new take. As a chef, I’m not reinventing the wheel. You come to my restaurant, and there’s going to be a burger, pizza, pasta, and tacos on the menu. So I’m not reinventing the wheel, but what I’m doing is putting my spin on what I think the best taco is, or what I think the best burger is. So I’m looking for that. I’m looking for bands that have taken what’s come before them, embraced and taken some of that, but then have a 20% space somewhere in there to add their own creative spin. There’s something where I say, “Oh wow, that’s a new way of doing that! I’ve never heard it done that way before.” I want a nod to the classics and to the familiar, but with a unique spin on it.
Dead Rhetoric: You were on the Mayhem Festival a couple of years ago, you have Blacklight Media now – how’d you go about getting involved with these things initially, outside of being a fan of metal music?
Santos: I live in New York City. I’ve been there for 25 years and I’ve been very involved in the local rock scene, mostly as an observer but I’ve played in some bands here and there. I didn’t really do much with them, but I’ve got a lot of musician friends. My restaurant started to become known, just by word of mouth, as a great place to stop by if you were on tour in New York. A band would come in and have dinner, I would take pretty good care of them, and we’d probably end up going out afterwards and have some fun. They would then tell another band or another manager – it didn’t happen overnight, but after many years, I’ve become a go-to spot for many bands on tour. Now I’m in multiple cities so they have more options to do that.
So I started working with Jägermeister. I have a lot of cooking brands like barbeque sauce and other things that are a good fit with rock and metal music. A few years ago, Jägermeister was a big sponsor of Mayhem Festival and was working with a lot of bands. I got introduced to them by a mutual friend, and I became a brand ambassador for them. But I do all kinds of things for them. I do these really high-end dinners for VIP clients across the country and a lot of promotional stuff for them. But in 2013-2015, I was working primarily in the metal space with them, so I got to know a lot of bands. Being on Mayhem Festival, I got to know all the bands there. I became fast friends with most of them. It’s been kind of a mushroom effect. I think people like my food [laughs]. That’s the way to anybody’s heart – through their stomach. Especially metal musicians, who are on the road and maybe don’t get a chance to eat so well. I’m kind of a light at the end of the tunnel when they know they are going to be hitting New York City/Las Vegas/Los Angeles, and they know they can hit one of my spots.
I met Brian Slagel through Kerry King, who I became very good friends with over the years. He introduced me to Brian Slagel – I knew who Brian was back when I was a teenager. When I was a teenager in a small town in Rhode Island, every Saturday I would take the bus to Providence and buy whatever the newest metal records were, and they were almost always out on Metal Blade. So when I met [Slagel], we became fast friends. We would listen to a lot of music together late nights at my house. I ended up turning him onto a bunch of new bands that he had never heard of, and he ended up signing some of them. After the fourth or fifth band, he basically said, “We should do a label together.” I thought that was crazy because I didn’t have any time, but he convinced me to do it. I’m so glad that I did. We have six bands on the roster, and we are about to do our first showcase concert, and things are going really great. So yeah, it’s all a dream come true!
Dead Rhetoric: Where did the idea for the Blacklight Media showcase come from? Is it partially to celebrate the two-year milestone?
Santos: It was a combination of a couple of things. It actually had a lot to do with the venue itself as well. Living in New York City for about 25 years, I’ve been going to the same venues for many years. So it’s not just the bands I’ve become friends with, but also the venues – the stage managers, the GMs, the door guys. They have all become friends and have come through my restaurant. So believe it or not, it was actually the venue that originally approached me.
I contacted them about getting on the list for Quicksand or someone, and they said they had been meaning to talk to me as well. They said they knew I had a label, and if I would be interested in doing a show with some of my bands. So of course I said, “Yes, that would be amazing. But how would we do that? Especially as a young label. Should we wait until we have more bands to offer?” I thought about it, and to your point, we have six bands on the roster, we are coming up on the two year mark, and we also have three bands releasing records in the first quarter of this year: Gozu, Good Tiger, and we re-released the Fight the Fight record. All the bands that are playing are going to be releasing something this year, so we thought it was a good opportunity to celebrate the label.
