In Defense of Santana's "Smooth" (ft. Rob Thomas) An interview with Matt Basler, the musician who became infamous for performing the song 10 times in a row

Matt Basler

On June 2, St. Louis-based musician Matt Basler, alongside a band assembled for the occasion, performed “Smooth” by Santana (ft. Rob Thomas) 10 times in a row (12, if you count the encore). Taking the stage at Off Broadway, a popular local venue that’s hosted the likes of Jonathan Richman, Angel Olsen, Sunset Rubdown, and The Hold Steady, Basler played an almost-sold-out show that inspired a joyful sing-along dance party from fans who attended, but evoked ambivalence and derision from news sites like Stereogum and A.V. Club. Conceived as nothing more than a silly idea that Basler wanted to see through to completion, the now-infamous “Smooth” show stoked the debate about the song’s quality and place in pop history, a conversation that, over the years, has taken place everywhere from MTV to Billboard. Whether or not one likes the song (Basler himself is still undecided on this) or considers it good or bad on a critical-aesthetic level, one thing’s for sure: the song has never strayed far from the forefront of public consciousness in its almost 20 years of existence, which helps explain how it was possible for Basler to almost sell out a 400-capacity venue to perform one song.

A few days after attending the show, I met up with Basler at a local watering hole to discuss the show and to try to ascertain his true feelings about “Smooth.” I also wanted to learn more about whether he felt the show was an act of irony, a piece of performance art, or just another rock concert. Sitting in a quiet corner booth under a speaker playing a satellite radio channel dedicated exclusively to the music of Jeff Tweedy, we discussed Wilco and Elliott Smith, bonding over how blown-away we were when Smith’s New Moon came out in 2007.

Informed by how people listen to music today, Basler’s conception of performance is unique, which is why his shows are so popular. In interviews and conversations, Basler typically prefers to leave it at .”..because it’s funny;” but, ultimately, he gets people to engage in an authentic way, whether they are willing to admit it or not. In our conversation, I questioned him about the contemporary pull toward the ironic distanciation of doing something “because it’s bad,” all while secretly enjoying it. For how many are truly willing to admit that they want to listen to “Smooth” (ft. Rob Thomas) by Santana? Very few, and yet it mysteriously lives on. So, while many over the past 20 years have dished serious shade at the song, it remains one of our most celebrated and enduring cultural productions. Yes, countless listeners have vocalized the fact that they hate “Smooth,” but on June 2, Basler proved that there are about 400 people in St. Louis who unabashedly do not. And that’s something.


I thought that show was awesome. I loved it. I haven’t had that much fun in a long time.

You know, you want to tell everyone a joke and you hope that they laugh, but everyone laughed way harder than I thought. It was cool, because the audience was part of the joke, like they were like requesting “Smooth” [during the show], and I thought that was really funny. Everyone was super in on what was going on. I was really happy with it. It was silly.

It was silly, but it was also real. It wasn’t too silly…

There was a guy on some message board and he’s like “Aw, I think it’s shitty…” Like he thought I was trying to make fun of people that like that song. And I still don’t know if I like that song or not. But it’s like no, it’s just fun.

So why did you do it? What made you decide to do it?

So Dylan Clubb, the guy who played guitar that night, he was hanging out and we said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if someone played ‘Smooth’ 10 times?” And then we did it. I think it’s like Tok, my band that did the Tonetta album… I like to say stupid jokes and then just take ‘em all the way. A lot of people — me too, I guess — come up with an idea like this and then you drop it. Like, “It’d be funny, but… I’m not really gonna do it.”

I see what you mean though, like trying to push not only yourself but also like viewers into a zone that they didn’t expect to go into. That’s very cool.

Yeah, just taking these ideas to their final point, like all the way there, instead of leaving them as a hypothetical, “Oh yeah, it’d be funny, but who’s gonna put in the effort?” I guess me [laughs].

What’s the other record you mentioned that you did before this? Have you done anything else like this before?

Do you know Tonetta?

I don’t.

He’s this fella in Canada who’s like 70-something, I think. Sort of an internet dude. And he makes these super lo-fi songs, and most of them are disgusting. And he dresses… sometimes it’s like crossdressing, sometimes it’s just weird outfits. He had a Vimeo page where he would just be naked. And we were like, “Wouldn’t it be funny if somebody covered a handful of his songs and did them in a studio, and made it into a real polished record?” And we did it, and it was funny.

And how was that received? Did you release it?

Yeah. I mean I think people liked it [laughs].

