“Some people want to be a star…Some people want to be bling-bling rich and have all the hip-hop type of luxuries, but if you want to make a living from your art…, make sure that you’re in love with it, make sure that you and your music are soul mates…It’s good advice to tell people to have something to fall back on, like go to college and get your degree…but getting a degree is not going to get you booked at the local club. They’re not going to ask for your papers.” – Chris Thomas King
Papers and degrees burn by the roadside when Chris Thomas King is on stage. His education has been a lifelong journey that has rewarded him accolades befitting (for lack of a better word) a King.
Joining King at Vinyl Music Hall for this stretch of road were Hollowman/Badwater. In a year that produced new songs and performances from Betsy Badwater and Lang Hollowman, the duo also experienced the passing of friend and bassist Joey Harrison. Harrison died soon after being diagnosed with stage four terminal bone and lung cancer. With dedications to Harrison and their friends and family in attendance, Badwater and Hollowman gave their hearts to the crowd circled around them.
One week before the concert, I interviewed King for a brief article in the Pensacola News Journal. Revealing his renewed passion to music and performing, King takes challenge with himself and creating new music, while rarely looking back on his achievements. Artists with such determination must have a hellhound on their trail.
…the full interview follows below.
*** Chris Thomas King Interview ***
MS: This will be the third time that I’ve seen you perform at Vinyl Music Hall in Pensacola, Florida and every time I’ve seen you play, you’ve blown me away. But what I want to know is-what gets you off the most about performing live?
CTK: I’ve rededicated myself to live performing over the last two and a half to three years and before that, spending most of my time on movie sets and meetings and doing the Hollywood actor thing. Which was a lot of fun and very enjoyable, but I think the essence of my talent or the essence of what I think I am is a musician. So I really wanted to get back and solely focus on touring with my band and over the last couple of years I’ve been doing it. I’ll tell you, before my acting career took off, I only played theaters. I didn’t play all of the time, I didn’t play a lot of small clubs, but I had a different kind of show. A show where you’re traveling with a tour manager, you’re traveling with a light technician and a guitar technician and you got this big production and you’re doing this show that is an effects show and all of the movements of the show are well rehearsed and the blue light is going to hit you when you walk to stage left and take your solo. It was a real structured show.
What I’m enjoying now is how loose it is, how it feels like I’m improving my playing. So when you see me one year and I come back through a few months later, At least, I’m feeling like I’m improving as a musician, that my show is not so rigidly put together, it’s a lot looser, like a jazz band approach to performing. Where you know the basic structure of what you’re going to do, but you let the emotions and feelings, you try to get lost in the music and follow where it wants to take you. That’s a long answer to your question, but that’s what I’m enjoying. I feel that the spontaneity and letting the music lead me each night is what I’m enjoying the most.
MS: On that same note, how much do you improv or like you said, “Let yourself loose. Lose yourself in the music.” Do you regulate yourself or do you let yourself go whenever you want to go?
CTK: It’s not like something I carry around bottled up in a package. Meaning that I can’t just turn it on or turn it off whenever. And it doesn’t happen every night, but most times, it happens more often than not, I would say.
MS: What I love about your music is how you embrace the tradition of the blues while also taking that leap into other genres of music. You’re known as the godfather and creator of mixing blues and rap. In your opinion, what is the next evolution of blues for you?
CTK: The whole music business is in a transition period. Transitioning from the analog world to the digital world that we live in now and it’s really unpredictable. In the late 90’s when I was out performing, doing hip hop blues and a lot of times I was performing with a DJ, which really makes your show rigid because there’s not a lot of improvisation that you can do when you’re working with a DJ, but I think what’s happening with the blues specifically is that the blues genre is really trying to find it’s way. It’s like the blues genre is like being in a room where all of the lights have gone black. Where the room has gone dark and you don’t know your way around. Because the blues is one of the genres that was least prepared for the digital revolution; a lot of blues fans weren’t used to networking online or downloading music. They frowned upon that kind of stuff. They never gave up their vinyl. Which is cool, but it’s an older audience. An audience that found the blues after following people like Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones. They found the blues through rock n’ roll. An older, mature audience.
As far as the young audience for the blues, its difficult for a lot of blues artists to tap into a fan base. For me, I’m a little bit different because I’m an actor as well and a lot of people have seen my movies so I’m known outside of just the blues genre, but for the average blues artist, it’s a tough thing right now when (for) the older audience there’s no music stores to go and buy your records at and the younger audience has an iTunes account.