This is the first concert I’ve produced and there’s a lot of hidden costs I didn’t understand. There’s no money to be made here, and that’s okay. I’m totally fine with that. That’s kind of the whole point. It’s not a cash-grab in any way, it’s to celebrate what we’ve done here with a night of live music. I’m excited just to have a bunch of my friends, who have heard me talk about this thing for 2-3 years, before I even started the label, get to check it out. I have a brother in New Hampshire and a brother in Syracuse who are flying down for it. Neither one of them are into metal, but they are there to support the show and be in the room for the first concert with my bands. So it’s kind of that. It’s a celebration.
Dead Rhetoric: So is there anything you are you particularly proud of accomplishing within the two years that Blacklight Media has been in existence?
Santos: I don’t know that I’m at the point that I can say I’m proud of anything. We’ve got so much work to do. This to me, is a life-long endeavor. This isn’t something that I’m going to do for five years and that’s it. I see myself eventually, who knows when [laughs], but eventually transitioning from the restaurant/chef career that I have had for the last 30 years. My retirement will be running and growing this label. So I don’t know that I’m proud of anything yet, but I’m proud that I was able to get six bands to show faith in us. Of course, being part of the Metal Blade family has a lot to do with that. I understand that. They basically get the benefits of being a Metal Blade band when they are a Blacklight Media band, so it’s the best of both worlds. But the fact that these new and amazing bands are choosing me when there are other options [is great].
I think Gozu in particular, if there’s a moment of pride – they are the only band on the label that was a signing based on a live discovery. Good Tiger I came across on the Internet and explored it, and the same thing for Fight the Fight and Syberia. I had never heard of Gozu, they were never on my radar at all. I went to see a show and they were one of the support bands and they blew me away. Halfway through the set I was sending videos to Brian Slagel at Metal Blade and saying that we needed to sign them. I approached them after their set to talk about having a label, which was weird because I had never done that before.
I think that when they played that show, they were having a bit of an identity crisis with their band and where they wanted to go next. I was kind of the catalyst to reinvigorate them. They went into the studio and wrote a new record, and it’s unbelievable. We expected a good record, but when we got it, Brian and I listened to it and we were like, “Holy fucking shit! Are you hearing this? This record is amazing!” So I think that’s cool. That’s something to be proud of – discovering a band, talking to them, and here we are a year and a half later and they are about to drop this amazing record that might not have been dropped if I didn’t go to the show that night and approach them.
Dead Rhetoric: Having a showcase is one avenue, but do you think that some sort of music/food pairing could be something you explore down the line?
Santos: Absolutely. I’m thinking of doing a music festival. I think the festival circuit, it’s hard to say for sure, since we have never really had that European-styled festival [in the US]. But the festivals are getting a little bit bigger every year, like Carolina Rebellion, where there’s definitely a big food component – gourmet man-food, ultra-premium whiskies, and things of that nature. I would love to see that continue to grow, and be a part of it someday. Whether it’s festivals that are already out there, and helping them on the food side of it, or one day creating a festival of our own that is Blacklight Media and Metal Blade bands, and me curating an amazing food experience. That would be a dream come true as well – a bucket list item.
Dead Rhetoric: So with Blacklight Media being a permanent fixture, something you want to be a part of for a long time – what do you see as being the future of metal?
Santos: Let me answer that in two different ways. The first one is that when I was 13-14 years old and knew of Brian Slagel, he was 20 years old and operating out of his mom’s house. That’s how I see Blacklight now. I’m at the stage of Blacklight that he was at [with Metal Blade] when I was 13 years old. The only difference is that I’m 47 now. But to me, I’m running my label from my mom’s house, but I have aspirations and dreams for it to be something really big and notable n 20-30 years. So that’s that.
