Article & Photos: Linda Carlson
If you don’t know Blacktop Mojo, get yourself out from under that rock! This East Texas band, formed in 2012 by lead singer Matt James and drummer Nathan Gillis, fills an underserved rock niche that infuses classic southern rock with metal and grunge overtones, sprinkled with a heavy dash of bluesy soul.
Like many bands, Blacktop Mojo cut their teeth in local bars and honky-tonks. Then in 2017, the band decided to fully commit to their collective dream. They quit their day jobs and dedicated themselves to their music and touring. Their hard work paid off, and the band has been rocking venues across the USA and hitting the festival circuit.
The band’s line-up has lead singer Matt James doing double duty on rhythm guitar, Nathan Gillis on drums, Chuck Wepfer and Ryan Kiefer on guitar, and Matt Curtis on bass. They are a new generation band that skillfully uses social media to complement their touring schedule. But make no mistake, this band shines in their live performances, which are passionate, yet uniquely personal.
I caught up with enigmatic Matt James to discover a bit of his past, and to find out how the band is maintaining their relationship with fans and introducing new music during what is inarguably one of the most challenging periods of music industry history.
MG: 2020 has been quite a wild ride for the music industry, particularly with the abrupt halt of live performances in March that has devastated touring. Everyone has had to adapt: bands, road crews, venues, media, publicists, record labels… the list goes on and on. New territory for everyone, and I wanted to find out how you and Blacktop Mojo are weathering this period.
But first, tell me about the journey that brought you to form Blacktop Mojo! Were you always interested in music? Sing in the shower, maybe? Take piano lessons (I did!)?
Matt: I taught myself to play guitar when I was 17. I was dating a girl in another town at the time and would learn different songs to sing to her every night. Eventually I started writing songs of my own. At college I would bring my guitar to parties and continued to write songs. After college, I worked at a coffee shop/restaurant where I would also play sets, and met our drummer Nathan through some mutual friends and we decided to start the band.
MG: What did you study in college, and at what school? How was your college experience? Did it influence either your music or your decision to pursue the band route? I mean, some people feel sort of obligated to go a more traditional route after college…. what made you decide to go on such a different “non-college” track afterwards? Glad you did, btw!
Matt: I received my bachelor’s degree from Northwestern State University in Louisiana for Biomedical Science. I played football in college and loved getting to experience being a student-athlete. It taught me how to prioritize my time because I never had very much during football season. Playing guitar and writing songs was something I did during my spare time back then. I spent most of the spare time I had, alone in my apartment, trying to write and learn songs that I liked. I decided to try music after school because at the tie I finished, I really didn’t have much direction in what I wanted to do career wise and nothing quite lit my soul up like writing songs and performing for people. I graduated at 20 years old, had nothing tying me down, so I thought, “Why the hell not try it? If I fail, I can always figure something else out on down the road.” I didn’t really have a backup plan.
MG: What bands influenced you when you were growing up? Do you see them in the music you make today? How so?
Matt: I grew up on a lot of classic rock: Van Halen, AC/DC, etc, but I always just sort of listened to what my parents listened to, other than a few CDs I bought myself. I can’t remember every one of them, but Linkin Park’s ‘Hybrid Theory,’ The Offspring’s ‘Splinter’ album, some pop/punk stuff of the day like Good Charlotte, Simple Plan, Sum 41, and Blink 182, and a ‘03 or ‘04 Vans Warped Tour compilation album were some that I can recall melting in my Discman. Later in life I found a little more of some of the stuff that I think definitely finds its way into our music like Led Zeppelin, Waylon Jennings, Black Sabbath, Sound Garden, Tool, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Prince, Alice In Chains, and so many more.
MG: Blacktop Mojo was formed in 2012, right? Tell me about how that came to pass! How did you all know each other, or learn about each other? How did you know the chemistry was right?
Matt: That’s right! Nate and I met after I graduated from college through some mutual friends. We had a few member changes here and there, but we met all the guys in the current line up through touring and running into each other in different places.
MG: OK, so tell me… Blacktop Mojo. The name has such an amazing vibe. But how did that name come about, and what does it mean?
Matt: We all grew up in the middle of nowhere so a lot of the time the only things there were to do were to drink and run around on backroads & stuff. We’d get a bottle of whiskey and go down a road where nobody goes then just drive real slow, listen to the radio and hang out with our buddies. One time I was waiting for [drummer] Nate [Gillis] to get off work – we were going to hang out and jam or something – when some of his buddies showed up with a big bottle of Jim Beam and said, ‘Hey, you wanna go back-roadin’ with us?!?’ (laughs) And I thought they were really cool but I hadn’t gotten to hang out with them much so I said, ‘Hell yeah!’ So we go out back-roadin’, I’m hangin’ out with these guys and I need something to stir my drink; one of them is a duck hunter and he hands me a Mojo duck decoy so I used part of it to stir my drink. Me and Nate had been jamming for a couple months at that point and we had been trying to come up with a name for the band without any luck, but when we got back from that trip even though the details were a little fuzzy we came out of it with Blacktop Mojo.
