Matt’s Hat Interviews – Marcus King Edition
To say that Marcus King has had an astounding couple of years would be an understatement. Marcus hails from Greenville, South Carolina. Growing up in a musical family – both his father and grandfather are guitarists as well – King has music in his blood. This is very evident when you watch him play. He clearly has a connection to the music that he is creating.
This connection was obvious to another guitar player, Warren Haynes. Haynes heard King and immediately saw the potential. That extra push from someone as legendary as Haynes was all it took to propel Marcus King Band forward into playing larger and larger shows and now finding them touring with North Mississippi Allstars and JJ Grey & Mofro.
Marcus was kind enough to carve out some time to talk with us before he hit the stage on Friday at Jannus Live in St. Petersburg, Florida during the Blackwater Sol Revue tour.
MFN: So, you just got done playing Jam Cruise. How was that?
Marcus King: Jam Cruise was…. Intense.
MFN: How many sit-ins did you wind up doing?
MK: Oh man, a LOT. There was one night I sat in with three different bands within the span of two hours. <laughs>. I was just moving.
MFN: When you do all these sit-ins… do you just get up there and jump in and just play by “feel” or do you approach them more technically, trying to plan out how to approach the song or what you want to do?
MK: It depends, really. For example, when I played Bowlive with Soulive at the Brooklyn Bowl – I told them I wanted to do “Joyful Girl” which is one of my favorite songs of theirs. Dave Matthews sang it on the record. I didn’t want to mess that one up. That one made me nervous! “Purple Rain” with Warren, that was a scary one. You don’t want to fuck up a Prince tune!
MFN: You’ve talked a lot about being positive with your music and using your music to channel your emotions. How do you go about keeping that connection up night after night and staying in a place where you can give that kind of positive energy?
MK: Every night we do a different setlist, and even if we do one tune two nights in a row it’s going to be a lot different both nights. We have a catalogue we can pull from. If we had to do four nights, (laughs) we’d have to start doubling up a couple tunes just as far as original songs. But I’m writing more every day, and everything is a new expression, and every venue gives me a different emotion, you know. Different times in my life, you know?
MFN: How about with studio work?
MK: The last sessions we did were in Memphis. Getting emotion across in a studio, it’s about letting the studio be a voice. We did it at Royal Studios. A lot of bad dudes cut down there. Al Greene, Ann Peebles’ “Can’t Stand The Rain” was recorded there. Charles Hodges’ organ was there. I sang on Al Greene’s mic! We all were geeking out. We needed some foam to put under the bass strings, so they just ripped some out of the wall. It’s just like… the vibes there. So that’s a big part – just letting the studio speak and no over complicating shit. And also cutting live. That’s a big part. As live as you can.
MFN: You’ve spent several years studying music and jazz while in Greenville. Do you actively try to work in things you’ve learned or is it a more natural thing? Do you find yourself looking at a song and thinking ‘There was this cool thing we learned and I want to work that into this song’?
MK: One thing that really appealed to me when I started studying jazz was the instructors would teach you the rules so that you knew them, but then teach you how to break them properly. Also, this kind of came up during a guitar clinic on Jam Cruise. The way I described it is this: music is like language. We’re all talking, but we aren’t thinking about how the words are spelled as we are speaking the sentence. You have to know how to spell the word. You have to know how to pronounce the word. But you’re not thinking about the pronunciation or spelling when you’re saying it. That’s how I look at music.
MFN: There has been a steady influx of more fusion type stuff in the jam scene lately – from progressive rock to jazz to classical and anything else. Do you specifically try to push boundaries with your own music?
MK: Yeah absolutely. As I mentioned before – we do like to break rules. It’s a representation of emotion, you know? If you have a confusing time in your life, if you’re pissed off… A lot of people say don’t play when you’re pissed off, but I like to play pissed off. Hot, heated. Some of that more experimental stuff comes from that. It’s about pushing the boundaries of the sound and having a band that will follow that. That’s what makes it an organic thing. If you’re the only one up there trying to play out, that’s gonna be noticeable. We don’t go after certain sounds, though. We just let it happen when I’m writing it. Then when the band gets ahold of it, whatever sound comes out is it. Like, oh, alright, this is an R&B tune. Who knew? <laughs>. I think a lot of fusion is really finding a home in the jam community which is great. We just saw Medeski, Martin, Scofield and Wood on Jam Cruise, and everyone just loved it. And it was a jazz set! It’s been opening up. You can kind of feel something happening, you know? You can feel some change starting to happen.