MS: I’m a guitarist and I’m nowhere near your level. I grew up listening to the blues and jazz and it was hard. I later went on to metal. Is there any chance that we can see you break out a metal or fusion progressive jazz album in the future?
CTK: (pause) No. I don’t think so. And it doesn’t mean that I won’t be rocking. It doesn’t mean that I won’t crank the Marshall up to 10 and go wailing on it. It doesn’t mean that . My new album “Antebellum Postcard” which I’d love to plug a little bit here, it has a song on it called “Rehab: Winehouse Blues” and that’s a pretty heavy number and that usually closes shows when we play festivals and stuff. It’s a heavy number, but when you say metal, the word metal to me…I’m kind of old-school with my music…metal to me got started with bands like Cream and Jimi Hendrix and stuff like that and taken to a new place with Black Sabbath and where it is now with speed metal and all of these different genres of metal. And garbled vocals, you’ll never hear me doing that kind of metal, but if you mean some heavy music, you mean some heavy fuzzed out music, you know fuzz-tone on my guitar, pretty loud and powerful with a lot of energy, yes, you can definitely hear me doing that in the future, but it would be more of a rock blues as opposed to metal, even though it is a distant cousin.
MS: What has been your most memorable concert ever?
CTK: Wow. (chuckles) Well the first thing that pops into my mind is that I was at a club in England and this was during the time when we were using a lot of sets on stage and the fog machine just went out of control and it wouldn’t cut off. It was supposed to have some fog on the stage but it fogged up the whole club and people at the bar couldn’t even see the cash registers. It was a real Spinal Tap moment. That’s the first thing that comes to mind. There’s a few other things where something crazy happened on stage, but musically it’s really hard to say musically what was an inspiring night or great night because…like I said…I get lost in the music at the moment; if it’s really good, I’m not there. I can’t remember what I played 15 minutes after the concert. People come up and say, “I love that you played such and such a tune” and I don’t even remember doing the song sometimes. When I get lost in my music, believe me I’m in a zone and I can’t retain it afterward unless somebody recorded it or filmed it or something. I can remember some bizarre nights when things didn’t go that well. Those are very memorable.So I think that the next time you see me perform you’ll see, hopefully, a better guitar player each time that you see me come through. And as far as success, it’s kind of relative, but as a musician, I’m still trying to get there. But on a success level, even though I do have some awards and things like that, I think that those things really distinguish me as a blues musician, it does say that I’ve had been the most successful blues musician of my generation. At the same time, I’m a blues musician (chuckles) I’m not a country star. If I was a country star, I’d be showing up into town with about 18 18-wheelers, you know, playing at the football stadium, but I’m in a different genre of music and in my genre I’ve done well so far, but in the overall scheme of things, I’m pretty humble.
MS: What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
CTK: Well, I don’t know if I want to print it in the newspaper. I could give you some BS answer, but the best advice I’ve been given…I don’t think it needs to be in the article.
MS: That’s fine. So many people look up to you, what advice would you give to someone who wants to be where you are?
CTK: Somebody that wants to make their lifestyle and livelihood around music and art?
CTK: I would tell them…I would define that first before I answer. Because there are some people that want to be a star and that’s a whole different thing. Some people want to be bling-bling rich and have all the hip-hop type of luxuries and that’s something different too, but if you want to make a living from your art, living from your music, I would say first of all, make sure that you’re in love with it, make sure that you and your music are soul mates and the biggest thing about it is you have to stick with it. It’s good advice to tell people to have something to fall back on like go to college and get your degree and all of these kinds of things like that, but getting a degree is not going to get you booked at the local club. They’re not going to ask for your papers. You know what I mean?
MS: Yes, sir.
CTK: All they want you to have done is make some good music that people enjoy and you’re on your way. I would say first, have your art be your soul mate and stick with it. Don’t expect anything to happen overnight, you just have to stick with it and be dedicated to it. And when I say it’s your soul mate, you can’t cheat on it. (chuckles) You can’t take it for granted. You have to take care of it. You have to love it. You have to dedicate yourself to it, put everything you have into it and that love and attention that you give it, other people…it will become contagious. And It’s not instant. Sometimes there’s an act or singer or music that comes out or movie that comes out and everybody just agrees that it’s the greatest movie ever seen…and then it fades away. And then there’s this little movie or this little band and it just takes on this life of its own over time and it becomes legendary. I would say, since you can’t control all of these other things. The only thing you can control is your art and your dedication to it and your love for it and your respect for it. You can control those things and if you do those things well, I think the other things will follow.
