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Interview: Gary Clark Jr. - Lone Star Rising

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Interview: Gary Clark Jr. - Lone Star Rising

It’s Friday night and Gary Clark Jr. is relaxing in a downtown New York bar, calmly sipping a beer while everything around him is in chaos. Hard rock blares from the sound system behind him, a motorcycle roars by in the street, and yet it’s barely audible over the din of the next table, where an after-work foursome has just burst into a full-throated paroxysm of laughter. Unfazed, the 28-year-old guitar hero actually seems bemused by the cacophony, as though it’s all just part of the whirlwind journey he’s been on for the last few years, but one that really began back in his hometown of Austin, Texas, when he was still just a lanky teenager.

“I don’t think I’d be doing what I’m doing now if I hadn’t grown up there,” he says, thoughtfully stroking his chin. “As a kid, I used to just walk down Sixth Street and I fell into it—the vibe, the culture, the influence, the music. And when I first started on the music scene, I fell in with the blues. That was the only place that I knew of where I could get up on the stage and play with perfect strangers and make something happen. From there, I learned about Clifford Antone and Antone’s club. That whole scene definitely set up a solid foundation for me.”

Which might be putting it mildly. Clark has already been widely touted as the hottest singer- guitarist to emerge from Texas since Stevie Ray Vaughan and Billy Gibbons. In some quarters, he’s even referred to as “the savior of the blues.” But he doesn’t seem overwhelmed by the accolades— in fact, let’s tell it like it is: The blues are just part of what makes up Clark’s sprawling repertoire. Armed with his trusty cherry red Epiphone Casino and his road-battered Fender Vibro- King, he can ignite an explosive riff like “Bright Lights,” the title cut from last year’s teaser EP, and reel off choice licks like Hubert Sumlin on the “Killing Floor.” Or he can dial back the mood to the introspective vibes of “Things Are Changin’,” channeling the sweet guitar melodies of Curtis Mayfield and the soulful tenderness of singers like R. Kelly and Raphael Saadiq. You might not know it from his hard-rocking stage show, but Clark is a modern chameleon of musical styles.

“A friend of mine called me musically schizophrenic,” he quips with a chuckle. “I’ve even been asked if I was confused. But it got to this point where I was sitting around with all these demos that I’d recorded on my own. I hadn’t really played them for anybody, and they weren’t straight-ahead blues at all. They were just in my head, things that were haunting me. It’s like you gotta get ’em out—I figure what the hell, it’s just music, you know? It would be torture for me to hold that inside and not just let it out. So that’s what happened, and all this stuff ended up on one album.”

That album is the longawaited Blak and Blu, coproduced by Clark with hip-hop icon and bassist Mike Elizondo and rock impresario Rob Cavallo. It started off, Elizondo recalls, as a mission to capture what Clark did live—as heard in songs like the snarling “Numb,” which simulates a rocket from the heart of the British second wave—but evolved to include more complexly arranged and programmed songs like “Blak and Blu,” a funky D’Angelo-ish departure into neo-soul.

“He’s not a one-trick pony,” Elizondo insists. “That’s what I think is most exciting about Gary’s debut. He’s an incredible guitar player, but he’s also a true songwriter and a visionary. He sees himself as an artist who can have no boundaries, and I think he’s proven that. We didn’t have to stick to one particular sound, so we could veer off into a couple of different areas. Gary is the glue for songs like ‘Blak and Blu’ to work seamlessly with the ones like ‘Numb’ and ‘When My Train Pulls In.’ It’s all because his vocals and his guitar playing pull everything together.”

