Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Flights Over Phoenix

Mark McKee, Keith Longo and Chris Santillo of Flights Over Phoenix at Basin 141 in Montrose


At Basin 141
2265 Honolulu Ave., Montrose (818) 236-4810

I hadn’t met a music group who initially came together through Craigslist and possessed the talent, natural chemistry and genuine affinity for one another to actually form a lasting partnership. That changed after meeting Los Angeles-based trio Flights Over Phoenix.

“I was in a different band when I met Keith [Longo, singer-songwriter] via Craigslist. We jammed, and the music he was doing fit what I like and what I wanted to do better, so I quit the other band and went full force with him,” shares guitarist Chris Santillo. “Everything just felt right, and that was two years ago.” 

“I moved here in 2013 as a freelance musician/producer and spent the first year working with lots of different artists. Keith and I first connected via Craigslist then played phone tag for a long time. Three or four months had gone by, his music had stuck in my head and I wondered if he was still looking for another band member, so I hit him up,” recalls keyboardist Mark McKee. “Their keyboard player had just quit, so that’s how it all started.”

“I remember thinking about my favorite bands, how they all started as high school friends. They had this relationship already, grew as musicians together, and I felt that translated to their sound. I always wanted that but when I moved out here I was 26, so it was pretty late for that to happen. But it’s funny because when Chris started to come over to jam, we became pretty quick friends. Then when we finally started jamming with Mark, it all happened so organically. We would jam and write, and I don’t think we even said, ‘OK, we’re a band. So maybe technically we’re not even a band yet,” laughs Keith, who moved to Los Angeles from Boston on a whim three years ago.

“Maybe this interview is the official document. Are you a notary public?” Mark asks me, and I realize I’m in for a fun evening.

We’re gathered at one of Chris’ neighborhood haunts, Basin 141, a busy gastropub along Montrose’s quaint main street, Honolulu Avenue, offering standard bar fare but with a modern edge. There’s Fish & Chips, Fried Chicken & Waffles and Steak Frites but also Braised Short Rib Tacos, Truffle Mac N’ Cheese and a Pan-Seared Shrimp Wrap on the menu. Brews from Craftsman, Angel City, Smog City and Modern Times are on tap, and specialty cocktails range from the Olvera (Grey Goose Pear, cranberry, lime and simple syrup) and the East Los (209 Gin, cucumber, mint, lime, simple syrup and soda) to twists on a mint julep and margarita.

I order a Strawberry Fields (Nolet’s Dry Gin, house-made strawberry cordial, lemon and sparkling wine), while Keith gets an Old Fashioned, and it’s vodka-sodas for Mark and Chris.

“I usually get a vodka-soda or whiskey neat. I live within walking distance, so this is my go-to place,” says Chris, an L.A. native who grew up in the area. “I’m lame because I don’t like driving anywhere else because of traffic and having to find parking, so I just walk here. In The Wedding Singer there are some bar scenes, and Avignone’s, which is down the street, is where they filmed them. It’s a dive bar, and I probably go there more than I should.”

He is happy to add that he is moving to Keith’s area, Eagle Rock, soon. Mark, who lives in the Valley, admits to being an avid craft beer lover and frequent patron of Golden Road.

“I live in the Valley, but I’m out this way a lot,” he says. “I love Golden Road – where I’m from, North Carolina, beer culture is so healthy there. Before I moved here, there would be a new brewery opening up every month. We’d go and try all the new beers.”

We sip our drinks as the three members of Flights Over Phoenix talk about their unique backgrounds and eventually coming together to create their debut EP, Runaway California.

“None of my family or friends are musical or really into music, I was the only one, so I never went to shows,” replies Chris when I ask if he went to many concerts growing up. “I don’t really go to shows that much now, either. We played the Whisky a while ago, and it was the first time I’d ever been there.”

“I probably know Hollywood better than he does,” adds Keith.