MS: What are you top 5 favorite albums of all time?
CTK: (silence) Well, I mentioned one, “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis would be one of those. Coltrane’s “Love Supreme” is beautiful. A little too short. That’s hard, man. It comes down to…the kind of albums that I like to listen to are the kind of albums where you sit down and the whole album is like a play. It’s one whole thing. I would say Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” is something that I find myself listening to continuously. I have to put on “Oh, Brother. Where Art Thou” on that list. And right now, I would say “Antebellum Postcards.”
MS: I think that is the first CD that I’ve had of yours in a while.
CTK: “Antebellum Postcards” The theme for that album was the Antebellum period, pre-Civil War period. I wanted to take my music back farther than just the Delta Blues. I was trying to find where the stuff originated and gave inspiration. When I found what I really wanted to express and one song is from the early Civil War times, “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore” it’s become like a folk song, but it’s one of the first songs that African-Americans that was published, that was written down into sheet music. Because people didn’t know how to…European music people, either they didn’t care about the African-American music or they didn’t know how to write it down or put it on notation paper. Because in European classical music you go from one interval to the next interval and the African-American song was a slur from one to the other or bend from one to the other. And they didn’t really know how to notate it. The first guy to come along and notate it properly was W.C. Handy and he published the first sheet music of blues songs around 1912. And that’s why it’s called…you’ve heard the label Blue Note?
MS: Yes, sir.
CTK: Well blue note is that note that African-Americans brought to European music…to the scale. The blue note was the note in-between the two major notes. And when you play that scale, they call it the blue scale; it gives you that tone that this music was built upon. But anyway, I wanted to get back the early beginning of the music and that’s where I got the inspiration for most of the songs and not every song came from that period. Like “Rehab”, I told you the inspiration for that, but some of the other songs that’s pretty much where it’s coming from. On the album I play mandolin, the acoustic guitar, acoustic bass. I played basically all of the string instruments that my band plays bass and drums in the studio. To me, I think it’s my finest record in many, many years. It’s one of my best collections that I’ve done. I feel very proud about it. I’m very satisfied with the way it turned out.
MS: With the new record out, what do you have on your horizon for 2012? Anything else coming up?
CTK: Besides trying to make some time to try and improve on my playing, I do have a good bit of music that I haven’t released over the years. I have some outtakes from some recordings. I have some live recordings and some…In other words, when I did “Antebellum Postcards”, there are at least 12 or 13 songs that I recorded at the same time, but decided not to put them on the album. I narrowed it down to 10 out of maybe 23 songs. So over the last few years, I have a stockpile of songs in my, I guess I would call it my vault that haven’t been released. And this year I’m trying to about every other month, I’m trying to do an internet release of some songs that previously have not been out. So I think in 2012, people will get a lot more music from me because every other month, they’ll see a new collection, a new album being released. I’ll update the website of some things that will become available. As far as my next real studio release that will probably be later in the fall. And I’m excited about going to Bangkok for a tour. A couple of weeks after we leave The Vinyl (Music Hall in Pensacola, Florida) we head over to Asia for a tour and those kind of things are exciting when you get to go to the other side of the world and play your music.
MS: This is a food related question. Do you like crunchy or creamy peanut butter?
CTK: (chuckles and answers in the coolest way humanly possible) I like my peanut butter smooth. I like the peanuts and then I like the smooth peanut butter. But when you kind of mix them together; nutty and smooth, to me, that don’t work as well.
MS: Is there anything else you’d like to add or have everybody in Pensacola know in preparation for the show?
CTK: I would just say that, if you like the new album, you’re going to hear a lot of it on the new tour that we’re doing this year. We’ve incorporated a lot of new songs, but we still definitely…some of the favorites from “Oh Brother” and “Ray” and some of the movies and things, those things will definitely always be part of the set, but we made room for a lot of new songs from “Antebellum Postcards” and it’s one of my favorite places to play. I have a good relationship with the audience and they seem to really get what it is that we do and I always look forward to coming back.
MS: Are you going to have the same bassist and drummer backing you up this time too that you had last year?
CTK: Yeah. My drummer’s name is Jeff Mills and the bassist is Danny Infinte. They’ll be there.
– Michael L. Smith