If there is any band in the improvisational music scene that can capture the super charged energy and charisma of their lives shows in the studio, it would have to be Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe. Having re-colored The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers with their own brand of high energy soul on a past tour, along with Denson covering Beastie Boys songs with his gig as a member of Slightly Stoopid; Denson has re-imagined the power of the song. With the release of New Ammo (Feb 4th Stoopid Records) Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe validates that they’ll be musically relevant this decade and next.
”We’ve finally figured out how to capture in the studio what the Tiny Universe does live,” saxophonist/flutist Denson concludes about New Ammo. “We move around a lot musically, but this record reflects who we are as a band and where we’re headed with our music.”
Along with a number of sweaty and spirited Denson flavored dance numbers, New Ammo also takes a 180 degree turn in a fresh direction not yet heard on previous releases. Instead of covering likely funk suspects,New Ammo takes a stab at Cold War Kids’ “Hang Me Up to Dry” and a groove-heavy rendition of The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.”
From Denson’s early days as a member of Lenny Kravitz’s band, to his work with The Greyboy Allstars, as the saxophonist for Slightly Stoopid and now making Tiny Universe significant amongst many of the neo-soul bands of today; Denson at 57 years young is still making his strongest music yet. We recently had a chance to chat with the band leader via email before the release New Ammo…
Congratulations on the recent release of New Ammo – a fantastic listen that definitely retains the Karl Denson engaging style of dance music while pulling through with more modern rock nuances. Were you going for anything different when writing and recording this album that would set it apart from the rest of your discography?
This record is much more of a band effort than my previous outings. We wrote songs together and the rest of the band contributed songs of their own. We worked up versions of tunes by Cold War Kids, White Stripes and Beastie Boys, which was fun to do. Nicki Bluhm and I got to do a duet for the first single “My Baby”! So we got to spread our wings pretty wide stylistically speaking.
The album title is called New Ammo – does the title signify anything in terms of power and thrust? If not why did you choose this as the album title?
The title came from a tune by our guitarist DJ Williams. We just liked it because we could use it to allude to music, thought and spirit as the new ammo for our time!
You mentioned about New Ammo – “We’ve finally figured out how to capture in the studio what the Tiny Universe does live.” Obviously this is the goal of many live oriented bands- what does it take to really accomplish this live feel in the studio? Why put out a studio album when what you do live is do damn good anyways?
It’s not so much sounding like we do live as much as it is finding out what we do well and then capturing it in on the record.
You added Andy Geib (trombone) and Daniel De La Cruz (baritone saxophone) to the lineup on this release doubling your horn formation. What do you feel these additions have added to your overall sound?
We wanted to be able to go for more orchestration. On songs like “Grenadier’s” or the “The Duel” it helps to be able to have a bigger horn section so you can split parts up. The result is a sound that’s really big and powerful sonically.
I think what stands out most on this release is your choice of covers. You got songs by the Cold War Kids, Beastie Boys and The White Stripes. Why the decision to go in a more rock direction with these cover choices and what other songs did you consider to cover?
They fit in with what we’re doing currently. The Beastie Boys cover came out of our Beasties’ tribute last year, the Cold War Kids song was recommended by my manager and I picked The White Stripes cover since I’m a big Jack White fan. Then you’ve got the two 70s movie soundtrack covers. So it wasn’t so much about anything other than recording and performing material we like.
What other bands would we be surprised to learn that Karl Denson is a fan of?
Patty Griffin, Bjork, Johnny Cash, Led Zeppelin. I like pretty much everything if it’s good. I’m always listening and checking out new stuff.
You’ve been doing this for a long time and have seen many changes in the live music scene? Obvioulsy there were a lot of instrumental groove/funk bands 15 or so years ago but its kind of moved over to a more electronic/jamtronica scene. What are your thoughts on the changes of the live music scene of late?
I think music is in a great state right now because of the accessibility factor. Via the internet, people can find what they like. There’s room for everybody.
You’ve recently been playing with Slightly Stoopid and released New Ammo on their label. How has this experience been for you musically and professionally? I think a lot of people wouldn’t predict you hooking up with them – how did that all happen?
We’ve been friends with their management for a long time. They invited me down to play with them three years ago and they were just a fun bunch of guys to hang out with. It really is about the hang with them — a total San Diego vibe!
As you get older- what keeps you strong and playing such long shows and staying on the road?
We actually do play shorter sets than we used to. The scene has changed a lot and it just made sense musically to play less. This is our craft and our livelihood. We make a point to stay in shape and look after our health. I’m feeling better than ever!
A few years back you covered The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers and you’ve also covered The Beastie Boys with Slightly Stoopid. What other albums would you most like to cover in the future?
We’re going to do a Rick James tribute down in New Orleans at Jazzfest this year and we’ve been having a lot of fun with our Ray Charles Boogalo Dance Party shows where we team up with Zach Deputy, so there’s a few more of those in the works too. I think Outkast The Love Below would be a fun one. But for the most part we’ll be focusing on playing our own tunes and getting the music from the new album out there.
Looking back over your career, what live shows stand out as pinnacle moments for you?
Highlights would include playing with Dave Matthews at Madison Square Garden with James Brown sitting in. It’s hard to top getting to play with the Godfather of Soul. The New Orleans Jazz Festival late-night shows at Tipitina’s and House of Blues are always among the highlights of our year too!
What is your dream team of musicians that you’ve already played with and who would you have most liked to have been in a band with?
There’s just too many of them and it would be too hard to choose any five musicians. But, of all people past or present I would love to be in the Miles Davis band circa 1959.