When Mateo Sandate says, “With improvisational music, sometimes you just don’t know where it’s going to go,” he is connecting the feeling of talking to a reporter about his life with the free-flowing, heart-felt music for which he is best known.
Sitting on the front of the stage at Sopris Park near a Tai Chi group wrapping up its morning routine and warblers flitting around on the freshly mowed grass, the soft-spoken Sandate muses on his early connection with a song.
“I remember sitting on the bed with my dad and him showing me a chord, then another chord and it turned out to be a song called ‘La Bamba,’” he says. “It was about the same time the movie came out about (Ritchie Valens), and that had a big impact on me.
“My dad taught me the first few notes (he sings them) and then he told me, ‘now that you know that, play it in reverse.’ So I worked it out in reverse.”
Sandate describes himself as a late bloomer because he didn’t get serious about the guitar until he was in high school. A drummer named Mike Verdes had moved into Sandate’s hometown, and the two bonded over music.
“He heard that I played guitar, so we started playing,” Sandate said. “He opened my ears and got me exploring music.”
Following the drumbeat
That started a progression, Sandate said of drummers he thought of not only as friends, but mentors — including former Let Them Roar drummer Aaron Taylor.
“There’s something about the groove, and drummers know that,” he said. “Musicians, the more mature they are, they get to know that, too.”
Sandate and Verdes formed a funk band in their high school, and by their senior year it had grown into a popular 12-piece band.
“We got nominated for the best funk band in Dallas, and (Verdes) and I got offered a record deal from Virgin Records, but it never materialized,” he said. “I didn’t even know how to pursue it. I was just really focused on the music — the joy of it.”
The popularity of the band did open up opportunities for Sandate, though, including an audition for a jazz band.
“I didn’t make it, but the band director said ‘you’ve got a summer to learn how to read music,’ so I did that,” Sandate said. “That opened up the possibility for me to study music.”
He ended up studying jazz at the University of North Texas where he fell in love with the big band sound.
But Sandate was also passionate about the rivers and wildlands of the West, and after college he and a partner worked as river guides. That led to an 11-year career with the U.S Forest Service where he worked on trail crews and then as an interpretive ranger and educator in the Roaring Fork Valley.
His love of music was always there, though, and it led Sandate to gradually transition away from the Forest Service and into his career as a musician.
“There used to be a great music store in Aspen called The Great Divide where Paul Buechler, a guitarist who had a master’s degree from Yale, worked,” Sandate said. “I used to go there after work (to jam). It would be like 10 o’clock at night and the store would be closed and we’d still be playing.”
Sandate started playing in a band called The Hideout where he first met future Let Them Roar singer Olivia Pevec, and the two, along with singer Sophia Clark, bassist Ashton Taufer, and drummer Aaron Taylor, formed a band called All the Pretty Horses.
But they soon got a call from a band in Minnesota who said, “hey, that’s is our band’s name.” So, they all gathered to come up with a new name — throwing suggestions into a hat. Two of them chose Let Them Roar.
“What the heck does that mean? Let Them Roar?” Sandate said. “We live by the Roaring Fork River, and when that river is at high water it’s mesmerizing, it’s a part of what makes this home. So let those rivers roar, let them run free.
“Rivers are a metaphor for living in the wild lands. Let our sense of home, our sense of wonder, the rivers and the mountains… let them roar.”
The band started out with a sound rooted in country music, bluegrass, folk and Bob Dylan. But over time that sound has evolved, Sandate said.
“I think it’s important that those are the roots we’ve grown from. Just like a tree, it looks different now,” he said. “But the foundation of that music, from the rich culture of the mining era to the people of today, is still with us. And the basic sound, even though it sounds so different, is still rooted in that folk tradition.”
Like Dylan, Let Them Roar has used their music to call attention to social injustices.
The song, “I See My Light,” was inspired by women who’ve taken sanctuary in Colorado to keep their families from being torn apart by immigration policies, and it inspired the “I See My Light” campaign, in which the band has raised over $15,000.
“Bob Dylan was very big into community and the culture. His protest songs wake us up,” Sandate said. “I like to think that that tradition is still alive in our music, whether it’s focusing on people who might feel marginalized in our community, might not be represented, or even the immigrants who are on the front lines of hate.
“As offputting as that sense of us and them is, there is no them, there never was. For some reason we’re just polarized in a lot of ways with our culture. I like to lean into the music we write and (make it) a part of the community we’re a part of.
“So, let them roar. Let their voices be heard.”
Let Them Roar began recording a new album with Grammy-winning Producer Tom Wasinger in March, but the project is currently on hold due to the pandemic.
In the mean time, the band has created workshops in partnership with Garfield County Libraries, and Sandate also has kept busy teaching in the Lead Guitar program at the Aspen Music Festival and School, and running a guitar academy inside Steve’s Guitars in Carbondale.
“He’s one of the best guitarists in Western Colorado, and I consider him one of the local saints of music,” said Steve’s Guitars owner Steve Standiford. “He’s got kind of a Buddhist approach — it’s very giving, nurturing and loving.”