Gary Clark Jr. Talks Nokia Music and Sundance Channel Film Series, "Blak and Blu", Influences, and More
Fri, 16 Nov 2012 08:37:35
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"All I do is play music," smiles Gary Clark Jr., while sitting in a plush chair at a West Hollywood haunt.
His devotion has certainly paid off. It's yielded the best debut of the past decade in, Blak and Blu. The record's a smoldering crossroads between timeless blues, R&B, soul, hip hop, and even alternative rock with its architect shredding through each style with inimitable panache and prowess. You've heard his single, "Bright Lights", everywhere. Now, the track is fueling the closing credits to and spots promoting short films that Nokia Music and Sundance Channel have produced about a myriad of music scenes across the U.S. The track perfectly fits, and the artist's journeyman touring regiment certainly has brought him to all of the places in the films.
In this exclusive interview with ARTISTdirect.com editor in chief Rick Florino, Gary Clark Jr. talks Blak and Blu, some of his most important influences, the Nokia Music and Sundance Channel film series, guitars, and so much more.
Does the song have a cinematic flare for you? What's it like to hear the song over the spots for the short films that Nokia Music and Sundance Channel have produced?
It's going right to the place where I think it should go. When I wrote "Bright Lights", I didn't think of anything like that. It was my personal experience. To see how people relate the song to their vision, their art, their project, or their life, it works. I put that out there, and they understand it. It's the same thing. In movies like this, where they showcase different cities and the underground scene, there's a fire and a hunger to get out there and get what you want out of life—love and respect. You're representing the place you come from and being true to that. It's cool to hear that song over something like this.
By touring and traveling so much have you discovered a lot of new music?
I have. I've been getting it in small doses. I'd like to really get in there and check out the scenes more. I went to Portland and New Orleans. I've been to Detroit and New York. I get little glimpses. Seeing parts of these films makes me more curious. The more you travel, the more you think, "Man, there are some really cool things out there.
What's the story behind "Breakdown" from Blak and Blu?
It's a story of being passionate. You want to go get something. You feel like you've got something to bring to the table, and things aren't happening quite the way you want them to but you're not going to stop. For whatever reason, this thing you have inside of you, this fire, this passion, or whatever it is, won't let you stop. That's pretty much it.
What do you feel like ties Blak and Blu together?
To me, the heart of the record is blues. I think that's the common thread. That's my foundation. That's where I come from. No matter what song it is and what style, I'm going to throw something bluesy in there because I can't have songs without it. No matter what it is, it's funny. Besides that, if you had to pick anything, you break it down to soul music.
What's your favorite song to play right now?
I've got say "When My Train Pulls In". That was the first song we cut, and everybody went pretty hard on that. I listened back to that one when we were in the studio. Afterwards, we all looked at each other, and I felt good. I smiled when I made that one.
There's an undercurrent of heaviness to "Glitter Ain't Gold (Jumpin' For Nothin')" and "Travis County". What heavy rock bands do you come back to?
Yeah, when I first started playing guitar, I was listening to a lot of stuff like that. That's what my friends were into like Nirvana and Soundgarden. That was the time for that music. I soaked a lot of that up. Nirvana was the biggest for me. When I heard that, I was like, "Wow!" I love that. There's something about the power a big riff can evoke. I like letting loose like that.
If you were to compare Blak and Blu to a movie or a combination of movies, what would you compare it to?
Wow, that's a good question! I've never been asked that before. I'm trying to give you a good one! What would you say?
Maybe Pulp Fiction?
Pulp Fiction…I like that! I'm thinking of the soundtrack though. I'll go with that. Why not?
Have you been writing more music?
Oh yeah, it never stops. I've got a bunch of new ideas already.
What's "Bright Lights" about for you?
"Bright Lights" is about hanging out in New York City. I think it was the second time I've been there. I was running around with some friends. I'm from Austin, TX, and it's a little slower-paced of a city. Being caught up in that energy, it's exciting, new, and loud. There are billboards everywhere, and it's something I'm not used to seeing all the time. It's basically the experience of what I saw.
When did you first pick up a guitar?
I was 12-years-old, and it was Christmas break. From that day on, I was pretty much inseparable from it. As a kid, I remember being drawn to performances, live music, and the radio. I was pretty young so I didn't know what all of that meant, but I knew that I loved it and wanted to be a part of it somehow. Once I got the guitar and started playing for a little while, I went to a couple of blues jams and I was like, "Yes!"
What was the first song you learned how to play?
I'm not sure what the first song I learned how to play was. Maybe The Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" or something…it might've been that little octave part [Laughs]. I wanted to learn Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing" right away, but it took a little time to even comprehend that one.
What's the story behind "Things Are Changin'?"
I was probably 19 when I wrote that. It's about trying to hold onto relationships and whatnot. When you're young, people go off to college or move to different towns. It's basically that experience, and it's one of those things which is still relevant. Things are always moving, and you never can tell what might happen. That's where that song comes from. It's funny because in the last few months the intro has turned into another thing. "Things Are Changin'" even in the song [Laughs]. I like to experiment and not always play the same thing. I see where things can be in the moment and work with them. I throw the wah-wah in there and switch it up. We recorded the EP version live out in Los Angeles. That was a great night and a good show.
How intertwined are music and lyrics for you? Is the guitar saying the same thing as the words?
I guess it's a re-inforcer. I don't really think about it too much; I just go for it. It's something I enjoy doing. They definitely go hand-in-hand. I try to do that anyway [Laughs]. There are a lot of things you can do with a guitar, and I'm still trying to figure them out.
What's your favorite guitar?
I've got this cherry red Epiphone which I would have to say is my favorite. Lately, I've been playing sunbursts, but I'm an Epiphone freak. I love them. Once I picked up the Epiphone Casino, that was it for me. I'm stuck on that.
Which guitarists shaped you?
Albert King, Jimi Hendrix, Hound Dog Taylor, Lightnin' Hopkins, Muddy Waters, and I could keep going and going, but those are some of the guys I was listening to in heavy rotation when I started playing. They're just powerful.
Who's on your playlist right now?
Now, O.V. Wright, Odyssey, Nina Simone, Little Dragon, and Otis Redding. I'm all over the place.
Have kids come up to you and said, "I'm picking up a guitar because of you?"
Yeah, it's pretty wild to see that. I've had notes that cats are playing Epiphone Casinos and wanting to do that. It's flattering. It's amazing. Eric Clapton still makes me want to play guitar. When I listen to Jimi Hendrix records, I get chills. It's weird. I'm getting older. I've got to watch out for these young ones!
What's your favorite Gary Clark Jr. song?
See our review of Blak and Blu here!