So you’ve already built up a base in town of people who are into this kind of stuff.

Yeah, I think people know that I do silly stuff. A lot of the Tok stuff has been like that.

So what do you think brought people to this show? Do you think it was mostly people that knew about what you’d done in the past? What kind of experience do you think people were wanting to have?

Man, I don’t know. Because a lot more people came than I thought would have come.

Did it sell out?

No, but it was close enough for me. We were I think like 50 people away. Boy, I really don’t know. I feel like a lot of people that went had a better idea of what it was going to be than I did. Everybody else seemed ready for a big party. I was still nervous until that night that on like the third or fourth one that people would be outside and and then maybe come back in for nine and 10. But everybody else was more prepared than I was.

It seemed like everybody loved it. And that’s what’s interesting to me — I feel like it goes beyond just being funny, that people legitimately connected to it in a sincere way. Like it felt very real, and not even real in a small friend-group way, but on the level of a venue that has sold out Angel Olsen, Jonathan Richman, The Hold Steady, like these giant acts.

Yeah, I mean there were a ton of people there that I talked to that I definitely got the impression from that they don’t go to shows often. It brought out people [for whom] this isn’t a place they would normally be. I was really happy that brotherfather and Eric Hall [opened], guys that play for these people that are almost unreachable, right? Maybe I’m judging books by their covers or something, but there was a good number of people that seemed very like, “We’re normal people.”

Who just wanted to have a fun time.

Yeah.

So you talked to the Riverfront Times and you said that you don’t know if you like this song. I’m more interested in whether you think it’s a good song.

It’s probably a good song. Right? It’s a catchy song. It checks a lot of the boxes of good songs.

What was it like to learn it, both on your own and with a group?

Practices were really weird, because, you know, you’re doing one song. So we’d run it three times and go, “I guess… do you guys wanna play it a couple more times?” And we would. The first couple of times somebody would hit a thing where it was like, “Oh, I need to work on that… but not here, not in front of everyone.”

Did you ever practice it 10 times in a row?

Nope.

I feel like for something like this, a lot of people would say that it borders on performance art, and I think other people would say that you’re being ironic. Did you feel like it was ironic? And also did you feel like it was performance art? Or do you just see it as just another rock show?

I don’t think about that stuff a ton. I guess I don’t intentionally try to not think of it. Ok. So is it performance art? I mean, I guess. Oh shit, that’s a bad answer, right? I always say, “I guess… I don’t know!”

Whatever’s real.

I wouldn’t say that’s wrong, I guess. But, I don’t know. I feel like I’m just a… Ok, right. First part: is it performance art? I don’t know. What was the second part?

Do you feel like the show was ironic? Or was the idea ironic?

I want to say no. I don’t really like that kind of humor. And I do think that’s kind of why “Smooth” was a good song for it, because it does ride a line between being a good song and being a silly, cheesy song. People said to me, “Oh, you should do ‘All Star.’” But “All Star” is kind of just a cheesy song. I don’t like to make fun of anybody, I just like to have fun. I guess I sometimes like ideas that will make people make fun of themselves. This is neither here nor there, but a buddy of mine did this YouTube thing for a while where we would do Top 10 lists. We never told our friends about it, but it would just be basically like Top 10 Most Overrated Something. Like popular stuff. And all these people jump in the comments, freaking out, and it’s like we’re not making fun of them, but we’re letting them make fun of themselves. I don’t think super deep about this, I just like to put things out there.

So in thinking about this song, is there a specific reason that you chose this song over any other song?

It’s kind of a funny… I mean it’s funny. And I don’t even know what that means, but it makes me laugh. Like every time those drums do that intro, it’s kind of silly to me.

Especially when you hear it again. It’s not funny the first time you hear it, but then… it’s that same intro.

Like I was saying, it’s definitely not a bad song. But is it a good song? It really is a good song that rides this line.

That’s a good lead-in to my next question. I don’t know if you researched the song before you did this, but the song spent 12 weeks on Billboard’s Hot 100 and went on to stay in the top 10 for 30 weeks. Just the song alone won three Grammys, and Billboard called it the second most successful song of all time. I imagine that at this point you know the song pretty well, inside and out. So what do you think the power of this song is? How do you explain its staying at the forefront of public consciousness for like 20 years? Because there’ve been a lot of legitimately bad songs that have just disappeared — even by top-level people — that just disappear immediately. So what has kept this song sticking around for 20 years?

