Clad head-to-toe in immaculate white and greased-back hair, Stoneking resembles a young Richard Widmark right off the set of a Hollywood noir—or a Good Humor man from The Twilight Zone.
Are there particular electric guitar players who influenced you, especially after you got back to it?
Well, when I first heard the Minton’s [Playhouse] recording of Charlie Christian playing “Swing to Bop,” I just thought it was really good. I liked the dissonance in there, but it’s still strongly rooted in blues. I didn’t really have any musical understanding of how he was achieving it, but I guess I looked into some things—like some of his diminished sounds. Then I tried to find out where you can put a diminished tonality in a song. I’d have a dominant seventh chord, and I’d start to make very basic substitutions. I did that a little with the banjo on Jungle Blues. But you know, it’s a very small handful of tricks. Basically, I’m trying to get to a very cheap rendition of what I heard on that song that was giving me a thrill [laughs].
Gospel groups were an inspiration, too, like the Sensational Nightingales, the Harmonizing Four, or the Soul Stirrers—people like that. Those were the main influences. And then again, because I was used to having horns, small bits of my songs are inspired by what I think a horn section might sound like. “Get on the Floor” has some of that in the bass and guitar, and also in some of the background singing.
How about your songwriting process—was it any different for this album?
I usually have my guitar in my hands when I’m doing things. I tend to get little pieces of melody and, for some reason, when it comes to the vocal line, it’s as if I’m talking in tongues in some weird way. I’ll be forming shapes of sounds with my mouth. I’m sort of just muttering, but the shapes that I form tend to have some musical correlation inherent in them. And often when I’m doing that, I have some sense of what it is I ought to be talking about. So it’s kind of frustrating, because I get these things, I can’t let go, and I’m painted into a corner. I have these half-formed words with particular vowels or consonants here or there, and I have some definition in mind, but then to put that all together—it’s weird. It’s a strange thing, but that happens a lot with me.
You mentioned “Get on the Floor,” which is such a great jam. How did that come together?
Well, I made up that chorus section and that verse, and I didn’t really have anywhere to go with it. I often have songs like that—where I have one piece, and I don’t know how to get in or out of it, or how to expand on it. I carried that around for a long time. I can’t really remember how I came up with it, but there were various little pieces of inspiration. I remember hearing Billie Holiday with Count Basie’s band doing that song “Swing, Brother, Swing”—it has this great intro where the band just explodes into the song. How “Get on the Floor” opens is a rough nod to that feeling.
Then you have “The Thing I Done,” which has a bit of an old rocksteady, reggae feel to it.
Sometimes it sounds like an old Jamaican thing to me, but, honestly, I’m really not acquainted with that music. I’ve been more into pre-’40s calypso out of Trinidad, but in the case of that song, it was much different when I was halfway through doing it. I change stuff around a lot, turn it every which way and see what else is in it, and one afternoon I just had my tape recorder rolling. I was adjusting the melody and singing it in a minor key, and then I started playing that upbeat rhythm and found a spark of electricity. Often it’s just fooling around that sometimes gives the impression that I’m more historically aware of these styles than I actually am, you know what I mean [laughs]?
How about “On a Desert Isle”? It has an implied Hawaiian slack-key sound.
That’s actually the opposite of what I’d started with, too. At first I was playing this lazy little upbeat thing, then I got rid of that and it just sounded sort of country for a long time. Then much in the way of my Jungle Blues album, I made the horn part and I started to hear little moving bits in between. This is when I was getting into using the vibrato on the guitar, and sweeping and swooshing. I started to piece together small bits of moving chords, and I just kept going. Somewhere along the line it started to feel like it could be reminiscent of a Hawaiian guitar. I wouldn’t begin to know the names of the chords, but it’s probably only got four chords in it. It’s just moving melodies, I guess, and trying to find small chord forms that carry that melody.
That comes through on “Tomorrow Gon’ Be Too Late.” Melodically, that seems like it might have come to you fully formed.
That one was much more a simple sort of thing—a little like Smiley Lewis or Fats Domino. It’s hard for me to remember now, but so many of them go through a lot of things. That was another one that, for some time, had a Caribbean flavor and then I flattened it out much more into a New Orleans R&B-sounding thing. Like I said, I fool around with them a lot before I arrive at what I decide to keep.
Can you talk about the overall aesthetic that you’ve developed on your past records, and specifically on Gon’ Boogaloo? There’s a spooky, almost Screamin’ Jay Hawkins thread that you’re following.
As far as the theme of the record, I suppose I got quite depressed with the state of the world. Sometimes you want to wallow in that, and I’m not effective in that role. It took me quite a few failed attempts to get myself straight on that understanding. Then I tried to make a party record, but carrying some of that weight. I suppose I was thinking about—I mean, you look back through history at the Christian Gnostics, when they were burning heretics, and they had this very dim view of the physical world, like they were trapped in a very imperfect creation or something. I guess there’s some of that in songs like “How Long” and “The Thing I Done.”
“Mama Got the Blues” isn’t inspired by that so much, but I can think of a hundred definitions that would suit various people around the world in different predicaments. And I guess the obvious one for the spooky thing is “The Zombie,” which is really just a weird juxtaposition between a campy sort of dance craze and the horror of pretty much … everything [laughs]. It’s just dressed up in this smiling skeleton wonky dance thing.
So it’s a weird party record, but weighted with dread?
It was a real undertaking to achieve that. I needed to be satisfied in doing something about it, but I didn’t want to be didactic. I needed a different way in, so that’s where I ended up. I guess the cover says something about that too in some way.
Well, I guess a lot of the music that I enjoy listening to, especially with a lot of Caribbean and African field recordings, has a very dry quality to it. It reminds me a lot of the music that I’d hear as a kid with old Aboriginal fellas, singing and clacking boomerangs together—this dry, clicking percussion that has a thread of that feeling. That stiches up a lot of the stuff that I’m into. It’s almost unconscious, where that took its root in me, from the experience of growing up in that place. So I think I found a sonic representation of the blues in that and, mistakenly I guess, I thought it was the same thing. And like I said, I didn’t really start to become aware of it until I drove through the [American] South for the first time. After that, suddenly it all started to piece together.
C.W. Stoneking demonstrates his gentle whammy-bar flourishes as he performs Gon’ Boogaloo’s “On a Desert Isle” solo at the Monk Club in Rome last year.