Interview with Karl Denson

Feb 2014
BISS List Interview with Karl Denson

Karl Denson, the legendary bandleader and Jam scene favorite, is back on the road with his band Tiny Universe in support of their latest album, “New Ammo,” issued by Stoopid Records on February 4th. The album is KDTU’s first with the San Diego-based label and represents a return to the band’s roots, but with some added firepower in the form of horn players Andy Geib and Daniel De La Cruz, as well as guest appearances from Robert Walter on keyboards and Mike Dillon on vibes and percussion, Anthony Smith on vibes, and vocals from Nicki Bluhm. The Tiny Universe is comprised of Chris Stilwell (bass), David Veith (organ, Rhodes), Chris Littlefield (trumpet), DJ Williams (guitar) and John Staten (drums). KDTU will be playing at The Independent (628 Divisidero, San Francisco) on March 14th and 15th.

I spoke with Karl a few days ago and asked him about the new album - the writing process and the injection of trombone and baritone sax into the mix - as well as some questions about his early solo albums and formative influences.

BL: Let’s talk a little bit about your recently released album, “New Ammo,” which just dropped back on February 4th.

This is your first album of new music with the Tiny Universe since Brother’s Keeper in 2009. And it seems to me to represent a return to the band’s roots and a fulfillment of what you guys represent sonically. Tell me a little about how the album came to be and the recording process in terms of how collaborative it was. It seems like everyone in the band had a chance to bring something to the table, with the writing credits spread around pretty liberally.

KD: Yeah, the last few years we’ve been really trying to write together. You know, get in a room and just come up with stuff. So this record really represents that process. Chris [Stillwell] dropped “Malgorium” [Track #11], Dave [Veith] wrote “Cheerleader” [Track #12], DJ [Williams] wrote a couple of tunes. We really just took the ideas and got in a room and worked around them together. Same thing with “My Baby” [Track #6]; I brought that to the band and let them kind of flesh it out. So it’s been really fun in that we’ve been able to have everybody really invest their own ideas into the band.

BL: Did you do most of the recording in a live setting where you were all in the same room at the same time, or was it mostly tracked out separately?

KD: No, no, it was all together.

BL: You added a couple of horns on this album and really fattened up the sound on a bunch of the tracks. I gather Andy Geib (trombone) is a San Diego guy and Daniel De La Cruz (baritone saxophone) was on loan from Slightly Stoopid?

KD: Correct.

BL: Tell me a little about writing those additional horn parts and what that did as far as your approach to playing on this album, as far as maybe encouraging you to explore different sides of your own playing because you have those guys there to express other parts?

KD: Yeah, you know I think for songs like “Grenadiers” and the more soundtrack-y kind of things we did, it influenced the band to go in that direction and launched me to add the extra horns. Like on “The Duel” [Track #5], being able to actually have counterpoint between the horn section was really awesome because you could split them up two and two instead of  just having to keep the horns together because you’ve only got two horns. It’s really more of the direction we’ve been wanting to go in, so we needed that extra firepower.

BL: Are those guys going to be touring with you at all, or was it just a studio thing?

KD: That was just a studio thing, but they’ll come out on tour with us from time to time. Like De La is meeting us in Denver at the end of this tour for a couple of shows and Andy was out for a good part of the fall with us.

BL: There are some great tracks on this album, with both the originals as well as some really original takes on other artists’ songs. Track 3, ‘Hang me Out to Dry,’ is a Cold War Kids song that sounds great with the horns. You took a dark song and somehow made it sound even more ominous.

KD: Right.

BL: And then you do a great cover of the White Stripes, ‘7 Nation Army,’- with you on flute - which gives it a great little unexpected twist.

KD: Yeah, you know we like to take those songs and try to give our own personality to them. We’re pretty muscular by definition as far as how we play, so it was a fun process. Like the “Cold War Kids” tune… their version is not really muscular, it’s just kind of groovy, so we tried to put a little more edge on it, like with that big riff in the middle. And then with the Jack White tune, I didn’t really see how we could improve on that, so we just tried to turn it into a funk tune, like as if Herbie Hancock was to cover it. And the Beastie Boys track that came out of the tribute that we did with the Slightly Stoopid guys. So it was just convenient because of that flute riff that it made total sense for us to do that one.

BL: Track 4, the title track ‘New Ammo’ sounds like an old school KDTU tune, but even bigger with the added horns. That one is definitely going to be a fan favorite. Nice that DJ Williams wrote himself in such a nice long guitar break in the middle to show off his skills.

KD: Yeah, yeah. DJ just brought that tune in one day and we learned it and it just stuck. It made the cut, easily.

BL: Track #5, ‘The Duel,’ sounds like a superhero movie soundtrack from the 60’s or 70’s. What the story behind that one, is it an original?

KD: No “The Duel” is… I’m blanking on the composer’s name right now, but it’s from a movie. A Joe Namath and Ann Margaret movie from the 70’s called “CC and Company”. Chris Stillwell, our bass player, is a big movie vinyl buff, so we found it in his collection.

BL: Inspiration can come from some of the most unexpected places, I guess.

