Q&A: Gary Clark Jr.
Gary Clark Jr. may or may not be the future of the blues, but for someone who got into music because of Michael Jackson, and lists Snoop Dogg, Barry White and Dr. Dre among his influences, he sure does right by its glorious past.
Currently on the road as part of the Bonnaroo Buzz Tour with Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, Futurebirds and The Black Box Revelation, the singer/guitarist has garnered a healthy amount of buzz in recent months through exposure via YouTube and other Internet avenues, as well as his notable appearance at at least year's Crossroads Guitar Festival in Chicago, where he shared a stage with Eric Clapton, Sheryl Crow and longtime Clapton compatriot Doyle Bramhall II.
The Austin, TX-raised guitar prodigy -- self-taught, he was playing before audiences by age 12 -- was discovered by legendary Austin nightclub owner and local music icon Clifford Antone, who took the young Clark under his wing. Soon he was playing shows all over town.
Clark, now 27 years old, remained primarily a local phenomenon through much of his young adulthood, issuing several self-released efforts, including a self-titled EP last year, before his appearance at Crossroads turned the industry's spotlight on his enormous talent and nearly untapped potential.
Now signed to Warner Bros., Clark is currently working on his major-label debut. He also added another acting credit to his name, appearing with his own band in an episode of NBC's "Friday Night Lights" last year. In 2007, Clark made his acting debut by appearing in John Sayles' "Honeydrippers." Next month Clark will make his first appearance at the Bonnaroo Festival in Manchester, TN.
He recently took time out to talk to SoundSpike about the Bonnaroo Buzz Tour, his musical influences, and the shape his new album is taking.
SoundSpike: How's the Buzz Tour taking shape so far?
Gary Clark Jr.: So far so good, man. The bands are killer, people are killer, good crew to hang with. Shows have been awesome. We're just getting started, so....
You've got a pretty diverse lineup. How are audiences responding?
They've been responding really well. They've been digging us, they've been digging the Futurebirds, and Grace Potter & The Nocturnals, they get up and do their thing. It's cool, you know. I didn't really know what to expect coming out here, I hadn't played any of these cities before. I was a little nervous about how they were going to respond to us, being kind of a band from Texas playing some bluesy type stuff, but it's cool. Fans have been really receptive to the whole thing. People just wanna come out and hear music and dance around a little bit.
It seems like this tour has an interesting mix of styles and maybe is kind of a nice representation of Bonnaroo: a little of this, a little of that. You're from Austin, so it seems like that might be right up your alley, because you get so many different styles where you come from...
You know, until you said something, I didn't even really think about it, because I am from Austin, there's all kinds of stuff everywhere. But if this is a small little taste of what Bonnaroo is going to be like -- I've never been, so I hope there's gonna be something for everybody. I'm just stoked to wander through. Hopefully I won't get lost in the mix, I heard it's crazy. I think I'll be very comfortable at Bonnaroo. I don't think I'll freak people out if I go from one thing to another in that respect.
You started your musical development at a really young age. Are you from a musical family?
Yeah, everyone in my family is musical. Everyone sings, you know, plays some sort of instrument or something. I've got a couple of music teachers in my family, like my sister teaches music, my younger sisters play guitar and piano and sing, everyone in my family does something, but I'm the only one who decided I was going to do it for a living, I guess. Because that's all I wanted to do; I wanted to do nothing else but just play.
How old were you when you decided that this was going to be your life?
I saw Michael Jackson in 1989 on the "Bad" tour, and I think that was a great thing for me and was a horrible thing for me, because it was an awesome experience, and then I started school and I was like "I don't want to do this at all!" So that really changed me, I mean, that was an overwhelming moment to be five and see something like that. I was around 12 years old when I got my guitar, and that was it. Played the talent show in my eighth grade year, played the show, got a good response, people are screaming. It felt good, so I was like, "this is what I wanna do."
I got a little extra attention in school and the teachers would kind of understand, you know, like "Why did you miss first period?" and "I was out at the club 'til 3 playing a gig!" But you know, it was fun. I found something that I really wanted to do and just sort of grasped onto it.
Aside from Michael Jackson, who else inspired you?
