In a small cafe across the street from Madison square Garden, Benny Rietveld peers out the window at the venerable venue. in about 24 hours he’ll be standing stage-center in a position that’s been quite familiar to him for more than 20 years: next to Carlos Santana, in front of a huge crowd of dedicated fans. Benny’s bass has provided a firm foundation for countless incarnations of the band that bears the iconic guitarist’s namesake, but this time around the lineup is extra special, as the original members of Santana have reunited for their first new album and live performances in 45 years. Although Rietveld wasn’t there at the start (David Brown played bass on most of the early albums and passed away in 2000), he blends in so well musically with band founders Carlos, Gregg Rolie, Michael Shrieve, Neal Schon, and Michael Carabello that after hearing them together live and on the new Santana IV, you’ll swear you time-traveled back to 1971.
Born in Holland and raised in Hawaii, the 57-year-old of Indonesian ancestry has been at the forefront of the bass world since the late ’80s. He was plucked out of Sheila E.’s touring band by none other than the great Miles Davis, who hired Rietveld for his own band of young guns and toured the globe with them. In 1990 Benny hopped on the Santana train to record the album Spirits Dancing in the Flesh and became a permanent member of the group, which hit a commercial peak in 1999 with the landmark Supernatural, netting the band nine Grammy awards and 30 million album sales worldwide. But for all its success, it was always the original version of Santana that established the band’s then-new, unique brand of Latin rock. The founding members only hung in for three albums—until now, that is.
How did the band prepare for the recording of Santana IV?
The original guys went in first and did some jamming and a little writing, and I think a couple of things survived from that in a skeletal form. Then they called me in for a rehearsal with percussionist Karl Perazzo, and that’s when it started jelling because it was a full band.
Did you go back and listen to the first few Santana albums to prepare?
A little, but I know those albums inside my head. I listened to those guys constantly, so it was in my DNA already. David Brown’s bass playing worked, it fit the band, and his tone was great—a stock Fender Precision Bass with a rosewood fingerboard.
Did you think about playing a P-Bass?
I totally thought about it, but the feeling was that even though it’s kind of a reunion album, they weren’t interested in replicating every sound and trying to do that whole archival thing. They were more interested in making some really cool music in that tradition, but now. So I used all kinds of basses on it, whatever worked. That’s their ethos: Whatever we need to do to get a cool thing happening.
What were the sessions like?
Incredibly fun and vital, because it was a lot of playing. It wasn’t very controlled; we’d be in the control room for five minutes talking, saying maybe we’ll start this and do that, and then finally we said let’s just go in and play. It was pretty exhilarating, because I can imagine that’s the way they did it back then. It was great.
Had you played with drummer Michael Shrieve before?
Every now and then, when he’d sit in, but never on a regular basis. And when he’d sit in and play, it was like, Wow—that’s the groove. His grooves are unique and so non-drummer-like. I think with early Santana he had to kind of invent a way of playing around two percussionists who were steeped in the Latin tradition, and a rock beat wouldn’t have sounded good. So he does some really interesting, inventive stuff.
Were you involved in the writing and arranging?
Yeah, and that was the other thing. Those guys were incredibly generous with their time and energy. It could have easily been like, “Oh, that’s our club,” and you’re just, you know, whatever. But it was all about just making music; they didn’t care where an idea came from. The song “Suenos” was written by me and Carlos. We’ve had that one rolling around for a while, just in our heads, and it finally found a home on this album.
The song “Fillmore East” is a standout, it sounds like the band was jamming away in the studio.
That just totally happened. Everyone zoned out, no one was even looking—just communicating invisibly. We were doing another song called “New York,” a hard-driving rock thing, and Carlos said let’s stay on Bb and just go. And we just went into it and that was it, the first take. At the end of it, we were like, I guess that one is done [laughs]. I could see why these guys played together a lot. And that’s why it’s called “Fillmore East”—it took us back to being in that time. Totally undirected, that just went.
When you’re recording, where do you find your places to break out, to put your own lines in?
It just happens. It’s a combination of listening to everything all the time and also knowing who you’re playing with. And just being present in that moment. Your mind is making these kinds of predictions all the time, and if you are used to playing with each other, you kind of know instinctively what the other is going to do, and you find your own little area.
What effects do you use?
Now? Nothing. Just cord to the amp. I don’t even use a wireless anymore, because the sound is not that good. I think for a lot of applications wireless works, but for me, I’m missing a little punch. It’s a little too compressed. In a band like this you really need to have the punch. Plus you have a rhythm guitar player, a keyboard player, you’ve got Carlos, you’ve got timbales, you’ve got congas, and there’s always a phenomenal drummer, so the bass needs a lot of presence. Wireless degrades the signal just enough that it doesn’t work. I think on guitar it works more, maybe.
What are some things you do away from the bass that helps you as a bassist?
I think living a good life helps. I try to take care of myself and eat well. I try to keep positive about stuff, because that makes your body work better. And if your body works better, you can play better. That’s pretty much all I do, just try to have a happy life.
Santana, Santana IV [2016, Santana IV Records], Corazón [2014, RCA], Supernatural [1999, Arista]; Alicyn Yaffee, Someone Else [2016, Madman Junkyard]
Rig Grace M103 preamp, two QSC PLX3602 power amps, Bad Monkey custom-made 4x10 & 1x15, Aguilar DB 410 4x10
Strings HS 4-string, Dunlop Nickel (.045–.100); HH 4-string, Ernie Ball 2813 Flatwound (.045– .105); 5-strings, Dunlop Nickel (.045–.125); EUB, NS 5 FL