Karl Denson is one of our scene’s most ubiquitous presences, so it was only a matter of time before we got around to featuring him in a column defined by, yep, ubiquitous presences.
But these are exceptional times even by Denson standards. His longtime outfit the Tiny Universe is once again evolving, having brought back Soulive’s Alan Evans as full-time drummer for the first time since the late 1990s, and having started to change its instrumentation, including, as Denson discussed with JamBase, adding a second guitar and possibly other new elements.
Denson makes it clear the Tiny Universe, which just recorded another new album to follow-up 2014’sNew Ammo, is his top priority. But whenever possible he contributes to other longtime affiliations like The Greyboy Allstars as well as new collaborations – including one of his most visible gigs yet – as touring saxophonist for The Rolling Stones.
It’s in that role that Denson succeeds the legendary Bobby Keys, who died in December 2014. Denson first joined The Stones in October and November 2014 for shows in Australia and New Zealand, and he’s back in the lineup for the iconic band’s 2015 Zip Code North American tour, which kicks off May 24 in Denson’s home court, San Diego.
We caught up with Karl fresh from Jazz Fest. Read on to find out what’s next for KDTU, how and what it meant to Denson to get The Stones’ call and other updates from his universe:
JAMBASE: So how was Jazz Fest for you this year?
Karl Denson: Let’s see. It was pretty status quo this time. It’s always good to play with The Greyboy Allstars because we don’t play enough together and it’s tough to get schedules together to work on cool shit, so it’s nice we got to do it.
JAMBASE: But you’d describe it as just status quo?
KD: Yeah, I mean I really only did a few extra gigs this time. This was kind of a mellow Jazz Fest for me. It was actually kind of relaxing.
JAMBASE: How do you pick your spots at Jazz Fest or Jam Cruise or anywhere else where you sit-in all over the place?
KD: A lot of it is just the musical challenge. You look at musical situations that you want to do that are going to challenge you and be fun.
JAMBASE: And do a lot of those come together well in advance or last minute?
KD: This time, no, everything’s done months ahead. It’s more an advertising thing — we’ve got our shows with The Allstars and the Tiny Universe and it has to be pretty organized.
JAMBASE: Let’s look at the Tiny Universe. Alan Evans is back in the fold on drums. How did that come about?
KD: John Staten left the band a few years ago, and we’ve kind of been in flux since then looking for a solid replacement. I realized as we were getting ready to do the recording session in Austin we recently finished, that we just hadn’t gotten there yet. I thought I had to figure out what was going on. And Alan was kind of sitting around. He had folded his band — his trio — and was just doing some recordings. So I called him to see if he was interested. It’s really easy making music with him.
JAMBASE: Is it much different playing with him now than when he was originally in the band? You guys have obviously kept up over the years.
KD: No, not that different. This is just the perfect timing, and when we first talked he was like, whoa, is this a butt call? [laughs] I think that was his first question. But he and I stay in touch through football season anyway, and it was just good timing for him. He’s really psyched I think.
JAMBASE: So this recording session, is it for a new Tiny Universe album? I know it’s been a little time now since New Ammo.
KD: Yes, and it’s time. It’ll have been about 18 months by the time it comes out. New Ammo came out last February, and we’ll probably drop this end of summer, early fall.
JAMBASE: How would you describe the music on this new album?
KD: I would say, it’s a little homier. It’s less muscular. New Ammo was a very muscular album, very in-your-face. This record is not as in- your-face, there’s a lot more subtlety. There’s also more vocals, more songwriting.
JAMBASE: Have you been playing the tunes that will be on this album?
KD: Yes, most of them. We spent a bunch of time writing over the last eight months or so and finally got a few things we really like. We’re doing a cool Led Zeppelin cover — “Trampled Underfoot” will be on there. [Guitarist] DJ [Williams] wrote a tune in the studio that’s in there. We’ve been playing a bunch of these on tour.
JAMBASE: Can you point to any of the new songs you’ve been playing live that really exemplify what this album sounds like?
KD: There’s a song called “Smart Boy” we just added a few months ago. That’s one. And “When I Get Home” we’ve been doing for about six months. Those two are kind of the direction we’re going right now and that I think will also be the direction for the next record. Some of these are coming from a bunch of stuff that we’ve completed that I had started on guitar. My guitar tunes from when I started playing guitar.
JAMBASE: When did you start playing guitar?
KD: About two years ago.
JAMBASE: And what prompted that?
KD: You know, I was on a rock ‘n’ roll cruise, and I realized how lonely saxophone was. You can’t sing or talk or anything, you’re just playing. I wanted to also have something that was a bit more interactive. So I figured, I’ll play some guitar.
JAMBASE: Any chance we’ll see you on guitar in the Tiny Universe?
KD: Not in your lifetime, Chad. [laughs] No, it might happen, maybe another couple of years. I don’t have a lot of leisure time to form my style on guitar.
JAMBASE: One thing fans bring up a lot is the Tiny Universe theme shows. You’ve done the Beastie Boys, Run DMC, Ray Charles, The Rolling Stones. It seems like there are fans that love these and some that are wishing you guys were more regularly doing the straight Tiny Universe stuff. What’s your response to that?
