February 17th, 2023
Royal & The Serpent
The hilarious and talented musician talks mental health, music, tattoos and more
Photos by Kevin Wilson
After years of interviewing musicians and writing profiles, there gets to be a rhythm to it. The subjects may be different, but the process and structure are uniform. But Ryan Santiago, known professionally as Royal & the Serpent, made it clear before the first question that this one was going to go off the rails in the best way possible.
“Let’s start things off at the beginning…” I say while I shuffle my papers.
“Of me being born or of all time?” Santiago replies coyly. “I think it was pretty painful for my mother, or so I hear. It wasn’t very pleasant, but I had a good time.”
And we were off to the races. That simple exchange revealed the essence of Santiago, both as a musician and a human being. Quick-witted and armed with a caustically dry sense of humor, she wears her heart on her sleeve while also keeping people at a distance. It’s an enticing combination, and in the last three years, it has attracted a legion of fans.
A New Jersey native, Santiago relocated to Los Angeles a few years ago, but unlike the cliché you’ve already conjured, she wasn’t trying to chase fame.
“I always wrote music for fun, in my bedroom. I never thought of showing it to anybody in the world,” Santiago recalls. “Then a friend came over one night and I played him a song. He was like, ‘Oh my god! Let’s do something fun, let me manage you. Let’s build a music career.’ I was like, ‘Cool.’ That was eight years ago and he’s still my manager and one of my best friends on Earth.”
Getting a manager before ever playing in a room that didn’t also contain your bed is a pretty bold move, but it was the push Santiago needed. “Nobody was ever like, ‘You should make a career out of this,’” she says. “I never thought you could make a career out of this. But apparently some people do.”
Since 2020, Royal & the Serpent has released four EPs, each a little different than the one preceding it. It would be easy to attribute this to the growing pains of a burgeoning musician who hasn’t quite found the sound they’ll settle into, but that would be too simplistic. Through all four releases there is a constant—storytelling.
“My goal is to not be known for the genre, but for the story,” she explains. “I’m trying to tell my story through the music, while sonically I always want it to change. I want to surprise people. I don’t want to be the same thing.”
The story she’s telling can often get dark, like it did on her EP, “IF I DIED WOULD ANYONE CARE.” Over the course of a year, Santiago got on stage hundreds of times to sing the songs from the EP, which ended up putting her into a pretty bleak headspace.
“It’s tough. On the last tour most of the music was about me being incredibly depressed,” she recalls. “I think I perpetuated that cycle for the whole time I was on the road. It wasn’t until after the tour was over that I started to realize how powerful my words are. That’s why with this next project my goal was to center the whole thing around happiness, because I was tired of feeling miserable.
“If you’re getting up on stage every night and saying, ‘I hate myself,’ you’re gonna hate yourself,” she continues. “I’m trying really hard as of late to write music that has a more positive influence on my mental health. And I’ll say it’s working because I’m happier than I’ve ever been.”
Mental health is of paramount concern to Santiago. It only takes one listen to her latest EP, “Happiness Is an Inside Job,” to see that she’s in a better place these days, even if it’s still a work in progress.
“It’s about the journey toward happiness,” she says. “It’s not about being happy, it’s about trying to figure out how to get there.”
Sonically, she’s drawn a ton from Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and other alt rock of the ’90s, which is not exactly the type of material associated with joy, but it suits the road she’s on.
In the same vein as her music, Santiago’s tattoos tell her story in total honesty. Most of her work is in black ink, starting with the eye on the back of her neck she got when she was 17. “I got home from a shift at the diner,” she remembers. “My parents and their friends and their friends’ nephew were in my kitchen doing tattoos, and they’re like, ‘Happy graduation! What do you want to get?’ From that point on I just wanted to get tattooed as often as possible.”
Santiago’s body is filled with tattoos. Some are meaningful, like the names of the friends she’s had inked into her skin. Others are crazy and hilarious, like the “Fuck Me” script she got tattooed on her ass at 9 in the morning on the day she turned 18. She’s even figured out how to do some stick and poke, like the one she did on her foot that “came out pretty good.”
Tattoos are such an important part of her life that they even played a role in putting together her band. “On tour, I always try to get as many tattoos as I can. Luckily I hired a drummer who knows how to tattoo on purpose,” she laughs, “because he can tattoo all of us while we’re on the road.”
That’s an important tip for aspiring musicians—a drum machine may save you some money, but it’s never going to be able to give you a tattoo.
Renowned bartender Bad Birdy is here to help us navigate the complex flavor profiles of the agave-based spirits mezcal and tequila
By exploring the world of witchcraft, GG Magree has found a way to achieve her best self