Apache guitarist Stevie Salas talks Indigenous music, Rumble, and how anything is possible for Native artists.
RPM is pleased to present the Canadian Premiere of RUMBLE: The Indians Who Rocked the World at this year’s Hot Docs Film Festival, April 30th in Toronto. Ahead of the premiere, RPM sat down with renowned Apache guitarist Stevie Salas, executive producer of the acclaimed new music documentary, to talk about the film, and the past, present, and future of Indigenous music.
RPM: We were very excited to hear about RUMBLE. The connections that you’re drawing in the film are really aligned with what we’re doing with RPM.
SS: It’s really the foundation of Indigenous music—and who the pioneers really were, that no one knew about.
RPM: Was this untold story something that had been in your mind for a long time?
SS: Well, here’s what happened. You know, I’m a musician who’s played all over the planet. And I’m an Indigenous person, I didn’t grow up on the rez or anything like that, I grew up in Oceanside California, but when I moved to L.A., I started looking around and realizing that there was really nobody out there that looked like me. I didn’t fit the stereotype so much. People knew I was an Indian, and they thought I was cool, but it wasn’t like the top of the conversation, you know? It was part of you. Like Robbie Robertson told me: “You know, you just didn’t walk into a room and go, “Hey, I’m Robbie Robertson, I’m a Mohawk Indian.” You just didn’t do it. It was all about your skills, and your image, and your whole thing. So I didn’t think that much about it. I just thought it was cool, but I was curious.
So fast forward a bunch of years, and now I’m flying into Toronto, doing a big concert with the Rolling Stones and there’s half a million people there. It’s a huge gig. And I get a phone call from a writer named Brian Wright MacLeod. This guy is a god among men in Indian Country, as far as I’m concerned.
He had been doing this research going all the way back in the early 1900s on all the recorded music by Native American musicians ever recorded. Different musicians in detail! I mean, in detail! He knew every detail. And he wanted to interview me for this book he was doing called The Encyclopedia of Native Music. It was really amazing. The amount of work he did was really incredible. And I sat with Brian, a day before the concert, and he just blew my mind.
He started talking to me about Link Wray, and talking to me about Jessie Ed Davis. All these names that I knew about, but I didn’t even know any of these guys were Native Americans. Like, I knew Robbie was, and I knew who Buffy was. But he got me into all this detail. And I gotta tell ya, my brain was just, like, Oh my god!
And then one day, I’m in Six Nations and people were talking about how so many people had been trying to get one Native American into the mainstream. They were saying, can we get one guy to make it. And I was like, that’s the wrong approach, man!
“I said: I’m going to bring the mainstream to Native America.”
Let’s bring the mainstream to us! Because these people out there want to know. They want to know about us. So we’re going to make them come to us. Change the whole balance of how this thing works. And I sincerely meant that.
We wanted to show people that we have role models out there that you don’t know about. Like, this one guy Jessie Ed Davis, he played with all The Beatles! He played with all four Beatles. He played with Eric Clapton. Clapton wanted to play with him! I mean, this is some pretty amazing shit if you’re a musician.
But what happened was that when we started digging in, we realized that we were unearthing unwritten history that had never been documented.
And the more I talked to my peers, I’d sit with Steven Tyler, or Jeff Beck—and I realized that these guys, my idols, worshipped them. And a light bulb went off in my head. Why are these guys so important to musicians who are so important to the history of rock n’roll, and to millions and millions people on the planet, but nobody knows about them except for these famous musicians! You know?
I mean Steven Tyler couldn’t stop talking to me about Jessie Ed Davis.
Jeff Beck was telling me, oh, when I was 17, me and Jimmy Page used to jump around on my bed at my mom’s house playing air guitar to Link Wray’s “Rumble”. And I’m like “what??!”
RPM: I think that what surprised us about the film was to see that impact—to see how influential artists like Link Wray and others featured in the film were for so many other rock & roll musician. They weren’t just a footnote in the history–the influence of Indigenous artists was profound.
SS: Exactly. That was the whole idea. I didn’t want to make an exhibit or a film that had a bunch of pissed off Indians telling a story about how these Native guys were great, but you guys didn’t get it. So, I said, forget the negative, man. I’m gonna let the biggest rock stars in the world tell you about these Indians.
Then you’re gonna say, Eric Clapton said that? Well, if Eric Clapton said that, than maybe I can believe this. You know what I mean? And that’s all I wanted, I wanted people to hear the information from someone they knew and trusted, so it didn’t become reactionary or negative.
RPM: You strike such an interesting balance in the film to address the political context that the music comes from. But there’s a celebratory quality to it because all of the music is so great. How did you navigate the politics? How did you find that balance?
SS: We didn’t want the message to be ‘f*ck you’, we wanted it to be “hey, look at this and embrace it, accept it, and let’s do right”. And that’s what the film tries to do. And that’s what’s happened: we got Link Wray nominated into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Finally.
You know, I would love to see our people stop being in a position where you feel like people are telling you: you suck, you’re worthless. That’s gotta stop, because, I think a lot of times, we’re caught up in it. We go in assuming that everybody hates us. And I find that that’s not the case. And I would like young people to stop inheriting that part of their heritage so much. Know that success is available to you out there. Sure, you might have to do a few more things than the other guy. You might have to work harder, or play better, because you don’t fit the stereotype.