As far as what direction metal is going in, I have no idea, I just hope to be one of the guys that helps shape it. I think that music is cyclical, and it’s going to come back. It will come back in a different form. There always has been ebbs and flows in what’s popular in the moment, and I think our time is due. It’s been a minute since rock and metal commanded attention. I think it’s starting to happen [again]. There’s been some nods to it in pop culture recently – television commercials or little cameos in movies that might suggest that the time is coming.
But I also think that, and I say this totally respectfully, there’s going to be a changing of the guard. For the last 30 years, it’s been the same bands. If you look at those festivals, year in and year out, it’s the same bands in a different order. That’s totally cool and great, and those bands totally earned their way and deserved to be there. But they can’t be there forever, and something is going to have to take their place. As an industry or a genre of music, it’s mostly dominated by a select group of people that have been dominating it for a very long time. A time will come in the next 10 years from now, where there’s going to be a whole new crop of young and exciting bands. I’m looking at it as part of my job to find some of them and help put them on the map.
Dead Rhetoric: I’m totally in agreement with you there. There has to be some bands that step up and replace the old guard. Bands are getting older and there’s got to be something to fill that void.
Santos: Exactly. It’s going to happen. To belabor the point, if you were to bring up the last 10 years of festival concerts – Mayhem, Rock on the Range, Ozzfest/Knotfest – you find a lot of similarities in bands playing there. If you look in 10 years from now, you are going to see whole lot of new bands for the first time in a long time. And I hope to have some of them on my label [laughs].
Dead Rhetoric: You had alluded to this before, but what do you find are similarities between the music industry and the cooking industry?
Santos: It’s a little bit more metaphorical than actual, but in order to become a chef, the restaurant and chef business is very competitive at all levels. As a business or restaurant owner, it’s extremely competitive, it’s very hard to make a living, very hard to differentiate yourself from the crowd, and it’s very hard to attain longevity. That’s something I’ve been very fortunate with. It’s been my hallmark, since I’ve been very successful at this for more than two decades, which is really unusual. But it took me a long time to get there. But also as a cook, never mind a restaurant/business, but as a cook coming up to become a chef there is tremendous competition in the industry. It’s not always the friendliest competition either. I think there are parallels there.
There’s so many bands out there, and a finite number of opportunities. You just have to persevere and double-down. Every time somebody says no to you, you have to work harder in order to get there. I think that’s why we see a lot of metal bands making it, or finding the most of their success [older]. I’m more successful now than I’ve ever been in my restaurant life and I’m 47 years old. I think if you look around, metal has gotten older too. A lot of the bands out there that are doing the best and drawing the biggest crowds – they aren’t spring chickens either. They had to work hard. A lot of bands had to keep plugging away in the ‘90s and early 2000s after the whole grunge thing happened. Here they are in 2018 just crushing it.
Dead Rhetoric: What do you feel were keys in being successful for you?
Santos: I think not being afraid to experiment, but also understanding what people want and giving it to them in some degree. I think if I was a band, which is corny and cliché I know, but I’d equate myself to a band like the Deftones. They have been incredibly experimental in their career, but when they play a show they still know they have to play “7 Words” and some of those big, crowd-pleasing songs. Yet they’ve never allowed themselves to be put in a box. I’m a huge fan of the Deftones for that reason. They have always managed to approach each record differently. Sometimes it’s not a huge success from the perspective of the reviews they get or whatever, but they have always persevered and at the end of the day, they are still here when a lot of bands have come and gone. I think they have a body of work that will be respected even more when they are gone.
There’s a little parallel there to being a chef. You have to be rooted in creativity or else what’s the point? But at the end of the day, you are also there to please people. You are there to cook food for other people. You are there to make other people’s nights, not your own. So there’s a little give and take of satisfying your own creative needs while also giving the people who are listening or eating, what they really came for.