MFN: In one of the interviews I’ve read that you’ve done, you said that you like to use a pen when you’re writing new material, because once you write it down, it’s there forever. In another interview you said one of the best lessons you learned from Warren Haynes was to lie back, relax, and try things more than once – to try not to force things. It seemed like those might be opposing approaches. Do you struggle with that – both with being more thoughtful and more intentional vs. letting things just happen?
MK: What I meant more with the pen quote was that when I write in pen, the only option I have is to cross it out and then I keep writing. So it’s still there. If I erase it, it’s never coming back. It’s not quite as opposing a view as it seems.
MFN: You’ve obviously had a hell of a year, and you’ve gotten to play with a lot of different people. I love to ask people about their goosebump moments, those moments when everything just hits, and you can’t help but get goosebumps. It can be something directly relating to you or not. Any favorites? Anything jump out?
MK: Just recently, one of the most musically fulfilling moments. Playing with Soulive with Scofield – playing “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed.” It’s one of those that hits on a lot of fronts, you know? Favorite tune by one of my favorite bands played with one of my favorite bands. Just goosebumps, man. I’ve had a lot of experiences like that writing in the past few months. The past few months the writing has been a little bit more jumping out at me, and that’s always a great pleasure.
MFN: Okay so this is just for me for fun, but do you have any secret shame music loves? Those songs you just love but you hope no one sees on your phone?
MK: <laughs> I don’t know man, I’ve had this question before…
MFN: Dammit! I hate when I ask something someone has already asked!
MK: I’m never really too ashamed of what I’m listening to. I listen to Salt-N-Peppa… I like the Cranberries a lot, I like Adele. I can argue my guilty pleasures until I’m in the ground. It’s whatever is there, you know? I really love early Billie Holiday, which I guess isn’t really a guilty pleasure at all.
MFN: Any songs from childhood that really stand out for you?
MK: Steve Earle, “Copperhead Road.” That’s a big one. The whole Second Helping record by Lynyrd Skynyrd. That whole record I had on repeat all the time. That early Skynyrd was just good solid rock music.
MFN: What do you do best musically, and what are you doing to cultivate that?
MK: I think one of the best things any of us can do is just listen. I just like to listen to what’s going on around me as far as energy and music and everything going on around me. Sometimes it’s good to just sit back and listen.
MFN: You do a lot of producing in the studio and I know you geek out a lot on that side of things – do you want to get more into that? Do you see yourself finding someone and saying ‘Let me produce your next album!’?
MK: Well, I’m still learning, you know? I can see myself doing that with somebody I really like. Finding somebody that’s got all the talent but doesn’t have the tools to make that sound really come out. I can see doing that because people like Erik Krasno, Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks do that for me. I still have a lot to learn from people like that… hopefully soon be able to work with even more cats that I really respect. I’m inspired by everything I hear.
MFN: You have more shows here with North Mississippi Allstars and JJ Grey & Mofro, correct?
MK: Yeah, we have a three-night run on this which I’m looking forward to. Here, St. Augustine and then Miami. [Those shows were last weekend.]
MFN: Any other big shows coming up?
MK: Flying out to Phoenix and doing a festival there, then to Nashville to do some writing. From Nashville, flying to Paris. We’re calling it the ‘Lazy Tour de France’ because we will be in a van. We’re doing basically everywhere in France except for Paris.
MFN: How about any studio stuff coming up?
MK: Yeah man, soon as we get back from Paris we’re going in the studio for two weeks in Nashville finishing up a record with Dave Cobb. Then after that – the band is going to take about a month off, and I’m going to go out with Chris Robinson with As The Crow Flies.
Thank you very much for your time, Marcus. It’s been a pleasure, and I look forward to seeing you not only tonight but, if the past 18 months are any indication, seeing you all over the place for the next couple of years as well!