That drum intro’s probably got a lot to do with it (laughs). Well, and even the lyrics… there’s like memes and jokes about, “Man, it’s a hot one.” And there’s nothing bad there. Those are fine lyrics. Like, whatever. To me, it just fits in this little notch. Now when it comes on the radio I feel differently about it — it’s nothing where I would be like, “Oh god, turn this off.” It’s not anything I would ever request. It’s real catchy. It’s got a broad appeal.

So what would be a song that you would love to play 10 times, that you think would be extremely dope to hear 10 times in a row? And also, can you think of a song that’s so bad that if you said that you were going to play it 10 times, that actually nobody would come?

“MacArthur Park.” Someone left the cake out in the rain. I couldn’t do that — that’s one of my least favorite songs ever. I don’t know if there’s a song that’s good enough that I’d want to hear it 10 times, and that’s interesting, because that is how I listen to music. I’m really bad at listening to new music. Like [Elliott Smith’s] New Moon. I started listening to that song “New Monkey” and I just started listening to that over and over, because I was like, “Oh, this is great!” And I do this with every record. I’ll listen through it once, and one’ll grab me. And I’ll start accidentally hearing the one after it, and go, “Oh, that one’s pretty good, too!” Even though that’s sort of the way I listen to new music, to hear things on repeat, I don’t think I’d want to go to a show…

If any artist that you like said, “I’m gonna play a song 10 times in a row…”

Why would you do that? (laughs). That’s ridiculous.

Kanye has done like 10-15 performances of the same song. There’s another dude that did that recently, too. That’s a legitimate thing.

I haven’t seen any video of that stuff. That’s really interesting, like what was the atmosphere like then? I don’t think people knew they were gonna do it, right?

I think that’s more just in the moment, where they play it and people like it, and they just continue. Or other real performance art things, like JAY-Z or The National. The National did a thing where they performed the same song for six hours at MoMa. And JAY-Z performed a song somewhere for hours and hours and hours. It’s a thing that people pay for, because it’s an experience, right? Like you’re going to an art museum and you’re seeing JAY-Z.

That’s cool. I’d do that.

I would do that too, actually. I’m sure you’re read The A.V. Club, Stereogum, all the articles that came out. Any other ones I missed? And the RFT one as well.

ABC Radio Music News, or something like that. It’s ABC’s music section. I think that’s the one that made me go, “Are you fucking kidding me?”

How do you feel about that?

That’s ridiculous. It’s great. It’s wonderful. We got this thing together pretty quick. From telling Dylan, “Wouldn’t this be funny…,” we booked the show with Off Broadway the next week. The band was put together by the end of that week. Then, you know, [the show] was 2-3 months after that. So, to get any kind of national attention was super surprising to me. It’s really great. It’s wonderful.

Was there any point where you were like, “Well, fuck, now all these people are involved, so now I have to do it,” or were you pretty stoked on it the whole time?

Oh no, I always wanted to do it. I would have thought it was really great and funny if 20 people showed up. It would have been a bummer for Off Broadway, not being able to pay anybody, but I was super blown away. I had all of my rebuttals ready to go, like “No no no, hold on, let me explain!” Didn’t have to do it once! They were totally into it.

I felt like Stereogum was pretty neutral, but A.V. Club, they were really acerbic and critical of this idea, they weren’t wanting or willing take it seriously. The article opens with, “It’s always a sad discovery when seemingly nice and normal people turn out to be jerks in some heretofore unnoticed way.” And it concludes with, “Setting aside the obvious part where ‘in theory’ might’ve been the warning bell, the excuse of “doing it for the lulz” is clearly no longer a reasonable excuse. This is a clear and present danger to the good taste and assembled dignity of people willing to pay $8 for the privilege of having their ears bombarded with the tragic riff of a wack… wait, people are paying to hear this? Never mind. Sowers, meet your reaping — his name is Thomas.”

Well, they got a free t-shirt too. With their $8 there was a t-shirt. So it’s not just to hear the song. [At the show, ticket holders could visit a merchandise table run by local art collective Butt’n Booty to get a free t-shirt with the complete lyrics to “Smooth”].

So what do you have to say to A.V. Club after reading that?

I mean, that’s pretty funny (laughs). I guess I disagree a little bit, but I don’t know, that’s a fun way to talk about it, too, to just be like, “Look how dumb this is.” Because it is dumb, but it’s funny and cool, too. I think that’s a fair approach. I do think the idea’s funny, but I don’t know, maybe they’re really serious and I’m giving it more credit… maybe they’re not being silly. I feel like it’s kind of silly. Is that the one that called me a monster?

Yeah, the title was something like, “Some monster plays assault on listeners’ ears.”

