Patience Is A Virtue: Marcus King On Mentor Warren Haynes, The Marcus King Band & More

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Welcome to another edition of The Art Of The Sit-In, where we mix it up with the scene’s most adventurous players and hear some stories from the road. For more, check out our recent interviews with Joe Russo, Oteil Burbridge, John Medeski, Marc Brownstein, Mihali Savoulidis and many more. (A full archive of more than 40 The Art Of The Sit-In features is here.)

Marcus King roared out of the gates in 2016 to kick off his red-hot band’s busiest year of touring yet, and closed it onstage at the Beacon Theatre in New York, belting out Prince’s “Purple Rain” as a guest of Gov’t Mule. These are the kinds of experiences that have highlighted the 20-year-old guitar and singing phenom’s career on a regular basis, ever since we all started hearing about him about three years ago and he became a protege of Warren Haynes, to whom the fiery-singing, fleet-fingered King bears more than a few similarities.

Last year saw The Marcus King Band — a blisteringly jammy outfit that marries psychedelic R&B and soul with Allmans-style Southern rock and roadhouse blues — break out at a national level, venturing out beyond its Southeastern U.S. stronghold and swaggering on to stages as far away as Europe. According to King, 2017 will be even busier, as the band rides a wave of critical and fan acclaim from its second full-length album, the Haynes-produced The Marcus King Band, which arrived in October and collects much of MKB’s best material.

King, a native of Greenville, South Carolina, grew up in a family of musicians and has music in his veins. We caught up with Marcus just ahead of a string of co-billed shows with the Eric Krasno Band, to put a bow on a successful 2016, look at what’s ahead for this year, talk through what he’s learned from mentors like Warren, and hear about some surprising influences.

JAMBASE: So congrats on a huge year. I saw you at the Cutting Room right at the end of 2016 and it looked like you guys were all feeling great.

Marcus King: We had a great time. It was our first time at that venue and they welcomed us with open arms, especially starting that late.

JAMBASE: Fair to say that was one of your bigger New York crowds since you started playing here?

MK: It’s the biggest one we’ve done there. All of our other shows have been in not too much smaller but definitely smaller places, that was the biggest. It was a great way to end the year.

JAMBASE: Do you guys feel pressure to keep the heat on right now, to stay out there and capitalize on the good notices from 2016?

MK: Honestly, our sanity is really based on our tour schedule. As long as we’re still moving and still making music, we’re all jolly fellows, you know? We don’t feel a lot of pressure to create; it’s when we’re not working that we start to get stir crazy. I love being on the road, man. I love meeting new faces every night. This past year was the most touring I’ve ever done personally, so we’re hoping to build on that.

JAMBASE: Can you pick a favorite night from 2016?

MK: The Cutting Room was really one of the best for me. But there were a lot of really good ones. Playing the Indigo at the O2 Arena in London was a big one, at the London Blues Festival.

[Rita Is Gone – The Cutting Room, December 30, 2016 | Captured by Tom Libera]

JAMBASE: Will this be kind of an expansion year, with new markets, or will you be coming back to places you’ve played a lot already?

MK: This is going to be a little bit of both, including revisiting markets we introduced ourselves to last year with hopefully larger numbers coming back to see us. There’ll be some new spots on the map we’ll try to hit — some new places none of us have been before. But we’ll also be hitting the Southeast more. The idea of the past year was to take what we were doing in the Southeast and introduce it in other places, and now we’re kind of coming back to our roots, too.

JAMBASE: Did you accomplish what you wanted to with your new album?

MK: Yeah, I did. I really did. My goal for the record was to re-introduce the idea of the band. After our first release [in 2015], my drummer and me found ourselves without a band. At that time our bass and keyboard players both had to split, they were going back to school. So we set out and found all the guys you hear on the record, and we self-titled it for that purpose — it really is a re-introduction to the band and feels almost like a debut record for us in the sense that it’s our first one for Fantasy [Records] and it’s the first one with this lineup of guys. This is the lineup we’re happy with, from all the touring and all the time we’ve spent together. That’s what I wanted to show on the record.

JAMBASE: How did you decide on this lineup? Horns are an essential part of your sound and live show, for example, but other bands might have brought a smaller group on the road. You guys are six players onstage.

MK: I always wanted a big band growing up. And when you’re starting to get out there, you hear from old-timers and people who have been in the business for a long time, and they’ll warn you about the things you’re going to face. So you hear it from people and you trust their opinion, but for me, I know I wanted the horns and I know I want the Hammond organ and the Leslie [speaker]. I want them on the show, and that means we pull a trailer, which means it increases the gas price for us. It’s not as lucrative as traveling as a three-piece might be. But for me, our sound is better conveyed with the full lineup. I don’t want to cut corners.