MG: What job did you say good-bye to in 2017 when the band decided to go all-in and fully commit to being a full-time, recording and touring band? How did it feel to make that decision?
Matt: I was working for my Grandad, so my transition was easier than some of the other guys. He sells fertilizer equipment and I worked in the shop servicing the equipment. It felt scary as hell for everyone to be going all in on something that definitely wasn’t a sure thing at the time, but without doing that, we wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of a lot of the opportunities that came our way.
MG: You have been busy! Your first album, “I Am,” was released in 2014, followed in 2017 by “Burn The Ships.” Soon thereafter, in 2019, the band released, “Under the Sun.” How do you see the progression of the band’s music across these albums?
Matt: I think across the 3 albums, we’ve gotten more confident in our abilities in the studio, as well as our songwriting and have been able to expand and explore our sound more now than we were able to in the beginning.
MG: You caught a lot of attention for your cover of Aerosmith’s “Dream On,” currently with more than 18 million steams on YouTube. Congratulations! Your vocals are thoughtful, yet powerful… it’s a unique take on a legendary song. How did that video impact the band’s trajectory?
Matt: That video definitely got us in front of a lot of people that likely wouldn’t have heard of us otherwise and we’ve met a lot of people that said that that was the thing that led them to listen to our original music, so it had a pretty major positive impact.
MG: Before Covid, you had been touring relentlessly. What did you learn from the grind of the touring experience? How has it shaped you? How do you manage the highs and lows of an aggressive touring schedule?
Matt: Touring has always been phenomenal to us. There have been some rough times, but it has only made us tighter getting through them together. We definitely miss touring. We really can’t wait to get back out there and connect with everybody. The world needs live music.
MG: What had been on the horizon for Blacktop Mojo right before the pandemic hit? Tours? Music releases? Videos? What happened to those plans?
Matt: We had a pretty hefty touring schedule along with quite a few festival dates that all got canceled or postponed until next year. We’ve been continuing to release new music and videos this year though. We released an EP in May and a new music video in September.
MG: I have attended some Blacktop Mojo shows in smaller venues. There was a wonderful connection you had with the crowd. Have you found opportunities to perform live during the pandemic, perhaps in more intimate settings that allow you to perform for smaller audiences? How have they worked out?
Matt: We’ve been fortunate to be able to perform at a few smaller venues with limited capacities and some outdoor shows where people can spread out. It was a little different, but it was nice to be able to play and interact with a live crowd.
MG: Many bands have hosted livestream events. How has Blacktop Mojo used these options? How has it worked out?
Matt: We’ve done quite a few live streams! They have been awesome. It’s allowed us to connect with people from every corner of the globe.
MG: Tell me about Camp Mojo…How is it working into your pandemic life?
Matt: Camp Mojo was a couple of back to back shows here at some local venues in our back yard. One was a regular full band concert and the other was an acoustic storyteller’s style performance. We wanted to put on some limited capacity shows for the people in our fan group, The Mojo Nation, who felt safe travelling to come see us during the pandemic, and also sort of test out the idea and gage the interest of having an annual get-together where our fans and friends from all over the place could get together and see each other.
MG: How have you used this downtime? Personal relaxation? Creating new music? Reading? Time with friends?
Matt: We’ve recently started writing and putting together songs for our next album.
MG: I understand that the band lives together! When did that start, and why? How has it worked out, especially in light of the pandemic? Do you have a studio (makeshift or otherwise) on-site? How do you all figure out who does what, and how do you work out… disagreements? Do you live “as a family” or more independently under the same roof? Do you eat together, and if so…who is the designated chef? Any signature dishes?
Matt: We moved into the band house in the Summer of 2016 as a way to consolidate expenses, so that everyone could quit their day jobs and do music full time. We do have a bit of studio gear here so that we can get ideas for songs down as they come. We’ve been together so long, on the road and off, that there really aren’t very many disagreements. Everyone has respect for the guy next to them on and off the stage, so anything that comes up, normally just gets talked about until it’s squashed and then we move on. We all have our separate corners of the house so that we can be alone when we want, but we also cook together quite a bit. Most of the time when we do it’ll be steak or some sort of fajitas or tacos.
MG: What can we look forward to in the coming months, or even into next year, from Blacktop Mojo?
Matt: Hopefully you’ll be seeing some new music and a lot of touring from us when the world opens back up!
Blacktop Mojo are regular guys that you could sit down with and share a beer… a socially distanced beer, that is. Despite the temporary hesitation that only the Coronavirus could bring, the band is earnestly working social media outlets to keep connected with fans and release new music.
Until touring resumes, there are still plenty of ways to get to know them and their music: