Summerfest serves as homecoming for Latin music guitarist Steininger
When Domenic Marte and the rest of his Latin music band takes the Harley-Davidson Roadhouse stage Sunday night at 7:30, the crowd will be expecting strong, musically complex, catchy pop-infused bachata music (a particular brand of romantic Latin music that originated in the Dominican Republic and spread from there).
There's one thing they might not be expecting however: Clay Steininger, the group's guitar-slinging "gringo."
"I guess I'm in a good market because you could say I stand out in a crowd, because I'm the American guy," Steininger joked.
A local guy, born and raised in Milwaukee, Steininger's interest in music was spurred by what motivates most young boys to much of anything: girls.
"In second grade, I remember a girl in my class signed up for piano lessons," Steininger said. "I always try to jog my memory and go, 'How did I?' and I think I just thought, 'Oh, she's taking piano lessons; I think I'll try too.' So I had real peer motivation. Sometimes I like to say that I'm still playing guitar to impress girls."
Luckily, Steininger wound up loving the lessons and music in general. He stuck with the piano for about seven years in grade school when, just before high school, the cool kid on the block – "the kid I looked up to," according to Steininger – gifted the young musician with an electric guitar.
"After that, it was bye-bye to the piano," Steininger laughed.
After graduating from Marquette University High School, the guitarist headed to the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities to study his two passions: music and philosophy, ("really big moneymaking career ventures there," Steininger joked). Even though he was studying music, listening to Jimi Hendrix and spending three to four hours a day trying to perfect his guitar skills, an actual career as a musician seemed out of the question.
"I would love it, but honestly it scared me to death," Steininger said. "I was always down on myself; I was a perfectionist, so I would lock myself in my room all the time. I could be jamming on my guitar in my room, but if that door opened and it was a roommate, I would turn off the guitar and be like, 'Oh hi, oh I'm not doing anything in here.' But by the end of college, it was obvious that this was a thing I was into."
Noticing his apparent passion and talent, Steininger's parents gave him a strong nudge, recommending that he head out to the Berklee College of Music in Boston. There, Steininger stayed far away from Latin music, instead getting involved in jam bands and imagining himself to eventually be "the white Jimi Hendrix." Unfortunately, a hand injury from practicing too much put a brief halt to matters, relocating Steininger to a different part of Massachusetts to teach while rehabbing his hand. There, his old grade school motivation kicked back in.
"There's a huge Latino community in the city that we live," Steininger said. "I actually kind of developed a crush on the Latina girls here and wanted to figure out how to meet them, so I started learning to dance, play music and learning Spanish just for fun. Through a twist of fate, a group heard about this gringo, this American who was into Latin music and had some guitar talent. So I got hired to play in that group – a commercially successful group that got radio play and travelled around. We played on TV shows and whatnot, so I guess my reputation got out there."
Word of this talented, guitar-playing gringo soon got to Domenic Marte. The bachata singer lived and grew up in the same neighborhood, learning a love of music at a young age from his family that eventually evolved into getting signed by JN/Sony in 2003 and releasing an album, "Intimamente," the following year.
The band's first single, "Ven Tu," turned out to be a hit on YouTube and the Billboard Tropical Songs chart. He was intrigued by Steininger's musical chops, but a little skeptical as well.
"I'd be lying if I said there wasn't any concern," Marte admitted. "Everyone in a Latin band, they normally are Latinos, and they are also from the Dominican Republic. Management kept telling me, 'This guy is good,' and I'm like, 'Really?' And then you'd hear him playing with his old band, and you'd hear that he could do some special things, but we always put ourselves out there as the toughest bachata band to play with because of our cord progressions and the whole arrangement."
Steininger was possibly just as concerned when time for the audition came around.
"I'd never met Domenic – and likewise, he'd never met me – and people talk about each other in any business, the good and the bad," Steininger said. "So it was like, 'Okay, who is this guy?' with him, and I'm sure him with me."
The audition, however, went brilliantly. Steininger learned a bunch of Marte's music for the tryout and performed it as the Latin music artist's place. Not only did the two impress one another with their musical skills, but personality-wise, the musicians clicked almost instantly.
"We were already playing practical jokes on the manager by the end of that first meeting, so that's how you could tell it was going to be a good working relationship," Steininger said.
I listened to the guy for a while," Marte recalled. "You'd see him playing with other bands, and you'd know the talent that he brought to the table was superior. A guy who studies at Berkeley, professional musician and teacher, you know he's going to bring professionalism to your band as well. That's one of the things we wanted."
As for Steininger's gringo status, it's never been an issue in the three to four years he's been a part of Domenic Marte's band. In fact, he's moved up to the director of the band, getting guys going and motivated.
"You get worried, but then once the guy's in, you're super excited to have him, and you realize this is a real musician," Marte said. "Plus, he's a humble guy, a nice guy and he's here to work and learn. He keeps us on our toes. It always kind of excites you; He's the leader, regardless of me being the vocalist and the artist in the name. You always want your director to lead you, and I say it with 100 percent confidence that Clay is one of those guys.
"Not only that, I mean come on, how many full Americans play for a Latin band and playing this genre, which they say is one of the hardest to play when it comes to guitars," Marte continued. "And he does it with so much ease, and he learns every part of the song. We've been through multiple guitar players – we've had two in the past; Clay is the third – and nobody has been able to do what he's done."
"I'd say the whole gringo/breaking in thing, I'd say that really happened in the last group," Steininger noted. "It's a rodeo; I expect chaos. That's not through the fault of the group or anything like that; it's just often the people you work with, the circumstances you work under and just the nature of the business."
With that not a concern, Steininger has something else on his mind: the Sunday Summerfest show, a kind of homecoming for the Milwaukee native after a long time away – and more pressingly, a long time on the road.
"Honestly, I'm a bit nervous," Steininger admitted. "It's funny how you get more nervous for friends and family."
"You know you better be 150 percent for this show," Marte joked.
There's little doubt this guitar-mastering gringo will be.
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