Here, Captain Kirk Douglas holds a ’65 Gibson SG Junior, but his mainstay is the dark cherry signature SG that Gibson made for him in 2013.
At a hotel café around the corner from 30 Rockefeller Plaza (also known more affectionately to New Yorkers as 30 Rock), “Captain” Kirk Douglas is taking a break between rehearsals for NBC’s The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. He stirs his tea with the practiced calm of a been-there-done-that studio veteran, but even with 15 years under his belt as lead axe-slinger for the Roots, his eyes light up like a kid’s when the subject veers toward the first time he spied an electric guitar up close.
“I had a friend whose older brother played guitar,” he begins, smiling at the memory. “We’d go over to his house after school, and there was this beautiful instrument, a tobacco sunburst Les Paul, you know? I’d only seen them from afar in the local music shops, but the other thing is, he was also listening to KISS. And at that age, when you’re into superheroes like Spider-Man and Batman, you see these guys playing instruments that are like a spaceship or a cool sports car. Then it becomes something you can actually hold in your hands, and it just comes to life. That’s when I discovered the sound that it made, and then after that, with Van Halen and Ozzy [Osbourne], I’m hearing this sound taken to levels of mastery.”
Along the way, he discovered Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix (“That was a big aha moment, like ‘Oh, you can be black and make heavy music, too?’”), and then Led Zeppelin, U2, the Smiths, the Cure, the Cocteau Twins, and many more. By the time he left his idyllic Long Island hometown of Holbrook for the urban jungle of New York City, Douglas had matured into a Strat-toting rocker, eventually adding his distinctive clean-picked sound to the trippy neo-psych washes of Binsey Poplars, a local band with a shoegaze fix.
After years in the trenches, in the summer of 2003 he became a full-blown member of the Roots, having joined the hardest-working band in hip-hop in the middle of their now-legendary Phrenology tour, which featured a rotating phalanx of guitarists that included Ben Kenney, Martin Luther McCoy, and Living Colour’s Vernon Reid. And it didn’t take long for Douglas to uncover one of the hidden bonuses of hitting the road with Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, and the rest of the Roots posse: everyone shares an insatiable thirst for musical knowledge, no matter the genre.
“Joining the Roots was like being immersed in a fascinating article about the Roots, you know?” he recalls with a laugh. “I was a fan, and I’d read magazine articles about them, and then to be in the band, what was probably the most fun was going from one place to another on the tour bus, and hearing what Black Thought would be listening to, or what Questlove would put on the radio. I mean, that’s the same to this day. We still have those moments when somebody plays something, and it’s like, ‘Alright, what is that?’ Except now I don’t have to ask anymore, because I can just quietly Shazam it!”
Of course, it’s one thing to pull the basics of a song from an iPhone app, and quite another to learn it at the drop of a hat and play it on national television. Since 2009, when Jimmy Fallon first hired the Roots to be the house band for his stint on Late Night, Douglas estimates the band has learned literally hundreds of tunes, from classic rock to R&B to pop.
“You’re kept on your toes on a pretty consistent basis,” he says, “and that’s definitely helped my musicianship. I mean, I’m not a jazz player, but there are times when I have to mimic jazz. But what the show mainly draws from tends to be popular music throughout the years, and that’s something that I've been an unintentional student of my whole life. Luckily we’re in the same generation as Jimmy, so it’s rare that he’ll draw from a reference that we’re not familiar with. And what’s cool about the different members of the band being into different styles of music, there’s always somebody who’s more well-versed on a particular genre. When that happens, we follow that person’s lead. And that happens quite often.”
All this and more feeds into Turbulent Times, the debut album of Douglas’s own trio Hundred Watt Heart. Although the project has been percolating for years—it started around 2011 as a loose live unit called the Dust Rays, with Roots bassist Mark Kelley and drummer Ricc Sheridan from the Brooklyn-based rock trio Earl Greyhound—the music delivers a gut punch of immediacy in songs like the Zeppelin-esque “I Used to Be in the Circus” or the hypnotic, hard-driving anthem “Come Alive.” Douglas likes to refer to it, in a reverent nod to the album’s ominous title cut, as the record he had to make.
