Photo By Sol Allen
Seeing neo-soul band the Roots on tour is
entirely different from what you see during
their main gig as the house band for Late
Night with Jimmy Fallon or when they’re collaborating
with pop titans like John Legend.
Performing live as a stand-alone entity, the
eight-member outfit led by famed producer
Questlove (drums/vocals), Black Thought
(MC), and guitarist “Captain” Kirk Douglas
shows mad diversity—everything from schizophrenic
jazz stylings to deep, hip-hop-tinged
grooves, strutting funk, and ripping rock jams.
It’s safe to say the Roots could solidly back
virtually any act, given that they’ve done so
for everyone from Jay-Z to Bruce Springsteen,
Paul Simon, Elvis Costello, and Fall Out Boy.
Needless to say, the group possesses a dynamism
that few can match, and over the course
of their career they’ve managed to evolve while
still playing from the heart and remaining true
to the music that inspires them. And that’s
why the Roots is largely responsible for both
a renaissance in, and a major re-imagining of,
Kirk Douglas, looking
happy during the
University of Vermont’s
Despite losing partial
power, the Roots
packed the school’s
gymnasium. Photo by
Just as you’d expect from such a diverse
band, each member of the Roots has kaleidoscopic
musical interests. As a budding
preteen guitarist growing up in New York,
Douglas was simultaneously influenced
by funk forefathers like James Brown and
rock icons like Kiss and Van Halen. The
self-professed Led Zeppelin devotee rocks
a prototype of a Jimmy Page signature
Les Paul—same relic’ing and all. Douglas
performed with the Dave Matthews Band
prior to joining the Roots permanently in
2002. Apart from the Roots, he plays in
a very different vein with his side project,
Hundred Watt Heart.
Douglas is a hard player to explain—
though in the best way, because you can’t
pigeonhole him. His role in the Roots takes
him from picking über-nuanced, barely there
background riffs to cranking out fiery,
10-minute jams and incredible call-and-response
solos where he scats phrases into
the mic and then mimics them on guitar.
Between rehearsal sets for a performance
backing Johnny Gill on Fallon, Douglas
recently chatted with Premier Guitar about
the Roots’ first concept album, Undun, his
more rocking Hundred Watt Heart repertoire,
and what it’s like to be a cutting-edge
funk revivalist with serious chops.
the funk at the
Marquee Theatre in
Tempe, Arizona, in
Photo by Sol Allen
How did you first get into playing guitar?
I had a close friend in the second grade
whose older brother was into a lot of
heavy music, a lot of rock ’n’ roll. A lot
of Kiss and Van Halen. I guess I was
attracted to that because, when you’re 7
or 8, you’re interested in superheroes. And
just the sound of the guitar—it sounded
so powerful, and the guitars looked so
incredibly cool. So there was really no
escaping that attraction to the guitar.
And their tunes were catchy, as well.
Captain Kirk plays his burned Les
Paul (signed by its namesake) with
the Roots at Montreal Jazz Fest 2011
(keyboardist James “Kamal”
Gray is in the background).
Photo by Rebecca Dirks
The Roots’ founding members
Questlove and Black Thought have
formal music training. How about
you—would you say music theory has
a place in your playing, or are you
more of a gut-level player?
I’m definitely playing by instinct. In high
school, I gravitated toward jazz band. I
got into Prince, and there was a vacant
seat in the guitar position in the jazz
band. They asked if I’d play with them
and I accepted, but I would really play
mostly by ear. I guess I had that situation
when I was younger, too, when I
had formal training. I couldn’t help but
memorize the things I was learning to
sight-read. And that would just continue
by muscle memory and the combination
of how things felt and sounded. Of
course, theory plays a part when you’re
coming up and learning how scales
connect—majors and minors and the
modes—but I guess I sort of just modified
them for my usage.
Although Undun is a little bit different
for the Roots—it’s your first concept
album—what’s the songwriting process
usually like for you guys?
The way the Roots operates in the studio
and in a live format is completely different.
We stretch out more, live—we’re putting
on a show. The album is a more cerebral
experience. The studio itself is a member
of the band. We’ve gotten more collaborative
as a result of doing The Jimmy
Fallon Show, and that’s made us more of a
cohesive band and created an opportunity
for real-time interaction to make its way
onto the record. But still, at the end of the
day, to put together a cerebral experience
for the listener, the studio itself is more of
a member of the band.
So are you saying that being able to create
a vibe with various studio treatments
is just as important as the instrumentation?
For instance, Undun is very atmospheric,
with lots of piano and strings.
Yeah, I mean, it’s whatever suits the song.
The guitar is very sparse on this album, but
it’s the end product that’s most important—
there are so many other opportunities
for me to get my playing out.