“Guitar is my first and one and only instrument. In sixth grade every guy was taking guitar lessons, so I wanted to, too, but I stopped two years later. When I graduated high school, I wanted to be a firefighter. I was a Fire Explorer for two years, and before that I was a Sheriff’s Explorer. I went to the academy, visited jail and realized how much that would not be fun at all. I didn’t go to four-year college and party, but I somehow wanted to still have fun,” Chris says with a grin. “I ended up getting back into guitar. It was fun again, and I just wanted to try and fulfill my dreams. I thought I would be doing myself a disservice if I didn’t try and do something I was really passionate about.”

Everyone laughs as Keith deadpans, “You picked the stable job of being a guitar player.”

“I wanted to be a piano tuner,” interjects Mark.

“That’s thrilling,” replies Keith sarcastically.

“I know, that’s why it only lasted a month,” laughs Mark, before adding, “Both of my parents are music teachers, and my brother is a drummer in a band so we grew up playing music together. I took violin for eight years, but I always played piano. I kind of dropped off for a while, played guitar for a lot of years, moved back to keyboards then did both. I sang a little bit. I was the frontperson for a band for a little while, but I never felt like a singer. I’ve always been a multi-instrumentalist, but when I moved out here I started playing keyboards. I have more of an intimate relationship with that instrument than I did before. 

“I grew up playing in bands and going to shows – that was my whole life. Even out here, 90 percent of my friends are musicians,” he continues. “Growing up, all of my friends in the neighborhood and I were terrible at sports, so we started bands. It was like the movie The Sandlot but with bands. Our house was the central house, everyone would come over, and my poor parents had to listen to this racket for years – terrible Green Day covers!”

“They loved it,” interrupts Keith.

“Yeah, my mom always laughs about it now. She could always see the future better than I could, my brother and I doing music full time. That’s what all that racket ended up becoming. I’m definitely indebted to my parents for having that background. They forced me to practice. It was a little rigorous, but at the end of the day I was still in love with music. I owe a lot of my musical work ethic to that,” admits Mark. “Both my parents are classical musicians, so it was always on in the house. My dad was a big Beatles fan as well, so I learned about the Beatles from him. Keith and I both have an older brother, so we always wanted to listen to what they listened to.”

“I’ve always loved music and singing – I sang Disney songs when I was a kid – but I didn’t come from a musical background. My older brother played piano and was into music, but I grew up playing sports. Then in fifth grade you had to pick an instrument, and I picked drums. I had a couple of friends who were drummers, and we got into rock and my brother’s music – Nirvana, REM, ‘90s bands – I would drum along to those, but it was just a hobby for me. I played hockey, and that was my whole life until my early 20s,” Keith reveals. “In college all of my friends would be in the hockey house partying, and I would be out in my car singing along, doing vocal exercises. I didn’t know why, but I remember hearing this quote: ‘You should do what you wake up feeling you have to do every day.’ I had this drive to sing and write, but I wasn’t very good at it to be honest, so I would just do it on the side. Then I reached a point where hockey had come to an end, and I wasn’t ready to get a normal job, so I threw myself into music. It was something I always wanted to do, but I never owned it. I wouldn’t hang out with music kids because I would feel inferior. They played music, and I kind of played music. But I definitely feel like what I missed in musical education I made up for in what I learned in hockey, which was work ethic, drive. Things I consider my strengths actually came through life experiences and not music lessons.”

“It took me a while to get right in the head with, ‘You’re good enough to hit these people up with your music. I would respond to ads online just to see if they would get back to me, not because I actually wanted to form a band. I just wanted to see if people that weren’t my friends thought I was good. After some time I joined some cover bands back in Boston,” he remembers. “Those experiences of having people that don’t know me say, ‘You’re good enough to play with,’ then getting that playing experience gave me the confidence to move out here and try it. Chris was in a similar spot where he was like, ‘I do this, but I don’t really do this,’ and I think Mark just liked the material I showed him. He was probably like, ‘You guys are rough around the edges, but there’s something there.’”

“The North Star for me with anything is: It’s already really good, but I want to help make it better, be a part of it,” agrees Mark. “Producing, my job was taking something that wasn’t very good at all and making it presentable, but if something was pretty good I could make it really good. When I heard this music, I knew immediately where I could fit in, where my strengths fit.”