KD: Yeah, exactly.

BL: And then the next track, ‘My Baby,’ features guest vocals from Bay Area product Nicki Bluhm and has a kind of hill-country blues sound. How did that come about?

KD: That’s my first guitar riff. I started playing guitar about a year and a half ago, so that was my first guitar song. There’s some more of that in my little bag that’ll come out on the next record.

BL: That’s great. So are you playing guitar live at all, or still working up to that?

KD: Uhh… no. We don’t want to hear that.

BL: I recently went back and listened to some of your early solo recordings from the 90’s: Blackened Red Snapper, and Herbal Turkey Breast, both of which were pretty much straight jazz albums in the hard bop style and I was really digging them.
Tell me a little about your early musical influences. Obviously Coltrane. I noticed that you have a track on Herbal Turkey Breast, entitled “Yusef 28,” so I imagine Yusef Lateef, who just recently passed away was also an important influence. Who else?

KD: Right, right. Yeah, those are what I grew up on - a combination of that and 70’s funk. But I always considered myself a jazz guy. You know I had my early stint of playing straight jazz, but then I decided to be a little more funky with it and that was about the time we started the Greyboy Allstars.

BL: Have you ever considered going back and putting together more traditional jazz quintet or something and doing some club dates? Is that something that’s ever crossed your mind, or does that not really interest you?
KD: Actually that’s kind of in the works right now. We just did a Stanley Turrentine/Freddie Hubbard tribute with a great San Diego trumpet player Gilbert Castellanos over the Christmas break and it went really well, so we’re planning to do more of that. Like some Yoshi’s, Jazz Alley kind of hits.

BL: Excellent, I’m glad I asked. So after these early jazz recordings, you turned your focus to ‘acid jazz’ playing with Greyboy Allstars. What precipitated that change in direction? Clearly you wanted to play more danceable kind of stuff, but was there anything else that led you in that direction?

KD: I think part of it was – I always loved to go out to dance clubs and kind of hear what was going on with dance music. And I think hearing the boogaloo guys, like Boogaloo Joe Jones and Grant Green and Gary Bartz, that kind of stuff started to creep into the jazz clubs, which was the beginning of the acid jazz scene. And I knew that that was my time, because they were sampling the records that I grew up with and loved. So it just happened that I met Greyboy, DJ Greyboy, not too long after that and we were both going in that same direction.

BL: You’re a serial collaborator, and someone who loves to take on different musical personas --from your recent tour with Zach Deputy doing the Ray Charles tribute, to joining the guys from Soulive on occasion, or with Slightly Stoopid doing the Beastie Boys, or with Anders Osborne covering Sticky Fingers -- talk a little about that. What do you like so much about stepping outside of Karl Denson or KDTU and joining forces with other musicians to do something different and out of the norm?

KD: Yeah, I think it’d become more of a stopgap -- while we were searching for our own direction. It’s just something fun to do, when you tour so much, to throw something different at your audience. And we just try and do a good job, if we’re going to take it on we try and do it interestingly. So it’s just been one of those things that we’ve done to keep from boring ourselves and our audience with the same stuff. But hopefully this next year will be a lot more of our original writing now that I feel we’ve really kind of hit our stride.

BL: Right, right. So it’s playing the music that you love to listen to and then it also makes your originals feel fresher when you go out and play them again.

KD: Yeah, exactly. You learn a bunch from playing other people’s stuff.

BL: We’re coming up on Jazz Fest in a couple of months and I know in my mind, and in a lot of other people’s, that you are inextricably linked with the Jazz Fest experience. Full disclosure: my wife and I shared our first kiss at 6:00 AM outside the HOB in NO during Jazz Fest, so you’re partially to blame for my present circumstances.

KD: [Laughs] Nice. I like it!

BL: Talk a little about what it’s like from an artist’s perspective, the whole Jazz Fest scene, especially as someone who’s known for his epic 4:00-7:00AM and beyond latenite sets.

KD: You know it’s just fun to be a part of something like that. To be part of this whole jam band scene. To have seen it from the very beginning. You know, like the acid jazz scene. To be able to grow through and with these things. And Jazz Fest is the same thing. We’ve been there for almost 20 years now and we’ve just had some great times there. So now it’s part of my yearly schedule, which is awesome, just like Jam Cruise. It’s like going home. I think more what it feels like is going home every year. You see all your friends and see how they’ve progressed and see all your fans and how they’ve grown and you get to see people’s kids. The whole scene is just beautiful.

BL: I love it too. One of my favorite places of all time and I can’t wait to go back. Alright, last question… What’s the Karl Denson workout regimen, and how do you get those massive guns, or is just from toting that sax?

KD: [Laughs] Hah! You know I’m actually just genetically pre-disposed to guns. I like to say my father was a gorilla. I just got his physique. I keep it up by, you know, trying to get some pushups and sit-ups in every day and I’ve been doing Tai Chi for 25-plus years, but that’s about it.

BL: Well you’re definitely looking good, however you manage it. Thanks again for speaking with me and I look forward to seeing you at the Independent in a couple of weeks.

KD: Thank you. See you then.

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