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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, soul music.
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.
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.
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.