I like that — that’s going in my bio.

So your next show’s in a few weeks, where you’re going to be eating increasingly spicy food between songs. That seems like more of a directly funny idea than the “Smooth” concert. So what do you anticipate being different about that?

I’m really interested to see about the idea of a show that gets progressively worse as you’re there. It’s going to be an acoustic thing, because I couldn’t really think of a way to jump back in, like if I have to stop a song or whatever, it would be really annoying to have to count it off. But then I think that’s kind of funny too, right? Like it’s this sort of intimate solo thing, but the dude’s hopefully coughing and sweating and snotting all over the place. Yeah, I’m not good at eating hot things, and I’ve stopped eating hot things — I’ve heard that you can build a tolerance to capsaicin, I believe. So I stopped eating hot stuff, to make it worse. I want it to be as terrible for me as I can get it.

It reminds me of shows like Man vs. Food or Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, where these guys who are chefs are also sort of performers, and they’re really on the line between sincere food reporting and super ironic over-consumption. What’s your opinion of those guys?

I’ve read comments from Facebook friends who are pretty down on the “Smooth” thing…

Down as in they don’t like it?

Yeah. They were like, “This is not good for the scene.” And some people were just like, “Gimmicks are bad.” “Smooth” is sort of a different deal. But I feel like anything you can do to make things more entertaining or more fun or like you’re just doing a fun thing [is good]. Not to keep going back to “Smooth,” but the “Smooth” show’s almost like when you have a movie night where you show a cheesy movie, like The Room or something. People screen that all the time, and it’s really successful. I don’t feel like people would be like, “Arrgh, they’re screening The Godfather across town and nobody’s watchin’ it!” It’s ok to just do fun, silly stuff. So this show, I’m playing sincere songs of mine, it’s just that by the fifth one, they might sound really bad.

Yeah, and you’re not trying to trick people. This is what the show is. It’s not like you’re saying, “Come to a show.” And then they get there and you say, “Oh, by the way… I’m gonna do this other silly thing that you didn’t know about. I guess it would be a way different show if you just had your band play, and people show up and you play “Smooth” 10 times in a row, or you eat a bunch of hot wings.

Yeah, the guy who did percussion with us said that’s how we should do it. But I said, “No man, I’m not gonna do that, come on. That’s mean.”

I think that’s sort of what brought people out though. I mean… I’ve kind of developed my own thesis about this song as I’ve been thinking about it, and after watching your show, which is that… It’s like with people that listen to a song… like a classic example is the person who listens to “bad 80s music.” But they’re always listening to it, and there’s a part of them that really loves it, but they have to tell themselves it’s bad so that they can listen to it. And I feel like with this song, there’s something about it that people love. There’s something about it that is really good. And it wouldn’t stick around… so the fact that you’re evoking that from people… Because, there was nothing ironic or insincere at all about the show. That crowd was more into it than almost any real concert.

If there was any kind of purpose — which there wasn’t, it was just a goof — but if someone had to write it up, it would just for people to get over themselves. Just have fun, don’t try to be ironic. When you’re listening to bad 80s music (uses air quotations), if you like it, like it. Who gives a shit? Fun stuff is fine.

I notice a lot of people telling themselves that something’s bad, and I just want to say, “If you enjoy it, you don’t need to tell yourself it’s bad. Just enjoy it for what it is.” That’s sort of like the guilty pleasure, to say, “I hate this and it’s bad, but I also secretly love it.”

Yeah, I wish people could be more sincere about a lot of stuff, like music and movies and stuff. I guess art in general, like these things that are are maybe a little more topical, and have a wider reach. A thing I started doing is that I started playing some pop song on the guitar, and it was a sort of feeling like, “This song’s fine. It’s ok.” And then I started to realize that a lot of the reason that I don’t like pop stuff is because of the production of it. I think production is really important, but at the same time, I should be a better musician, especially to recognize a good song just by its songwriting. I wish I could remember what it what. It might have been “Wrecking Ball.”

Miley Cyrus or Bruce Springsteen?

Miley Cyrus. Because it’s just a four-chord rock song, it’s not some affront to music or anything.

And a lot of that stuff, too, is written by professionals in an office who are masters of the science and how that stuff works.

I think if that song was recorded in a different way, with live drums and guitars, and whoever singing it differently, people would be like, “Oh yeah, that’s a cool song!” Because that’s what I was doing, right? I was being like, “Ah, I don’t like that!” And so I started listening to Z107.7 a bunch to not be so much of that person.

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