by Will Romano
The last time I talked with Gary Clark Jr., it was over a decade ago and he was fitting a harp into a harmonica rack at Antone’s blues club, in Austin, Texas, where I was doing research. Gary was quiet and focused, but we managed to chat briefly in the green room as a number of veteran musicians chewed the fat, hung out, or waited to perform.
Gathering thunderstorms must have suppressed turnout, because the place was half empty. It was the public’s loss, I think. When Gary took the stage the youngster (who’s now thirty-two) appeared transformed. Incredibly, that quiet kid nailed a cover of the classic Jimmy Reed cut, “High and Lonesome,” capturing a glimmer of the Big Boss Man’s vocal drawl and patented rhythmic bump.
I watched Clark Jr.’s performance intently as Clifford Antone sidled up next to me. Clifford, the late former owner of the famous blues destination that still bears his name, had been instrumental in nurturing and supporting the talent of countless blues and blues-rock artists.
As the set progressed, the irrepressible Clifford grinned, leaned into me, and asked, “What do you think …”? going on to call the guitarist one of his “young guns” and predicted that he was going to make an impact on the music business, some day.
I was deeply impressed with Gary’s confidence, repertoire, musical knowledge, and willingness to traverse cultural property claimed by older generations. But I had filed that experience away, and it would be another ten years before my path intersected once more with Clark, Jr.
When the opportunity arose to interview Gary at Terminal 5 in New York City, admittedly, I was intrigued. Gary’s latest studio record, The Story of Sonny Boy Slim, is a kind of encyclopedic catalog of musical styles tracking the “young gun”’s evolution as an artist. It seemed perfect timing for a catch-up.
As I waited for my turn to interview Gary, Jimmy Reed—of all people—was being pumped through the venue’s P.A. My mind drifted back to Austin, 2005. A lot had changed since my first meeting with Clark Jr. Clifford, sadly, had left us in 2006, the blues has since moved through infinite permutations, and Gary caught fire via his television appearances, various gigs around the globe, Rolling Stone magazine crowning him as “The Chosen One” (i.e. The Next Great Blues Guitarist), a deal with Warner Bros., and a Grammy win.
When I finally greeted Gary (all 6′ 4″ of him), I noticed he was wearing an Antone’s nightclub T-shirt. I was well aware that we needed to discuss drums, which Gary plays on his new album, as well as his main skinsman Johnny Radelat (who was present at the interview) and the artist’s ability to balance musical styles as diverse as electronica, hip-hop, R&B, old-school soul, and blues-rock. I knew all these things. Yet it was difficult to ignore what I interpreted as rapidly unfolding cosmically aligned events. I felt compelled to ask the obvious and appropriate question about a mutual friend.
“Last time I saw Clifford he came up to me on stage while I was doing a Bob Marley cover and he said, ‘Man, you need to play Jimmy Reed,’” Gary, said. “I said, ‘Cliff, I’m trying to do my other thing right now. Can you let me do this?’ That was the last time I saw him [alive]. He [died] not long after that. The fact is, every time I pick up a guitar, or we play, or I play blues, I think about Cliff. He said, ‘You have to remember these guys [blues icons].’ I haven’t forgotten.”
After our talk, I emerged from the backstage area to witness throngs of concert attendees overflowing into the venue’s lobby, clustered together on the main floor, and sashaying up to the bar. The place was hot and packed, its atmosphere a tad claustrophobic—a far cry from one breezy, rainy evening in a sparsely populated Austin blues bar a decade prior.
When Gary and his band took the stage, they opened with the gritty mid-tempo blues-rock burner, “Bright Lights,” a kind of apathetic, pickled, hip-hop twist on Jimmy Reed’s cautionary tale, “Bright Lights, Big City.” Cool and laid back, Clark Jr. casually delivered the boastful line “You gonna know my name by the end of the night.”
I paused, thinking of the significance of that lyric, and then it hit me. It may have taken over ten years, but I think I’ve got it. Clifford, wherever you are, you’re a genius.
MD: What was your introduction to drums?
Gary: My Uncle Rob had this white Pearl kit that I used to bash around. I was about five years old or something. Then in 1996 my sister got a kit for Christmas, same year I got a guitar. She lost interest in it soon, and I was in a band that didn’t have a drummer. The drums were sitting in the garage, and no one was playing them. I decided to start playing again.
MD: How old were you then?
Gary: I was probably thirteen, fourteen.
MD: You picked up guitar in the interim. But did you keep your hand in drumming?
Gary: Not really. The drumkit got buried under whatever else the kids were collecting then, as well as my musical equipment, like my amps and mics and whatever. I put it down for a little while and then my buddy Jay Moeller, who I used to run around with all the time, had this blue sparkle Japanese kit, I think. He was getting rid of it and asked me if I wanted it. I had just moved into an apartment and I thought it would be great to put drums in a small apartment with three other people….
