Gary Clark, Jr. is a self-taught guitarist who began playing at age 12 and now, as he nears 29, finds himself anointed by many as the savior of the blues and the next guitar icon. Clark, however, tends to distance himself from such accolades, preferring to focus his attention on what is truly important to him: his music and his playing.
Consequence of Sound spoke with Gary Clark, Jr. about his recent major label debut, Blak and Blu, his diverse musical tastes and earliest influences, and his desire to share his music with everyone.
A few months ago, my wife and I were watching a rerun of Samantha Brown from when she was visiting Austin and had an interview with you. I checked the airdate and saw it was 2008. Five years has created a whole new world for you.
Yeah, definitely. [Laughs.]
You began playing guitar at age 12, and I read that you began by watching what others were doing. Did you teach yourself to read music and theory as well?
I didn’t… teach myself. No one taught me. I don’t know music theory, and I can’t really read.
So, it’s all by ear and by feel?
Yeah, it’s all by ear and by feel, by watching. Playing video tapes of my favorites in slow motion, pausing the screen and looking where are those fingers goin’.
I can’t believe that within five years of starting that way you were winning accolades and getting the key to the city. You weren’t even out of your teens yet. That’s amazing.
[Laughs.] It’s pretty wild. I mean, I didn’t do much else when it came to those five years.
You were that little boy that snuck into the club, weren’t you?
I was. I wasn’t old enough to be in any of these clubs. Either Cliff Antone would sneak me in, my dad would take me, my friend E’s old man would take us. So, yeah, I should have been doing school projects, but I was getting my musical education on the streets and the nightclubs of Austin.
You have won tons of accolades, been called a guitar hero and savior of the blues, and have shared the stage with countless legends. That has to be a lot of unwanted pressure put upon you. How are you able to stay so grounded?
I don’t put any pressure on myself. I just break it down quite simply. I love to play music. For me, it’s a passion — something I’ve always wanted to do. In my mind, it’s just do what you feel and try to express that better technically, get better as a songwriter. I put pressure on myself, but I don’t take it that seriously, because it’s so much fun for me. I’m just having a good time. Every now and then I’ll peek and say, “Oh, there’s this…” I don’t really think twice about it. It is what it is.
It’s probably best not to think about it. That could cause you to misstep.
Exactly. I noticed that when I start thinking about too many things and analyzing, then I start to get lost; the whole point is lost in worry. I take it for what it is, and I’m just fine with that. I’m having a good time.
Blak and Blu is your major label debut. It’s not your first album by far. It has had a divided response, where some people have called it a hodgepodge of diverse sounds and styles, while others are praising it for its versatility and your tendency to expand upon your blues roots. People are now calling you a “soul man” and a “rock and roll man” in addition to a “blues man.” Why did you decide to cast such a wide net with this album?
I’ve always been experimenting with jumping into different genres. I like to dabble in anything, anything that makes noise. Since I first heard music through speakers, I didn’t care what style it was, what era it came from. As a kid, when you hear something or you see something, you like it no matter what. It’s just an instinctual response. So, I’ve always kind of kept that mentality. When I started playing guitar, I was listening to the radio — what was on modern rock, what was on the R&B station. I was listening to hip-hop. I just liked it. If I thought it was good, it didn’t matter where it came from or who it came from; it struck a chord with me.
As a musician, I kind of never filtered myself. I started off in the blues clubs. That’s how I cut my teeth, and that’s how I got to learn to play live and improvise and do all those sorts of things. At the same time, I was sitting around making beats and trying to play keys, drums, and whatever. So, when it came to the record, I just went to the label and said I have all these ideas; some of them you might not expect from me, be it as you only know a few songs of mine, but this is me as a true artist and being true to myself. This is how I would like to approach making this album. And they were fine.
So, I just got in there and all the song ideas, everything I had in my head, we just put it down on tape — didn’t think about it too much, didn’t filter, other than me stretching out. Sometimes I would get excited and play a guitar solo for like five minutes, so they would have to cut it, and they’d be like, “Hey bro, can you chop a few bars off of that?” Other than that, we just went in and played music.
How did Mike Elizondo and Rob Cavallo get involved as producers rather than someone perhaps more versed in blues or roots rock?