KD: From experience, I think those fans are in the minority. There’s plenty of opportunity to see us do our straight Tiny Universe thing. For most of our fans — particularly the regulars I hang out with when I go from city to city — they get super excited about these little random things we do. I think I’m often less excited than they are. I do get a little antsy, especially now when I’ve been trying to write for the better part of the last year. If we do 150 shows a year, and 40 of them have to be some kind of special thing, that does take away from new material. So I get a little antsy. But for a band like us, it’s kind of a necessary evil.
JAMBASE: Just to keep things fresh?
KD: Yes, to keep things fresh, to sell some tickets, to keep the machine running.
JAMBASE: I wanted to ask you about some of your other affiliations. Any plans to return to your KD3 trio?
KD: Not in the near future. I’m really focused on the Tiny Universe at the present, and getting our catalog built up in a way that will give us some longevity.
JAMBASE: Are you happy with this current Tiny Universe lineup? Is this the band you go forward with?
KD: You know, we might continue to change things around a bit. We’ve added a second guitar as of about a year ago, which I really like — it was kind of an important thing for me to realize we needed. That chair has been rotating. I have Roosevelt [Collier] out on pedal steel for some. I’ve got Beto Martinez from Brownout on guitar. I also use Eric McFadden. I have my core, the rest will change around. I’m hoping eventually that I get to a point where we have enough that we need another singer, like a girl singer or several girl singers, something like that. We’re always evolving.
JAMBASE: You mentioned The Greyboy Allstars. I remember talking with you and Robert Walter years ago when the band got back together and it seemed like the band was going to happen when it happened, without overthinking it. Still the case?
KD: Yes, I think so. We really like playing together, but we’ve all kind of got separate careers that have done well and need our attention. So we’ll make time when we can.
JAMBASE: Karl, you know I have to ask about The Rolling Stones. How did you get the call?
KD: Lenny Kravitz. Lenny was having dinner with Mick [Jagger] in London and that’s when he found out that Bobby [Keys] was sick. His first thought was to call me, and he did. It was a surprise call from Lenny — I get a call from him maybe once a year, sometimes two years, so it was kind of a shock. He put me in the mix, and they liked what I had done before, and we talked it up, and I said O.K., and two weeks later, I’m on my way to Australia.
JAMBASE: What has this experience been like for you?
KD: You know, it’s cool. The whole experience, even now, sitting here, talking to you about it, it’s surreal. I’m still not quite over the shock of it. You play with The Rolling Stones, you play in front of 50,000 people. But I’m not thinking about the audience, I’m thinking, I’m on stage with the friggin’ Rolling Stones. That’s the crazy part. I’m looking out and Jagger, [Keith] Richards, Charlie Watts, these guys are watching me play.
JAMBASE: Did you know any of The Stones or the extended band members before?
KD: None, actually.
JAMBASE: And you will be part of the touring band for The Stones’ U.S. tour this year, correct?
JAMBASE: What is the day-to-day experience like? How much interaction do you have with Mick and Keith and the rest of the band?
KD: I’m one of the guys. I’m in the band. They work really hard — they’re not standing around chit-chatting, telling stories. But during breaks I’ll go over and hang out with Keith or Charlie or Ronnie [Wood] and talk about stuff. Mick is a little bit more business. He’s always doing something. He comes in, he rehearses with a purpose, and when he’s done, he’s done. He’s not really hanging out. I mean, he’s doing choreography, he’s coming up with bits, he’s just a super workhorse when he’s out there. When we have our end of tour party, though, he’s hanging out. It’s all awesome.
JAMBASE: Any thoughts you’d like to share on Bobby Keys?
KD: My biggest regret is not getting to hang out with him. I feel like I’m in this chair now, and I’m suited for it because I’ve been such a big fan for 40 years and I’ve studied the work he did. I had such a big interest in what he brought to the table. So my biggest sadness was not being able to convey that personally.
JAMBASE: When in rehearsal or when the shows started, did the band give you much direction or is it more, “Do your thing, Karl?”
KD: Yeah, it’s do your thing. Mick heard my stuff before so he knew what I played like. We did “Sticky Fingers” a few years ago with Anders [Osborne] and I sent him our version of “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’.” He knew I had a certain amount of reverence for the material.
JAMBASE: I have to ask you for a recent sit-in story, either you with another band or someone else with the Tiny Universe or another band you’re part of. What comes to mind?
KD: Jimmy Herring with us at Jazz Fest. And that goes back to your earlier question, highlights from Jazz Fest. It would be Tipitina’s late night with Jimmy Herring. Sold out show. It was really a blast for everybody and I think you’ll get really positive feedback from people who were there.
JAMBASE: You’ve known him for a good long while and jammed with Panic, but what’s it like to you playing with him?
KD: He’s one of the best out there. Guys like him and Warren [Haynes], they’re so strong at what they do, and he’s so angular and weird in his playing, all the way back to the Aquarium Rescue Unit days. I was a big fan of the Aquarium Rescue Unit. He’s like a real jazz player, but coming at it from a rock ‘n’ roll blues standpoint too. He’s way up there. And he’s a challenge to play with just because he’s got so much ammunition.
JAMBASE: Can you recall a song or moment from the Tip’s show that just clicked with Jimmy?
KD: Everything always clicks with Jimmy. But we did an old Funk Inc. tune called “Kool Is Back,” and that was just…well, if you can find that recording, that’s the one to get your hands on. Jimmy gets pretty out of control.