Interview with Karl Denson
Funk/jazz/soul musician Karl Denson has been one busy dude lately, coming off of the summer festival circuit, embarking on a new tour, and hitting the studio to make some funky new material for y’all. And that’s just with one of his many musical ventures, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe. I was fortunate enough to catch him and chat about where his music is headed, how he makes time for his family, and much more. Check it out, and be sure to catch KDTU at Williamsburg Waterfront TOMORROW (9/21) with Mike Dillon and Soul Rebels – it’s free! (Full tour dates at bottom).
SR: So my first experience with you guys was at Electric Forest two years ago, and I was just blown away. It was so funky and so fun, and I find your live performances to be very different from your studio work. What do you think it is about your live show that makes it so different and special?
KD: Well, I think just the amount of live playing that we do — you know, we go to the studio maybe once a year, once every other year, but we play all the time. So the live show kind of is what we are all about. And I think this new record is kind of closer to feeling like the band that everybody sees. I think we’ve finally figured out what we do and this record reflects it. The horns and the writing on this record is in a place where I think we’re gonna stay for awhile. We’ve been moving around a lot musically, but I think this record is really where we’re going.
SR: Well I’m very excited to hear it! So I know you play a ton in my favorite city, New Orleans. Can you disclose any good NOLA stories?
KD: The New Orleans story is called … 7 am. Playing until the sun comes up, walking out and seeing broad daylight. That’s kind of our history in New Orleans. Playing these shows so late that we get out in time for a full on breakfast, an hour before Jazz Fest.
SR: That’s definitely the beauty of New Orleans! If you could only play one venue in the world for the rest of your life, what would it be?
KD: It would probably have to be the Belly Up in San Diego, my hometown. Great venue. Brooklyn Bowl is a close second.
SR: Brooklyn Bowl is definitely my number one! So I was surprised to learn you also play with Slightly Stoopid — that’s such a different sound and different vibe from your other work. How did you get involved with them and what has that been like?
KD: We’ve been friends with their management since around 2000. We opened for Sublime with The Greyboy Allstars just before Brad died, so we became friends with those guys and always stayed in touch with their management. Finally 3 years ago I went and sat in with them in San Diego, and it was just a good vibe. We’re all from San Diego so it just kind of made sense. They invited me to do some more stuff with them and eventually I’m part of the band. We try to match schedules so I can do all their shows, and they kind of let me jump in and out, which is awesome.
SR: Very cool. So you play a lot of tribute shows — wish I could have seen your Ray Charles funky tribute at Jazz Fest this year! What’s been your favorite band to cover?
KD: They’re all so different. I think they’re equally fun. For the Rolling Stones we did the whole Sticky Fingers record from front to back which was super fun, Beastie Boys we did a bunch of tracks which was incredible. And now we’re actually doing this Ray Charles thing again next month, we’re gonna bring Zach Deputy back out and do a handful of those.
SR: That’ll be awesome. So one of my bucket list items is going on Jam Cruise, I know you’ve been with them since the beginning. Can you tell me about those experiences?
KD: [chuckling] Well … it’s kind of like … a condensed Jazz Fest, with free food, and your bed 100 yards away from you. So you can party as hard as you want to and as soon as you wake up just keep going, 24 hour music. It’s pretty incredible. Everything’s super close and intimate. You see Maceo Parker walking down the hallway doing his walking exercise, I lead a tai chi class … It’s very intimate.
SR: I need to go! So how do you find the time to balance your family life with being on the road, is that difficult?
KD: Yes, it is, but you know what? The bills have to be paid, so everybody adjusts. The last couple of years have been really busy and now I’m just gone all the time, so I’ve been looking at my schedule more and more and just finding holes where I tell my manager to just not book anything. I’ve got one kid in college and two in high school. Really trying to prepare for everybody to be in college, so I gotta make a lot of money! My daughter goes to Rutgers and she’s gonna show up to the show on Saturday and go on the bus with us for a couple of days.
SR: How nice is that! So how have you seen your music evolve over the years?
KD: I think I just know a lot more than I did before, so now it’s a matter of what choices do I make in terms of what I do. That’s kinda the next stage that we’re going through. We just decided that we wanted to be really funky. We were kind of in an old-school rock and roll phase before this, and now it’s moved back more towards soul and dance music.
SR: Well I’m definitely looking forward to the new material! So how did you get involved with Lenny Kravitz? Any cool stories to share on that end?
KD: I just met him through a friend back in the late 80s, and when he went to New York to do his record he invited us to come by and he liked what we did. The only things I can say about Lenny are that he’s an awesome guy, and he hates to fly. I’ve actually seen him have serious panic attacks about flying. One time we were in Japan and we took him to the park and got him nice and drunk, then whisked him away and got him on a shuttle to a plane. He kind of came to his senses as we got closer to the airplane, and all of a sudden he starts flipping out and makes them take him back to the terminal. He ended up staying in Japan another week until he was actually ready to fly!
SR: Hilarious. Who would your dream collaboration be?
KD: Corinne Bailey Rae. I’ve got such a crush on her musically and… haha.
Be sure to catch Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe at any of their upcoming fall tour stops, and look out for some funky new tunes coming this February! Get your tickets here
September 20 – Philadelphia, PA – The Blockley ^
September 21 – Williamsburg Park | Brooklyn, NY *^ *FREE
September 22 – Providence, RI – Fete *
September 24 – Richmond, VA – Canal Club *
September 25 – Washington, DC – The Hamilton *
September 26 – Baltimore, MD – 8X10 *
September 28 – Pittsburgh, PA – Mr. Smalls *
October 11 – Corolla, NC – Mustang Music Festival
October 12 – Joshua Tree, CA – Joshua Tree Music Festival
October 14 – Bellingham, WA – The Wild Buffalo ^^
October 15 – Seattle, WA – The Crocodile ^^
October 16 – Portland, OR – Alladin Theater ^^
October 17 – Eugene, OR – WOW Hall ^^
October 18 – Arcata, CA – Arcata Theater ^^
October 19 – San Francisco, CA – The Fillmore ^^
October 20 – Sacramento, CA – Harlow’s ^^
October 22 – Santa Cruz, CA – Moe’s Alley ^^
October 23 – Santa Barbara, CA – SOHO ^^
October 24 – Los Angeles, CA – The El Rey Theatre ^^
October 25 & 26 – San Diego, CA – Belly Up Tavern ^^
October 31 – Denver, CO – Fillmore Auditorium ^^
November 5 – Birmingham, AL – WorkPlay ^^
November 6 – Atlanta, GA – Terminal West ^^
November 7 – Charlotte, NC – Fillmore Auditorium **
November 8 & 9 – Asheville, NC – The Orange Peel ^^
November 10 – Chattanooga, TN – Track 29 ^^
November 12 – Nashville, TN – Exit/In ^^
November 13 – Athens, GA – Georgia Theater ^^
November 14 – Charleston, SC – The Pour House ^^
November 15 & 16 – Live Oak, FL – Bear Creek Music Festival
December 31 – Chicago, IL – Park West **** w/ The Mike Dillon Band
** w/ Galactic
^^ Soul Spectacular: Ray Charles Boogaloo Dance Party w/ Zach Deputy & The Cosmic Horns
*** w/ Robert Walter’s 20th Congress
And check out a video of KDTU funkin’ it up at Camp Barefoot festival in 2012: