Father’s musical impact fuels indigenous

On stage or in the studio, Mato Nanji, the Telecaster-wielding frontman of up-and-coming blues-rock outfit Indigenous, often draws comparisons to legendary guitarists Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix for his imaginative, powerful playing.

But the fact that Nanji and his band haven't achieved the same level of fame has probably made it easier for the 29-year-old to enjoy his favorite hobby.

"A lot of times I go check out movies; I go to a lot of movies actually," Nanji said. "I liked all the 'Lord of the Rings' movies and I liked the 'Kill Bill' movie that Quentin Tarantino did. I thought it was really cool."

He might not want interruptions during his movie-going experiences, but it's a shame throngs of fans don't recognize Nanji each time he sets foot in the theater. But Indigenous, a family affair from the Yankton Reservation near Sioux Falls, S.D., that includes Nanji's brother Pte (bass), sister Wanbdi (drums) and cousin Horse (percussion), has gained a reputation as a must-see live act since their 1998 debut Things We Do earned them attention.

Nanji said the band's self-titled 2003 release was recorded largely live in the studio without the dictates of a record label hanging over the band and with the desires of Indigenous' fans in mind.

The fans "liked the way (the music) was live rather than on the CDs, so that's one of the reasons we tried to go with that," Nanji said. "We were happy with the first records, but we wanted to get the music sounding more how we wanted it. We had to pay for it ourselves, put it all together, but we felt a little more free and not tied to somebody else's idea."

Indigenous captures the band testing the limits of the blues-rock genre with regularity, with Nanji's distinctive growl and distortion-heavy riffs providing ample fuel for the band's engaging array of blues shuffles, driving rock tunes and melodic ballads.

Nanji said his father, Greg Zephier, a Native American rights activist and musician during the 1960s and '70s, was integral in the whole band's approach to musical growth.

"He'd bring home all kinds of guitar players," Nanji said. "And he said, 'Listen to all of it and get your ideas. Every one of them has something good.' That's what I've been doing ever since."

Having a recognized musician for a father and a musically inclined mother also helped Nanji, his siblings and cousin Horse when they began playing together as teenagers 11 years ago. Nanji said his parents played with the band in its first few gigs to ease them into the business, and his dad made sure they were fully committed to practicing.

Since then, Indigenous has forged a unique sound, in large part due to the lessons of Zephier, who died in 1999.

"They're still here with me," Nanji said. "Every time we'd go in and work on records my dad was always there, giving us ideas. He's still pretty influential even though he's not here with us."

Like the albums his father brought home — from the works of country picker Chet Atkins and bluesman Freddy King to Santana — Nanji said Indigenous has aspirations of being remembered in an era where many bands find long-term success difficult.

"We want to make music that's not going to be there just for the one-hit wonder thing," he said. "It's more about making good music that you're going to be comfortable with for the rest of your life and that people are going to want to come back to and hear."

As for his growing reputation as a guitarist as capable as Vaughan and Hendrix, Nanji simply shrugs it off.

"Those are people that, ever since I was little, I wanted to play guitar like them," Nanji said. "They're really influential on me, but I never really tried to be like Stevie or Jimi. I can't be. They are who they are and I'm still learning about myself and what's all out there."

And he can still go to the movies without renting out the entire theater.

Indigineous performs at 8 p.m. Jan. 20 at the Northern Lights Theater in the Potawatomi Bingo Casino, 1721 W. Canal St. Tickets are available by phone at 847-7922. Tickets range from $10-20.