Asheville Cats: Jeff Santiago and Los Gatos

Note: This feature previewed a November 2017 concert in Asheville NC.

Jeff Santiago’s band released its most recent album, Rolling Towards the Moon, in April 2014. Since that time the group has shortened its name to Los Gatos and begun writing for a follow-up album. But the Asheville group’s period of low-profile activity is coming to an end, celebrated by a live show at The Mothlight on November 9. And though it wasn’t originally planned as such, the show is now a benefit to help those affected most by the recent hurricane in Puerto Rico.

“This last year, we’ve slowly been working on some new pieces,” singer-songwriter-guitarist Santiago says, “but we’ve gotten a lot more focused in the last several months.” Los Gatos will debut some of its new material at the November 9 show.

Returning along with Santiago are bassist Lee White, Springs Wade on drums, and lead guitarist Brandon Burney. Kristin Avery recently joined the band on keyboards and vocals.

And the group shortened its name from Los Gatos Negros to the simpler Los Gatos. The explanation is simple. “We just felt it was too long,” Santiago admits with a laugh. “People were kind of tongue-tied with it, so I felt it best to shorten it.”

Though he’s an accomplished songwriter on his own, his previous work with his acoustic-based group Rozinante and as a member of indie rockers Broomstars both demonstrated Santiago’s skill working as part of a creative team. And that’s his favored approach within the context of Los Gatos as well. He says that the band develops new material in a variety of ways.

“I’ve written some pieces and kept each open so that we can have input from everybody who’s playing on it,” he says. “I like to see everyone really be a part of that process. And then other times, we’re sharing ideas and trying to see if we can build off of those, working up a song from there.” Santiago says he relies on “group input and group effort from the band.”

Even with its collaborative nature, Los Gatos’ music primarily reflects the lyrical concerns of Jeff Santiago. And even a decade ago, Asheville audiences recognized the quality of his work. A 2007 story in Mountain Xpress characterized Santiago – then performing as a solo acoustic act – as making music that’s “a unique marriage of rhythm and heart … both laid back and danceable.”

But the lyrics Santiago writes in 2017 differ somewhat from those of just a few years ago. “I became a dad,” he explains. He describes parenthood as a life-changing experience: his young daughter has taught him a lot about slowing down. Being a dad “made me realize that it’s good to get back into fundamentals of songwriting, and break out of the typical, old habits I’ve had,” he says.

Santiago shares his love of music with his toddler daughter, who’s on record as being a big fan of acts including Toots and the Maytals. “Now that she’s growing into this little person, I’m able to share a lot more music with her,” Santiago says. “It’s been inspiring. That, coupled with the temperature of the world right now and everything that’s going on, means that I feel a lot more motivated – obligated, even – to continue expressing myself as a songwriter.”

The devastation visited upon Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria in September left the U.S territory largely without water and electricity, and federal efforts to provide aid have been criticized as late and insufficient. Santiago has many close friends and family who live in Puerto Rico. “I’m first generation off the island,” he notes. “People are hurting, and people are cut off, and I’d like to see a real effort to get those people taken care of.”

Jeff Santiago and Los Gatos are doing their part. Right after the hurricane, Santiago organized a food and supplies drive under the auspices of Operation Puerto Rico Strong. “We started out with one truck,” he says, “and we wound up filling up two. It’s just a matter of getting that stuff to people.”

In cooperation with another Asheville band, Modern Strangers, the group decided to make its already-scheduled Mothlight show a benefit, with all proceeds going toward United for Puerto Rico. And while details were still being sorted out, Santiago is scheduling a personal trip to the island. “I’m already talking with some Friends at Habitat for Humanity,” he says. “I’m hoping to go down there and help rebuild some homes.”

And amid those efforts, Santiago still finds time to make music. In addition to showcasing some of the new tunes and old favorites, he says that Los Gatos “will pay tribute to a couple of fallen musical heroes as of late. This’ll be our first show at the Mothlight, a venue I have a great appreciation for. And I’m excited to get a turn at it.”