MD: Your roommates must have appreciated that.
Gary: I would bash around from time to time, and I recorded some home demos. King Zapata, who plays guitar now [in my band], was probably the only guy to ever hire me to do a drum gig.
MD: There are four drummers on The Story of Sonny Boy Slim. I’m curious about whether you’re playing acoustic drums on the record.
Gary: I play acoustic drums for the foundation of the songs, and on “Grinder” and “Hold On.” Johnny Radelat is on “Cold Blooded,” J.J. Johnson is on “Can’t Sleep,” Jay Moeller is on “Shake.” “BYOB” started off with acoustic drums, and “Stay” was acoustic. “Our Love” was done on PC originally. [Note: Radelat told Modern Drummer that the big, acoustic kick sound on the Sonny Boy Slim album can be attributed to his 28″ Gretsch bass drum. “It sounded like a canon,” Gary says.]
MD: Talk about how you coordinated the digital and acoustic drums.
Gary: Generally, when there was programming, as in “The Healing,” “Star,” “Our Love,” “Wings,” “Down to Ride,” it started off on an Akai MPC [production/controller unit], putting patterns together and arranging that way. Then later we’d add acoustic drums, layer and stack them to give the song a “live room” element. We built everything up from there.
MD: It sounds as if the drumming on “Wings” was programmed. Is this true?
Gary: Oh, man. There’s, like, four different drum parts on there. That’s the one song that I was willing to fight over in the studio.
MD: Why do you say that?
Gary: Because when I originally programmed “Wings,” I’d done it in GarageBand. I also layered tracks with my Korg Mk II electronic drum machine and sampler. I think the MPC came in later, and I added live drums to the track. Originally I thought it would be this slow, jazzy, groovy thing. [Sings a funky swing pattern.] But when I added the 16th notes with the busy snare, it sounded cool to me. I did play the snare by itself and added some other little percussion. We actually did scale it back a bit. You’ve got the tame version, I think, on the new record.
MD: You perform as a one-man band on occasion. What got you interested in that tradition? [Note: Radelat reminds us that at the 2013 Eric Clapton Crossroads Guitar Festival, Clark Jr. slid up and down the neck of a resonator guitar while playing a hi-hat and kick drum with his feet on the song “Next Door Neighbor Blues.”]
Gary: I saw this guy Homer Henderson in Austin. He has this crazy setup where he’s got a big kick drum and the mallet for his kick pedal is connected to a stick, which hits a ride cymbal. While he plays electric guitar and a harp on a rack, he also plays a snare and a hi-hat, I think, with his [left] foot. That’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever heard.
Personally, the one-man-band thing came from me not being able to hire a band, or me forgetting I had a gig, or forgetting where it was, and thinking maybe I called the guys but I hadn’t. [The venue] would pull a bass drum out and they would let me sit up there on stage and mess around. It was an “Oops” moment that turned into its own thing.
MD: The new album cover more musical ground than your prior releases. You walk a fine line between the blues, soul, hip-hop, and rock. Why did you want to go in all of these musical directions?
Gary: Because it felt the most natural. Let me say this: People expect me to do a certain thing that I’m not going to do, because what I like is OutKast, Otis Redding, John Lee Hooker, and Marvin Gaye. That’s my shit. That’s [the type of music] I like to make. I also like to experiment with new technology.
MD: You may not always play blues, but how important was Clifford Antone to your career?
Gary: I’ve really got to give it up to him. My first time going into Antone’s, Buddy Guy was playing and I couldn’t fit in. It was packed. All the blues people had said I had to go to Antone’s. It’s where everybody wanted to be if you were playing gigs on Sixth Street, or playing gigs around town. You would hope that you would build enough of an audience to where Cliff would put you on the stage. Clifford heard about me and I got the opportunity to do my thing. I got up on stage with Hubert Sumlin, James Cotton, “Pinetop” Perkins, George “Mojo” Buford, Calvin “Fuzz” Jones on bass, and I think George Raines was kicking on the drums. Big beat. Amazing. The way he plays is crazy. From that point on Cliff introduced me to everybody.
To be that kid, hanging back, catching the guys shooting the shit…. Hubert Sumlin? Willie “Big Eyes” Smith? Man, hearing these guys tell stories about Muddy Waters and [Howlin’] Wolf doing this or that? That was my musical education. I learned how to be “a dude” from hanging out with Clifford. I really owe him and Susan Antone [Clifford’s sister] a lot for allowing me to be in that space and be on that stage and get up [and play], you know? This experience allowed me to do my thing, night after night, to where it sounded good enough to attract the attention of Doyle Bramhall and Jimmie Vaughan, who’d tell Eric Clapton, ‘I think you should check this kid out.’ That was really everything to me.