When I was growing up, I remember my sisters and I dancing around in the living room. My folks would put on records, and they taught us how to put the needle on the record, and do all that kind of stuff, so they just had albums and we would just go through all of them. Stevie Wonder's albums to Diana Ross, Cream to Commodores...my pops was real into funk and my mom loved soul music, and they scattered some blues records in there: B.B. King, Johnny Guitar Watson. And some Prince. So I just remember listening to those records for years, over and over, as a kid. I would get stuck on one thing and then "I don't recognize this. Oh, Barry White. Crap, this is crazy!" So that was my biggest influences, just sort of soaking that up as a kid. All that soul stuff just really stuck. My friend lived down the street, she played guitar, she was into records and collecting records and the blues, so I was over at her and jammed and she would show me stuff. That's how I got into Hendrix and Stevie Ray, and from that, Howlin' Wolf and Albert King and all that.
It was a bunch of stuff. Being in school in Austin, it's a pretty diverse town, so I would go to school with cats who were rocking the Airwalk shoes and the Pearl Jam shirts and the flannels and the long hair, and there were cats who were strictly hip-hop, you know, 13-year-old kids thinking they're all hard and bad-ass. So I just soaked up everything. Anything that made noise.
So you go from that, and now you're up on stage with an Eric Clapton. What is that like?
I listened to Clapton records, Cream and stuff. I was subscribed to all the guitar magazines. So to be up there in Chicago with Clapton and B.B. King and Buddy Guy, you know everybody. When I was sitting in my room, at thirteen, playing along to all these guys' stuff, it was like "Oh yeah, that'd be great someday if I could do that!" It's a dream come true. I don't know how to describe it, but I can tell you my knees were definitely shaking the whole time. It was the most nervous I ever felt and the most proud I ever felt. That was the best moment ever.
I know you've also played with Jimmie Vaughan (former Fabulous Thunderbirds guitarist and brother of Stevie Ray Vaughan), who is one of those guys you don't really hear a lot about but guitarists always name him as a big influence...
Yep. Jimmie is the shit. I got to meet him through Clifford Antone and some guys down in Austin. He took me out on tour with him and he kind of showed me, without putting it in my face, giving me an education. So I'm grateful for that. I got to hang around him, and he taught me how to play harmonica. He called me up -- and I'm still nervous, every time I talk to him I'm like a little kid, a shy kid -- and he's like "What are you doing?" "Nothing." "I'm gonna come pick you up and take you to the guitar store," so he comes and picks me up in this huge badass truck and he goes, "I heard you playing some Jimmy Reed stuff on your harmonica rack at your last gig so I wanna show you some little tricks," so all the little guitar secrets that I was thinking he might show me, and he buys me an A harp and he's like "Check this out!" So we just sat in his truck for like an hour and he's teaching me bends and little things like that. The thing about him is he so's cool and laid back, he doesn't give you all of it, which is cool, it's respectable. I want to learn from him.
You're putting together your debut album for Warner right now?
Yeah, we're working on it. I'm actually going to go out to LA around the first part of June and try to get closer to wrapping this thing up. We're in the process, I'm excited about it. It's my first major label record, so there's a little bit of pressure on that, but basically all is well. Just looking forward to getting it out and sharing it.
Who are you working with? Anybody special?
I did a couple tracks with Doyle Bramhall, and also Justin Stanley, I've got a little production team called Faded Boogie, so I was working with those cats, and then I'm working with Rob Cavallo -- he's done all kinds of things, Dave Matthews, Green Day, all that -- so he's been throwing his little flavors in, which is cool, because we come from kind of different places. I'll bring in my little elements from what I know, which is South, kind of blues, and he'll throw in some other stuff. That guy loves guitars, so we have fun just tracking guitars and making noises. And he's really musical, so he's bringing a lot of things out of me that I never knew, or would have taken me a long time to push myself to do that, so it's great.
Have you got your usual band in there with you, or are you working with studio players?
I brought in my band last session and we did a few tracks, but I've been working with other folks, too. I hear them talking about working with some other people, so we'll see what happens on this next journey out here, I should probably know more in a couple days, but they're letting me just kind of be an artist and do what I love to do. It's a dream come true. So there's no real pressure on it. They want to see the best thing it can be. So we might bring in some people to do something. There might be an accordion solo in there randomly somewhere (laughs). I don't know. We're just having fun. That's all I can tell you about it.