“I write songs, but I knew couldn’t do it on my own,” adds Keith. “Everyone brings something to the table that makes Flights Over Phoenix what it is.”

“Keith was a captain without a ship, and I was a ship without a captain,” says Mark. “I had these resources and abilities, but no ‘hey, here’s what we’re doing’ – I’m not an artist in that regard. In a band situation, that’s where it thrives.” 

Although it took a bit for Keith to grow the confidence to sing at the front of Flights Over Phoenix, listening to the band’s Runaway California EP there’s no doubt that he has an incredible set of pipes. In fact, Disney selected him to record vocals for “Live the Magic,” the theme for Disneyland’s 60th Anniversary that plays every night in the park.

“It’s funny that those were the songs I would sing when I was little – ‘A Whole New World,’ ‘I Just Can’t Wait To Be King’ – and here I am singing for Disney,” he reflects. “I just went down to the park for the first time to listen to it, and it was surreal.”

Escaping the mundane monotony of his old life in Boston is what originally lured Keith to pack up his car and move to Los Angeles, and it seems like all three musicians eventually found a place where their talent could flourish together in the City of Angels. 

“Keith was talking about how he was like, ‘I don’t know if I’m good enough. Oh, I am!’ For me, it was, ‘I thought I was good enough then I moved here and got my ass whooped.’ In North Carolina I played with everybody, had tons of gigs and felt like I could hang in L.A. Moving out here, going to shows and seeing the stuff other musicians would do so effortlessly, it was a big rude awakening – in a good way. Being around greatness creates new ways of challenging yourself,” begins Mark. “Living in a big city where there’s a lot going on, you get to see excellence in every way. I love being around innovation, but there’s also a weird, ambiguous side when it comes to the entertainment industry. I love people from California not in the entertainment industry because you get to live in a really great place with amazing weather and don’t have to deal with all of this nonsense. My relationship with L.A. is like a marriage. In any relationship at first it’s amazing, full of fire, then it’s like, ‘What you want to do tonight, watch Netflix?’ I still love the mystery of the city. I’m obsessed with Hollywood lore from the 1920s, when show business was first starting. I still love the city wholeheartedly, and I’m never going to leave”

“When I go on vacation, I just look forward to getting back to L.A. You can go to the beach in 40 minutes and the mountains in 40 minutes, and there’s a whole different vibe in L.A. I’m a homebody, I guess,” says Chris. “I’m not in the thick of the hustle and bustle in Montrose, hanging out in lonely dive bars. I’m sure if I lived in Hollywood I would be over it.”

“Hollywood is so overrated,” interjects Mark. “At first I wanted to move to Hollywood, but when I actually hung out in Hollywood I was so glad I didn’t live there.”

“It’s sad when people move to Hollywood thinking it’s so glamorous and wind up having horror stories of how dirty it is,” agrees Chris. “Everyone has this idea of what Hollywood is.”

“I definitely see the underbelly of Hollywood, but at the same time I love it. I wouldn’t want to live in the heart of Hollywood, but there’s an energy there, being around other artistic people who are pursuing their dreams. Someone could be 48 and say, ‘I’m an aspiring actor.’ You just don’t get that everywhere,” argues Keith. “I’ve always been a dreamer. I love my family and friends in Boston, but when I come back from visiting, I feel like I’m home.”

“It happens after a couple of years,” says Mark, “you go home to visit, and when you’re flying back in, you realize, ‘Oh, I live in L.A. This is pretty sweet!’”

“I was at the gym that Keith works at in West Hollywood,” tells Chris, “There’s a huge window, and up on the hills are these beautiful houses where some of his clients live. It’s inspiring to me to see that.”

“It’s more attainable because you see those houses on the hill, you see an actor from TV at Starbucks, and you feel like dreams are more attainable,” replies Keith. “Before you move here you put those people on a pedestal, they’re untouchable. Then you move here and realize they’re just people doing their jobs. You say, ‘Oh, that could be me.’”

The Runaway California EP is currently available. Flights Over Phoenix perform Dec. 8 at the Hotel Café. For more information, visit


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