Link Wray had to hide that he was an Indian. Jessie Ed Davis didn’t hide it, and people called him an Indian, but he didn’t get caught up in that, even though there was bullshit going on. Because where else in the world would there be a guy who played with all four Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, and Eric Clapton—and nobody knows his name except for famous musicians? That’s kinda weird, right? How come there’s no statue of him in Indian Country anywhere?
RPM: Yeah, that’s so interesting. In your own process of making the film, who were the artists that you knew least about?
SS: I didn’t know anything about Mildred Bailey. I’m a Rock ‘n Roll guy. I grew up wanting to be a rockstar and that’s what I did. And listened to Kiss or The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. So, I wasn’t that versed in things like Oscar Pettiford and Mildred Bailey. I wasn’t even that versed on Buffy. I didn’t even know who Buffy was, because let’s face it, I wanted to rock. And now, I mean, I love Buffy. I’ve spent a lot of time with Buffy since I’ve come back to Indian Country. But I wasn’t mature enough as a young man. I didn’t even like The Band that much. Everyone loves The Band!
I couldn’t appreciate it when I was younger. But I love Robbie. When I sit with Robbie now, I love sitting and talking to him. He fascinates me to no end, and I appreciate him beyond compare.
RPM: What’s the response to the film been like from Indian Country? It feels like most people, not just in Indian Country but everywhere, wouldn’t even know who these artists are.
SS: No, they don’t. But we didn’t make an Indian film. We made a film about America, and Canada, and North America. When you really watch it and dig into it, it’s about the development of America. And part of that was music. We were a part of it, but nobody knew about it.
I don’t know how many Native people have seen it, but I can tell you this: at every screening I’m at, people walk out of there profoundly moved. They all say they really learned something in this film—and that it was entertaining at the same time. The film is done in a way that you can digest it, and then walk away with some education. Without it being an educational bore.
RPM: For a lot of younger people, especially, seeing this presence of this amazing Native music and artistry is going to be a source of real inspiration to them.
SS: Well, you know I was hoping for that. And I want to see separatism stop. The film really shows you that it’s all about the blend. You know, Ivan Neville, and the Neville Brothers, and the guys in the film are. You know, I started playing with Ivan Neville in 1987, and we never sat around saying, hey, I’m part Indian, I’m part this, and I’m part that, and I’m French and I’m Creole, and I’m Apache. You know, we never talked about any of that. We just rocked!
“We rocked with whoever. It was never about our blood quantum.”
It was about our skills and what we brought to the table. I don’t want to see Native people only play for Native people. We need to influence the planet! I want to see A Tribe Called Red making hit records with the Chemical Brothers on the stage at the Fuji Rockfest in Japan. And in order to do that, you have to spread the music, you have to think about creating a blend where I mix my sound with your sound, and through that we create something new.
I want Native musicians to say, “Okay, I’m the best at what I do. And I want to go play with that guy over there. He’s the best at what he does. And I don’t care wherever he’s from!
RPM: Do you feel like we’re in a different moment for receptivity with people outside of the Native community? Do you feel like there’s more willingness now than there has been?
SS: You know, that’s a good question. I don’t know, because I’ve always been in the mainstream. But I believe that people have an open mind, more open than maybe we give them credit for.
Being an Indian is who I am as a human being, but at the same time, you gotta have skills, you gotta figure out your place in the market. You gotta figure out how to make your music shine. You gotta figure out how to be better. Maybe we do have to work a little harder. Maybe A Tribe Called Red is gonna have to work a little harder. I think Tribe, I keep coming back to them because Indian Culture to non-Indian people is cool as shit! And it’s really cool, when done right, and not stereotypical, you know what I mean.
But at the end of the day, you gotta go do the work! Robbie Roberston had hits. Jessie Ed Davis played on massive hits, you know. You gotta do the work! People don’t call me because I’m an Indian, but they think it’s cool!
Think about it on a deeper level: all young musicians think about this, cause I really feel like when I walk into an audition, or for anything I’m going to do, I feel like I was gonna f*ck you up! I feel like a killer. I feel like it’s part of my DNA, I have this power inside me. And that’s part of who I am as a human being. And that comes from my culture. That’s in me somewhere. I feel like I need to take heads, I’m gonna mess you up. I grew up fighting my whole life, that’s part of who I am. I take that part of who I am and it comes through the sound of my music. And it comes through when I play with the people I play with. And Link Wray, all the sh*t that was inside of him came through that guitar, man. My point is, you gotta feel it. Buffy Sainte-Marie found a way to put it in a lyric, but you could also feel the pain in those chord progressions. They were written so beautifully. So, it’s not just talk, it’s coming from inside. People pick up on that deeper level. Link Wray, he never talked about being an Indian, but it was in there, that f*ckin rebellion never dies. That inspires people. You’ve got to let the inside of your deeper subconscious come through your art.
RPM: Awesome. Well, congratulations on the film! People are really excited to see it.
SS: I’m very proud of it. It came out better than I could have imagined. People are interested in this subject. There’s something there. It has so many of the major rock stars in the history of rock n’roll, which, helps, because people like to see star power, but the thing is, the stars aren’t in there, just to be in there. They’re really lookin in the camera, and they’re sayin, I love this Link Wray guy! You know what I mean? You feel that. And then you start to say, if you’re a Native person, well, why didn’t I love this guy? How come I don’t know?
I’m gonna say this one last thing. Understand that these guys are the pioneers. They laid this groundwork, and it isn’t impossible. It is possible. Anything that you want do is possible. It’s right there! I want our people to be successful, I want them to win. I want them to experience what I’ve experienced.