“Really it’s Paul who was a huge motivating factor for me to get anything done,” he says, referring to co-producer Paul Klimson. As monitor mixer for the Roots, Klimson brought a set of ears that could help capture the sound Douglas was chasing in his head. “It was during one of the breaks at the Tonight Show, he was like ‘Hey, we should work on something.’ Because there’s a whole album that we recorded before this, but I just never got it together [to release it]. I guess as time goes by, just feeling the fleeting nature of life, you feel more of a motivation to really do it. And at some point, Paul was like, ‘We should record again.’”
The band convened at none other than Electric Lady Studios to record the basic tracks for Turbulent Times. Douglas leaned heavily on his ’61 Epiphone Crestwood, which has its own nutty history as the guitar that Prince tossed and broke after performing his rocked-up classic “Bambi” on Late Night back in early 2013. Fittingly, that selfsame axe occupies a place of honor in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s widely touted Play It Loud exhibition, while Douglas and HWH have immortalized the entire incident in the catchy, clean-picked song “Little Friend.” It’s easy to imagine Prince finding it all just a bit … smirk-worthy.
Captain Kirk recorded Hundred Watt Heart’s debut album, Turbulent Times, at Electric Lady Studios with Roots’ bassist Mark Kelley and drummer Ricc Sheridan, with Paul Klimson as co-producer.
“When I wrote that song, it seemed like a fitting way to retaliate,” Douglas quips. “But I hope it’s documented, and I hope people know that Prince did pay for it. He didn’t just do it and split, you know? And whether it was premeditated, or whether he was lost in the moment, it still obviously worked out far better than I could’ve imagined it would. That guitar had so much resonance with me before the Prince thing happened, and of course after that, it grew. That’s the fun thing about that exhibit [at the Met]. Every instrument in there has a story.”
In the end, Douglas’s work with Hundred Watt Heart documents a very personal journey, from the sky-touching riffage of “Uma” (dedicated to his daughter) to the quiet, bluesy introspection of “Our Year.” Just as almost every Roots project is in some way a concept album—and their next one, which will be their first full-length since the passing of the group’s visionary and charismatic manager Rich Nichols, promises to be a particularly heavy load—there’s also a guiding mantra that seems to link all the songs on Turbulent Times: gratitude.
“I’m just super thankful for it, and I’m fully cognizant of the fact that this album gets to people through my involvement with the Roots,” Douglas says. “That’s what got me into Electric Lady, and that’s what allowed me to fund it. I mean, I would be doing music regardless, but being in the Roots has allowed me to take my music to a higher level. Of course, I want to be the best band member I can be—that’ll never change. But what do you want to do outside of that? What do you want to use this opportunity for? I feel like doing my own project is the logical answer to that. It only makes what we do collectively as the Roots that much stronger.”
Did you rehearse any of these songs before you went into Electric Lady?
It was mostly banged out by the three of us, because some of the songs we had done in a live context, and there’s a few that me and Ricc had played together, but that Mark hadn’t heard. Just from our training on The Tonight Show, I knew he could come into the studio and pick it up relatively quickly. You know, it’s not like Gentle Giant or anything like that! [Laughs.] It’s not too intense arrangement-wise, and since you’re only dealing with three pieces for the most part, the gel happens pretty quickly.
So with songs like “Come Alive,” “Flesh and Bone,” and “Our Year,” Mark probably heard those for the first time when he came to the studio. We never played those live. The initial rhythm tracks took place over two days; it’s everything else that took time afterwards—guitar overdubs and vocals, and all that was done whenever time allowed, or whenever the Roots weren’t on tour and things were calm enough at home to get a chance to work.