JAMBASE: What’s a good piece of advice from an old timer, or a young timer, that you’ve received in the last year?

MK: We received notebooks full of great advice and wisdom from Warren Haynes every day we were in the studio with him. The biggest one I like to preach is patience. Patience is a never-ending journey, and the patience that that man has — that’s something that’s hard for a lot of people to obtain. My mind is always spinning 100 miles a minute, and he’s taught me to lay back and try things more than once. I’m usually quick to shut something down if it doesn’t work the first time. If you try things more than once, several takes, you get the best stuff that way. So patience is one virtue I’m trying to obtain.

JAMBASE: So, patience in the sense of trying different things? In the sense of you yourself playing with patience? All of that?

MK: Yeah, to put more space in between. Letting the song kind of do its thing. Not forcing something but also not being quick to shut down an idea. I’d put the idea of a sax solo in a certain section, and it didn’t sound right, but maybe we’d try it a few times and maybe it would work. And in my playing, letting it breathe a bit. Music really is a conversation. It’s just like when you and I are talking right now. You gotta listen to each other, and be able to respond with the right thing to say, and try not to talk over the other person. Just as with music. You try to respond coherently.

JAMBASE: What do you recall about first meeting Warren?

MK: The first time I met him was in Athens, at the Georgia Theater. I went down to kind of say hey and we hung out for a minute. I was there both nights they were playing [Aug 21 and 22, 2014], and I went to the production office the next night to say hey to everybody, and I saw the setlist, and I was on the setlist. That kind of threw me for a loop. That was really game-changing — a life changing thing for me to do. It was nothing we had run through or rehearsed, I just kind of jumped on.

JAMBASE: It was ZZ Top if I remember correctly.

MK: Yeah, it was “Jesus Just Left Chicago.” What I didn’t know was that I was supposed to sing the second verse. I really didn’t expect that; I was just expecting to play on it. But our friend Heath goes, hey, you’re signing the second verse, and I’m like, what? I made sure I remembered the lyrics.

[Gov’t Mule – Jesus Just Left Chicago -, Georgia Theatre, August 22, 2014 | Captured by zmanatl]

JAMBASE: How did it come to pass that Warren would be your producer?

MK: Well, as far as the planning for the new record, we had been working with him on the road and hanging on the bus, and on top of that and all the advice he had given us, we really didn’t have anyone else in mind other than him. He had kind of taken us under his wing, and when he agreed to do it, we were all really excited. It all worked out really nicely.

JAMBASE: What’s your first musical memory? Have you been playing since, I guess, the womb?

MK: [laughs] I’ve been around it since the womb, at least. My earliest musical memory was my great-grandfather’s porch in the Blue Ridge Mountains. All my aunts were singing gospel tunes and my relatives are around, and there are piano and mandolin and guitar and fiddles getting thrown around and everyone’s playing something. I was about 4 and it was so amazing to see and hear. As we started to lose members of the family, that started to dissipate, and we didn’t see it as much. But my father and I started to play a lot together at the house, and when I was 8 years old, I went out and started playing with his band. He was applying the joy of music that we had had and bringing it to the stage and playing it through loud amplifiers.

JAMBASE: So it’s fair to say your dad taught you to play?

MK: Yeah. I always refer to him as the guru. My granddad was the same way, though. My dad turned me on to all the early blues stuff, while my grandfather turned me on to a lot of honky tonk music, stuff like Chet Atkins and George Jones and Willie Nelson. That inspired a lot of the songwriting I do and things I learned to do later on. I never really thought I would sing or write songs, I just wanted to play guitar.

JAMBASE: When did you first know you could sing?

MK: I still don’t really fancy myself a singer. That’s also something I get from my grandfather: never being satisfied with you work so you can continue to grow, and be the best you can be, and work toward something always. I guess I was about 13 or 14, and I had a close friend of mine passed away, and I wrote a song that was an acoustic instrumental. I recorded it in my friend’s basement, and after I cut it, I realized I wasn’t able to say all I wanted to say through my guitar only, and it kind of piqued from there — I couldn’t represent myself fully without singing. So I wrote lyrics and I started singing.

Now, I know there are people out there who started singing and it sounded good the first time they opened their mouth, and that’s not me — there are definitely some early recordings of me that sound like cat scratches. But I started loving singing, and I gained influence from singers I had listened to because I liked their guitar work. Joe Cocker and Janis Joplin and Freddie King all were inspiring me with how they used their vocals.

JAMBASE: Of the ones you mentioned or others, which singers do you remember responding to first?

MK: The first one was — and I can remember it chronologically — it was Janis Joplin. You listen to “Summertime,” that noise, it’s like she’s hitting a tri-tone with her vocals. I was like, wow. And that was before I started singing. Gregg Allman was one, certainly. And another big one was James Dewar, Robin Trower’s bass player and vocalist.

