An Evening with Matt James, Blacktop Mojo Frontman
It’s always amazing to get into a band as they’re just about to take off. You can see it, you can certainly hear it, but when you can just feel it, then it becomes real. When all 3 come together, you get Texas based Blacktop Mojo and then things most certainly get real, really fast. Blacktop Mojo has already been chosen for (2) icepick awards here on Renegade for their music. As I’ve come to know the band, I’ve come to find that you couldn’t ask for a more down home group of guys. This shows up on social media with their interaction and really shines when you see them live.
Seeing them live is now easy, as the band just hit the road for their 2nd US tour, and will be sharing the stage with other major players such as Blackstone Cherry and Shamans Harvest. Recently I caught up with front man / Game of Thrones stunt double Matt James to take us back to the early “Pre-Mojo” days. Matt, a high school and college football player, graduated college and came back to Palestine, TX, getting a job in a local coffee shop where he began playing music on a regular basis. The trip down Mojo road had begun.
From there he was introduced to Nathan Gillis through mutual friends in the band scene with a “’Hey man, this guy plays drums’, or ‘Hey man, this guy sings’, but when you play music you hear that on a regular basis and just shrug it off” Matt said, talking about the local music typical introductions. “We ended up running into each other at a country concert up in Tyler Texas.
“We were both hammered drunk and it was like ‘hey man I’m playing at the coffee shop tomorrow night you should come on out!’” Matt said laughing at the memory. “He was just drunk enough to agree but not drunk enough to forget and showed up the next day with a few of his buddies and watched me play acoustic for a couple of hours”.
The night went well and the next day Matt was invited to stop by Nathans house to keep the conversation going.
“Now being a good guest, I went out and got a handle of Crown (Royal), you know, and we got the ideas flowing for sure. We ended up hanging out and Nathan had a drum set in his living room and he’s like ‘let me show you what I can do’ and kinda went off for only about 30 seconds and I was like ‘DAMN MAN’ cause he was good!
“He was like ‘hey man, we should start a band!’ so we did” Matt said laughing.
When asked about how the rest band came together Matt rolled off “I went to high school with Kenneth Irwin and he played in a bunch of metal bands. They actually played at a pep rally one time when we were about to go play a high school football game. He threw down some metal in the middle of the floor with strobe lights going, it was one of the coolest things I had ever seen.
“I knew he could shred on the guitar, so I called him up and asked him if he wanted to jam with us at the coffee shop after the doors closed down for the night, pretty much all night. We started doing that pretty regularly and ended up playing our first gig on a flatbed trailer at a local fall fest, at tiny little high school around here.”
The name “Blacktop Mojo” is actually a combination of things. When asked to fess up some details, Matt was happy to give me some history.
“Around here there’s not much to do so sometimes young adults, like ourselves, will go out on a backroad where no one goes, load up on some beer and whiskey and listen to some tunes. Well, one day a couple of Nathans buddies showed up early at his house while he (Nathan) was still working with a handle of Jim Beam and they were like ‘Hey man, you wanna go back-roading with us?’ so of course I went.
“I needed something to stir my drink with and my buddy, being a duck hunter, had a “Mojo” brand duck decoy. He only had a piece of that, no pen, or straw, just the key to his duck decoy that he handed me. It got a little fuzzy from there but out of all that, we came up with Blacktop Mojo.” Matt explained laughing at the memory.
In talking about the recording of their first release, I AM, Matt dove back into some details.
“We started out as a country cover band because most of the bars and dance halls around here, that’s all they want, a band to play in the corner for 3-4 hours and give people something to dance to – so we did that. When we started writing some of our original material, it was way heavier than country and decided that we’d lean in that direction. We enlisted the help of Phil Mosley who produced the album and went to Rosewood Studios in Tyler Texas and laid it all down in a week as that’s all we could afford.
“We’d record for 8-10 hours a day, come back home, rehearse for 5-6 hours and then go back and record for 8-10 hours more and kept doing that until we had a whole album. This was our first time in a studio setting and having only a week to do it really taught us how to manage our time and prepare to lay it down and not waste any time. Fast Forwarding to Burn the Ships, our 2nd album, we went from about 2 weeks of pre-production for I Am to 8 months to a year for Burn the Ships.
“That’s what we learned from the first one, we need to take our time recording our ideas and then taking them into the professional studios with engineers and everybody so we had a fully formed idea.”
Picking out some of the songs from Burn the Ships, we dug into some background on Underneath and the basic message of this amazing song.
“Underneath is actually written by Nathan Gillis and the relationship he had with his mom over the years and not letting anger and depression control your life. You’ll need to ask Nathan for more details next time you see him.”
Somewhere in all this, Blacktop Mojo threw their young talents into a Bon Jovi contest here Bon Jovi lets local bands open for him on his tour. “We were in competition with bands from all over Texas cause that was his only Texas date. You had to send in a video of an original song and we sent in Where the Wind blows. His management narrowed it down from there and between the management and Live Nation, they picked that one.
“It’s a big thing for someone that big and iconic to give us that opportunity and we were really grateful”.
The concert was said to be sold out at 21000 and the previous venue where the Mojo played was more like 300 so the differences between shows is quite astounding and a sudden shock to anyone system. In talking about the day of the show itself, Jones looked back and said they had them show up 7 hours early.
“Then they put us in the visiting locker room. So we pretty much just paced the floor for 7 hours before the show with definite butterflies in the stomach.”
Matt explained that they had a 20 minute set and they were able to get 4 songs in, “Burn the Ships”, “Where the Wind Blows”, “Trouble on the Rise” and “Pyromaniac”.