Well, Mike Elizondo I’ve been familiar with since I heard his stuff on the Dre album that I really love, the Chronic 2001. He produced records with Mastodon. I also know him from playing in Doyle Bramhall II’s band for a while. And I also knew he had a background in jazz. So, when his name came up as someone to work with I was like, “He loves all kinds of things like me.” We know our history when it comes to things like Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf. We could sit and talk about that and talk about Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell, whatever. It didn’t matter. Anything we would talk about, what we liked and what we didn’t like about music. We agreed for the most part. And he’s a cool guy. So, I was down to work with him.
I went and checked out his studio. He’s got all the guitars in the world. That didn’t take much thought. And Rob Cavallo, he had a studio at his house, and he wanted to put out this EP. He’s a cool guy. He got it. He plays guitar and has produced some big albums, not in the blues genre at all, but the guy knows music. And we had fun together. I was just going with it, and it turns out that all of us made something we were really proud of when it came to the end of it.
Artwork by Drew Litowitz
It’s been said by some that Warner Brothers didn’t really know what they had when they signed you. How involved was Warners with the making of the album?
How involved? They weren’t really involved, to be quite honest with you. I had all the songs…
So they gave you free reign?
They gave me free reign. Like I said, I sat down in the office at a big table with Rob Cavallo, Mike Elizondo, my manager Scooter, Lenny Waronker, Peter Standish… all these guys from the label, and I just played them my demos I had on my computer. They were, “When do you want to cut it?” We had this time off, we went in there, and we just did it. A couple of guys from the label would come in and sit and check it out. I would walk out of the room, and they’d say, “Good stuff. Keep on.” So, I would just keep on. They kind of just left us alone, which was nice. I’m not going to lie; I was quite skeptical. I was a little bit reserved, but everyone’s been really cool and supportive, and they just let me and the band to do our thing. They just support, and it’s nice; it’s really nice.
A handful of songs on Blak and Blu came from your earlier catalog. What was the idea behind revisiting these older songs?
For me, these songs are a big part of me. They’ve gotten a good response locally, in the small circle I was running around, and I thought that they should have a shot on the major album. We’ve gone out and played some of the songs that have been in the catalog from way back and people responded to them, so we wanted to put them on this album.
Did you change them at all for the new album?
Yeah, we changed a few things. Changed some tones, changed up some tempos, a little different instrumentation.
Why would you want to do that if you were getting such positive response in the live setting?
In the live setting, it was more of the band, a four-piece. On the records I had done before, it was pretty much just me. I played keys and bass; I did some drum programming and played horns and some things. So, we just kind of, for some of those songs, either stripped them down or added more elements depending on how I felt that day.
Speaking of stripping down, your rendition of “Third Stone from the Sun” is more of a reinterpretation and reimagining than a cover. Did this come out of live jams, or was it an organic idea you had that you eventually developed?
That just came from jamming, really. Playing in Austin pretty much every night of the week, four-hour gigs, you gotta fill in space. Sometimes one of the guys has to get up and go pee or will go and grab a drink, so I would just improvise and started making noise. The idea originally developed at this Monday night gig I had at Agave, and we were just playing. We just went into it. I was just yelling out my horrible band-leading skills, moving my head a certain way, saying, “Yeah, let’s make it funky here.” So, it just kind of developed over the years and turned into this thing.
“Third Stone from the Sun” and “If You Love Me Like You Say” were some of the first guitar records I heard. I heard Albert Collins do “If You Love Me Like You Say”. I got an Albert Collins record, a Jimi Hendrix record, and a Stevie Ray Vaughan album within a few days of each other. Those are my earliest memories of sitting around, trying to play guitar. I wanted to tip the hat to them while at the same time not try and cover them. Those are some major cats to try and cover.
You once said that getting people (your generation specifically) to come back to the blues was more a matter of awareness. You’ve taken your mission to heart, hitting almost every major festival, and a good number of minor ones as well, in recent years. Do you see yourself as a musical ambassador?
A musical ambassador? No, I do not see myself as a musical ambassador. I’m a lover of music. People will say these things, and with more exposure, people are seeing what I’m doing and what I’ll do next. People have said things like “savior of the blues” and blah blah and this and that. That’s sweet and it’s nice, but that’s a lot of pressure for one dude. But if I have an opportunity to get out there and play a B.B. King cover as opposed to something else, I’m going to choose B.B. King to let a lot of people know what it is.