JAMBASE: Your story about the death of a buddy and wanting to put vocals to something that doesn’t come across completely instrumentally, that’s a pretty heavy thing for a 13-year-old to apprehend. Have you been told you’re mature a lot?

MK: Yeah man, I get told that a lot, but there’s always room to grow, for everybody. I just like to play. You see a lot of things in life that’ll help you grow up pretty quickly.

JAMBASE: I understand you play a mean pedal steel, too. That’s your steel on the record, yes?

MK: That’s me. But that’s the biggest thing I’m insecure about playing live. There are a lot of ridiculous players on pedal steel out there that I listen to a lot, so for me it’s more of a hobby. The amount of time it takes from you — man, when I first got it, I couldn’t put it down for a month or two, and this was at a time when we had a lot of time off the road, and I realized it was affecting my guitar playing because I wasn’t playing guitar all that much. I was totally enthralled with it. Pedal steel is a big love of mine, but I would never tell someone I am a pedal steel player, just that I like to play it.

JAMBASE: Have you taken it out at all during a Marcus King Band show?

MK: I took it out a few times, and I embarrassed myself because I can’t really sing while I play it — I can’t split my mind like that. In the future, it’ll be a bigger part of the show. But not right now.

JAMBASE: You’re doing a bunch of dates soon with the Eric Krasno Band. You’ve played together a few times, right?

MK: Yeah, and Krasno’s another cat who’s been another influence of mine since I was young. His playing and now his singing, and just the vast musical influences that he has that stem from jazz and bluegrass and and soul … we have a lot of similar influences. He’s one of those cats like with Warren, where we kind of looked at each other and it was like hey, we’re friends. You have that type of interaction with only a few people you meet in the world, you just become immediate friends. That’s how it felt when I met Kraz and the first time we played together. He always comes up with cool covers to do and even if they don’t go the way we planned, they’re still really fun.

JAMBASE: Do you have influences or musical interests that you think would surprise your fans?

MK: Really, I like anything that’s good. If it hits my ears the right way, I’ll listen to it. One thing that might surprise people, I guess, is that while I was studying jazz here in Greenville, my friends weren’t all jazz players, a lot of my friends were in the punk scene. I respected the tenacity in what they did. I’d go to house shows and I’d kind of stand behind the mosh pit and watch from afar. Social anxiety and claustrophobia don’t pair that well with a mosh pit. [laughs] But I was about 16 or 17, and that was teenage angst coming through amplifiers. I was so taken aback, and then I’d go home and listen to like Ralph Stanley or something, and try to combine — not consciously — all these things I was hearing and liking and trying to make sense of it all.

Another one is that we listen to a lot of hip-hop in the van. As far as phrasing on the guitar, I listen to a lot of hip hop as an influence: Tupac, the way he phrases things, the rhythmic patterns that he chose to use, and Nas, and A Tribe Called Quest, and Common is a big one, and Wu-Tang Clan. We were on tour with The Record Company, and in our green room we had “36 Chambers” playing, and [The Record Company frontman] Chris Vos walks in and stops and listens, and was like, [in Chris Vos voice] “Well, all right. It wasn’t really what I expected but if this gets you guys ready …” [laughs]

JAMBASE: Have you ever played punk or hip-hop?

MK: When I was 15 I’d play a gig in Asheville, North Carolina – I’d drive up there with my driving permit and it was this place called the Hole In The Wall. If you’re going to call a club that, I guess there’s not much of an expectation there. But there was a band and all these fusion musicians from Greenville and Asheville and the area that I was a fan of, and I was playing with them, even though I didn’t even think I was fit to shine their shoes. We’d play a lot of D’Angelo-type stuff — really melodic stuff that was beautiful and tasteful to me, and it’s really the only time I’ve played close to hip hop or that style of music. I could never play the punk stuff, but I always enjoyed watching it.

JAMBASE: Before I let you go, can you share a fun sit in-story? Should I just go ahead and ask about “Purple Rain”?

MK: [laughs] Yeah. I remember getting a text that day and it said, “Can you sing ‘Purple Rain’?” I was like, uh, what? I thought it was a joke. I’d never sang that song in my life. I always had a great appreciation for the tune, but it’s never come up in our set or anywhere else I’ve ever played. So I said, absolutely! I started studying it, and I got up there, and I was just scared to death, I didn’t want to mess it up.

JAMBASE: But you’d already been up there the previous night at the Beacon with Gov’t Mule!

MK: I thought that was pretty great, the first song I ever played at the Beacon Theater was “Can’t You See,” by Toy Caldwell, from South Carolina. To be able to do that and share the stage with Warren and the band — that was a really special moment.

[Purple Rain | Captured by SpadesIWin]

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