“it’s kinda all a blur from there. They turned the house lights down and you heard probably 10,000 people screaming and it just went crazy.” They also got a chance to meet Bon Jovi who offered his own story to help get Blacktop Mojo’s mind set for their first large gig.
“We got to talk to him a little bit and he told us a story that made us feel a hell of a lot better. Bon Jovi was opening up for ZZ Top at Madison Square Garden and when they went to go play the first song, Jon said Richie Samboras guitar stopped working and the crowd started chanting ZZ TOP ZZ TOP.
“He said he took his guitar off and gave it to Richie and they finished the set and then told me ‘it’s not going to go that bad for you’ and that made us feel a lot better”.
Next up for the band was Sammy Hagar during SXSW, huge annual music festival in Austin, TX where the band got to jam with Sammy Hagar and DMC while they were in Austin for the event.
“That actually came about a couple of weeks after the Bon Jovi show. We’re endorsed by Gibson (guitars) and we got a call from our Gibson rep and they needed kinda last minute band for Sammy Hagar’s TV show, Sammy Hagar’s Rock and Roll Road Trip. We got to go down there and he (Hagar) was interviewing DMC from RUN DMC and they had us learn “It’s Tricky” which was pretty cool cause we never played like that before and then they had us learn Rock Candy by Montrose and we got to play that with Sammy.”
Next up was Blacktop Mojos first US Tour. If you were following the band on Facebook, you got to live the road trip with the guys as they came up with creative ways to keep everyone posted on where they were and which landmarks they were seeing on the way.
“The tour went by in a blur, like most things. We were 7 guys shoved into a 15 passenger band for 2 months straight. It was rough at times but we got through it together. None of us has been to west coast before, California, Oregon, Washington, which is absolutely beautiful out there. None of us had ever seen the Grand Canyon before either so we got to hit some bucket list type stuff.
From the massive expanses of the Grand Canyon to city adventures while in New York, the band covered a wide range of experiences on their first trip.
“We had a radio show to do in New York City and were staying at a hotel in New Jersey. We got to ride in to Penn Station on the train, go down Madison Ave and play on the radio thing and then get lost on the subway for a few hours trying to find out way to Brooklyn. We’re from a town of 18000 people and there were probably 18000 people on the subway that morning. That was a little bit of an adventure there.”
Talking more of the road trip, Jones wanted to call out one stop in particular. “Boise, Idaho we had a way bigger crowd that we expected. We had like 400 people show up on a Wednesday night which is insane for a first tour. But in all we met a lot of great people and the venues were all cool to us so we’re really to roll again.”
Many bands cover older songs but not all bands can pull them off. The vocal stylings of Steven Tyler (Aerosmith) are borderline “untouchable” and seldom recommended for a band to attempt. Doubling down, Blacktop Mojo relied on the talents entire band to pull off covering Dream On.
“We were doing covers while writing Burn the Ships to kinda put stuff out for people following us at the time, and our buddy comes up to us and says we should do Dream On by Aerosmith. We all looked at him like he was an insane person cause most people will tell you that you don’t touch Aerosmith. Our producer, (Mosley) thought it would be a fun challenge and if no one liked it we didn’t have to put it out. Once we had a rough cut of it we put it out to our friends and family cause if something sucks they’ll tell you.
“Well they didn’t hate it so we put it up on YouTube and kinda just left it alone there. By the time we went in to record Burn the Ships it had a million views.”
Covers, just as their own original music, seems to come easy for this laid back band. From the hard stylings of their first 2 releases to their high energy shows now across the nation, they can still throw a curve at you and recently they covered Phil Collins, In The Air Tonight.
“We were drinking at the distillery and had a guitar in the van, so we decided to play around a bit. We’re sponsored by a whiskey company, Texas Silver Star Whiskey in Ft Worth in an old abandoned bean style factory. Part of it is still unfinished and it’s a big silo basically where they would hold the beans. We walked in the room and it had such a cool natural reverb and we decided ‘hey man, let’s do a song” and someone videoed it on their cell phone and it kinda grew legs and ran across the internet” Jones said laughing. “It was kinda complete accident!”.
Now on the road, James talked a bit about one of the questions running across Mojo Nation – when are you coming to MY city and hey MY city is in Europe? While showing a massive following in the works and people waiting to see BTM, the band is doing the best they can to hit as many cities as they can but booking a tour like this can be complicated.
“The tour dates come together come together based on radio stations supporting our singles and relationships our booking agents have with venues and it gets complicated. You can’t book a show one night in California and soon after in New York, you gotta keep the dates/places together and our agents do a great job at that.”
When pressed for the Euro dates, Jones did let it be known the band has their passports ready, just in case. “That would be the dream at this point” Jones said “Hopefully by the end of the year, fingers crossed we’ll get to cross the pond and see all our European peeps.”
As for a 3rd release, work has already begun and you’ll get to hear some new music if you’re lucky enough to attend a live show on this tour.
Winding down the night, Matt talked about some of the promos they do on Facebook to push shows, planned and random videos recorded and put online, coupled with their incredible sound and powerful southern grunge down home rock feel, they’ve amassed over 41k likes on Facebook and millions of views on YouTube, yet they’re still a down home family band and try to keep up with everything going on and ensure the fans know how much they’re appreciated. With over 100 messages a day incoming and growing, they still do their best to reply to them all.
“We try to get to everyone that we can because we are a family and want our fans to feel that way too” Jones explained.
From their beginnings on a flatbed trailer at a small Texas high school to planning European dates soon, Blacktop Mojo is most certainly a band on the rise that isn’t forgetting their family both back home and on the road they just haven’t met yet. Catch them soon on tour and get some Mojo into your own family.