Of course, some comparisons are more obvious. Clark has been covering Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun” for quite a while now. On Blak and Blu, he folds his quirky, one-chord psychedelic fugue arrangement of the song into a medley with “If You Love Me Like You Say,” made famous by Albert Collins. Clark isn’t quite the pyrotechnical genius that Hendrix was (at least, not yet), but it can’t be lost on the few still alive who knew Jimi personally that the two guitarists share a laid-back, shy, almost aloof demeanor—a stark contrast to their take-no-prisoners delivery on stage. Jimmie Vaughan must have sensed it when he first caught Clark’s show at Antone’s (and subsequently struck up a friendship with him), and Eric Clapton must have felt a twinge of nostalgia for the days of Swinging London when he booked Clark for the 2010 Crossroads Festival—a date which, arguably more than any other, sealed Clark’s acknowledgement by the heavyweights, including the legendary Buddy Guy.

Beyond the hype, though, at a time when revivalism—in the hands of such artists as Jack White, the Black Keys, Alabama Shakes, and many more—has become the driving force in rock, Clark brings something unusually fresh to the picture. He can conjure up the Mississippi Delta or the electric church with equal authenticity, but he also folds his many influences, from hiphop to silky soul, into his sound with a natural ease that can’t be taught, let alone faked. Maybe it comes from spending most of his adolescence woodshedding with his parents’ records and anything else he could lay his ears on—including Nirvana, the Ramones, the Beatles, and everything in between. Whatever it is, it’s Gary Clark Jr.’s moment, and there’s nowhere else to go but up.

Mike Elizondo: Tracking Blak and Blu

Context is everything, and for Mike Elizondo, it seemed more than logical that the best way to capture Gary Clark Jr. in the studio was to get an extended taste of what he does onstage. “I actually just tagged along with him and the band for three or four shows on the West Coast leg of his tour,” he explains. “It was great, not only for me to see him play night after night, but also for the down time. We got to hang and talk about music and his vision for the record. I got a deeper sense of what he wanted to do, just by talking about music and talking about concepts. That really gave us a great head start.”

For about 10 days, Elizondo and Clark huddled up for preproduction at Can-Am Studios, tucked away in the residential Southern California town of Tarzana. They went through everything that was finished and unfinished, riffs and songs, to get a feel for how the album would take shape. When they were ready for drummer J.J. Johnson, Elizondo took up his bass and the three of them set up to play live in the studio. Clark camped out in an iso booth so he could record vocals and play guitar (with his amp powered up and mic’ed in another room), but he had a line of sight to Elizondo and Johnson so the “live feel” wouldn’t get lost. “Numb” was the first song on the docket.

“My own personal concept was to go for Jimi’s live version of ‘Voodoo Chile,’” Elizondo says, referring to the classic Side A closer of Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland. “They’re in the studio with Stevie Winwood, and Jack Casady on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums, and they’re all playing live—I think Jimi actually had an audience in the studio to capture that feeling. I remember the first time I heard that song, it just felt like you were in the studio with them, and so I wanted to try and capture that space, not only of the performance, but the space in the studio, to get as much of a live feel from the performance as possible.”

Clark played Elizondo’s ’68 Gibson ES-335 on “Numb,” plugged in through a Prescription Electronics Experience pedal and overdriven to the max. There’s even a bit of microphonic interference on the front end of Clark’s signal, just as the song begins, that everyone decided was worth keeping. “I think it sets up this feeling of anticipation,” Elizondo says. “It’s like ‘What’s about to come out of these speakers?’ That’s him just kicking on the pedal, and us waiting for him to start it off. It just seemed like we should keep it as an intro, rather than clean it up.”

For quieter moments like the album closer “Next Door Neighbor Blues,” Clark opted for a late-’50s Gibson acoustic, a lone kick drum and an inexpensive room mic to get an oldschool Alan Lomax-style blues sound. “Gary told me about how he used to do these gigs where it was just him playing a bass drum and playing guitar and singing all at once,” Elizondo explains. “It made perfect sense to do ‘Next Door Neighbor Blues’ like that, all in one take. It was all part of trying to make the album feel raw and a little bit lo-fi and not too over-the-top. That was tricky on ‘The Life’ and ‘Blak and Blu’—the songs that are closer to pop—but I think we found a great balance. Gary is an artist who truly knows who he is, what he stands for, and what he’s going for, and I was just really impressed by that.”

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